George Q. Cannon and the Apostates
by Davis Bitton
“If we had the power to count all those who have started out to achieve this great salvation and glory,” said President George Q. Cannon in 1895, “we would be astonished at the number that have fallen away. Ö Many men whom I knew in boyhood in the Church have gone into oblivion. Whole families have disappeared, and their names are no longer numbered among the saints of God. Instead of having a posterity that shall be numbered with the righteous, their children are unknown among us.” Cannon knew what he was talking about. Since his conversion to Mormonism more than a half century earlier, he had accumulated many experiences with apostates from the faith.
George Q. Cannon was thirteen years old when he was baptized in Liverpool, England. A year later, his family left their home to “gather” with the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. In England he became aware of apostates. In Nauvoo, working in the printing establishment and helping produce the newspaper Times and Seasons, he read reports of the anti-Mormon lectures and writings of apostate John C. Bennett and no doubt listened to earnest discussions about this traitor.1
During the months leading up to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, young George Q. stood in the wings, as it were, observing the work of apostates William and Wilson Law and others. In the aftermath of the June 1844 assassinations, as a precocious young man of seventeen years, Cannon observed claimants who drew off their own followers, men like James J. Strang and Lyman Wight. He attended the conference of church members who on 8 August 1844 voted to sustain the leadership of the Twelve Apostles and President Brigham Young.
When he was called to join the Gold Mission in 1850, he had opportunity to observe the differences of commitment among Church members in California. Some had become lukewarm, while others had apostatized. Continuing on to Hawaii, where he served as a missionary from December 1850 to 1854, he was not surprised to encounter opposition from Protestant ministers. They, of course, were not apostates from Mormonism. But he had scarcely returned home and begun his assignment as editor of the Western Standard in San Francisco before he heard that apostate John Hyde was giving lectures against Mormonism in Hawaii.2
In 1860, Cannon was ordained an Apostle and sent to England, where for four years he served as mission president and editor of the Millennial Star. Again he found that some of the most hateful denunciations of the Saints came from persons who had once been members of the Church.3
Small numbers of Strangites, Bickertonites, Cutlerites, and Rigdonites continued to reject Brigham Young’s leadership.4 The most important opposition group was officially organized in 1860 under the leadership of Joseph Smith III. Cannon was aware of the new movement, for during his outgoing trip in 1860 and his return in 1864 he had conversations in Illinois about the new Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Another form of rejecting the church dramatically filled the headlines for a number of weeks in 1864 when Joseph Morris issued his own revelations in Utah and led a small group of followers to their tragic end.5
The year 1869 brought a three-fold challenge, each threatening to draw people from the Church. First, the newly completed transcontinental railroad brought from the Midwest leaders of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Insisting that authoritative leadership passed by succession to the son of Joseph Smith, rejecting polygamy and other Nauvoo developments, this splinter group had already attracted scattered Saints and now sought to make inroads in Utah.6 The air was expectant with a spirit of hope or threat.
Second, it was mainly in 1869 and thereafter that spiritualism came to Utah. Originating with the Fox sisters in upstate New York, this movement was characterized by direct communication with the spirit world through a person who functioned as a spirit “medium.” Attracting the interest of middle- and upper-class people, spiritualism became a craze in America and even in Europe. Mormons in Utah read about it in the public press. Travelers to the East sought out mediums, and some celebrated mediums stopped in Utah on their way to California.7
A third threat came to a head in 1869 when William Godbe and other Utah businessmen challenged Brigham Young’s political and economic policies.8 Several of the Godbeite leaders had been drawn into spiritualist seances. They retained some form of religiosity, even including devotion to the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was reinterpreted to be a spirit medium. Who had the legal claim to represent God? If the keys of the Priesthood remained with Brigham Young, the spiritualist Godbeites didn’t have a leg to stand on. Fully conversant with the statements of the Godbeite leaders and their refusal to recant, George Q. Cannon was prosecutor at the high council trial held in October 1869.
