20th Century Latter-day Saint History

George Q. Cannon As Politician, Publisher, and Apostle of Polygamy

It was abundantly clear that Brigham Young had singled him out for leadership.

Ken Cannon’s biography of George Q. Cannon is the latest in scholarly publishing about the early Latter-day Saint apostle. The work focuses on Cannon’s role as “politician, publisher, and apostle of polygamy.” It includes his role as a confidante to Brigham Young, counselor in four First Presidencies, and father to nearly forty children.

Read the biography by Kenneth L. Cannon, George Q. Cannon: Politician, Publisher, Apostle of Polygamy.

Table of Contents

Who was George Q. Cannon?

George Q. Cannon was a convert to Mormonism; an immigrant from England; a successful missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Sandwich Islands, a senior Latter-day Saint leader for over fifty years, protege of Brigham Young; Utah territorial delegate to Congress for ten years, a journalist, editor, publisher, and writer; a prominent businessman who was president of one or more banks, of mining companies, mercantile businesses, a railroad company, and other businesses; a member of the board of directors of both the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads; and the most influential and best known Latter-day Saint after Brigham Young in the second half of the nineteenth century.

From 1880 until 1901, Cannon served as the second-ranking officer in the Church and was perceived as the most powerful Latter-day Saint.

These successes brought him to the attention of Brigham Young.

In a critical 1895 New York Times article the paper described George Q. sarcastically but largely accurately as:

the Chief Counselor . . . of the first Presidency, the power behind the throne since the death of Brigham Young, . . . a miner, a merchant, a real estate owner, a banker, a railroad proprietor, a manufacturer, a farmer, a publisher, an editor, an ecclesiast, the owner of coal fields, a cattle raiser, a promoter of power and other enterprises, and withal a politician.

George Q. Cannon’s life and activities closely mirror Latter-day Saint history from at least the late 1850s through his death in 1901.

Was the “Q” part of his given name at birth?

No, it was not. By his own account, Cannon adopted his mother’s maiden name, Quayle, as his middle name to distinguish himself from another George Cannon in the California gold fields while he was a “gold missionary” there in 1849.

Listen to Kenneth L. Cannon discuss his Signature Books biography of George Q. Cannon.

What connected him to Church leaders at a young age?

George Q.’s uncle by marriage was John Taylor, an apostle and later president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Taylor taught George’s parents and his brothers and sisters in Liverpool and baptized the entire family. George remained close to Taylor in Nauvoo, working for him in the Times and Seasons office.

Cannon was precocious and ambitious, and was in close proximity to most senior leaders in the church. George Q. helped move Taylor’s family west during the migration to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1846-47. In 1849, he was called first to the “gold mission” to pan for gold to aid the church’s finances.

From there, he was called to serve as a missionary in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), where he had extraordinary success in teaching and baptizing native converts to the church, inspiring his co-missionaries, negotiating with government officials to permit the Latter-day Saint missionaries to proselyte.

His final exceptional act was to translate, with the help of two native church converts, the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian.

All of these successes brought him to the attention of Brigham Young and others.

In the midst of the newspaper wars…

On George Q.’s way home from the Sandwich Islands, he stopped in San Francisco to earn enough money to complete his journey home. There he became closely acquainted with Parley P. Pratt and edited Pratt’s autobiography, which became an important primary source.

Upon George’s return to Utah, it was abundantly clear that Brigham Young had singled him out for leadership.

How did his first missions change George Q. Cannon?

He recognized his natural abilities and had his faith deepened by personal visitation or visitations by Jesus Christ. One of Cannon’s dominant personality traits was a natural lack of fear. He was particularly fearless when he believed that he was doing something for the furtherance of the kingdom of God on earth.

His missions helped him understand his natural abilities and the success he enjoyed gave him confidence that prepared him for important assignments from Brigham Young. George’s success in Hawaii prompted Brigham Young to identify him as one who had potential for greatness.

How did Cannon get involved in the publishing business?

George Q. learned the technical side of publishing at the Times and Seasons as a printer’s devil. He clipped and reviewed articles and began a lifetime of being a serious reader of newspapers.

As Cannon completed his translation of the Book of Mormon, he led efforts to raise money to purchase a printing press. After returning to Great Salt Lake City from Hawaii, George Q. was called with his new wife Elizabeth Hoagland Cannon, to publish the Hawaiian Book of Mormon and to help Parley Pratt write, edit, and publish a Mormon newspaper in San Francisco.

When George and Elizabeth arrived in San Francisco, Pratt had left to return to Utah. Cannon caught up with Pratt, who authorized him to lead publishing efforts in San Francisco and church and missionary matters in northern California and Oregon.

