Church Historian’s Press releases George Q. Cannon journal online

The original GQ.

The original GQ.

This morning, the Church Historian’s Press (CHP) announced the online publication of George Q. Cannon’s diaries, 1855–1875. Along with the online publication of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, this represents a major new era for church publication efforts. The George Q. Cannon (GQC) diaries are significant for many reasons, and have already been used to produce the Gospel Topics essay on the Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage and Jed Woodworth used them for his “Revelations in Context” essay entitled “The Messenger and the Manifesto,” both high priority reading. The CHP is also soliciting feedback about how these materials are being used and what they can do to make content more helpful and accessible.

Regular contributors WVS and J. Stapley discuss the news below:

JS: I’m not sure when I first became aware of the George Q. Cannon journals’ existence, but they have had a sort of mythical character in my mind. As I understand it when the family donated the journals to the History Department, they also secured approval for Adrian Cannon, a grandson to access them. He then worked for decades researching for a biography, and made a typescript of the bulk of the journals. He never finished, but the family wanted a biography, and consequently supplied the typescript to Dan Peterson, who didn’t pan out (but compared them to the transformative Wilford Woodruff journals), and then to Davis Bitton. Bitton used the materials to produce his creatively titled George Q. Cannon: A Biography. The typescript however was incomplete and in some cases unreliable, but the manuscript was locked down. Bitton consequently arranged to get excerpts that he wanted to use double checked by staff with access.

Before Adrian died, he donated the typescript(s) to the history department, and the History Department agreed to publish the journals. Since that time two volumes have been published (here and here), but as Cannon and his scribes were rather prolific, the Church History Department has chosen to publish the balance digitally with the CHP.

Perhaps not unlike with the forthcoming Nauvoo Council of Fifty minutes published by the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP), people tend to want what they can’t have. The idea of GQC’s massive and revelatory journal being kept in the Archives of the First Presidency for no one to see has made them a bit legendary. I imagine that there has been some Indiana Jones fan fiction based on these documents. But there is real reason to believe that they are important, especially for the time he was in the First Presidency.

WVS: I think I first encountered content from Cannon’s journals while looking through B. H. Roberts materials at the Church History Library. Roberts possessed typed excerpts from Cannon’s journal that covered the epic discussions between the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve over GQCs work with various politicians in Washington. They were fascinating bits and pieces of how GQC worked with an internal logic over the way his utter loyalty to the cause of the Church and his careful devotion to the principles of integrity and good character met and intertwined.

Bitton’s biography is a study in the difficulties of writing biography when the subject was delicate in so many conflicting ways. Nevertheless, he gave us tantalizing glimpses of what’s in store in Cannon’s journals. But as you say, like many anticipated things, there is likely to be less in the diaries than one may hope for, and perhaps more than some might wish. Perhaps one important thing here is the recent final volume of the JSP Journals series. It broke ground in terms of frank discussion of priesthood liturgy. There is no doubt that Cannon dealt with similar interests. How much redaction will exist is an interesting question in that regard (see, CHP editorial statement on redaction).

The choice to publish the journals online is very useful for historians but perhaps more difficult for non-historians seeking some context of Cannon’s beliefs, preaching, doctrinal positions, and activities. I suspect that context will be forthcoming, but perhaps in piecemeal fashion and outside the CHP at present. Whatever the case, the journals will be a goldmine of information. Perhaps the only downside is that when GQC could not dictate his entries to a scribe, he sometimes skipped significant periods.

Since Cannon spent so much time away from Church headquarters (he was ordained an apostle in 1860, replacing the deceased Parley P. Pratt and handled the European mission in the early 1860s) he gives us some important insights into what he thought of various persons of note, the lived religion of Mormonism away from Church central, Church judicial procedure, and the art of dealing with a mid-nineteenth-century missionary force largely from, as he put it, the Valley.

JS: Pointing to the recent JSP Journals publication is important because it is the same press. There are some important differences though. Whereas the JSP will be free of content redactions, the GQC journal is being redacted for the Historical Department’s standard restriction categories: sacred, private, and confidential. The intro indicates that 0.5% of the content has been redacted in this release. By my count there are 136 individual redactions within this twenty-year block. I’m largely sympathetic to the History Department when it comes to the ideas of SPC, but so much pivots on the precise execution.

