reviews – Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle: The Diaries of Abraham H. Cannon, 1889-1895

Candid Insights of a Mormon ApostleDialogue:  A Journal of Mormon Thought, Jonathan A. Stapley

Abraham H. Cannon was Mormon aristocracy. The son of long-time First Presidency member George Q. Cannon, he accepted a call as an apostle at age thirty. During the latter portion of his life, the period covered in Candid Insights, he was also deeply involved in some of the most prominent business concerns of Utah Territory—banks, securities, printing, mines, and more. He served in these areas during the tumultuous period of the first Manifesto and the economic depression of the 1890s leading up to statehood. Also from the age of nineteen until the time he died at thirty-seven, he kept a diary.

The original Abraham H. Cannon diaries were donated by the Cannon family (save the last seven months of the journal, which are not known to be extant) to the L. Tom Perry Special Collections and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, with photocopies available in various repositories in the state.1 For example, the Utah State Historical Society has made available online William C. Seifrit’s excellent content review and voluminous index of the diaries.2

Edward Leo Lyman was one of the first researchers to access the Abraham H. Cannon diaries after they became available, and he mined their beautiful script for his elucidation of territorial politics and economics. In Candid Insights, he presents a lightly annotated single volume of Cannon’s apostolic diaries. While Dennis Horne previously edited a volume of these diaries (An Apostle’s Record: The Journals of Abraham H. Cannon [Clearfield, Utah: Gnolaum Books, 2004]), Lyman states that Candid Insights offers roughly double the text of the Horne edition, largely by the inclusion of entries relating to Lyman’s areas of expertise (xxvn35). Horne also claimed to have redacted some material that he deemed too sensitive for public distribution.3 The publisher claims that Lyman was generally inclusive of such material, but he also deemed it inappropriate to include the text of the Mormon temple sealing ceremony as written by Cannon in one entry (358). Beyond these omissions, compiling a single volume did require redactions; for example, material related to the Millard County irrigation project was not included (xxvn33). Moreover, daily entries are regularly omitted. While not meeting the threshold of relevancy for this volume, sometimes these entries include important information. For example, of the entries describing Cannon’s weekly prayer group in the Salt Lake Temple, only one out of every dozen or so is included in Candid Insights.4

The diaries themselves are simply extraordinary. They are well deserving of inclusion in Signature Books’s Significant Diary Series. They rival and often surpass Wilford Woodruff’s diary in detailing the interaction and discussions of the LDS Church’s governing quorums. My recent article on adoptive sealing rituals and a co-authored history of baptism for health would have been dramatically less comprehensive without access to these diaries, which comprise approximately 4,000 holograph and typescript pages. Whereas Lyman has mostly been interested in political and economic maters, the pages are saturated with details of Latter-day Saint liturgy, belief, and practice as well as general territorial life. My notes from these diaries are denser on a per-page basis than any other diary from the period. I don’t hesitate to consider the Cannon diaries essential reading in Mormon history.

Candid is an accurate descriptor of Cannon’s journalizing. His entries regarding his brother Frank’s binge drinking are explicit. Cannon coolly describes events around him with an air of detachment that could hardly be considered personal. For example, he notes the death of his daughter without pathos, and he had failed to note the birth of the same child seven days earlier (250-51). The moments of greatest emotion are those when his financial security was most in peril.

Lyman uses his extensive experience to realize a generous presentation, though it is one with an emphasis on the diaries’ content and not the documents themselves. Lyman only lightly edited the material and occasionally included bracketed clarifications. Footnotes are generally sparse and seemingly capricious. However, with the volume pushing 800 pages, a minimalist approach to annotation is understandable. Lyman often points people to his own work, which is not out of place considering his expertise and voluminous corpus relating to the period. However, occasionally, he does miss more relevant contextual material.5 Several notes are very helpful; for example, he includes transcripts for related diary texts held by the LDS First Presidency (396n10; 439n33). Occasionally a note contains intriguing material, like Lyman’s claim to be the source for a text canonized as part of the 1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (196n10). Chapter 6 feels as if it were annotated afresh without consideration of earlier material, resulting in notes introducing concepts that were frequently discussed in earlier portions of the diaries.

That the diaries of a Mormon apostle who died more than 110 years ago would have a surprising relevance to political and economic issues today might startle some. Harry S. Stout recently commented on his rereading of From Puritan to Yankee: “No one can read Bushman’s economic characterization of Yankee culture today without being uneasily aware of the resonances with our present: reckless speculation and people ‘living beyond their means,’ shopkeepers and merchants to whom they ‘extended credit ever more liberally,’ creating a downward spiral where ‘indebtedness embittered relations all across the complex web of credit.’”6 The resonances of Cannon’s diaries today are similarly discomfiting: housing bubbles, opaque securities, credit webs, and failed banks. There are, however, important contrasts as well as parallels. It was the details surrounding Mormon disfranchisement and self-isolation that most stirred my thoughts while reading. With viable Mormon candidates for the U. S. presidency in the running and other prominent Mormon politicians in key leadership positions, there are only faint echoes of Mormons’ chasmal otherness.

Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle is more than worth the price of purchase. It is a splendid addition to the scholar’s bookshelf, handsomely bound and accessibly typeset. It places thousands of interesting and insightful historical bits within reach, latently awaiting incorporation into our grand narratives. There were only 500 copies printed, however; I recommend getting one while you can.

1. Note that the Perry Special Collections has digitized and made available online the first three volumes of these journals:
2. [William C. Seifrit], ‘Register of the Journal of Abraham Cannon, 1879-1896,” Utah State Historical Society (accessed September 17, 2011),
3. Dennis Horne stated: “In the original Abram Cannon journals, there’s a page dealing with higher blessings; I took that out of my publication. There is a sentence or two dealing with instructions to temple workers that I omitted; I took out a word-for-word rendition of the temple marriage ceremony when Abram Cannon did a sealing for a relative; that is not in there. In the original journals there are a few pages where the Adam-God theory is referenced and George Q. Cannon talks about it—I took it out of my book[.]” Jared Tamez, typescript notes of Horne’s comments, “Notes from the 2009 Eborn Book Event: Dennis Horne on Abraham Cannon and Other Projects, “Juvenile Instructor, (accessed September 17, 2011).
4. See, for example, entries dated October 31, November 7, 14, 28, December 5, 12, 26, 1894; January 2, 9, February 6, 13, 20, 27, March 20, 27, 1895.
5. For example, in his discussion of the Parrish-Potter murders (447n40), Lyman failed to cite the two most complete discussions of the events, namely those by Polly Aird. In his note about Latter-day Saint prayer circles, Lyman overlooked D. Michael Quinn’s treatment. Instead, he relied on faulty material and consequently made erroneous claims (466n9). Polly Aird, “‘You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out’: Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850s,” Journal of Mormon History 30 (Fall 2004): 129-207.; Polly Aird, Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848-1861 (Norman, Okla.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2009), chaps. 12-15; D. Michael Quinn, “Latter-day Saint Prayer Circles,” BYU Studies 19 (Fall 1978): 79-105.
6. Harry S. Stout in “A Retrospective on the Scholarship of Richard Bushman,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44 (Fall 2011): 13.


Standard-Examiner, Doug Gibson

The diaries of the late LDS Church Apostle, Abraham H. Cannon, stretching from 1889 to the end of 1895, is interesting church history reading. Signature Book’s “Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle,” edited by scholar Edward Leo Lyman, provides readers glimpses into the wary, sometimes turbulent LDS history between the Manifesto against polygamy, the church’s desperate efforts to avoid financial destruction due to polygamy, the dedication of the Salt Lake temple, the financial panic of 1893, and efforts toward statehood for Utah.

Cannon, who had several wives, died in 1896 at age 37 from complications of an ear infection. The scion of a prominent Mormon family–his father, George Q. Cannon, was a fellow apostle–his diaries show how his high standing in the LDS Church encompassed not only religious duties, but high-stakes business, chicanery and politics. Governing the young church’s business empire and dealing with the real threat of imprisonment and government harassment due to polygamy occupied as much time–if not more–than religious duties. Example: Cannon’s diary entry of Dec. 17, 1892, records that at the apostles’ meeting “… the brethren were told that our success in the Church suits was in a great measure due to the fact that we have a partner of Justice {Stephen J.} Field of the Supreme Court of the United States in our employ, who is to receive a percentage of the money if the suits go in our favor, and the property is returned to us. …

Given the times, this is not as shocking as it sounds today. Justice Field was not the only person of influence tempted by the church. President Benjamin Harrison’s secretary was helping the church. The diaries reveal how federal attorneys were routinely bribed through third parties. Church leaders spent considerable energies covering up the crime of an embezzler because that man–sympathetic to the church–was in a position to be a receiver of assets the church needed. In fact, Cannon records entries where the apostles were counseled to “keep secrets” from their enemies.

The Manifesto from President Woodruff against polygamy was intended to grandfather in current polygamous relationships, but Cannon’s diaries detail how political powers forced the LDS prophet to make later, tougher statements that forbid already-married polygamists from co-habitating.

Cannon details how busy the life of an LDS apostle was. Cannon was constantly taking trains up and down the state, speaking at stake conferences, settling church feuds, selecting new bishops and stake presidents. As is today, the LDS priesthood hierarchy was stressed. Leaders, from apostles downward, were urged to change their opinions if a superior took an opposing stance. Cannon also describes, in detail, prayer circles and the rarely-mentioned second anointing, where church leaders and spouses are guaranteed exaltation, or the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom.

Politics was discussed and apostles were assigned to research and lobby for or against legislation. The First Presidency and apostles engaged in serious efforts to control local press coverage and counter the anti-Mormon Tribune. Eventually, Cannon became part owner of the LDS-friendly Deseret News. Politics at times would tear the apostles’ unity. Apostle Moses Thatcher, a Democrat, would often quarrel with apostle, John Henry Smith, a Republican.

