George Q. Cannon, Tireless Mormon

by CHET CANNON

Apostle, revered statesman, federal prisoner, missionary, newspaper editor: George Q. Cannon was a man with a mission. And although Cannon was never president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is said that aside from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, no one surpassed him as a “leader, shaper and defender of nineteenth-century Mormonism.” (Bitton, ix) From a humble beginning, the path to achieve even minimal amounts of success, let alone greatness in life, looked bleak. Having been presented with poverty-stricken conditions as a child, dropping out of school at the age of 13, and being orphaned at a young age, Cannon had a fire within him to turn the tables. (Evans, 85) Taking into account the less-than-favorable situation in which Cannon grew up, he would defy logic, while establishing a name for himself and helping Utah achieve the greatness that it now enjoys. Cannon would not sit idly.

George Q. Cannon was born in Liverpool, England, on January 11, 1827. Without a great deal of promise in his homeland, Cannon was fortunate to have been born with an intrepid spirit. From a very young age, George demonstrated a great deal of tenacity. At the age of 13, against the wishes of his parents, he left school to work in the shipyard, insisting that, “learning was not a matter of going to school; it was the result of an inner hunger.” (Evans, 86) This stubborn but compelling pride stuck with him throughout his life, choosing twice to be sentenced to prison, rather than compromise his convictions.

Cannon was baptized in 1840. For two years he worked, offering where he could. His money, combined with the efforts of his mother Ann, who had set up a private savings account, paid for passage on the ship, Sidney, destined for the New Orleans Harbor. After arriving stateside, the Cannon family would endure five months of harsh winter before eventually meeting up with the early Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. (Grant Cannon, 339)

At age 16, under the tutelage of his uncle, John Taylor, Cannon began to develop a voice and understanding of the media, spending much of his time focused on disabusing public thought relative to the Mormon faith. (Bitton, 44) It was in these critical teenage years that Cannon would hone his skills as a public and powerful defendant in the fight for Mormonism. Bitter hatred stirred and came to a head on June 27, 1844, when Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered in cold blood. Also present and subsequently wounded was Cannon’s uncle. In 1845, due to the now widespread, increasing hostility amongst Mormon enemies, early Latter-day Saints succumbed to the demands to leave Nauvoo and headed for the Rocky Mountains.

The Latter-day Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Two years later, Cannon was asked by Brigham Young to serve a “gold mission” in California to help with the dire straights in which the people were positioned. Cannon, many years later, would say, “there was no place that I would not rather have gone to at this point than California. I heartily despised the work of digging gold. I thought it very poor business for men to be running over the country for gold.” (Bitton, 61) Nevertheless, he went, as he always met his callings with a degree of humility and willingness.

It was in the fall of 1850 that Cannon was released from his California assignment and upon returning to Salt Lake, was met with another calling. Cannon was called to serve a mission in the Sandwich Islands (now the Hawaiian Islands) and would arrive on December 12, 1850. This was no simple task. Due in part to illness and an inability to communicate effectively, many early Missionaries to the islands packed up and went home. Cannon, also faced with these difficulties, made it a goal to immerse himself with the Native speakers to become a “master” of the foreign tongue. Cannon, indeed, mastered the language. So well did he speak, that he would eventually translate The Book of Mormon into the Hawaiian language; hard to believe for someone who had dropped out of school when he was 13. (Bitton, 2-9)

Within two weeks of his return to the Salt Lake Valley on November 28, 1854, Cannon was married to his first wife. Expecting to be called back to serve among the Hawaiian people, Cannon was instead sent to California in 1855 for reasons twofold: publishing The Book of Mormon in Hawaiian and publishing a newspaper, the Western Standard, a weekly newspaper whose purpose, along with current news stories, was to provide “correct information about the Church” in the wake of widespread falsehoods. (Bitton) Operating under the slogan, “To Correct Mis-Represention We Provide Self Presentation,” Cannon fought hard at his new position to debunk the plaguing rumors. (Western Standard)

