One crisp fall morning, Monday the sixth of October 1890, seven thousand Latter-day Saints sat in silence on the long wooden benches in the large oval tabernacle on Temple Square. The event was the semiannual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the assembly had come to listen to instruction from men who they revered as prophets, seers, and revelators.
At that time, conference speakers were not informed in advance when they would speak. The President of the Church made assignments in the moment as he felt impressed. No one prepared talks beforehand. Several of the speakers came to the conference with a brief outline tucked into their scriptures, but many others came with no notes at all, counting on the Holy Spirit to fill their minds when they heard the prophet call their name.
As the crowd awaited the session’s first address, President Wilford Woodruff turned to his right, looked at the man seated next to him, and asked him to stand and address the audience. That man was President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor to President Woodruff in the First Presidency. The request caught President Cannon off guard, for he had supposed that President Woodruff would take the lead in this historic moment. Just a few minutes earlier, Orson F. Whitney, a Salt Lake City bishop, had read the Manifesto, the momentous document (known today as Official Declaration 1) in which President Woodruff declared his intention to submit to laws prohibiting plural marriage. President Woodruff had released the document to the press two weeks earlier, without comment. President Cannon stared out into a sea of pensive and eager people, with one thing on their minds.
“I felt to shrink very much from it,” President Cannon wrote, speaking of the request to speak. “I think I never was called upon to do a thing that seemed more difficult than this.”
The Saints had practiced plural marriage for half a century. Women and men had anguished over the decision to enter a principle that was alien to their religious upbringings and inclinations. They had suffered personal and collective isolation, harassment, and imprisonment for the principle. But they had also accepted plural marriage as God’s command to the Church. They believed the practice refined their souls and defined their peculiarity in the eyes of the world. What would define them now? President Cannon surely knew that wholesale changes in self-definition would not be easily made. The anguish of exiting plural marriage would rival the challenge of entering into it.
After Bishop Whitney read the document, the conference had voted with uplifted hand to sustain it as “authoritative and binding” upon the Church. Most voted in the affirmative, but some kept their hands in their laps, unready to accept the Manifesto as the will of God. From the stand, Church leaders looking out on the audience saw husbands and wives weeping, anxious and uncertain, not knowing what the Manifesto meant for them going forward.
President Cannon raised his hand in support of the Manifesto along with most others in the crowd. But the weight of unifying a divided audience on what he called this “exceedingly delicate subject” seemed almost too much to bear. The message could go in a thousand different ways. As he stood and walked to the podium, his mind raced. “There was nothing in my mind that seemed clear to me to say upon this subject,” he wrote of that moment. “I arose with my mind a blank.”
George Quayle Cannon was rarely at a loss for words. Friendly and gregarious by nature, he had been immersed in words all his life. As a teenager in Nauvoo, he apprenticed at the print shop of the Church’s newspaper.He went on to found one of the most powerful publishing houses in all of Utah and spent much of his adult life writing editorials in the Church newspapers and periodicals he published.
Recognizing both Cannon’s gifts and his powerful platform, President Brigham Young called him to the apostleship in 1860 and later to the First Presidency as a counselor. President Cannon would serve as a counselor to four Church Presidents over the course of nearly three decades.
George Q. Cannon was known during his lifetime for his powerful intellect. His fellow Apostles acknowledged him as a man without peer among the Church’s leadership. He was usually the Apostle who was asked to give the sensitive speech or write the delicate letter. The non-Mormon press called him “the Mormon Richelieu” because he was thought to have been the genius behind all Mormon movements.
But the reputation for genius also burdened George Q. Cannon. It bothered him to be credited as the source of ideas he did not invent and movements he did not initiate. He resisted being seen as the man behind the curtain. He well knew that his role was advisory. He was not the President of the Church, not the man who held the priesthood keys that led the Church. He humbly deferred to authority even if others could not see it.
The federal crusade against the Mormon practice of plural marriage was one of the great trials of George Q. Cannon’s life. After eight years as Utah Territory’s lone delegate in the United States House of Representatives, Cannon was expelled from Congress after he was deemed in violation of the federal law banning polygamy.
