Diary of LDS apostle includes tales of bribing a Supreme Court justice

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The diaries of the late LDS Church Apostle, Abraham H. Cannon, stretching from 1889 to the end of 1895, is interesting church history reading. Signature Book’s “Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle,” edited by scholar Edward Leo Lyman, provides readers glimpses into the wary, sometimes turbulent LDS history between the Manifesto against polygamy, the church’s desperate efforts to avoid financial destruction due to polygamy, the dedication of the Salt Lake temple, the financial panic of 1893, and efforts toward statehood for Utah.

Cannon, who had several wives, died in 1896 at age 37 from complications of an ear infection. The scion of a prominent Mormon family — his father, George Q. Cannon, was a fellow apostle — his diaries show how his high standing in the LDS Church encompassed not only religious duties, but high-stakes business, chicanery and politics. A thorough diarist, regular meetings of the church’s First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles are meticulously recorded. Governing the young church’s business empire and dealing with the real threat of imprisonment and government harassment due to polygamy occupied as much time — if not more — than religious duties. Example: Cannon’s diary entry of Dec. 17, 1892, records that at the apostles’ meeting “… the brethren were told that our success in the Church suits was in a great measure due to the fact that we have a partner of Justice {Stephen J.} Field of the Supreme Court of the United States in our employ, who is to receive a percentage of the money if the suits go in our favor, and the property is returned to us. …”Given the times, this is not as shocking as it sounds today. Justice Field was not the only person of influence tempted by the church. President Benjamin Harrison’s secretary was helping the church. The diaries reveal how federal attorneys were routinely bribed through third parties. Church leaders spent considerable energies covering up the crime of an embezzler because that man — sympathetic to the church — was in a position to be a receiver of assets the church needed. In fact, Cannon records entries where the apostles were counseled to “keep secrets” from their enemies.

But even with the help of a high court justice, Cannon’s entries detail how the church was boxed in politically and in danger of financial ruin due to overall public disgust of polygamy. The Manifesto from President Woodruff against polygamy was originally intended to grandfather in current polygamous relationships, but Cannon’s diaries detail how political powers forced the LDS prophet to make later, tougher statements that forbid already-married polygamists from co-habitating. Apostles, including Cannon, were constantly threatened with imprisonment if they even visited their plural wives.

Cannon details how busy the life of an LDS apostle was. Although most details of his family life were omitted by Signature’s editors, Cannon was constantly taking trains up and down the state, speaking at stake conferences, settling church feuds, selecting new bishops and stake presidents. Cannon must have given hundreds of church-related talks a year. As is today, the LDS priesthood hierarchy was stressed. Leaders, from apostles downward, were urged to change their opinions if a superior took an opposing stance. Cannon also describes, in detail, prayer circles and the rarely-mentioned second anointing, where church leaders and spouses are guaranteed exaltation, or the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. Cannon himself received a second anointing.

Politics was often discussed and apostles were assigned to research and lobby for or against legislation. Cannon’s disgust for the anti-Mormon Liberal Party is not shy. The First Presidency and Apostles engaged in serious efforts to control local press coverage and counter the Tribune. Pages of the diaries recount local campaigns. Eventually, Cannon became part owner of the LDS-friendly Deseret News. Politics at times would tear the apostles’ unity, particularly when the Democrats and Republicans set up parties in Utah. Apostle Moses Thatcher, a Democrat, would often quarrel with apostle, John Henry Smith, a Republican.

Cannon details special meetings of the quorum where the apostles would speak frankly about their feelings for each other and address cases of gratitude and their struggles against resentment. The reader catches the religious spirit and commitment that bonded these men. These are fascinating, partially because even today, the LDS Church leadership is silent on the spirit and topics of the meetings of its hierarchy. A key difference from today’s LDS leadership is that the church’s highest officials — 120 years ago — were more likely to go out politicking. Today, church politics is more subtle. Preaching was far more conservative: Apostle John Henry Smith is recounted warning members that sexual intercourse for any purpose other than bearing children is the same as adultery, according to the Lord.

Glimpses of a high-level meeting are very interesting for history buffs. In one apostles’ session, Cannon recounts a debate over the Adam-God doctrine. The apostles disagree, but Cannon believes Adam must be more than just a spiritual brother. In another, the apostles discuss the status of the Holy Ghost — is he a son of God, only without a body? There was a discussion of whether there were “daughters of perdition.” The apostles also stressed the LDS doctrine that faithful parents would be assured of the salvation of their wayward children. The bohemian atmosphere of the early LDS church still remained. President Woodruff and the apostles freely discussed visions, conversations with the slain Mormon leader Joseph Smith and even a glimpse of the modern-day Cain was described.