With the help of several assistants, including Elizabeth, Cannon quickly oversaw the repair the printing press, which was damaged in its transport from the East Coast to Hawaii to San Francisco, set most of the type, proofread, and published the Hawaiian Book of Mormon and even thought to have a special copy created for Brigham Young.

In the midst of the newspaper wars of San Francisco, Cannon and his editorial staff ably and courageously defended the church, its leaders, and doctrines as he wrote for, edited, and published the Western Standard. Its masthead proudly announced, “To Correct Mis-Representation, We Adopt Self-Representation,” the motto coined by Cannon.

It was miraculous that the group managed to remain in business in light of constant financial stresses. Somehow, George managed to retain his “marvelous, ironic, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor through it all.”

This was the beginning of a long and distinguished career as a writer, editor, and publisher.

How did George Q. Cannon get involved in politics?

George showed aptitude at politics on his mission in the Sandwich Islands. Brigham Young recognized this aptitude and his hunch was reinforced as he watched Cannon successfully navigate editorial wars in San Francisco.

In 1858, Brigham Young called George Q. on a secret public relations mission to the East to improve the perceptions of the church, its leaders, and members. Young also hosted meetings between Cannon and Latter-day Saint friend Thomas L. Kane, a well-connected Philadelphian who had a deep understanding of American politics.

Kane became Cannon’s main political mentor over the next twenty-five years. When Utah submitted its newest proposal for Utah statehood, Young designated George Q. Cannon as one of the proposed state’s U.S. Senators and brought Cannon home temporarily from Liverpool, where Cannon was serving as co-president of the church’s European mission to lobby Congress and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Ultimately, Young proposed Cannon as Utah’s territorial delegate, which cemented George’s place as the preeminent political figure in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

How many US presidents did he meet?

George Q. Cannon met at least Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and James McKinley. He likely did not meet James Buchanan. It is not clear whether he met Andrew Johnson. He knew a few quite well and all were aware of him.

At what age was George Q. Cannon ordained an apostle?

George Q. Cannon was called as an apostle in October 1859 when he was thirty-two to replace his friend Parley P. Pratt, who had been murdered in 1857. It is not clear precisely when he learned of this calling but he was not ordained an apostle until ten months later, in August 1860 [?] when he returned from his public relations mission to the East.

How many wives and children did he have?

George Q. had six wives, thirty-three natural children (a number of whom did not live to adulthood), and seven adopted children, most of whom were children of his last (and second legal wife, after Elizabeth passed away), Caroline Young Croxall Cannon with her first husband, Mark Croxall.

How would you characterize him as a husband and father?

George was a loving and supportive husband and father who was often absent. He carried on affectionate correspondence with most of his wives when he was apart from them and expected Elizabeth, the first wife, to share letters he sent to her.

He baptized most of his children on their eighth birthday in the Jordan River along his family compound in southwest Salt Lake City. When he moved his various families to the family compound, he asked all his wives to decide whether they would all like to live in a large family residence or have their own homes and was happy to pursue separate residences when all agreed they wanted separate homes.

He was supportive of his children receiving a good education, marrying well, and finding happiness. He was sometimes defensive of his children and offended some fellow church leaders by so doing.

He was direct with his wives and children which likely avoided certain disputes. He treated first wife Elizabeth, later legal wife Carlie Young, and their children better than the children of other wives, but also clearly loved and doted on all his children.

Overall, I would say that George Q. was quite successful in his family relationships and largely avoided jealousies and disputes through his direct approach to challenges. Unfortunately the length of my book did not permit me to discuss his family life more deeply.

Why was he a strong defender of polygamy in Congress?

George Q. once characterized himself as an “ultra” in his belief in plural marriage. On the other hand, he consistently disputed that he had been proven to be a polygamist in disputes over his election and re-election to Congress in the 1870s and was careful never to be seen in public with more than one wife at a time.

He was an outspoken defender of the U.S. Constitution protecting polygamy as a religious practice under free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

He did like to be in charge.

Ironically, given George’s part in the official end of polygamy in 1890, Cannon spearheaded the secret and extremely controversial continued polygamous marriages in the 1890s and beyond.

Why was he selected as a counselor in four First Presidencies despite being controversial within the Twelve?

George Q. developed a deep mentor-protege connection with Brigham Young which created jealousy on the part of long-term second in command, Heber C. Kimball, who predicted that Cannon would “rise like a rocket and fall like a stick.” It did not surprise anyone when Young made Cannon a counselor in the First Presidency but it may have caused some other senior leaders to be a bit jealous.