Most of the redactions are minor and simply remove the name of a person subject to church discipline. For example the 12-13 July 1861 entry includes: “Talked over various matters of business and among things talked over the case of Elder [first and last name redacted] who was living in adultery and made a motion which was carried to cut him off from the Church.” This sort of edit is sensible to me. In some cases larger redactions (e.g., “[125 words redacted”) in proximity to discussions of church discipline make the editorial cause deducible. The editorial method section declares that “In every instance where the text has been redacted, a notation has been made in the text explaining the reason for and extent of the redaction.” You see this in cases such as the entry for November 21, 1870, which in its entirety is transcribed: “[573 Hawaiian words redacted because they address deeply personal matters between Cannon and his family.]” While I think that this is a potentially reasonable approach, it seems that the CHP editors are redacting for other reasons than SPC in such cases (see editorial section). I think that this policy opens up the History Department to criticism that publication by CHP and perhaps, by extension, archive access (at the Church History Library) is somewhat arbitrary.

WVS: That’s a fair point about redaction. I found some of it a bit uneven, and in any case one is often able to discover redacted names through other means. Several cases of discipline in the British mission involved excommunication for immorality but the names were left in the open. I was unsure at first what the reasoning was about that. A case in point was that of Assistant editor of the Millennial Star, Eugene Henriod. GQC has some of his longest journal entries over the case of Henriod’s defalcation and adultery/fornication and while other Elders were a part of the case (and apparently guilty of some similar infractions) their names are redacted, but Henriod’s is not though there is a redacted segment of 98 words from Henriod (see the November 19, 1862 entry). A subsequent entry from November 26 reads:

In the evening called a meeting of the brethren in the Office at which were also present Elders C. W. West, John M Kay, W. H. Shearman, B. Young Junr and E. L. Sloan who has taken Henriod’s place as Assistant Editor. The brethren in the Office were Bro’s William. H. Perkes, John C. Graham, Duncan Mc Allister and Robert R. Anderson. I spoke very plainly upon the necessity for a reformation being entered into by the Brethren in the Office. I told them that if they stayed here they must change their habits & refrain from theatre going & late hours. [first initial and last name redacted] was also spoken to about his impudence, uncivil language & manners. A unanimous vote was taken to excommunicate Eugene Henriod from the Church. We had an excellent meeting & the brethren expressed their determination to try and amend.

The logic here appears to be that Henriod’s case was actually published in the Star and therefore redacting the name served no present purpose.

This brings up a point about the journal’s frankness. Like any personally written journal, it expresses the point of view of the writer. That is both useful and cautionary. During GQC’s career, his narration can be supplemented by other witnesses who kept their own accounts and that helps one to understand the limitations of documents like the Cannon journal. For example, GQC and his wife Elizabeth lost a number of children (at least five I think) and GQC notes with particular pathos the loss of his daughter Lilly. In his October 31, 1870 entry he remarks about the funeral (held in his home) and says Wilford Woodruff was a speaker. Woodruff’s own journal says he was covering grapes all day!

Cannon’s journal sports significant sections that were produced by dictation to a clerk. These are useful, as Cannon himself observes, because he can get a lot more on paper that way. He was good at organizing his thoughts on the fly as it were. But the practice places a wall between the journal and Cannon himself, something present in spades in Joseph Smith’s journals for example.

JS: I have developed an analogy based on statistics that in writing history you really need multiple sources to avoid sampling error. Having representative material is a challenge and I guess we could view this sort of publication as one way to help people have more representative data.