Meanwhile in Salt Lake, as government intervention was heading west due to the practice of Polygamy, Brigham Young ordered Cannon to sell the press and “return to Zion.” (Grant Cannon, 342) So in 1858, Cannon returned to Salt Lake City and after working for just a few months as a “wood rustler,” he was called as an adjutant general of the militia during the Utah War. While fulfilling this duty and given his extensive knowledge of the press, Cannon was given the assignment as a printer for the Deseret News. However, this had to be done in exile in Fillmore, a “safe location.” (Bitton, 90)

Several months passed. Government intensity eased, so Cannon headed back to Salt Lake, only to be met 60 miles outside of the city by a messenger from Brigham Young, informing him that he should head up the Eastern States Mission. (Grant Cannon, 344) And just like that, he was off again.

At the age of 33, while serving in the eastern states, Cannon was called to the office of Apostle. It wasn’t long before he was then called back to his native land, England, where he would head the British mission efforts and take charge of the Church’s newspaper there, The Millennial Star. One of the tasks afforded him was arranging ships to assist converts on their first leg of the trek to the states. Charles Dickens, present at one of the departures, made note of Cannon in The Uncommercial Traveler, describing him as “a compactly-made handsome man in black, rather short, with rich brown hair and beard, and clear bright eyes. From his speech, I should set him down as American. Probably, a man who had ‘knocked about the world’ pretty much. A man with a frank open manner, and unshrinking look; withal a man of great quickness.” (Grant Cannon, 344)

In 1862, Cannon was elected to the United States Senate. Cannon, now around 37 years of age, left England for Washington, D.C., fighting incessantly for statehood. Congress, however, was overwhelmed with the rebellious secession of southern states to offer much thought in granting rights to what would become Utah, so Cannon returned to England to finish his mission. Upon returning to Salt Lake, he would take charge of the Deseret News. As editor, he took the paper from a semi-weekly publication to a daily newspaper. (Grant Cannon, 345)

Cannon maintained this idea of “no rest till the work is done” throughout his life.  He became increasingly active with overseeing the LDS Church, as well as politically active. In 1872, he was elected to Congress as a vote-less Territorial Delegate, a position “he likened to that of a Eunuch in a brothel.” (Grant Cannon, 347)

On April 8, 1873, he was called to the church’s First Presidency. He was eventually driven underground as a fugitive, along with other church officials involved in the practice of polygamy. In 1888, he turned himself in and was sentenced to 175 days in the state penitentiary.

Orson F. Whitney, an Apostle for the LDS Church, said about Cannon, “No man in Utah, after the passing of President Brigham Young, wielded with all classes so great an influence as President George Q. Cannon, and that influence was felt up to the very close of his life.” He was said to have, in many ways, carried the church.  (Street, 706)

Some might say Cannon was a man with a mission, but in fact, he was a man with many missions. One can’t speak about Utah’s early beginnings without mentioning Cannon. He is synonymous with Utah. Apostle, revered statesman, federal prisoner, missionary, and newspaper editor: George Q. Cannon’s life was a life well lived.

Chet Cannon is a senior at The University of Utah. He is majoring in mass communication and is the great-great-great grandson of George Q. Cannon

 
Sources

George Q. Cannon, San Francisco, California, Western Standard.

Arthur I. Street, “The Mormon Richelieu,” Ainslee’s Magazine, January 1900, 699-706.

Davis Bitton, George Q. Cannon: A Biography (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1999).

“George Q. Cannon,” David J. Buerger papers, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Grant Cannon, Prophet, Pioneer, Politician, Prisoner. 1957. MS. University of Utah.

Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveler ; No Thoroughfare. New York: P.F. Collier, [18-. Print.

Beatrice Cannon Evans and Janath Russell Cannon, Cannon Family Historical Treasury, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: George Cannon Family Association, 1995).

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