In August 1877 Brigham Young died. In 1880 Apostle John Taylor was sustained as president of the Church, and selected fifty-three-year-old George Q. Cannon as his first counselor. For the remaining twenty-one years of his life, Cannon would express his underlying philosophy of apostasy, warning of the great danger of apostatizing from the church and kingdom of God and also describing the process by which people allowed themselves to go in that downward direction.
During John Taylor’s final illness, Cannon, his first counselor, had to carry much of the responsibility of the First Presidency. Following Taylor’s death in 1887, with Cannon once again a member of the Quorum of Apostles, some younger apostles criticized him. But when Wilford Woodruff became Church president in April 1889, he promptly named Cannon his first counselor.
In the early 1890s, new stresses and strains threatened the unity of the Church.
- The Woodruff Manifesto of 1890 precipitated opposition both from monogamists who felt it was not sufficiently rigorous and from intransigent polygamists who continued “unlawful cohabitation” with plural wives.
- The depression of 1893 produced a financial crisis in the Church and with Church-owned businesses. It was easy to blame the First Presidency for the problems. Earlier dislike of Cannon was magnified as he became the easiest target of critics.
- Finally, new political alignments occasioned by the organization of national parties in Utah led to intemperate statements and gibes against the First Presidency.
In 1896, when Utah became a state, a “political manifesto” spelled out the understanding that general authorities, full-time officers of the church, must obtain permission before running for a political office that would require their time and energies. Alone of the Twelve, Moses Thatcher refused to sign. Some saw Thatcher’s refusal as a courageous act of “independence.”9 But six months later, after a careful exploration of his intransigent attitude, the First Presidency and all the remaining apostles dropped Thatcher from the apostleship.
If George Q. Cannon had much to say about apostasy and its causes, as he did, I think we can say he did not speak in a vacuum. In the immediate background of his remarks as they were expressed during the forty-one years of his service as a general authority was always a specific threat, something that provoked him to speak on the subject. Yet in discussing apostates, he sought to state general principles that would apply broadly.
For George Q. Cannon individual apostasy from the Church was a result of the following four things, either separately or acting together.
1. Associating with anti-Mormons or disloyal Mormons
“The man who will use his influence against my brethren is not my friend,” he said in October 1881; “I have no fellowship with him. He may talk very nice and profess great friendship, but he is not my friend if he is opposed to my brethren and the work of God; there is no sympathy in common between us; we do not stand upon the same platform.”10 He warned the people against allowing their sons and daughters to marry the children of apostates.
We should recognize the historical context. Evangelical Protestants were establishing schools in Utah Territory, seeking to attract Mormon students, and basing their appeal for donations on the prospect of transforming Mormonism.11 With this awareness, Cannon enunciated the principle that one could not be a loyal member of the Church and at the same time uphold those who opposed it and its leaders. He was not denouncing all non-Mormons, but those who spoke out against the Church and actively worked against it–those now known as “anti-Mormons.”
2. Reading anti-Mormon publications
One of Cannon’s perennial concerns as general superintendent of the church’s Sunday Schools was the inculcation of good values in the young. The big threat was cheap fiction either in the form of paperback dime novels or serialized stories. In his view, such reading was a waste of time. You didn’t learn anything useful. Worse, you became emotionally involved with sentimental love stories that distracted from having the Spirit of God. Reading anti-Mormon books and articles was simply a specific form of reading that would produce no good result.
“Men who tell lies, men who circulate lies, and men who believe lies,” Cannon said, “cannot have the Spirit of God reigning in their hearts.” The practical conclusion is to stay away from such people and such writings:
Newspapers, magazines and books which contain lies and which slander and defame the work and people of God I will not read. I do not want to read falsehood; I do not want my children to read falsehood. I have heard people say many times, “Let us hear what they say about us,” and they read works filled with misrepresentations of the work of God. Did you ever read such a work without the Spirit of God being grieved within you? I never did.
