Saint, Senator, and Scoundrel

“The lack of any biography of Frank Cannon seemed a glaring gap in [Utah] annals. It was high time to tell his story.”  Val Holley recently stated this during an interview with Kurt Manwaring where they discussed Frank Cannon and Holley’s recently-published biography, Frank J. Cannon: Saint, Senator, Scoundrel (University of Utah Press, 2021).  What follows here is a co-post to that interview, with quotes and some commentary.  Feel free to read the full interview here.

In summarizing Frank Cannon’s accomplishments, Holley stated that:

Frank Cannon was Utah’s first U.S. senator after it became a state in 1896. During the 50 years he lived in Utah, he was also (in chronological order) founder and editor of the Ogden Standard, territorial delegate to Congress, state Democratic Party chairman, editor of Ogden’s Daily Utah State Journal, and editor of the Salt Lake Tribune.

He was one of many sons of George Q. Cannon, who had five wives. Frank’s mother was the second wife, Sarah Jane Jenne.

Most frequently in the Church, however, Frank Cannon is known for his “sustained attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ recidivism in polygamy and alliances with trusts and corporations,” which “discomforted many Utahns, not only in the early 20th century but in the present day.”

Frank Cannon’s relationship with the Church was a very complicated one.  He had, what Holley called, “youthful periods of sustained drunkenness and debauchery,” during which his father, “George Q. came close to disowning him.”  Later, however, Frank embraced the Church and became very useful to the organization, both due to his talent for diplomacy and for writing.  For example, Holley stated that:

Frank Cannon had an admirable record of diplomatic triumphs in Utah’s path to statehood. His father sent him on numerous missions to Washington, D.C., to negotiate the means of reconciliation between the Church and the federal government.

A summary of his achievements would include:

  • Obtaining a more merciful array of federal judges for Utah who would be lenient to convicted polygamists;
  • Testifying persuasively against punitive bills that threatened the forfeiture of all Latter day Saints’ right to vote;
  • and spearheading the dissolution of Latter-day Saint and Gentile political parties while founding the Republican Party of Utah.

He was also useful to the Church during its fiscal crisis of the 1890s, recruiting friendly financiers to invest in church enterprises.

Frank was also “frequently summoned to advise the First Presidency during [Wilford] Woodruff’s presidency.”  According to the interview, Frank Cannon was also the actual author of the book The Life of Joseph Smith, published under George Q. Cannon’s name, but written by Frank at George’s request.

In time, however, Frank Cannon’s relationship with the Church soured.  Val Holley explained that:

Being at George Q.’s bedside while he lay dying was a spiritual experience for Frank. It prompted him to live more like a Latter-day Saint than ever before. He donated a large sum of money to the British Mission, wrote articles praising Joseph F. Smith’s ascension as Church president, and hosted weekly Sunday school meetings at his Washington, D.C., home. (That city had no organized Latter-day Saint congregation in 1901).

But Frank quickly became disillusioned at Joseph F. Smith, who made financial deals with trusts and corporations and secretly encouraged the subversion of the church’s pledges to abandon polygamy. Frank said he had assumed that his father, owing to apostolic seniority, would have become president of the church and ruled it according to correct principles. But George Q.’s death cleared the way for what Frank saw as Smith’s misrule.

The ongoing (secret) practice of post-Manifesto polygamy and alliances with trusts and corporations turned Frank against the Church.  He went on to give “anti-polygamy lectures throughout the U.S.,” among other attack’s against the Church’s administration  Holley characterized Frank Cannon’s efforts as “unflinching courage in speaking truth to power”, but Cannon’s role in the Church’s history is controversial, hence his characterization of Frank as a “scoundrel” in the biography’s title.

For more on Frank Cannon, including a discussion of his relationship with his father, the significance of Ogden in Utah history, the unique circumstances of Cannon’s senatorial race, and some of Frank’s more dubious claims, read the full interview here.  It’s interesting information—I hadn’t known about Cannon’s contributions to the Church so much as his later efforts against it beforehand, and he seems like a fascinating and colourful character in our history.

5 comments for “Saint, Senator, and Scoundrel

  1. Didn’t Frank also write an autobiography?

    Also, IIRC he was one of those behind the 1912-ish series of newspaper and magazine articles attacking the church.

  2. It sounds like he believed in the church more than some leadership in the church itself.
    I can understand when you’re called in the help the church with financial issues, and then see a member in church leadership make secret deals; that you would feel betrayed/hurt.
    From reading just this article it sounds like his attacks on the church could be summed up as “Do better, church.”

  3. Most men in the church are so loyal to the institution, they are willing to censor, lie, conceal, and conspire, before raising voice against the oaths of fraternity.

    Glad Frank Cannon wasn’t afraid to call out corruption in the Mormon cartel. Unsung heroes give us hope!

  4. Kent Larsen,

    You do recall correctly. See Ken Cannon’s article in the new book from Utah State. “Do I Hear An Echo? The Continuing Trial of the Mormon Church after Smoot’s Retention”, pp. 129-152, Paulos, Michael Harold & Hansen, Konden Smith, Eds. The Reed Smoot Hearings: The Investigation of a Mormon Senator and the Transformation of An American Religion, (Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2021).

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