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 Richard Rust. Richard, who was a Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, assisted in the work of the George Q. Cannon journals.
As is noted on the website of The Journal of George Q. Cannon,
next to Brigham Young, George Q. Cannon was arguably the best-known Latter-day Saint in the last half of the nineteenth century. His record covers half a century, a period in which he served as an editor and publisher, a businessman, an educator, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a territorial delegate in Congress, and a counselor to church presidents Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow.
The vast majority of Cannon’s journal has never been publicly available before. The online publication of Cannon’s journal includes roughly 2.5 million words and opens up new insight and understanding into the Mormon past. The journal, however, should not be seen just from the vantage point of Mormon history—it ranks as one of the most voluminous and valuable journals in American religious history. Cannon’s broad interests, extensive connections with people both within and outside of the Latter-day Saint faith, and cogent observations will also make his journal of particular interest to scholars and students of western U.S. history and U.S. political history. With journal entries covering the mundane to the miraculous, the interactions of his large family to the dynamics of Congress, and his private religious practices to his leadership in a variety of ecclesiastical settings, Cannon’s record deserves deep study.
There are some remarkable advantages to historians in having the George Q. Cannon journal published online. For instance, it can be searched by word or phrase, and detailed lists of events can be found at the beginning of the first month of each year, with each item linked directly to the specific journal entries. A chronology sets forth many of the main events in Cannon’s life. There are brief biographical sketches for approximately five hundred individuals as published earlier in print with the 1849–1854 journals and many photographs enrich the online journal.
In time, Cannon saw his ongoing journal as serving various purposes, one of which was allowing him to be prepared to confirm to others specific details of what his actions were and when they occurred. Brigham Young’s counsel illustrates this:
President Young … said that I ought to be careful about my movements in Washington – that I would be watched and everything I did scrutinized and I ought to keep a journal of my movements that I could prove where I was at any time. If any thing should occur to Gen. Grant he (the President) would be accused of having prompted its commission, and I would probably be charged with having had it done. (4 January 1873)
Referring to the value of preserving his journal, Cannon wrote: “I make this record in my journal, so that it will refresh my memory in case the question ever comes up” (12 August 1898). Again on 18 September 1898, he noted: “I mention this in my journal, because it may be referred to some time in the future, and a little record of this will not do any harm.”
By George Q. Cannon’s careful preservation of his various physical journals and his recognition that what he called “my journal” may be referred to in the future, it is evident that Cannon expected others, especially his posterity, to have access to his journal.
Davis Bitton in George Q. Cannon: A Biography avers that Cannon’s journal is “a magnificent personal record that, in my estimation, ranks alongside Samuel Pepys’s diary or, in the context of Mormon diary-keeping, Wilford Woodruff’s” (xii).
Carefully prepared online transcriptions of Cannon’s journal give readers a window into Cannon’s immediate world. They allow us unfiltered access to Cannon’s thoughts and actions recorded essentially when they occurred. They give us insight into the life of a remarkable man. As Richard E. Turley, Jr. put it:
George Q. Cannon was a very literate man, and he wrote an excellent journal. In my opinion, the George Q. Cannon journals are one of the best sets of journals that we have for the latter part of the nineteenth century. He was in a position to know a great deal about the history of the church during that time period; he lived much of it; and he wrote in elegant detail about his experiences. I believe the journal will appeal to scholars because it has information about important events in the Church’s history, but it will also appeal to individual members because of the subjects that he discusses. (The Journals of George Q. Cannon: To California in ’49, xiv-xv.)
General matters treated in the journal include Cannon’s “gold mission” in California; his successful missionary efforts in Hawaii; his many travels in the United States and Europe; his counsel to and relationships with his family, which consisted of six wives and forty-three children; his meetings with political leaders, including U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, congressmen, and senators promoting Utah statehood and battling anti-Mormon legislation; his participation in founding and leading schools and universities; his involvement with temple construction; his close relationships with Church leaders and his counsel to Church members; his financial dealings; his life in prison after being arrested for practicing plural marriage; and his deep faith and defense of the Church to which he was determinedly devoted.
George Q. Cannon was a skilled and experienced writer with a remarkable memory for details. Some of the hundreds of specific topics he dealt with in his journal dealt are: At the 1893 World’s Fair. Beginnings of the sugar industry. Blessings given in 1855 by Brigham Young. Bullion Beck and Champion Mine Co. Charge to three newly called apostles. Church indebtedness. Concerns in 1887 re plural marriage and statehood. Creature in Bear Lake. David H. Cannon letters. Dealings with Gen. Clarkson and Col. Trumbo. Death of Brigham Young. Death of daughter Lillian Ann. Divide into two national parties. Doing business in and with Zion. Edmunds and others against Cannon. Efforts to get credit in England. Elected senator in 1862. Events leading to the Manifesto. First Presidency unity. Franklin Cannon’s guiltiness & drinking. General Kane a true friend, May l882. George Q. Cannon and Thomas L Kane. George Q Cannon’s feelings about plural marriages. Cannon’s horror of debt. Cannon preparing to live the law of consecration. Hear Charles Dickens. Heroic women. Historian’s office. In hiding and persecution. Irrigation conferences, 1894. Judge Morris March Estee. Legislative affairs and Governor Murray. Lincoln visit, 13 June 1862. Logan Temple dedication. March 1893 meeting with President Cleveland. People Party and two national parties. Plural marriage revelation. Plural marriages performed in Mexico. Post Manifesto, 1891. Preserve Constitution. Preserving the temple block. Presidents Cannon’s and Woodruff’s testimonies. Reflections on imprisonment. Revelation that leaders are to live the law of celestial marriage. Sorrow and prayer after Edmonds brings defeat. Succession in the presidency. Summary of GQC efforts re statehood. Thomas L. Kane baptism. Travels in California, April 1889. Visit to Josepa in Skull Valley. Visit to Winter Quarters fifty years later. Visit with David Whitmer. Visit with H. M. Stanley, the explorer. Women on the board of Brigham Young University. Young men in military and public office. ZCMI stock & compulsory tithing.
George Q. Cannon felt that he was trusted in the Lord’s hands to accomplish great things. As he wrote in his journal on two of his birthdays:
When I look back at my life it seems very marvelous what the Lord has done for me. From the deepest obscurity, from the midst of a population which teems in my native place, I have been brought forward until to-day I am the most widely-advertised man in many respects in the United States. (11 January 1882)
My life, I feel, has been a very remarkable one; and in looking back, I can visibly perceive the hand of God and His overruling providence in my preservation, in my guidance and in the shaping of my destiny. I feel to dedicate myself anew to Him and to His service. (11 January 1887)
From an early age, George Q. Cannon knew he would sometime serve in government:
He informed me that I had been elected … U. S. Senator for the State of Deseret. … When a boy, blessings have been pronounced upon my head that have led me to look forward to a time when, if faithful to the Truth, I should occupy responsible positions in connection with government and have wisdom in that direction. (31 May 1862)
It helps to have an engaging subject in order to create engaging history. This is especially true of George Q. Cannon and his world. In another note written on his birthday, Cannon said:
I had never seen anything on the stage that appeared to me more interesting than my own life, and it had been, notwithstanding my trials and sorrows, a singularly happy one. The Lord has brought me out of obscurity and my father’s house, and I wonder at his goodness. (11 January 1894)