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LDS Church History Library
The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, circa 1880: left to right, first counselor George Q. Cannon, President John Taylor, second counselor Joseph F. Smith.

SALT LAKE CITY — Abraham Lincoln never met Brigham Young. The "rough-cut" Utah figure never visited Washington, D.C.

Instead of Young, the face and voice and perceived political strategist of Mormonism in the eyes of Lincoln and other national and world leaders for the final 40 or 50 years of the 19th century was George Q. Cannon, Young's chosen ambassador, a brilliant, genteel man who kept a journal so complete and perceptive one historian calls it "one of the most valuable journals in American religious history."

For the first time, Cannon's journals are now being published in full, with the first installment from 1855-75 available online today from the LDS Church Historian's Press. Lincoln's experience with Cannon illustrates the immense value of 2.5 million words written by a man who knew Joseph Smith — Cannon helped create the founding Mormon prophet's death mask — and served as a counselor in the First Presidency to Smith's four immediate successors: Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow.

At one time, Cannon was simultaneously a congressional delegate from the Utah Territory, a member of the church's First Presidency and a prominent publisher in the American West. While in Congress, he famously went to prison for practicing polygamy; Congress notoriously expelled him for it.

The digital release of his journals is the latest major LDS publishing event because historians consider them to be among the very most important journals not only in Mormon history but also in the history of religion, politics and publishing in the second half of the 1800s.

Pivotal figure

"Cannon is so connected and the journal is so complete, the journal ranks as one of the most valuable journals in American religious history," said Matt Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department.

The journals of Woodruff, the church's fourth president, have been famous among Mormons. Cannon's now will assume their rightful place alongside Woodruff's as the Church Historian's Press publishes the rest of the journals in quarterly online releases.

The late official church historian Leonard Arrington once said the three most important journals in LDS Church history were those by Cannon, Woodruff and Spencer W. Kimball, the fourth and 12th presidents of the church.

Grow would add to the journals of David O. McKay, the ninth president of the church, and Emmeline B. Wells, the fifth general president of the Relief Society, to that conversation. He said Cannon would make any top five list because of his national political profile, his international experiences, his nearly unique church leadership service and the length and perceptiveness of his journal keeping.

Cannon was an important figure in printing and publishing in the American West. He founded the first publishing house in Utah, which later became Deseret Book, and he twice was editor of the Deseret News, which he owned himself for a time and for which he wrote numerous influential editorials.

"He was the voice of the LDS Church to the world" for nearly half a century, Grow said.

The church republished one of Cannon's editorials in the current, April 2016 edition of its Ensign magazine.

Since 1992, George Q has been known to a generation of BYU football fans as the name of the cannon fired by the university's Army ROTC in the north end zone at LaVell Edwards Stadium after every Cougar score. Now George Q. Cannon will enjoy a renaissance among scholars and regular church members, Grow said.

Meeting Lincoln

In 1861, Lincoln was the new American president and Cannon was in Liverpool serving as president of the European Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Young urgently recalled Cannon without telling him the Deseret territorial legislature had elected him one of the proposed state's two senators.

For six weeks in the summer of 1862, as the American Civil War raged, Cannon visited every U.S. senator and President Lincoln, lobbying for votes for statehood for Deseret.

"The President has a plain, but shrewd and rather pleasant face," Cannon wrote on June 13, 1862. "He is very tall, probably 6 feet 4 inches high, and is rather awkwardly built, heightened by his want of flesh. He looks much better than I expected he would do from my knowledge of the cares and labors of his position, and is quite humorous, scarcely permitting a visit to pass without uttering some joke."

Lincoln received Cannon and three others "very kindly and without formality," Cannon wrote. They talked about Utah affairs and other matters, but he was non-committal about the admission of Utah to the Union.

A month later, Cannon attempted to visit Lincoln again as he was leaving to return to Utah, but Lincoln was busy with his cabinet, preparing to meet with members of Congress from the Border States: "He had a proposition to lay before them," Cannon wrote, "respecting the gradual emancipation of the slaves in their several States."

Printer's apprentice

Cannon was born in Liverpool to parents from the Isle of Man. The family joined the LDS Church when Cannon's uncle, John Taylor, came to England when Cannon was 13. His mother died as during the family's migration to Utah in 1843, and in Nauvoo, Illinois, his father sent him to live with his uncle, John Taylor, then editor of two newspapers.