Cannon was often without enough money to keep his many businesses healthy. He was a good businessman but had his hands in too many endeavors, although near the end of his life, his efforts in a railroad were paying off. Much of the 1893 entries involve his desperate attempts to meet payrolls and keep a bank he co-owned afloat during that year’s financial panic. In one instance, Cannon, after becoming a partner in a mine, promised the Lord a fifth of his profits if the mine was successful.

Ogden is mentioned often — Cannon frequently spoke there — as is the Standard-Examiner a few times. Much of the diaries cover mundane, administrative tasks that will interest history buffs. One tidbit of interest: church leaders, including President Woodruff, were fans of horse racing in Salt Lake City.

Cannon lived in Salt Lake City, on the northwest corner of 900 South on 800 West. His diaries may be uncomfortably candid, but they can also inspire LDS readers today who want more than Pablum. We are in Cannon’s debt for leaving records that bring to life an era in the Top of Utah usually recollected in dry history texts.

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17 Responses to Diary of LDS apostle includes tales of bribing a Supreme Court justice

  1. Robert Smith says:

    If it is true that LDS church leaders were bribing Justice Field, you need to better establish this fact in your piece. In an apparent attempt to establish that Church leaders were bribing a Supreme Court justice, your piece offers only this:

    Example: Cannon’s diary entry of Dec. 17, 1892, records that at the apostles’ meeting “… the brethren were told that our success in the Church suits was in a great measure due to the fact that we have a partner of Justice {Stephen J.} Field of the Supreme Court of the United States in our employ, who is to receive a percentage of the money if the suits go in our favor, and the property is returned to us. …”

    [end quote]

    This quotation establishes only that church leaders were working with a partner of Justice Field and that the partner was to receive monies. The partner could have been a lawyer (such as a former partner of the justice) who was being paid by the church for traditional legal services (such as drafting legal documents or handling arguments before the court) and who would then have been entitled to payment for his services–including extra payment if his efforts were successful. On its face, there is nothing in the quotation you have included that suggests that Field’s partner was involved in back-room deals or other bribery or that the Church was working through the partner to bribe Field. Today it would presumably be unethical for a former or current legal or business partner of a Supreme Court justice to handle a case pending before the court, but perhaps there were no such ethical rules in place at that time (ethical rules for lawyers have changed considerably since the 1800s; in Abraham Lincoln’s day, lawyers could represent a person one day in a matter, then take a matter opposing them the next day–a practice that would be unethical in almost all cases now).

    Having not read the diary or otherwise studied what was going on at that time, I cannot say that the Church was not involved in bribery at that time. I am just saying that the quotation you have used has not established there was bribery.

  2. Luke says:

    The article only said the journal said there was bribery–it did not say the claim was true.

  3. Doug Gibson says:

    The diaries include references of the church bribing U.S attorneys, usually through a middle party; Oct. 23, 1893 is an example of that. And the diaries include detailed efforts to cover up and find money to pay restitution so a bureaucrat, Leonard Hardy’s embezzlement would not lead him to prison. The reason was, as I mention, is Hardy was set to be a receiver of church property. Also, John W. Young, a son of Brigham Young who was basically a con man, was quietly moved out of the inner circles of the church hierarchy.
    I do hope this is not coming across as anti-Mormon. It’s a candid look at a busy man’s life and all the different circles his callings put him in. There’s much in the diaries that speak well of him and the Woodruff-era LDS church.

  4. tom says:

    Great stuff Doug! Thanks.

    I am looking forward to reading the diaries. I have read a lot of Church history, but only have a passing understanding of Abraham Cannon. He sounds like a great character and you have stoked my interest in him.

  5. Charlene Heckert says:

    I am not surprise, if anything I think this kind of things are still going on in the church. I should know I have been complaining about it for years to my bishop and to the Standard-Examiner. I even wrote to the opinion page regarding it saying that ” another great novel could be in the works,” if they wanted to talk to me about it.

