Frank J. Cannon is an overlooked—and often misunderstood—figure in Latter-day Saint history. As the son of George Q. Cannon, Frank was religious royalty of his time, but often rebelled. He was eventually excommunicated, but not before being relied up to negotiate on behalf of the Church and ghostwrite a faith-promoting biography of Joseph Smith. In this interview, independent historian Val Holley discusses his biography of Frank Cannon.
Learn more in the biography by Val Holley: Frank J. Cannon: Saint, Senator, and Scoundrel.
Who is Val Holley?
I’m a sixth-generation native of Slaterville, a farming community just west of Ogden. My father, whose career was in the Latter-day Saint Church Educational System, is an authority on Utah history. I inherited that proclivity.
Frank Cannon’s sustained attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ recidivism in polygamy and alliances with trusts and corporations discomforted many Utahns, not only in the early 20th century but in the present day—hence the “scoundrel” in the book’s title.
My own reaction to Frank Cannon, however, is amazement at his unflinching courage in speaking truth to power. The bulk of my efforts in Utah history—most prominently, my work on the Morrisites—has supported the rehabilitation of maligned reputations. The lack of any biography of Frank Cannon seemed a glaring gap in state annals. It was high time to tell his story.
What was happening in Ogden was Frank Cannon was associated with the city?
Since 1868, when the Union Pacific snubbed Salt Lake by building its transcontinental railroad through Ogden, Salt Lake has conducted a campaign of disparagement against Ogden. The unsound suggestion that Ogden history is “boring” stems from Salt Lake’s longstanding jealousy.
In the book I emphasize the significance of Ogden, both as the seat of Frank Cannon’s political power in Utah and as proving ground for strategies the Latter-day Saints embraced—desperately—to maintain political dominance in the face of Congressional anti-polygamy statutes of the 1880s. Ogden was the first city in Utah to replace its polygamous city council members with monogamists; to incorporate its Latter-day Saint wards; and to gerrymander its municipal wards to favor Latter-day Saint office-seekers.
As a young deputy clerk in Ogden, Frank had to complete the paperwork in these initiatives. He had a front-row seat at the collision of punitive Congressional statues with polygamous Utah.
Who was Frank J. Cannon—and who was his father?
Frank Cannon was Utah’s first U.S. senator after it became a state in 1896. During the 50 years he lived in Utah, he was also (in chronological order) founder and editor of the Ogden Standard, territorial delegate to Congress, state Democratic Party chairman, editor of Ogden’s Daily Utah State Journal, and editor of the Salt Lake Tribune.
He was one of many sons of George Q. Cannon, who had five wives. Frank’s mother was the second wife, Sarah Jane Jenne. George Q. Cannon became a Latter-day Saint apostle in 1867 and was counselor to four presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow. Historians generally accept George Q. as second only to Brigham Young in importance in Mormon affairs in the second half of the 19th century.
What did Frank J. Cannon and George Q. Cannon think of each other?
Although their relationship weathered several rough patches, son and father respected and adored each other. During Frank’s youthful periods of sustained drunkenness and debauchery, George Q. came close to disowning him. Years later, after Frank’s talent for diplomacy finessed many political and financial windfalls for the Church, George Q. wrote, “I have been greatly pleased that the Lord has given me a son who can be so useful.”
Frank wrote, “My father was the most remarkable man I ever knew or hope to know.”
An intriguing challenge for son and father was how to maintain their usual affection while competing for the same U.S. Senate seat in 1896. I could find no other instance in U.S. history in which a father and son opposed each other in a Senate race. Although each grumbled in private about the other’s being an impediment, their relationship survived. We know, of course, that Frank won.
Why did Frank Cannon decline to pledge against polygamy the day before his wedding, but then reverse course the next day?
Nearly four decades after his 1878 marriage to Martha (“Mattie”) Anderson Brown, Frank wrote that Mattie asked him to promise “never to live up to his privileges”—in other words, not to marry additional wives, even though he could as a Latter-day Saint man. He said he refused to promise, insisting that she must simply trust him never to do so.
The next day, during the marriage ceremony, the “priest” reminded Frank of his “responsibility” to marry additional wives. He was so offended—given his private revulsion at polygamy—that afterward he gave Mattie the promise she had asked for the night before.