Cannon details special meetings of the quorum where the apostles would speak frankly about their feelings for each other and address cases of gratitude and their struggles against resentment. A key difference from today’s LDS leadership is that the church’s highest officials–120 years ago–were more likely to go out politicking. Today, church politics is more subtle. Preaching was more conservative: Apostle John Henry Smith is recounted warning members that sexual intercourse for any purpose other than bearing children is the same as adultery.

Glimpses of a high-level meeting are very interesting for history buffs. In one apostles’ session, Cannon recounts a debate over the Adam-God doctrine. In another, the apostles discuss the status of the Holy Ghost–is he a son of God, only without a body? There was a discussion of whether there were “daughters of perdition.” The bohemian atmosphere of the early LDS church still remained. President Woodruff and the apostles freely discussed visions, conversations with the slain Mormon leader Joseph Smith, and even a glimpse of the modern-day Cain was described.

Cannon was a good businessman but had his hands in too many endeavors. Much of the 1893 entries involve his desperate attempts to meet payrolls and keep a bank he co-owned afloat during that year’s financial panic. In one instance, Cannon, after becoming a partner in a mine, promised the Lord a fifth of his profits if the mine was successful.

Ogden is mentioned often–Cannon frequently spoke there–as is the Standard-Examiner a few times. Much of the diaries cover mundane, administrative tasks that will interest history buffs.

One tidbit of interest: church leaders, including President Woodruff, were fans of horse racing in Salt Lake City.

Cannon’s diaries may be uncomfortably candid, but they can also inspire LDS readers today who want more than Pablum.

Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle: The Diaries of Abraham H. Cannon, 1889-1895


Utah Historical Quarterly, Curt Bench
Abraham H. Cannon was a prominent son of George Q. Cannon, an extremely influential LDS church and Utah leader in the late nineteenth century and, like his father, Abraham became an apostle and a polygamist.  Tragically, he died at age thirty-seven, but, fortunately, during his seven years as an apostle, he kept a detailed and intensely interesting diary in which he recorded a wealth of information that will be enjoyed by readers of varying interests.  The Cannon diaries are ably edited by Edward Leo Lyman and published by Signature Books as the twelfth volume in the “Significant Mormon Diaries Series.”  While they do predominantly contain a trove of information and insights into contemporary LDS activities, doctrines and practices, and church governance, they also include those on politics, business and finance, mining, publishing, and much more.

Lyman states that never before had he “encountered anything comparable to the insights chronicled in Abraham H. Cannon’s diaries. …” and that “the Cannon document was the ‘most valuable single source'” he had access to during his work on his 1986 book, Political Deliverance:  The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood (xi-xii).

As an apostle, Cannon met regularly with the church’s first presidency and his fellow apostles.  He was privy to their discussions and even disagreements over a variety of church matters of doctrine and practice and the concerns they sometimes had over them.  He faithfully recorded the details of their meetings and discussions in his diary, which today makes for fascinating and intriguing reading.  A few of the many possible examples must suffice, including two which reflect my own interest in books.  In January 1890, Cannon writes that he met with President Wilford Woodruff “concerning Dan Jones’ book ‘Forty Years among the Indians,” which we are printing.”  Woodruff had been informed that “the author was censuring in his book the authorities of the church in Arizona and Pres. W. did not approve of this.”  Cannon notes that he duly “erased from the Ms.” the objectionable passages as he revised the book and that “Bro. Jones” concurred with such actions.  That same month, Cannon records that the heirs of Parley P. Pratt claimed the church owed them $13,500 “for the use which the Church has had of [Pratt’s] books, ‘The Voice of Warning’ and ‘The Key to Theology.'”  He notes that the church did not recognize nor acknowledge the claim but chose to give the family $6,750 as a “donation” only and adds that from then on the family would own the copyright to the books (49-52).

Readers searching for those rare gems of information and insight that only a well-placed insider in the LDS church hierarchy could provide will not be disappointed.  Apostle Cannon provides an abundance of such material which includes discussions on such subjects as “Negroes” and priesthood, the Adam-God doctrine, plural marriage (much on the Manifesto), temple ordinances and practices, the Word of Wisdom,  the nature of the Holy Ghost and Godhead, and many more.

Lyman feels the most valuable contribuion of the Cannon diaries is “the insight they provided into the evolutionary processs of Church leaders as they struggled to accommodate the political realities of the time” (xii).  One telling diary entry shows that in evolution sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same.  Cannon quotes from a letter from fellow apostle, John W. Young (Brigham’s son), who says he “does not see how it is possible for Latter-day Saints to be anything else but Democrats, and yet he acknowledges the immense monetary power and other influence of the Republicans” (220).

In addition to informative footnotes and a handy index, editor Lyman has included in this handsome volume a helpful listing of Cannon family members and their relationships and a “cast” of “prominent characters” to identify many of the individuals written about by Cannon.  My main regret about the book is shared by Lyman who wishes he could include all the material in the Cannon diaries, but is constrained by the limits of a mandated one-volume abridgement.  This edition includes nearly double the material of a previously published abridgement of the diaries.  Unfortunately, we do not know what we may be missing, but hope and trust that Lyman, a respected historian of many years, has struck the right balance.