Cannon cited the example of Amasa Lyman, who for many years read spiritualist works and neglected the scriptures.12 It was not a solitary case. “No, far from this one being alone, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, like it.” At this point, Cannon stated a principle of broad application: “The minds of the people are colored by that which they hear and read, especially if they make it a pleasure to hear and read.”
3. Breaking the commandments of God
“We know that it is as strict a law of heaven as any other that has been given,” he said in 1866, “that the man who enters into this Church, and practices impurity, will lose the Spirit of God, and sooner or later will be opposed to this work.” In 1875, he noted
I have heardÖthat there is a disposition on the part of some to yield to the temptations that surround us, young men and young women falling away and being guilty of unchastity, young men going to billiard saloons, gambling saloons, drinking saloons, indulging in the habits of smoking and swearing; and not only young persons but men of mature years. I am surprised at it. I am surprised that Latter-day Saints should have so little strength of character, and so easily yield to these wicked influences.13
Cannon had no respect for such people. “I would not give a fig for a Latter-day Saint who could not in the midst of all these temptations, be sincere and true to his convictions and live the religion that God has revealed to him; such men are not worthy of the name, and sooner or later they will lose the name and the standing and place in the Church.”
Cannon had noticed the close connection between immorality and apostasy when he served as president of the British Mission.14 “The frequent apostasies from this Church, the many who have left the Church, denied the faith, lost the Spirit of God, the most of them, no doubt, are traceable to the commitment of this sin.”15 He does not say that every apostate was guilty of sexual transgression, but those participating in immorality were flirting with the loss of their faith. “In every such case that has come to my knowledge where the man has not repented with full purpose of heart, he has lost the faith and God has shown His disapprobation of his conduct by withdrawing His Spirit from that man.”
Cannon warned against what would later be called pornography: “[A man] can defile his tabernacle by indulging in lustful and improper thoughts; he can make his tabernacle an unfit receptacle for the Holy Ghost. And this too without any outward breach of the law of God. In this way he can grieve the Spirit of God, and if he does not repent with all his heart, but continues in it, he will deny the faith.”
4. Criticizing the presiding authorities of the Church
Those who left the Church seldom rejected faith, repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, he said in 1869. It was seldom doctrinal differences that caused apostasy. The main issue was always the authority of Church leaders. “This is the point that the adversary always aims at.Öthere is no doubt but what the rock upon which they split was the question of the right and authority of those presiding over them.”16
In the days of Joseph Smith, he was “the man against whom all the enemies of truth hurled their malicious shots.” When Joseph Smith called the Twelve Apostles in 1835 and ordained them, they received keys. Later he “rolled the Kingdom on to the Twelve, and they would have to round up their shoulders and bear it off, as he was going to rest for awhile.” Thus upon Joseph’s death, Brigham Young, as president of the quorum of the Twelve, presided over the Church.
At Brigham Young’s death in 1877, pent-up resentment even among some general authorities was expressed. Cannon refused to participate in this grumbling. “The thought that ever was with me was: If I criticize or find fault with, or judge Brother Brigham, how far shall I go; if I commence where shall I stop? I dared not to trust myself in such a course. I knew that apostasy frequently resulted from the indulgence of the spirit of criticizing and fault-finding.”17
“YouÖmay see things in men that may appear to you wrong and to justify you in indulging in criticism and censorious remarks, and perhaps you may even feel justified in uttering words of condemnation,” he said in 1895, “but let me say to you-and I say it as the result of a lifetime’s experience and observation-that this cannot be done by any man or woman in this Church, great or small, without incurring the displeasure of the Almighty and without grieving the Spirit of GodÖand causing it to withdraw itself.”18 He urges all the Saints, especially the young men and young women, to resolve never to speak evil. “Leave those who do wrong to the Lord. He will see that His servants are not permittedÖto lead this people astray.”
