The Journals of George Q. Cannon

By July 6, 2018

This post in our ongoing series on the George Q. Cannon diaries, which are now published on the Church Historian’s Press website, comes from friend of the blog Bill Smith.

“Suppose that one of the world’s masterpieces were to disappear, leaving no trace behind it, not even a reproduction; even the completest knowledge of its maker’s other works would not enable the next generation to visualize it. All the rest of Leonardo’s oeuvre would not enable us to visualize the Mona Lisa.”— Andre Malraux

We see events, words (I want to add–sermons), acts, life, and death in the Mormon past. There is a secret context for those artifacts that often remains just out of reach, only guessed at, never certain. George Quayle Cannon’s (GQC) journals form one the fundamental documents of post-Nauvoo Mormonism that provides important parts of that context. In some ways it rivals Wilford Woodruff’s journal, indeed it takes center stage from that  Cannon spent large portions of his life at the centers of Mormon decision-making, establishing policy, and defining the story of the Mormon past and its standard of belief. The Church Historian’s Press has done a remarkable service in opening this window to the past. CHP has provided excellent annotation and often multiple views of the events Cannon narrates in that annotation. Bravo.

I won’t try to summarize the journal. At something more than 5,000 pages of material, I confess I haven’t read it in its entirety. GQC’s mission to Hawaii is one remarkable thread—his political work in Washington is another. Here is an entry from March 23, 1851 in Hawaii.

Attended meeting this morning Mr. Conde preached I understood the principal part of his discourse; it was an exhortation to leave sin an[d] evil practices and cleave to virtue. After meeting Napela commenced telling his brother-in-law a half breed and one of the Circuit Judges of the Island and two or three other men of our principles and belief. He told me to tell his brother-in-law whose name is John Richardson the particulars in English as he could talk [but] a little and about the killing of Joseph and Hyrum [Smith] and he would act as interpreter; this occupied about an hour and a half; they were very much interested in the detail and it seemed to please them. In afternoon, attended meeting a Native preached to them on the difference in Godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. After meeting[,] Napela with Naliipuleho they commenced talking upon these things and asked me about the Babylon the Great the Mother of Harlots who I thought she was? I asked them to say[.] No. they said you tell. Well said [I] we’ll say it is the Church of Rome. Yes they said the Church of Rome. It says that she is the Mother of Harlots; who was her first daughter? Was it not the Lutheran Church. The 2nd? Was it not The C. of England. And 3rd Calvin &c. &c. until you come to this time and they are divided into hundreds. How is [a] person to know without revelation? and for this thing they killed Joseph Smith because he said that he had revelation &c. &c. they said it was plain and the old deacon [Naliipuleho] said they were like the Jews who killed the prophets. There were two men came in; the old <Gentleman> told them I was a missionary one of them knew having heard Mr. Richardson interpreting. He commenced telling them about the principles of our belief one of them disputed him about baptism [by] immersion being the only right mode Naliipuleho talked to him until he either convinced or silenced him unconvinced and then told him about laying on hands &c. they talked a good while. Napela told me while they were there that Mr. Baldwin had said that if we would work a miracle he would believe us and join us. I told them what the Savior told the Pharisees in regard to sign seeking; and that hereafter the Devil’s servants would show mighty signs and wonders; if he (Mr. B.) would believe signs he would or might be deceived; that he ought to believe their old priests they could do many powerful things. I said the Bible was the Standard if we did not preach according to that to condemn us; if we did it was truth and ought to be received. They all acquiesced to what I said; Napela said he told the man <that told him> that they had the Bible and that was the Judge. My heart felt so big that I could not stay in the house I went out and gave vent to my overcharged feelings to my Heavenly Father for his goodness to me and giving me favor in the sight of the people that they would believe my testimony to the extent they had. I felt my weakness and the responsibility of an Elder standing as a teacher to the people I realised the importance of such a place and how near I ought to draw near to the Lord for sufficient wisdom and of his spirit to direct me that my course of conduct and teaching might be such as to draw all the honest in heart and not do anything that would weaken their faith in my message.

Like many journal keepers, GQC often wrote up events days after they happened. Later he acquired clerks who wrote shorthand to his dictation. One senses that this process placed some distance between the journal and GQC’s candid feelings. He becomes somewhat less forthright. Even so, he could still be candid as in this entry from November 8, 1898. It made me laugh out loud—you’ll see the irony perhaps:

Sunday, the Tribune reporter, in his attempt to interview me, read what Brother Roberts had said in relation to the Governor’s speech in the theatre on Friday night. I was exceedingly grieved to hear it, and thought it very unbecoming for a man in his position to indulge in such remarks. It is the worst attack I ever read made by one Latter-day Saint upon another. I suppose he considered the provocation very great, but I have felt in my heart that I could not fellowship a man in his position who indulged in such language, if he did not repent of it. This feeling was strengthened to-day by hearing from a son of one of our deceased leading Apostles that which the son of another Apostle, he said, heard Brother Roberts say – that Governor Wells was a damned son of a bitch. I could scarcely credit that anyone occupying such a position as Brother Roberts could indulge in such an expression; but I was assured it was true. It was J. Golden Kimball that heard the remark.

Apparently Roberts had considerable provocation from Wells. GQC says he won’t explore that. Utah politics!

GQC was a counselor to four LDS church presidents and in some ways his work there presaged the twentieth-century problem of dealing with incapacitated presidents. The final year of John Taylor’s life he became less and less able to deal with the difficulties of the Mormon conflict with the US government. GQC apparently mentioned to a few people that he was “running the church” during that period. It came back to haunt him. Wilford Woodruff leaned heavily on GQC. The journal illustrates many instances of GQC’s ability to direct the work of the church’s First Presidency sometimes even (subtly) countermanding the decisions of its other members. A good example is the story of how Anthon H. Lund’s appointment to preside over the European Mission got nixed by GQC. Look it up! GQC had a vision for writing the history of the church. Eventually the task fell to B. H. Roberts (who GQC rather disliked/distrusted). GQC’s journal tells the tale of how this shook out and how he tried to restrict Roberts from any interpretive role (of course, he failed in that).

GQC’s journal is marked here and there with fun insights (see for example the entry for September 29, 1880). Here is one from May 20, 1889 involving the soon to be discarded practice of ritual adoption:

I made an appointment this morning with Brother George Farnworth, of Mount Pleasant, and Brother Bauregard and wife, of Fillmore, to meet them at the temple at eight o’clock. They have been desirous to be adopted to me. I did not come down prepared for this, as I had no wife with me, but rather than disappoint them I borrowed a suit of temple clothing from Brother Lund and Brothers Woodruff and Wells thought that it would be quite proper for me to cho[o]se somebody to act proxy for one of my wives, and Sister Lydia Ann Alley Wells expressed pleasure in response to my request to act proxy. The following are the names who were adopted, some of whom are deceased:— 1 Christian Peter Boregard, 2 Ane Sorensen Boregard, 3 Peter Christian Boregard, (dead) 4 Maren Nielsen Boregard, (dead) 5 Soren Hansen(dead), 6 Sine Andersen Hansen (dead), 7 George Farnworth, 8 Joseph Farnworth (dead), 9 Margaret McBride Farnworth (dead), 10 Thomas Farnworth, (dead), 11 Richard William Farnworth, (dead), 12 son Farnworth, (dead).

GQC was loyal to his mentors and previous leaders. On one occasion in a meeting of the apostles talking over reorganizing the church presidency, Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt (the former had very much cast himself in the mold of the latter) remarked that Brigham Young had sometimes ruled by fiat and critiqued some of Young’s operations. Despite GQC’s feeling that only true consensus among church authorities could validate their decisions as divinely approved, he called both men on the carpet over it. Pratt apologized, JFS was never going to do that! (October 6, 1880).

GQC’s journal has insights into nineteenth-century Mormon teaching and administration in Britain, the LDS presence in the eastern US, the nature life in the North during the American Civil War (his travels through border states is fascinating) and the genesis of the polygamy Manifesto. Altogether, GQC’s journals are an extraordinary resource.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


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