Colonel Kane, Righteous Gentile

February 19, 2009 | 11 comments
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From nearly the moment Thomas L. Kane walked into Mormon history in 1846, Latter-day Saint leaders promised that his name would long be honored by the Saints. In part, they wanted to bolster Kane’s determination to take the deeply controversial stance of defending the Mormons. When his father John, a powerful federal judge, learned of Kane’s decision to befriend the Mormons by traveling to their refugee camps in Iowa in 1846, he saw only potential ruin in associating with such a disreputable cause. “The case has no bright side,” he lamented, as Tom “is about to deal a blow to his own character as a right minded man, which he will feel through life.” Thomas’s younger brother Pat agreed, calling it the “damndest foolish” notion.

The Mormons, however, immediately recognized the value of such a well-connected individual and treated Kane as royalty when he arrived in their camps. When he spoke in public, the applause was “positively deafening.” Kane wrote home, “I am idolized by my good friends.” In September 1846, as Kane prepared to leave the camps, he received a patriarchal blessing, a ritual normally available only to Church members. Patriarch John Smith, an uncle of Joseph Smith, told him he was “called to do a great work on the earth” and that he would yet “be clothed with all the power of the Priesthood” a clear suggestion he would yet convert. Furthermore, Smith told Kane, “Thy name shall be had in honorable remembrance among the saints to all generations.”

As Kane defended the Saints for nearly the next four decades, Mormon leaders continually reiterated this final promise. In the late 1840s, Mormons renamed their principal town in Iowa as Kanesville. Following the publication of Kane’s influential 1850 pamphlet, The Mormons, Apostle Orson Hyde told him the pamphlet “will forever immortalize your name on the records, and in the memory of the Saints.” When Kane arrived in Salt Lake City in February 1857 to mediate the Utah War crisis, Brigham Young told him, “I want to have your name live with the Saints to all Eternity. You have done a great work and you will do a greater work still.” Mormons had little doubt of Kane’s divinely appointed role in ending the Utah War. Eleanor McComb Pratt, widow of the slain Apostle Parley Pratt, wrote that Kane was “inspired by God to stand in the defence of oppressed innocence . . . the God of Israel will bless you and millions will rise up and call you blessed.” In 1864, the Saints named a county in southern Utah after Kane.

Nineteenth-century Mormons saw the world in dichotomies: good and evil, pure and corrupt, Saint and Gentile. The narratives they told about their own history emphasized their persecution at the hands of a wicked nation. Kane was a reminder that not everyone could be placed into the simple categories; to the nineteenth-century Mormon mind, he was proof that God occasionally used outsiders (or Gentiles, as they would have said) to protect Zion and further His work.

Nineteenth-century Americans also thought in dichotomies when they considered the growth of Mormonism, which they saw as dangerous to American democracy and the sanctity of the monogamous family. Thus, they had no category in which to place Kane, who though not Mormon, worked on their behalf. Throughout his lifetime and for decades after, rumors swirled that Kane had been secretly baptized. Following the Utah War, newspapers buzzed that Kane was a Mormon, prompting President James Buchanan to personally deny the charge in a newspaper. In his influential 1902 book, Story of the Mormons, From the Date of their Origin to 1901, William A. Linn asserted that Kane was a covert Mormon who “served the Mormons in the East as a Jesuit would have served his order in earlier days.” In 1906, twenty-three years after she buried her husband, Elizabeth Kane exploded in anger when she learned that one Dr. Buckley would publish a similar charge. She wrote Buckley, “General Kane was a highly educated man. It would have been as impossible for him as for yourself to accept the teachings or authority of the Book of Mormon or the Book of Doctrine and Covenants.” Kane’s Mormon associates were under no illusion as to his religion; shortly after Kane’s death, his closest Mormon friend George Q. Cannon performed his vicarious temple work.

Mormon leaders in the 1900s have periodically acted to fulfill the promise given Kane by their nineteenth-century counterparts. In “Liberty to the Downtrodden,” I briefly describe these efforts: “In the 1940s, church president George Albert Smith encouraged the writing of a biography of Kane, envisioned as the joint effort of Kane’s grandson and a Mormon leader. Smith instructed, ‘I feel that the Church should rise to its duty and its opportunity’ to recognize ‘the sacrifices, the devotion, and the great achievements of our distinguished friend who so valiantly served us in our times of greatest need.’ Though worked on intermittently for decades, the project never came to fruition. A statue of Kane, identifying him as a ‘Friend of the Mormons,’ was placed in the Utah State Capitol in 1959. In the early 1970s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchased the Presbyterian chapel where he is buried; it has since been used as a Mormon meetinghouse and as a historical site lauding Kane’s service to the church. The Mormon History Association annually awards a Thomas L. Kane Award ‘to a person outside of the Mormon community who made a significant contribution to Mormon history.’ In this sense, historian Jan Shipps is often called the twentieth-century Thomas L. Kane for her role as a sympathetic outside observer of the Saints.'”