The First Presidency had not sought position. Their motives were pure, and they were unified. Then this: “Whoever arrays himself in any manner against the authority which God has placed in His Church for its government, no matter who it is-one of the Twelve Apostles even, or any number of them-unless he repents God will withdraw His spirit and power from him.”19
Admittedly Church leaders were “fallible.” Only Christ was perfect. “Nevertheless, God has chosen these men.” God will judge them. He “does not give the authority to judge and condemn to man, only in the regularly constituted councils of the Church; and those who lift their voices and their heels against the authority of the Holy Priesthood, I tell you today, as a servant of GodÖwill go down to hell, unless they repent.”
On 6 April 1896, Cannon reminded the congregation that God was in charge.20 “He has not gone to sleep; He has not gone on a journey: He has not forgotten this work that He has established.”
Cannon knew the public and private life of his colleagues as well as himself. “I want to say to all of you who are here-and I wish all Israel could hear my words-go away from this conference carrying with you a feeling of confidence and love in and for the First Presidency of this Church, as well as the Twelve Apostles, and if you will do so God will bless you. If you do not do it, I will not say what the consequences will be. I do not want to predict evil; but I say that God will bless you if you love the men whom He loves, and whom He has chosen out of all Israel for these stations. They have not chosen themselves; they have not sought the offices themselves.”
It is not hard to detect the hurt Cannon felt from some of the criticism coming from Church members.
It is bad enough to have the world to fight. I have been willing through my life to battle and to stand up and take all that men would heap upon me that did not belong to the Church; but I have been wounded to the very soul when my brethren and my sisters have said things that were false concerning me, and concerning my brethren-for their reputation is as dear to me as my own is. There is where it wounds; there is where it cuts; there is where it hurts.
If people lose affection for the leaders, they are like a husband or wife who loses affection and confidence toward their partner. “Trifles, light as air, are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of Holy Writ.” Seen through fault-finding eyes, in other words, every little thing, every rumor, proves the leaders to be imperfect and “bad” men.
Addressing general conference on 4 October 1896, President Cannon reviewed the great blessings the Latter-day Saints had enjoyed because of restored priesthood authority.21 He continued:
Do the servants of God want to lift themselves up and become objects of adoration among the people? Do they want you to bow to them and to do reverence to them? If there are any among those who occupy official positions in this Church that have this feeling, I have not met them. My observation has been that while these men feel the importance of the Priesthood God has bestowed upon them, and have a desire to magnify and honor it, and to see it honored, yet they recognize that in and of themselves they are very weak, and they feel the lack of that ability and power which they ought to have to magnify their offices to the acceptance of God and the satisfaction of the people.ÖI know these men and their spirit.
In supporting President Wilford Woodruff, as Cannon saw it, he was supporting God. The same was true of the Twelve. “They may have different views on many things; but when the First Presidency gives counsel, every man that has the Spirit of God accepts that counsel.”
We recognize the application of these words to the political acrimony of 1896. But Cannon wished to enunciate principles that would have broad application. Again he emphasized the danger of criticizing:
There is one thing that the Lord has warned us about from the beginning [he said], and that is, not to speak evil of the Lord’s anointed. He has told us that any member of the Church who indulged in this is liable to lose the Spirit of God and go into darkness. The Prophet Joseph said time and again that it was one of the first and strongest symptoms of apostasy. Have we not proved this? Have not his words upon this subject been fulfilled to the very letter? No man can do this without incurring the displeasure of the Lord. It may seem strange, in this age of irreverence and iconoclasm, to talk in this way. Nevertheless, this is the truth. God has chosen His servants. He claims it as His prerogative to condemn them, if they need condemnation. He has not given it to us individually to censure and condemn them. No man, however strong he may be in the faith, however high in the priesthood, can speak evil of the Lord’s anointed and find fault with God’s authority without incurring His displeasure. The Holy Spirit will withdraw itself from such a man, and he will go into darkness.22
For Cannon, the prototype of individual apostasy was Judas Iscariot. Judas once enjoyed the Spirit of truth, but “broke the commandments of God” and “did that which is evil.”