Later in his career, some younger apostles such as Moses Thatcher and Heber J. Grant thought that George tried to exercise too much control over John Taylor to the exclusion of other leaders.

Both came to rely on him.

Grant and Thatcher and others appeared to have believed that George Q. was angling to become church president on the death of John Taylor. Tensions were exacerbated in the 1880s when many apostles were hiding out from arrest and imprisonment for unlawful cohabitation with their polygamous wives and were not in close communication.

Cannon could be difficult to be in business with because he did like to be in charge and occasional personal financial problems caused tensions in businesses in which he was involved.

George Q. could also be defensive about his children and he was sensitive to accusations that he favored his sons for prominent ecclesiastical, political, and business positions.

The most serious controversy Cannon was involved in with other church leaders was probably the issuance of the political manifesto in 1896, which resulted in Moses Thatcher being dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve for refusing to sign the document, which was entirely drafted by Cannon.

Just after George Q.’s death, Brigham Young, Jr. recorded in his diary that he loved George more than any other man but that he also disliked him more than others. Young admitted that Cannon was the best and the brightest of the senior leaders but he grew weary of having George remind others of his abilities. All of this ignores that Cannon was universally admired by other church leaders and that he was able to reconcile with him after a controversy through his directness and candor.

He knew how nasty such a fight could become.

Wilford Woodruff took several years to reorganized the First Presidency after the death of John Taylor, mostly because of controversies over the likely retention of Cannon as first counselor. Lorenzo Snow admitted that he did not always like George Q.’s leadership style and actions he took without consulting the Quorum of the Twelve.

Both Woodruff and Snow ultimately recognized that Cannon was far too helpful and talented not to have as first counselor and both came to rely on him just as John Taylor and Brigham Young had.

Why wasn’t there much support for George Q. Cannon to be elected senator?

There probably would have been more support for George Q. as senator if he had actively or aggressively pursued the office. Instead, Cannon seemed to want to have others decide he should be senator.

He was no doubt torn because he realized that there would likely be substantial opposition to his being seated in the Senate just as there was to the election of B. H. Roberts to Congress in 1898 (who was not permitted by the House to be seated), George had been expelled from Congress in 1882 for being a polygamist and he of all people knew how nasty such a fight could become.

Both in 1896 and in 1898, the church president (first Wilford Woodruff and then Lorenzo Snow) made clear that God’s choice for senator was Cannon.

In both cases, however, it was near the election in the state legislature (senators were elected by legislatures until 1914). In both elections, George Q.’s son, Frank, who was also running, refused to release legislators from their commitments to support him. If Cannon had affirmatively sought the position of senator and if he had been elected, it would have been very interesting to see if the Senate would seat him.

Why did you write a George Q. Cannon biography?

Signature Books decided that George Q. Cannon should be the subject of a shorter biography as part of its series of short biographies of prominent Latter-day Saints, and asked me to write it based on my writings about his three oldest sons and other articles I have written that involved George Q. closely.

Davis Bitton’s longer biography is excellent but does not fully explore or discuss controversies involving Cannon and his family, likely because Deseret Book was the publisher and the Church gave Bitton access to the Cannon journals, which are critical to any book on Cannon.

I believed that frank discussion and analysis of these controversies were important to fully understanding his life. George Q. Cannon is important enough to warrant several biographies.

Finally, I believe a shorter, somewhat more accessible biography was a good idea to introduce Cannon to a new audience.

What were his lasting accomplishments?

George Q. Cannon has had significant influence on Latter-day Saint theology, administration, political views and standards, and culture. His utter and fearless devotion to the Savior, the church, and the president of the church became an example to later church leaders.

His enthusiastic defense of the church, its leaders, and precepts also influenced later leaders. Cannon’s public view of the church was that it did not make mistakes and his unwillingness to admit errors on the part of the church or to seek forgiveness for some of its views continues today.

His extraordinary missionary work—complete with missionaries teaching, baptizing, and making leaders of native Hawaiians—became a model for later generations of missionaries, though Cannon likely had certain racist views consistent with other nineteenth-century Americans and church leaders.

Cannon’s political style of directly and carefully seeking political allies for the church and actively being involved in politics has also had a continuing effect on Latter-day Saint practices—he was not willing simply to sit back and let things happen.

Twentieth- and twenty-first century Sunday School education of all church members is in large part a continuation of Cannon’s Sunday School activities.

An unexpected fan of George Q. Cannon has written:

Perhaps the greatest legacy of George Q. Cannon is the astonishing success of Mormonism in the twentieth century. In a fiery crucible of bitter controversy, he was instrumental in forging the faith of modern Latter-day Saints.

Will Bagley

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Further reading

George Q. Cannon diplomat resources

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

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