Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a Standard Works series on the campaign of Mormon renegade, Frank J. Cannon, son of an apostle, to turn public opinion against the LDS Church and its prophet, Joseph F. Smith. Part 1 Read largely dealt with Frank’s tenure as Salt Lake Tribune editor during the Reed Smoot U.S. Senate hearings.
To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here
After the Smoot hearings, Frank’s wife, Martha Brown, died and he moved from Ogden to Denver, where he worked as an editor for the Rocky Mountain News. During this time, he married his late wife’s younger sister, May. As historian Kenneth L. Cannon II recounts in a soon-to-be published paper, FJC made the acquaintance of muckraking journalist, Harvey J. O’Higgins. Higgins saw potential in Frank’s life in Utah and later repudiation of the Mormons, and convinced him to write an “expose” of Mormonism and the church’s wealth and political power under Frank’s main adversary, LDS President Joseph F. Smith.
The result was “Under the Prophet in Utah,” a fascinating, breathless, often self-serving account of the Mormon Church’s supposed evils since Joseph F. Smith had eventually succeeded Wilford Woodruff as church leader (Read). Prior to its publication, the book was serialized in “Everybody’s Magazine,” with lurid — if sometimes incorrect — photos. It was very popular and boosted the magazine’s circulation from 500,000 to 600,000.
Frank had two passions — a cause to work on and luxury. His relationship with O’Higgins, co-author of the book, allowed him to enjoy both. With the publication of the now-famous book, Frank was a natural for the Chautauqua and Lyceum lectures that dotted the nation 100 years ago. These, as Cannon II explains, were the ancestors of today’s adult education programs. Chautauqua lectures were held in tents during the summer, Lyceum indoors during the colder months. Lecturing against Mormonism and its leaders was a very profitable endeavor for Frank. And he worked hard at it, spending nine months a year crisscrossing the nation lecturing and sometimes earning the equivalent today of $500,000.
But no one should accuse Frank of doing the lectures for only money. He was a passionate, fervent opponent of Mormonism during that era and easily swayed audiences and critics. Cannon II’s paper includes favorable accounts of Frank’s speeches replete with demands that the Utah Mormons disprove Frank’s claims. The New York Times Review of Books very favorably reviewed “Under the Prophet in Heaven.”
In many ways, Frank resembled a reverse Glenn Beck: a talented but demagogic LDS quasileader with personal faults who re-birthed his life toward success by repudiating his previous life. Among Frank’s accusations were that the LDS Church, following the Manifesto, re-energized its efforts toward polygamy for prurient, rather than Old Testament, interests; that the LDS hierarchy controlled millions of dollars for its own personal pleasure; that LDS President Joseph F. Smith openly flouted polygamy with his five wives (Frank quite publicly, and incorrectly, absolved his father, apostle George Q. Cannon, of polygamy infractions); and that the LDS Church controlled the political interests of 11 western states, worked in tandem with Wall Street bankers and had elected Woodrow Wilson president in 1916.
The last three charges were patently ridiculous. In fact, like Glenn Beck today, Frank’s anti-Mormon zealotry was a hindrance at times. Many of his causes, including Smoot-era resurrections that Mormons not be allowed in Congress, or that Latter-day Saints — by virtue of rituals in church temples — were guilty of treason against the U.S., backfired. Former President Teddy Roosevelt, who supported Smoot a decade earlier, publicly supported the LDS Church while Frank lectured. Also, Frank’s proposals and petitions to ban Mormons from Congress never succeeded.
Here’s a fraction of the places Frank lectured: Hope, Ark., Kingfisher, Okla., Chester, Pa., Peru, Neb., New York City, Missoula, Mont., Chicago, Fargo, N.D. … He was everywhere, and he was part of an era where muckraking against the Mormons was popular. There were films such as “Trapped by the Mormons” and “The Mountain Meadows Massacre” (lost) released. Frank published another book, “Brigham Young and His Mormon Empire,” with a writer named George L. Knapp, in 1913. Also, there were major productions of plays during that era that dealt with the plight of Mormon women bound by polygamy and patriarchal oppression.
Like Glenn Beck’s crusades against “socialists” today, Frank allied himself with Christian organizations to take on an entity, the LDS faith, that he regarded as evil. As Cannon II writes, “In the spring of 1914, Frank J. Cannon was employed as the spokesman for the national ‘crusade against the Mormon Kingdom’ commenced by the National Reform Association, a Christian civil government reform organization ..” In fact, Frank would return to journalism with his involvement with the group’s newspaper, the Christian Statesman. The Reform Association was a powerful lobby, and included prominent judges, clergy, college presidents, governors and a former U.S. vice president among its members.
The LDS Church did occasionally fight back against Frank. Elders would shadow his lectures, offering opposing viewpoints. The most famous face-to-face confrontation between Frank and his former church occurred on April 23, 1914, at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where 100 Mormons, led by Eastern States LDS mission president Walter P. Monson, confronted Frank on stage while he was arguing to have banned LDS missionaries in New York City.
Among those protesting Frank at Carnegie Hall was his boyhood friend, police sergeant Hagbert Anderson, of Ogden, and Ashby Snow Thatcher, son of former LDS apostle, Moses Thatcher. The young Thatcher challenged Frank’s assertions that his father had died from a broken heart after being disciplined by the church. The protesters also challenged Frank about his son, Frank Q. Cannon, who was serving an LDS mission to Germany. As with most confrontations, no minds were changed and authorities eventually broke it up. The meeting and disruption was covered in both The New York Times (“Mormons break up enemies’ meetings,” April 24, 1914) and Utah newspapers.
Frank spoke to more than a million people via Chautauqua, Lyceum, the Reform Association and other lectures. That pales in comparison to an audience that Glenn Beck can reach today. But it was a lot of listeners 100 years ago. And his oratory talents were respected even by enemies, one of whom grudgingly described Frank as “the most brilliant distorter of facts this country has produced in several generations.”
In the last years of his life, Frank worked for the Reformer Association and later resumed another cause, the benefits of silver and a gold-silver standard in the U.S. He died in 1933, still a public figure. He was buried in Ogden, Utah. News of the death was noted in the New York Times.
I’d like to thank Kenneth L. Cannon, II, Michael Paulos and Will Bagley for providing source materials for these Standard Works essays as well as Cal Grondahl for his cartoons.
This post also ran in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.