As soon as he chose to dissolve his connection with the people of God, did he go and bury himself among the rest of the Jews, and from that time say nothing more about the work of God he had been connected with? No; but the first promptings of his evil heart were to sell his Lord and Master-to be his betrayer, and the destroyer of the innocent-prostituting the knowledge which he had received to a base purpose, distorting and misrepresenting it in such a manner that it proved the means of condemning the man whom he had previously looked upon as his Lord.23
Behind Judas and behind all apostates was the father of lies. Cannon had little patience with Satan or those who carried his message. “I tell him that he is a rebel, that he has tried to ruin the purposes of our Father, and I want nothing to do with him; I will try and not listen to any of his blandishments, nor let him whisper anything into my ear or my heart that would weaken my attachment and my devotion to my Father and to His Kingdom.”
George Q. Cannon’s statements about apostates may be hard for some to accept. He might be dismissed by some as the voice of a bygone era, who defended an authoritarian religion in a manner reminiscent of earlier advocates of the divine right of kings. But not so fast. To understand Cannon’s point of view, it will be helpful to reflect more deeply about actual or potential criticisms of his position. There are four of these criticisms that I wish to consider.
1. Was he not denying his people freedom of thought, speech, and association, and trying to impose thought control by discouraging reading?
I think the answer is a qualified no. He knew that people could think what they wished and that in the street, over the back fence, and after meetings they would talk about everything under the sun. They could read whatever they wished. Furthermore, they could smoke and drink, violate the Sabbath day, and indulge in premarital or extramarital sexual activity. He could not by fiat stop any of this. What he could do was to warn. He could point out consequences. This, after all, was the role of a prophet. Citing examples, he could tell his fellow Latter-day Saints that they were flirting with disaster if they did certain things.
As for attempting to impose some kind of blackout on the free circulation of ideas, let us remember that Cannon was at the forefront of educating the younger generation. Through the Sunday Schools and through its publication, children and teenagers (and even adults) learned not only religious subjects but history, geography, literature, zoology, botany. But certain kinds of reading could be deleterious. To fill your mind with the words of apostates and anti-Mormons would not be wise. Even if self-administered, it was a form of brain-washing. Modern examples leap to mind: slanted versions of the news, raucous movies filled with sex and violence, and of course writings and statements by self-declared and “practical” atheists.
Nor did he wish to ban all association with people outside the Church. He himself had many such friends, including Thomas L. Kane and people he worked with during his time as Utah’s delegate to Congress. What he was saying, if I am understanding correctly, is that it is dangerous to spend your time with those who are constantly bad-mouthing the Church. To hear those views expressed over and over, to hear taunting and mocking of the Church and its leaders, will leave its mark.
2. Was he demanding political uniformity and thus opposing the American democratic tradition.
Again, the answer is a no, with only a slight qualification. The complaint was heard in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and was repeated in Utah and is repeated in works of scholarship. But the bloc voting was a natural reaction to outspoken foes of Mormonism. When the Republican and Democrat parties entered Utah politics, it was important that Mormons go into both, lest the old religious division be perpetuated. Cannon worked mightily to achieve that objective. One can understand how through certain eyes the situation in Mormondom might have appeared theocratic, but the reality was more complex.
3. Was he fair to charge the apostates with adultery or other sins? Was he guilty of character assassination?
Let’s be clear. He was not claiming that each and every apostate was sexually promiscuous. And certainly he knew that infractions of the moral code occurred among the membership of the Church. Yet those who bridle at the allegation, assuming that it could not possibly be true, may be overreacting, for undoubtedly there were instances of immorality among the apostates. Cannon knew them better than modern historians.
But his underlying message was not so much an accusation as a warning. Lower the bars on personal behavior and you are flirting with a loss of faith. Violating the commandments has consequences on the mind and spirit. Those who flout the standards of the Church are very likely to criticize and reject the faith. Familiar with many individual disciplinary cases, Cannon knew the syndrome. He also knew there was an alternate choice called repentance. Modern critics who describe the allegation as a “myth” want to be fair, but they go too far if they deny a chain of cause and effect that often proceeds from certain behaviors to a denial of the faith.