The advantages to the digital publication are pretty evident. The CHP folks indicate that the GQC journal is about 2.5 million words (roughly 20 volumes if published hardbound). And while I am reading all of the JSP volumes all the way through, you simply can’t read everything. The digital production allows for search and data mining in ways that are otherwise impossible. The danger is when people dip in via search and miss the broader context, but that is always a risk (proof texting!). And in reality (since we keep comparing to the Woodruff diaries), I’ve only held a printed copy of the rare Woodruff diaries in my hands once. Having the digital copy has made it possible to use it. BYU’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections comes to mind as a similar group to have published digitized and transcribed primary documents (particularly the Early Missionary Diaries collection), and that material has been incredibly useful in my research. I consequently view the CHP’s release of this collection as a tremendously important development. I hope that the resources of the History Department will continue to publish collections in this manner. It is also a great service that they translated GQC’s regular use of Hawaiian to encode sensitive material.

WVS: There are several great things about the digital publication. One is the wider audience. Anyone with a web connection can read and that was intentional on the part of the CHP. Another is the search capability you mention. The Cannon journals and the very welcome and superb volume on the Relief Society mark an important expansion in the work of the Press. One can see glimmers of mighty works in the future. But I won’t salivate here.

As far as the Cannon journal goes, as the release rolls out, we are going to see important impacts (for readers) in areas where the Church History Library has already assisted in the discussion of fraught topics like polygamy and the priesthood ban. The Cannon journal has some important things to say there and in other areas that we’ve already mentioned. For example, Cannon was a major figure in post-manifesto polygamy, and his attitude on Joseph Smith’s July 1843 revelation on polygamy (D&C 132) is illustrated by his remarks at a conference held in Heber, Utah in August 1875:

We had a very plain talk this morning with Bishop Abram Hatch respecting doctrines he was charged with having taught. He was accused of having taught false doctrine on the subject of plural marriage . . . . I occupied a portion of the forenoon and was led to speak with great plainness upon plural marriage . . . . After I got through many brethren came up and expressed their pleasure at hearing what I had said upon this subject. I have no doubt that Bro. Hatch, who has but one wife, has not strengthened this principle in the minds of the people as he should have done. He seems to have entertained the idea that because a man had taken one wife according to the covenant and sealing ordinances that he was practising celestial marriage, which is true as far as it goes. But the Lord requires practical obedience to the revelation. I think that Bro. Hatch has learned a good deal during these meetings. [Emphasis added. See journal entries for August 29, 30, 1875.]

In another way GQC’s wide-ranging activities contribute some very important context to Mormon attitudes and beliefs regarding government, its purposes, successes, and failures. His forays into the centers of American power, and his travel and work in Europe shed light not only on Church process and policy but the fallout from major events like the American Civil War. Cannon’s picture of the war from the British perspective is useful. The large impact of the war on the British economy registers a useful marker for historians and sheds some light on British policy from an interesting perspective. It held important Latter-day Saint interest in terms of political stability for proselytizing but also for the gathering to Utah that had to move through a country at war with itself.

The CHP deserves strong praise for issuing the George Q. Cannon journals in this timely way.


  1. Matt Grow mentioned this was coming. Very, very cool (not that I’m into this kind of thing, mind you). Thanks for the perspectives.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Be sure and check out Ben’s write-up over at the JI. He hits on some important aspects of the publication:

  3. This is a great development. A big thanks to the people at the CHL.

  4. Love the caption.

  5. Did Bishop Hatch end up entering into plural marriage? How does the story end?

  6. True Blue says:

    I am impressed that in that day the leaders were willing to justify/explain ther controversial decisions. I was disapointed the bretheren did not condecend to explain the policy on gay marriage that has caused controversy, during conference.

  7. Talon 2:18pm. Hatch did not marry polygamously himself. In 1877 he became president of the Wasatch stake. When his first wife died in 1880, he remarried in 1882. He had seven children with first wife Parmelia Lott, six more children by second wife Ruth Woolley. He died in 1911 (aged 81). Hatch avoided President John Taylor’s dictum that local leaders marry polygamously.

  8. Thanks WVS!

    It would take courage to stick to ones principles in the face of strong religious and social pressure to do otherwise. I admire him for that.

  9. I am already using the GQC journals to restart my research on Thaddeus Stevens and the Church, by providing some important insights into other Washington politicians who were sympathetic to the church. Very good stuff.