Perhaps the most significant effort to retain the remembrance of Kane among the Latter-day Saints has occurred over the course of two decades as Brigham Young University, under the leadership of David Whittaker, purchased thousands of Kane documents which had been largely preserved in Kane’s family. Not only did BYU acquire this very valuable collection, they took the highly unusual step of compiling an item-by-item register (over 1200 pages!) to make the collection accessible to researchers. BYU currently has an exhibit and a lecture series on Kane. The Kane collection at BYU will ensure that Thomas L. Kane will continue to be studied.

(Sources: John K. Kane to Elisha K. Kane, 16 May 1846, Elisha K. Kane Papers, American Philosophical Society (APS); Robert P. Kane to Elisha K. Kane, May 1846, APS; Thomas L. Kane to John K. Kane and Jane D. Kane, 20-23 July 1846, APS; Blessing, John Smith to Thomas L. Kane, 8 September 1846, Kane Collection, BYU; Orson Hyde to TLK, 31 May 1851, Kane Collection, BYU; Eleanor McComb [Pratt] to TLK, 7 May 1858, Kane Collection, BYU; Elizabeth W. Kane to Dr. Buckley, draft, 1906, Kane Collection, BYU; George Albert Smith to Israel Frank Evans, 1 October 1947, Israel Frank Evans Collection, LDS Church Archives.)

11 Responses to Colonel Kane, Righteous Gentile

  1. Matthew Grow on February 19, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Adam Greenwood gave me the title of this post (though I think he was suggesting it for the book) over pie after priesthood session of conference some years ago in South Bend.

  2. Ben on February 19, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Great stuff, Matt. I especially like your view that Kane helped Mormons (at least temporarily in this single case) stop viewing “saints” and “gentiles” through a dichotomous lens.

    While doing research on Woodruff on Monday, I found a letter to Kane that says many of the same things you say here. My favorite excerpt from the letter is,

    “Closely intermingled with [Mormon history], which will be read with feelings of deep interest by future generations, the name of Col. Thos. L. Kane stands most prominent, not only as a philanthropist, and one that made superhuman exertions to dam up and roll back a mighty flood of wrath, indignation, and persecution…but as an instrument, in the hands of God, and inspired by him…Your name will of necessity stand associated with the history of this people for years to come, whatever may be their destiny.” (Woodruff to Kane, 8 March 1859, LDS Archives)

  3. Matt Grow on February 19, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Ben: Thanks! I’d forgotten about that quote, but it fits perfectly.

  4. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    In a way–and I’m sure this is far from Matt Grow’s mind, but its still the truth–these posts here and the book are doing God’s work in making sure this good man’s name is had in remembrance among us.

  5. Christopher on February 19, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks for this (and your other posts) on Kane, Matt.

  6. Ray on February 19, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Thanks for this post, Matt. When I think of “Christian Courage”, I generally think first of Brother Kane.

  7. David G. on February 19, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Thanks, Matt. This is interesting. Aside from the debate over whether Kane was a covert Mormon, have you found that Kane’s memory has been politicized? Do other groups (his family, perhaps?) commemorate him differently than Mormons, and if so, do these memories compete?

  8. Ardis E. Parshall on February 20, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Another great post, Matt, refreshing memories and strengthening Kane’s reputation within the bloggernacle.

    There’s a nice little 6-1/2 minute clip from a recent BYU Weekly program highlighting the Kane Exhibit at BYU.

  9. Bridget Jack Meyers on February 20, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Righteous Gentile? Inconceivable.

    Seriously, you’ve convinced me Matt, I will add learning more about Thomas Kane to my docket.

  10. Matt Grow on February 20, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Thanks for the kind comments!

    David: Sure, there have been some competing memories of Kane. His family dominated (or attempted to dominate) the area around Kane, Pa., in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which bred some resentment in the area and the Kanes’ reputation became mixed up in local politics. Elizabeth Kane was acutely aware of her husband’s reputation and carefully guarded and preserved his papers.

    The next generations of Kanes included some interesting characters. A son of Thomas and Elizabeth was a doctor who twice operated on himself (even removing his own appendix!). A grandson, Elisha Kent Kane, became notorious in 1931 when he underwent a sensational trial on charges of drowning his wife (he was a University of Tennessee professor at the time). He was acquitted.

    Kane’s participation in the Civil War has also been somewhat controversial over time, including the exact role he played at Gettysburg. In addition, there have been controversies within Mormon history over Kane’s motivations for befriending the Saints.

    For the most part, however, Kane has been largely forgotten, especially outside of Mormon circles. When the LDS Church bought the chapel in Kane in the late 1960s, one of Kane’s grandsons (another Elisha Kent Kane) wrote a letter thanking the Church. He lamented that his grandfather had been forgotten and he hoped that the Thomas L. Kane Memorial Chapel would help publicize his grandfather’s life.

    Unfortunately, the Kane Memorial Chapel has been little visited (because of its out-of-the-way-location) and it no longer operates as a full-time historical site. If you’re ever in the Alleghenies, it’s worth a visit. My family and I visited a few years ago, attending the local branch. Unbeknownst to me when I started my project on Kane, my uncle served part of his mission in Kane, Pa. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in an intentionally-caused car wreck along with two other missionaries. A few of the older members in the branch remembered my uncle, which made the visit even more meaningful to me.

  11. Ted on February 21, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Righteous Gentile always sounds like an oxymoron, unfortunately.