4. Did Cannon reject the possibility of legitimate complaints against the Church?
This is the charge of those who identify with the apostates on one or more points. According to this view, the apostates are reasonable, while the Church stood for theocracy, control, and an authoritarian system of belief.
Cannon made a distinction between a difference of opinion and public opposition to the programs of the Church. Here is his statement in reply to a question during the Godbeite affair:
We had not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the Church and the authorities constituted apostasy; for we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate, but we could not conceive of a man publishing those differences of opinion, and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife, and to place the acts and counsels of the authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate; for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term.
What was especially bothersome, in other words, was not so much individual laxity or indifference as it was open opposition.
In early 1866, Cannon noted the tendency of apostates to lash back at the Church: “Men may belong to any of the so-called Christian sects of the day,” he said, “and they may renounce their belief or dissolve their connection with the religious bodies of which they are members, and we do not see that virulence, that spirit and disposition to seek for the blood of those with whom they were formerly connected, manifested on their part, which are manifested by those who have been members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and have apostatized therefrom.”24
To those who think I am not giving sufficient sympathetic attention to individual apostates, let me state the obvious. This is a paper on George Q. Cannon’s view of the subject. Since he did much to articulate and standardize the Church’s position on apostasy, it is worth doing.
George Q. Cannon was not a head-in-the-clouds theologian discussing theory. He developed his views on the firing line. Pointing both to apostates and to the loyal and faithful members of the Church, he appealed to the facts of life found through experience.
What was the fate of individual apostates? Apostates were “filled with the spirit of fear.” The Saints who lived their religion, on the other hand, “partake of the joys of heaven; the spirit of it shines in their countenances; it is in their habitations; it is around about them, and all who come in contact with them feel its influence resting upon them.”
In 1868, he spoke at the funeral of faithful Heber C. Kimball. “Contrast the death of this man with the death of the apostate-the traitor,” Cannon said. “Contrast the futureÖof this man, with the future of the renegade from the truth, and the wicked and those who love not God and who keep not his commandments.”25 Note the uncompromising terminology: “wicked,” “traitor,” “renegade from the truth.” For Cannon there was no uncertainty.
Spiritualism, which, as we have noted, attracted some Mormon apostates, was subjected to the test of experience. At a recent demonstration in England by the spiritualist Home a large table had danced around the room, music came out of nowhere, spirits were seen and heard. Home himself, according to reports, levitated and was carried out a window and back again into the window of another room. “What a cunning plan this is of the devil,” he said, “to deceive peopleÖ! He will give them power to do these things without believing in Jesus, without repenting of their sins and being baptized or having hands laid upon them. He makes it very easy for them, and tries to lead the world down to destruction by this means.” By contrast, the gospel had requirements. And the results were strikingly different:
By obeying Him [God], we will be made pure and holy, and be free from sin and He will give unto us His holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. These gifts are not like the power of Satan. Of what use or benefit is it to a person to see a table tip, to hear music played, to be carried out of one window into another? Is a man any better for all this?ÖWhen a man or woman, or a boy or girl receives the Holy Ghost, it brings peace, joy, love and happiness; and the person who is in possession of this Spirit has a feeling of kindness and charity toward all mankind.
Cannon was aware of the stock criticism that the Latter-day Saints were not free, that they were subject to a despotism. “Why don’t you do as you please? Why do you always do as your prophet and leader tells you?” Again he appeals to experience:
Because we have proved during twenty-five long years that God has blessed him in everything he has told us to do, and we have been blessed of God in carrying out his counsels. When we have prayed to the Almighty to give us wisdom and humility to obey the counsels of His servant, He has given unto us His Holy Spirit and witnessed unto our hearts that this course was pleasing and acceptable in His sight. Rebel against him and his authority! As well might we rebel against Jehovah Himself, or against Jesus!
Being blessed was buttressed by a feeling of rightness in the mind and heart-both forms of experience.