  6. Tom says:

    When taking in the larger picture from Cannon’s and other journals from the period, the idea that church leaders are misrepresented in the quote about bribery dissipates quickly. The journals detail a stream of corruption from LDS officials during this period which include bribes of government officials, election fraud, paying off newspapers to print friendly articles about the LDS church and more. Remembering that LDS officials had recently spent time in federal penitentiaries. It’s not so surprising that these men were willing to some lengths to secure their properties.

    The idea that paying bribes to a Supreme Court Justice is somehow “traditional legal services” is Mr. Smith’s reasonable attempt at reducing his cognitive dissonance, but it falls short of the actual reality presented in Cannon’s journal.

    As Mr. Lyman points out, “this was one of the most corrupt periods of American history.” It may well be that LDS leaders found corruption to be the political landscape they had to participate in as they faced the real threat of once again losing their temples to “gentiles.”

    • tom says:


      I liked your post, however would you please indicate in future ones that you are not the same “Tom” as me.

      Your post was a bit more intellectual than mine are, and I fear you may detract from the grenadier persona I have spent considerable time and effort cultivating on this site.

  7. rolly tolleson says:

    My father, who had an illustrious career in SLC working for the Presiding Bishopric told me many such stories before his death. He related to me that there are volumes of diaries and documents that would bring the Church to it’s heel were they to be fully revealed. My father had an intimate awareness and knowledge of many of the Church’s financial dealings as well as it’s hidden history. He died in 2003, and last worked for the PB in 1987. I had a hard time believing him because he was so stallwart until the end, but looking back upon it, I’m disturbed that so many true blue Mormons are willing to cover up truth and facts as well as documented history because it would undermine them, or their church or their living. I had the feeling that had he lived longer, he would have revealed more to me and others, but his life was cut short very quickly.

  8. Realist says:

    The corruption of the Cannon family is legendary in Utah. Extortion by the United States government is also a very important part of history that remains with us to this day. Its called campaign contributions, and yes, they are bribes.

    Elected Judges often respond favorably in their rulings to those that provide large donations to their campaigns. This is bribery and extortion. Or, like Elena Kagan, they cover-up for the crimes of Politicians in exchange for a judicial appointment.

    Chris Cannon and Joe Cannon took political bribes from a multitude of corrupt sources including Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and David Safavian. They also helped shoot down a bill that would have made internet gambling illegal, looted Geneva Steel and helped cover up the truth of 911.

    They were also on the Olympic Committee that bribed and provided young female excorts to IOC members. Romney covered up for them and hid their many sins.

    I assume this diary was in their possession, and they chose to release it for publication to cover their own crimes. All it really does is bring their family lineage into question.

    The aforementioned actions could have been God’s will, but they appear to be the desperate actions of desperate men lacking in faith and relying too much on the arm of the flesh.

    Or, they could be just politics as usual.

  9. Botch says:

    THIS is gonna be good!

  10. ScottH says:

    Elder Richard G. Scott told of being rather shocked when he attended his first meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve. He found participants far more blunt and frank than he had ever seen them act outside of that venue.

    After the meeting, Elder Scott said that Elder Neal A. Maxwell told him that he needed to step up and express his thoughts and opinions more boldly. When Scott remarked on his surprise at the nature of the meeting, Maxwell told him that they “play hardball” in the Quorum of the Twelve.

    Maxwell explained that all of these men are very accomplished in their own right. Each is a strong leader that is quite confident of his own identity. They also know each other very well and each is very busy. When they meet, they have to cover a lot of ground as efficiently as possible. In that setting, some traditional pleasantries may fall by the wayside.

    President James E. Faust apologized somewhat in general conference a few years ago about the necessary bureaucratic elements of running a worldwide church. An acquaintance of mine that worked for the Office of the Presiding Bishopric for many years told me that the church workplace is a lot like any other workplace, complete with power seeking, turf protection, unrighteous dominion, etc, but without the swearing and coffee machines.

    As far as I can tell, the LDS Church does not claim that it is filled with perfect people; only that it has the necessary authority and revelation to carry out the gospel plan on the earth at this point in time. If someone is looking for a perfect organization filled with perfect people, they’re going to have to wait until they get to celestial realms.

    • Andrew says:

      Actually the Book is NOT for sale at Amazon. They will not be getting copies according to the publisher. Try Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City or Confetti Books and Antiques in Spanish Fork if you want a copy. Or Order directly form Signature books. All three can be found online.

  11. david says:

    Thanks for informing us about what you have not studied. Going out on a limb here, might it make sense for you to obtain the book and study the issue first?

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