George Q. Cannon: Politician, Publisher, Apostle of Polygamy by Kenneth L. Cannon II is an entry in the Signature Books brief biographies series focused on one of the most influential and best-known Latter-day Saints in the 19th century. As a missionary, publisher, representative for Utah Territory to the United States Congress, businessman, apostle, and long-term First Presidency member, he accomplished a lot during his lifetime. The brief biographies are essentially a Latter-day Saint version of the Penguin Lives series that was published by the Penguin Random House and Viking Press–short, accessible biographies of notable individuals. At 250 pages (plus index material), this George Q. Cannon biography pushes the bounds of “brief”, but the subject led such a big life and left so many records of his efforts and accomplishments that it is understandable why it didn’t fit into 100-150 pages.
Now, I admit that I haven’t actually read other biographies of George Q. Cannon, so I cannot offer direct comparisons with those works. Most of my acquaintance with President Cannon has been through other topics that he had his hand in – the history of the Church in Hawai‘i, the history of the First Presidency and apostolic interregnums, the legislation and prosecution made to end polygamy in the United States, the process of gradually ending plural marriage in the 1890s, etc. So for me, this biography was a great first introduction to a George Q. Cannon biography. I was particularly interested in seeing how George went about making connections and developing relationships that allowed him to make political headway for the Church and for Utah. In fact, I would say that discussions about his role in politics are particularly strong in this book. Also inspiring in the story were his efforts to translate the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian (and yes, a first edition of the Hawaiian Book of Mormon is now on my list of things I dream of owning). A third and final thing I would mention is that I enjoyed seeing George Cannon’s wit on full display in the book.
The book is very good at being balanced in its portrayal of George Q. Cannon. It does not hold back information on why he was a bit controversial (including among other members of the Quorum of the Twelve) or some of his major blunders. At the same time, he is presented in a generally positive light and those shortcomings are explained in a way that it is understandable as to why he made the choices that he did. It also never felt like there were efforts to pick a bone with the Church as an institution, even while being very candid about things like post-Manifesto plural marriage.
One area that I was surprised that there was no mention of was George Q. Cannon’s impact in shaping Latter-day Saint understandings of race. George Cannon was known to have referenced that part of his determination to proselytize the Hawaiian people was because he believed that they were of the House of Israel, which was a factor in the idea that Polynesians are descendants of Lehi taking hold in Latter-day Saint communities. (Hokulani K. Aikau makes a big deal about this in A Chosen People, a Promised Land, as a counter example.) President Cannon was also influential in leading Latter-day Saints to believe that Joseph Smith had instituted the priesthood and temple ban against Latter-day Saints with black African ancestry through some of his late, third-hand recollections (which was an important step in shaping collective memory in ways that made it feel like the ban could not be reversed). Admittedly, the book was already filled to overflowing for being a brief biography, though, so it’s understandable that some details like these were not included.
George Q. Cannon: Politician, Publisher, Apostle of Polygamy is important because it is, as far as I’m aware, the first biography of George Q. Cannon to be published since his journals were published online by the Church Historian’s Press. This means that a wealth of materials that weren’t consistently accessible in the past were readily available for use in this book. In addition, as is the nature of a brief biography, it is a very accessible and affordable book through which to learn about George Q. Cannon.