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.)