“Our pathway from the beginningÖis lined with the graves of those who have lost faith, who were buried before they died, having lost faith and remained behind.Öthey sought safety in apostasy, in denying God, and in breaking loose from their brothers and sisters.” What was their fate? “They become like wrecks, castaways stripped of their former power, bereft of the Spirit and blessing that attended them in former times. Some of you have no doubt seen fine vessels that have done good service stranded and wrecked, with nothing much besides the ribs and keel left; those who become darkened lose the Spirit and their faith, and thus become human wrecks, remind me of such unfortunate vessels.”
By contrast, those who remained faithful were blessed. In countless addresses throughout the Church, especially in testimony meetings, loyal Latter-day Saints so testified. Cannon held out a glorious promise:
The man that loves God; the man that maintains his virtue, and refrains from committing any sin that will grieve the Spirit of God; the man that will not yield to intoxication or other habits that destroy the faith which God has implanted in our hearts, will continue to prosper, and will continue to live. They may not live in the flesh, but they will live hereafter. They will live with the blessed, they will live with those whom they love and with whom they can associate; and while they do live upon the earth they will live in the enjoyment of the Spirit of God, they will have peace at night, and through the night, and peace through the day. It is true they may suffer, but God will be with them. His angels will be around them to sustain them; and He will not only bless and prosper them but bless their children after them, for they will sow seeds the fruit of which their children will gather in years to come. God does not forget his faithful people. He loves the righteous and He loves the courageous, He loves the true.26
To apostates who protested that they were happy or pointed to their material prosperity, Cannon could have raised questions. Were they really happy over the way they were now regarded by loved ones and former associates? If they had violated solemn commitments, was their conscience clear? Were they trustworthy? Instead of such an interrogation, Cannon simply states that the difference in outcome, dismay or joy, was inevitable and if not experienced in this life, would be in the next.
Using language that communicated powerfully to those on the same wave length, he reminded Latter-day Saints of the solemn covenants they had voluntarily entered into:
When a man takes me down into the water, after believing in Jesus and repenting of my sins, and baptizes me in the water, and I know that I receive the remission of my sins through that act; when a man lays his hands upon me and confirms me a member of the Church of Christ and confers upon me the gift of the Holy Ghost, and I know that I receive that gift through that ordinance, shall I not respect and honor that man unto whom God has given such extraordinary power? Why, I would be the meanest being on the earth if I would not respect authority of that kind. To go farther: when a man administers to me certain ordinances, and he promises unto me that I shall come forth in the morning of the first resurrection, clothed with glory, immortality and eternal life; he seals a wife to me and says she shall be mine for time and for all eternity, and God bears witness to this by the power of the Holy Ghost, so that no doubt exists in my mind concerning the truth of these promises, shall I not honor the man and reverence the authority that that man has who can do such wonderful things as this? This is my condition.
Of course, as Cannon well knew, those not members of the Church would think differently. “You who have not had your sins remitted, you who have not had the gift of the Holy Ghost, you who have not received these other blessings, you can rebel and say you will do as you please; but that will not do for those who have received all these blessings and gifts- at least it will not if they expect to continue in the favor of God.”
Cannon was not really trying to convince the apostates. He knew the futility of trying to reason from different premises. He knew that debating one point of doctrine or policy would simply be followed by endless bickering. Church members who boasted that excommunication was a badge of honor, who mocked and belittled their brothers and sisters, who felt superior to the peaceable followers of Christ, were not teachable. Instead, he was addressing loyal members of the Church, those who valued their testimony.
If he had wished to indulge in ironic reverse psychology, Cannon might have said, “If you desire to lose your testimony, here is what you do: spend your time with those who mock the Church, fill your mind with negative ideas by reading “anti” literature, violate the Church’s standards of behavior by breaking the commandments, and speak against Church leaders. Follow the instructions, and the result you desire is guaranteed.” On the other hand, he might have added, “If you desire to keep and strengthen your testimony, you must do just the opposite.”
Cannon may sound uncompromising. In his warnings, he did not wish to give the sound of an uncertain trumpet. But in working with individuals who were not belligerent he did not advocate harshness. From Joseph Smith to the present, the Church has a record of restraint with respect to individuals who lapse or become indifferent.27 To claim that every violation of standards or any expression of individual opinion results in heavy-handed, off-with-their-heads discipline is demonstrably inaccurate.