There are, however, good reasons to doubt Frank’s account.
He wrote it while he was giving anti-polygamy lectures throughout the U.S., and he may have tailored it to conform with that agenda. Because his own father had sealed him to Mattie, it was odd that Frank said a “priest” officiated.
Did Frank Cannon ghostwrite a Joseph Smith biography?
Although Life of Joseph Smith carried George Q. Cannon’s byline, Frank wrote it. Frank’s brother, Abram, made the book’s true authorship clear in his voluminous journals.
George Q. asked Frank to take on the project in 1882, and Frank worked on it intermittently for six years—especially in the summer of 1886, which Frank spent in the Salt Lake County jail and had little else to do. He had pleaded guilty to assaulting William H. Dickson, U.S. attorney for Utah, after Dickson had grilled members of the Cannon family harshly in a grand jury proceeding.
What role did Frank Cannon play in Utah gaining statehood?
Frank Cannon had an admirable record of diplomatic triumphs in Utah’s path to statehood. His father sent him on numerous missions to Washington, D.C., to negotiate the means of reconciliation between the Church and the federal government.
A summary of his achievements would include:
- Obtaining a more merciful array of federal judges for Utah who would be lenient to convicted polygamists;
- Testifying persuasively against punitive bills that threatened the forfeiture of all Latter day Saints’ right to vote;
- and spearheading the dissolution of Latter-day Saint and Gentile political parties while founding the Republican Party of Utah.
He was also useful to the Church during its fiscal crisis of the 1890s, recruiting friendly financiers to invest in church enterprises.
Frank had forecast that statehood, once achieved, would “convey the highest dignity of human privilege.” But statehood contained the seeds of his undoing as a card-carrying member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As the nation relaxed its animosity toward Utah, ardent polygamists began to sense that, if discreet enough, they could resume their former ways. This process turned Frank against the Church.
What was The Manifesto, and why are Frank Cannon’s claims about participating in its creation problematic?
The Manifesto was Wilford Woodruff’s September 1890 declaration that plural marriages in the Church had ceased and henceforth Woodruff would urge members to obey laws prohibiting polygamy.
In Under the Prophet in Utah, Frank’s autobiography, Frank claimed that Woodruff invited him to read an early draft of the Manifesto and make suggestions. It is not outlandish on its face that Woodruff would consult Frank. George Q.’s journal shows that Frank was frequently summoned to advise the First Presidency during Woodruff’s presidency.
However, we now know Frank was out of town during the accepted 48-hour timeline of the Manifesto from inception to dissemination, and he could not possibly have participated.
How did the death of George Q. Cannon spark Frank Cannon’s devotion to and defection from the church?
Being at George Q.’s bedside while he lay dying was a spiritual experience for Frank. It prompted him to live more like a Latter-day Saint than ever before. He donated a large sum of money to the British Mission, wrote articles praising Joseph F. Smith’s ascension as Church president, and hosted weekly Sunday school meetings at his Washington, D.C., home. (That city had no organized Latter-day Saint congregation in 1901).
But Frank quickly became disillusioned at Joseph F. Smith, who made financial deals with trusts and corporations and secretly encouraged the subversion of the church’s pledges to abandon polygamy. Frank said he had assumed that his father, owing to apostolic seniority, would have become president of the church and ruled it according to correct principles. But George Q.’s death cleared the way for what Frank saw as Smith’s misrule.
What would Frank Cannon want his legacy to be?
Frank was willing to commit career suicide through his campaign to expose and punish recrudescent Latter-day Saint polygamy. Something he said in Under the Prophet in Utah probably sums it up best: “There is a consolation in having been right, though you may have been futile!”
If you could go back in time and observe any moment from Frank Cannon’s life, what would it be?
I would love to have been at the 1896 Republican national convention when Frank, on behalf of western delegates who opposed the gold standard, read their statement of dissent (which he wrote) to a hostile, hissing audience, and then, arm-in-arm with other westerners, bolted the convention.
If nightly national news had existed then, this scenario would surely have been the lead story.
Check out these interviews about the 19th century history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah: