“The spirit of murder seems to be on the increase … due to the increase in firearms”: George Q. Cannon Denounces Gun Violence, 1891

By August 5, 2019

In the July 15, 1891 issue of the (original) Juvenile Instructor, Mormon apostle and editor George Q. Cannon penned an editorial entitled, “Obedience — Do not Kill.” As that title implies, Cannon’s editorial contains both advice to parents on raising obedient children (“the best family government is that in which the judgment of children is appealed to and they are shown, by kind words, that the requests made of them are for their benefit and happiness”) and a denunciation of violence and bloodshed.

Cannon’s aim is broad — he decries both murder and, in words that seem as foreign to modern Mormonism as polygamy — hunting for sport. But his primary focus is on the shedding of innocent human blood, and in light of additional mass shootings this past weekend, Cannon’s words are all too relevant:

The spirit of murder seems to be on the increase in our day. This is partly due to the increase of firearms and to their cheapness, also to the fashion which prevails in many quarters of carrying deadly weapons. The frequency with which shooting is done also has its effect to break down the feeling of sacredness which should surround human life.

George Q. Cannon, “Obedience — Do not Kill,” Juvenile Instructor 26:14 (July 15, 1891), 443

Cannon continues, expressing shock at reports “of young men going armed with pistols, and upon apparently slight provocation drawing their weapons and firing at each other!” and outrage at news “of a case of this kind recently in one of our settlements.”

“It fills one with horror to think that human beings are so filled with deadly hatred as to be guilty of such acts. It is far better for one to be in the place of Abel–an innocent man murdered–than to be in the place of his murderer, the cruel Cain.

Cannon, “Obedience — Do not Kill,” 443.

The editorial is striking both because it seems so radically different from the views of many American Latter-day Saints today (especially along the Wasatch Front) and because it goes against popular depictions of earlier American history, especially in the American West, where guns were widely carried and supposedly a normal and accepted part of everyday life.

I’m also struck by Cannon’s diagnosis of the problem. There is, at the root, a problem with the devaluing of human life and a loss of sense for its sacredness. But he also places blame on the easy availability of these “deadly weapons.”

On a personal note, Cannon’s words appeal to me. I want to imagine a Latter-day Saint past that valued commands to “renounce [deadly violence] and proclaim peace” above interpretations of a divinely inspired Second Amendment that reads the right to bear arms as absolute. But while earlier generations of Mormons certainly evinced an antiwar and even anti-gun streak at odds with the attitudes of their descendants, it was always a contested ideal. In that very same issue that George Q. Cannon denounced gun violence (and implicitly, gun manufacturers and sellers), the Juvenile Instructor prominently featured this half-page advertisement:

As much as Cannon may have liked to think otherwise, he knew that Mormons were active participants in the manufacturing, marketing, and selling of firearms in Utah. Thirteen years earlier, in 1878, brothers John Moses Browning and Matthew Sandefur Browning founded the John Moses and Matthew Sandefur Browning Company (later shortened to the Browning Arms Company). Browning remains a popular manufacturer of firearms today. But as the ad above suggests, the company also played a crucial role in the marketing of firearms and ammunition. Even if only initially on a regional basis, the Browning brothers helped usher in a new interpretation of the Second Amendment and a more robust gun culture in the United States — a process Pamela Haag excellently documents in her book, The Gunning of America, about another family owned firearms company — the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

The full extent of the Browning Company’s role in that process remains a subject in desperate need of study. So, too, does the role their religious beliefs played in their company ideology and culture. In fact, just such a study (grad students in search of dissertation ideas — are you listening?) would make an excellent contribution to both Mormon studies and American history.

Article filed under Current Events From the Archives Miscellaneous

  1. Christopher, thank you. Maybe Brian Delay’s upcoming book will help narrate some of this gun culture

    Comment by Jeff T — August 5, 2019 @ 7:16 am

  2. Thanks, Jeff. And yes, I’m very much looking forward to Delay’s book. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    Comment by Christopher — August 5, 2019 @ 8:37 am

  3. Thanks, Christopher.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 5, 2019 @ 9:36 am

  4. Thoughtful piece, Christopher. And tragically, very relevant. I was also surprised to read Cannon’s disdain for the accessibility of firearms. Thank you for illuminating this aspect of guns in Mormon and Western history. Excited to learn more about this in Delay’s upcoming book.

    Comment by J Nelson — August 5, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

  5. Interesting, but I cringe at seeing a historian quote something using ellipsis.

    Comment by jpv — August 6, 2019 @ 4:18 pm

  6. Why?

    Comment by Christopher — August 6, 2019 @ 4:27 pm

  7. Certainly, one should greet any ellipsis with a measure of skepticism. Perhaps the author is leaving out words that undermines his argument. Or perhaps she’s mangling the quotation in some infelicitous manner. But in the case of this title, should one cringe, one should then take the time to uncringe after seeing the quotation in full within the body of the post.

    Comment by John Turner — August 7, 2019 @ 10:56 pm

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