Cannon apprenticed in the Nauvoo print shop at age 15, the same age Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain became printer's apprentices, said Jed Woodworth, a historian in the Church History Department.

"He's immersed in print," Woodworth said. "He's reading constantly. This allows him to become a great writer."

In 1855, Young sent Cannon to California to set up a press and publish a newspaper and a Hawaiian-language edition of the Book of Mormon. Young gave him a blessing. Cannon recorded, "I should be blessed in writing and publishing, and when I should take up the pen to write I should be blessed with wisdom and the Lord would inspire me with thoughts and ideas that what I should write and publish should be acceptable to the people of God."

"He had a gift for writing and publishing," Grow said, "a gift Brigham Young encourages him to use, and he becomes the voice of the church to the world."

Much of his efforts in the power corridors in the American East are really the work of public affairs or public relations on behalf of the church, Woodworth said.

"He's trying to persuade outsiders that the Latter-day Saints have been misrepresented."

Transition figure

Woodworth sees Cannon as an important bridge between the first generation of Mormons, driven from place to place, and the second, settled in Utah. The first generation built testimonies on a willingness to gather together, suffer shame, opprobrium and violence and be driven. The second generation, Cannon foresaw, needed institutions to teach the young, so he launched the Juvenile Instructor magazine and the Deseret Sunday School Union.

"He was the leading figure in Mormonism to show how powerful print could be as opposed to simply the spoken word," Woodworth said. "Cannon then is the quintessential modern Mormon who's educated, albeit self-educated, like for Franklin and Twain. ... I'm not saying Cannon's a Twain or a Franklin, but he had a genius that was beyond any of his brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after Brigham Young dies."

After Young's death, Cannon emerges in the view of Americans in the East as the force in the First Presidency, Woodworth said.

"Everyone thinks he's driving decisions made in the church. In this way he is like Gordon B. Hinckley. When Spencer W. Kimball was diminished with age, Gordon B. Hinckley was making the decisions. Well, it's the same with Cannon. With John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow, Cannon is the dominant force in the First Presidency. In the East, everyone's thinking that whatever the Mormons are doing, Cannon wants it done."

The view was shared at home.

"Inside the Quorum," Woodworth said, "we have numerous comments from junior members who say Cannon laps us all in his brilliance."

Decades to publish

In the 1940s, Cannon's grandson, Adrian Cannon, received church permission to access the journals so he could write a biography, said assistant church historian Richard Turley. Adrian Cannon eventually decided instead to create a typescript of the journals, but he died of cancer in the 1980s before he could finish.

The Church History Department reached an agreement with the family that it would finish the project and publish Cannon's journals.

"It's impossible to overstate how happy I am the church is doing this," said Adrian Cannon's son, Joe Cannon, a former editor of the Deseret News like his great-grandfather. "From a church history perspective, it will be amazing. What you get with his journals is the spinal column of church history in the second half of the 19th century."

The Church History Department set out to publish Cannon's journals in similar fashion to the Joseph Smith Papers Project, in printed volumes full of footnotes and information about each person who appears. Two volumes were produced. One is about Cannon's time as a gold rush missionary for the church, "The Journals of George Q. Cannon: To California in '49." The second is about his legendary mission to Hawaii, "The Journals of George Q. Cannon: Hawaiian Mission 1850-54."

That project would have taken decades, Grow said, so it transitioned to a digital, text-only project with fully searchable text. Future installments will provide the remainder of Cannon's journals, from 1876 to his death in 1901.

"It provides us with an intimate look at the devotional practices of a church leader," Grow said. "George Q. Cannon's faith just really jumps off the page. Another thing that people will find of interest is that this is a journal of a member of the First Presidency, and we just don't have many of those available."

Woodworth said the journals reveal Cannon's lifelong concern for common people.

"Cannon's journal pays inordinate attention to the lowly, the downtrodden and the huddled. There are some beautiful passages where he tends to the suffering of the Saints."

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In 1894, Cannon published an editorial in "The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star," the precursor to the Ensign.

"Have I imperfections?" Cannon wrote in a section republished in this month's Ensign. "I am full of them. What is my duty? To pray to God to give me the gifts that will correct these imperfections. ... No man ought to say, 'Oh, I cannot help this; it is my nature.' He is not justified in it, for the reason that God has promised to give strength to correct these things, and to give gifts that will eradicate them."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com