We have here analyzed George Q. Cannon’s different pronouncements on individual apostasy. But he did not stand alone. On all the essential points other Church leaders from Joseph Smith to Lorenzo Snow expressed similar views.
George Q. Cannon also saw himself standing with the prophets of scripture. “And now, I say unto you, my brethren,” said King Benjamin, “that after ye have known and have been taught all these things, if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths” (Mosiah 2:36). After Jesus’s death, the apostolic church was afflicted with false teachers, who preyed upon “unstable souls,” speaking “evil of the things that they understand not” “It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2 Peter 2:12, 14, 21).28
1 Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Andrew Skinner, “John C. Bennett: For Prophet or Profit?” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History: Illinois (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, BYU, 1995), 249-65.
2 Lynne Watkins Jorgensen, “John Hyde, Jr., Mormon Renegade,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 120-144.
3 Davis Bitton, George Q. Cannon: A Biography (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1999), 130-132.
4 Russel R. Rich, Those Who Would Be Leaders (1959); Steven L. Shields, Divergent Paths of the Restoration (Provo, Utah: David C. Martin, 1975; Fourth Edition, Los Angeles: Restoration Research,1990).
5 C. LeRoy Anderson, For Christ Will Come Tomorrow: The Saga of the Morrisites (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1981).
6 On the origins of the Reorganization, see Alma R. Blair, “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Moderate Mormons,” in F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards, The Restoration Movement (Coronado Press, 1973), 207-230.
7 Davis Bitton, The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
8 Ronald W. Walker, Wayward Saints: The Godbeites and Brigham Young (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).
9 E. Leo Lyman, “The Alienation of an Apostle from his Quorum: The Moses Thatcher Case,” Dialogue 18 (Summer 1985), 67-91; and Kenneth W. Godfrey, “Moses Thatcher in the Dock: His Trials, the Aftermath, and His Last Days,” Journal of Mormon History 24 (Spring1998), 55-88.
10 Journal of Discourses 22 (1882): 285. Hereafter abbreviated JD.
11 T. Edgar Lyon, “Evangelical Protestant Missionary Activities in Mormon Dominated Areas, 1865-1900,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 1962.
12 Loretta L. Hefner, “Amasa Mason Lyman, The Spiritualist,” Journal of Mormon History 6 (1979), 75-87; Hefner, “From Apostle to Apostate: The Personal Struggle of Amasa Mason Lyman,” Dialogue 16 (Spring 1983), 90-104.
13 JD 17 (1875): 339-340. Address of 28 March 1875.
14 Millennial Star 23 (9 March 1861), 153-54.
15 JD 26 (1886): 138-139. Address of 18 January 1885.
16 JD 13 (1871): 43-55.
17 George Q. Cannon journal, 17 January 1878, quoted in Bitton, George Q. Cannon: A Biography, 212.
18 Collected Discourses 4 (1991): 312-313. Discourse of 21 April 1895, entirely devoted to warning against apostasy. Hereafter abbreviated CD.
19 CD 5:79-88. Discourse of 16 February 1896.
20 CD 5:116-20. Discourse of 6 April 1896.
21 CD 5:192-97. Discourse of 4 October 1896.
22 CD 5:221-226. Discourse of 6 October 1896.
23 JD 11 (1867): 225-33.
24 JD 11 (1867): 225-33.
25 JD 12 (1869): 183-85.
26 CD 2:9.
27 For examples of individual counseling, see Eugene E. Campbell and Richard D. Poll, Hugh B. Brown: His Life and Thought (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973); F. Burton Howard, Marion G. Romney: His Life and Faith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988); and Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr., Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1977).
28 John Tvetnes, “Rejection of Priesthood Leaders as a Cause of the Great Apostasy,” fairlds.org/Apostasy/Rejection_of_Priesthood_Leaders.html.