Cannon entered into plural marriage when in his early thirties, convinced it was a practice God would have him live. All told, his family eventually numbered five wives and 43 children.He adored these family members. He was grieved that, between 1885 and 1888, he was frequently away from them, moving from place to place, often in disguise, trying to avoid federal marshals who sought to arrest him for violating federal marriage law. He nurtured the best he could by writing family members long, personal letters and by holding family councils whenever he could convene them. Eventually he surrendered to authorities and submitted to five months in the Utah penitentiary between September 1888 and February 1889.
Government officials had long urged Church leaders to issue a statement ending plural marriage. President Cannon resisted that direction. The greatest speech of his career, colleagues later recalled, took place on the floor of the United States Congress, where he stood before his colleagues and defended plural marriage on grounds of religious conscience.His inclination was to defend the practice despite all opposition. “I, for one, have not seen my way clear” to issue any statement calling an end to plural marriage, he reflected at a time when persecution roiled the Church. “President Woodruff has the same feeling. We shall have to trust to the Lord, as we always have done, to help us.”
“We shall have to trust to the Lord, as we always have done, to help us.”
A humble, simple, unassuming man, with little of President Cannon’s learning, President Woodruff arrived at the conclusion that a change had to be made long before Cannon did.In the fall of 1889, a stake president came to President Woodruff and asked whether he was obliged to sign a recommend for a man to enter into plural marriage, considering the law forbade the practice. President Cannon, who was in the room, was surprised to hear President Woodruff’s answer. “It is not proper for any marriages of this kind to be performed in this [Utah] Territory at the present time,” Woodruff counseled.
President Woodruff reasoned by analogy: when persecutors blocked the Saints from building a temple in Jackson County, the Lord accepted the Saints’ offering and suspended the original command.He said it was now the same with plural marriage. After making this explanation, President Woodruff turned to his counselor for comment. Ever cautious and prudent, President Cannon hesitated to launch out in a new direction. To this point in time, the Church had conscientiously objected to federal laws forbidding plural marriage. It was, Cannon wrote in his journal, the first time he had ever heard a President of the Church express himself so plainly on the subject of curtailing plural marriage. “I made no reply,” Cannon wrote, “not prepared to fully acquiesce in his expressions.”
On the morning of September 23, 1890, President Cannon appeared as usual at the First Presidency’s office at the Gardo House, a large Victorian-style home just south of the Beehive House in Salt Lake City. “I found President Woodruff quite stirred up in his feelings concerning the steps taken by our enemies to malign us before the country and to make false statements concerning our teachings and action.”The Utah Commission, the small group of federal appointees charged with overseeing the execution of antipolygamy legislation in Utah, had issued a report claiming that Church leaders continued to teach polygamy and sanction plural marriages in Utah. Cannon felt the Church should issue a denial. President Woodruff had something stronger in mind.
President Woodruff found the First Presidency’s secretary, George Gibbs, and the two walked into a room adjoining the First Presidency’s office, where the Church President dictated his thoughts while Gibbs took them down. When President Woodruff emerged from the room, his “face shone with pleasure and he seemed very much pleased and contented.”He asked to have the dictation read to President Cannon, which was done. “While it was not in exactly the proper shape to publish,” Cannon felt “it contained the ideas and was very good. I told him I felt it would do good.”
At President Woodruff’s request, the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who were not traveling on assignment were called to come to Salt Lake immediately to hear the document read. Three Apostles, along with George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith of the First Presidency, met that afternoon to suggest edits. These revisions were then incorporated, and the document was submitted to the press for immediate publication.
In his journal account of the day, Cannon included Woodruff’s original dictation along with the edits he himself suggested.He did this, he said, to set the record straight for future generations: “I have been often credited with saying and doing things which I did not say nor do.” He wanted it on record that the President of the Church, not his counselor, had led out with the Manifesto. “This whole matter has been at President Woodruff’s own instance,” Cannon explained. “He has stated that the Lord had made it plain to him that this was his duty, and he felt perfectly clear in his mind that it was the right thing.”
