It is not an uncommon experience in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve other than the president of the Church to functionally run the Church or to have a huge impact on the Church. In the twentieth century, for example, J. Reuben Clark, Harold B. Lee, and Gordon B. Hinckley played that role when the older members of the First Presidency were in poor health. In the nineteenth century, the most prominent example is George Q. Cannon. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Kenneth L. Cannon spoke about his George Q. Cannon biography and why George is so important. What follows here is a copost to the full interview.
An important question was why Kenneth L. Cannon wrote a biography of George Q. Cannon:
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.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a fan of these brief biographies and I liked what Kenneth wrote.
As for why George Q. Cannon is worthy of several biographies, Kenneth had more to say:
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.
Even as a young man, a number of factors combined to single him out as someone who should be groomed for Church leadership:
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.
By his early twenties, George Cannon had a lot of significant accomplishments under his belt.
President Cannon was not without controversies from his leadership style. For example,
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.
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. …
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.
All told, George Q. Cannon spent over forty years as an apostle, the majority of which was spent as a counselor in the First Presidencies of Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow.
For more on the George Q. Cannon biography, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk for the full interview with Kenneth L. Cannon.