George Q. Cannon was sure of one thing as he stood at the podium of the Tabernacle to address the conference assemblage on that October day in 1890. “I felt that whatever was said must be dictated by the Spirit of the Lord.”
As President Cannon faced the audience, he discovered his blank mind suddenly filled with the words of scripture. It was the passage from Doctrine and Covenants 124 that President Woodruff had quoted in his meeting with the stake president the year before. Cannon began his talk by reading from verse 49: “When I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, . . . and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.”
George Q. Cannon seemed to realize that reassurance came by knowing that the Manifesto was anchored in scriptural precedent. The President of the Church felt inspired to apply the word of the Lord given in one context, to another, just as prophets had done from the beginning. “It is on this basis”—Doctrine and Covenants 124:49—Cannon said, “that President Woodruff has felt himself justified in issuing this manifesto.”
Cannon’s tongue began to loosen, and for the next half hour, he held his audience spellbound. “I did get great freedom and spoke with ease, and all fear was taken away,” he later wrote in his journal.
He admitted at the outset of his speech in the Tabernacle that he had been a great defender of plural marriage. “In public and in private I have avowed my belief in it. I have defended it everywhere and under all circumstances.” This belief, of course, was rooted in the belief that God wanted him to practice plural marriage. “I considered the command was binding and imperative upon me,” he said, speaking only in the first person.
Nor had it been Cannon’s personal inclination to have the Manifesto issued. “I can say for myself, that I have been appealed to many scores of times to get out something” that put an end to the practice. “But at no time has the Spirit seemed to indicate that this should be done. We have waited for the Lord to move in the matter.”
But the spirit surrounding the Manifesto was different. Cannon was positive the Lord had now moved. President Woodruff “made up his mind that he would write something, and he had the spirit of it. He had prayed about it and had besought God repeatedly to show him what to do.” The document had Cannon’s full support. “I know that it was right, much as it has gone against the grain with me in many respects.”
He told his audience that he had observed two reactions to the Manifesto among the Latter-day Saints. One reaction came from those who “feel to sorrow to the bottom of their hearts because of the necessity of this action that we have now taken.” The other reaction was one of smug self-congratulation: “Did I not tell you so? Did I not tell you it would come to this?” This latter group reprimanded Church leaders for taking so long to come around. Had the leaders acted more expeditiously, they argued, Church members could have been saved from years of suffering and heartache.
Cannon said his own view differed from this second group. “I believe that it was necessary that we should witness unto God, the Eternal Father, unto the heavens and unto the earth, that this was really a principle dear to us—dearer, it might be said, in some respects, than life itself. We could not have done this had we submitted at the time that those of whom I speak suggested submission.” No one could question the Saints’ willingness to espouse the principles they held dear. The “unmentionable” sufferings of men, women, and children was credited to them in the heavens.
“The Spirit of the Lord was powerfully poured out, and I think every faithful Saint must have had a testimony from the Lord that He was in this movement, and that it was done with His approval.”
After President Cannon sat down, President Woodruff again surprised his counselor—by standing to deliver his own speech. “Brother George Q. Cannon has laid before you our position,” President Woodruff said, affirming his counselor’s words, making them his own. “I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me nor any other man who stands as the President of this Church, to lead you astray. It is not in the programme.”
Cannon thought the abundance of the Holy Spirit at the conference provided proof that the Manifesto stood approved of God. “The Spirit of the Lord was powerfully poured out, and I think every faithful Saint must have had a testimony from the Lord that He was in this movement, and that it was done with His approval.”
“I am not able to tell my thoughts concerning our action,” Cannon reflected in his journal entry for that day. “I know, however, that it is right. It is clear to me that this step taken by President Woodruff is a correct one.” President Woodruff was the messenger of revelation, and Cannon’s role as counselor was to support and defend the revelations of God, just as he had done his entire life. “I have a testimony from the Lord,” Cannon said, “that our sacrifices in regard to this and our firmness up to the present time in resisting every attempt to extort from us the promise to stop the practice are accepted of the Lord, and He virtually says to us, ‘It is enough,’ and we leave the case in His hands.”