Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George Q. Cannon on Bellamy

George Q Cannon

I’m currently in the middle of reading B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two (1948), so when by coincidence I discovered the following discourse by George Q. Cannon, it gave me an unexpected view on utopias. Cannon’s remarks, spurred by Edward Bellamy’s popular utopian novel Looking Backward (1887), portray not only a religious criticism of many of the utopian proposals, but also demonstrate that religion itself is, in a way, about creating a utopia or preparing for a utopian hereafter. And these remarks are particularly interesting given Mormonism’s own experimentation and involvement with utopian efforts well before Cannon made these remarks.

I haven’t done a literature search on Mormonism and utopian ideas, but the connections seem frequent and substantial. There is little doubt that the united order that Joseph Smith outlined is a utopian idea, along with the persistent attempts by Mormon groups to gather into groups where a Zion society might be created. While these attempts were largely unrealized, they have persisted among many Mormon groups until the present day and are responsible for communal efforts like the various FLDS compounds and even the creation of some splinter groups. And the utopian ideal persists in our theology, taught in LDS Church meetings whenever we discuss the idea of Zion.

Apparently, these ideals even had influence among other utopians. In his 1933 biography of Joseph Smith, John Henry Evans described this influence:

In the year 1883 Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, visited Utah for the purpose of studying the Mormon economic system. He had a conversation with Lorenzo Snow, one of the apostles, which extended over three days. Snow, who had been a student in Oberlin College in Ohio, was an intelligent business man, as well as a high ecclesiast. The two went over the details of the new economic scheme and also into the cooperative efforts of the Utah saints. Bellamy went away, not only with considerable inspiration, but with some fundamental ideas, which he incorporated in his book. It is stated that Looking Backward had large influence in the making of Soviet Russia. If so, to this Mormon idea originally is to be given the credit (or the blame) for what has been going on there of late years. However that may be, it is certain that Bellamy’s book was greatly influenced by what Snow told its author.

From: Joseph Smith, an American Prophet (1933) by John Henry Evans.
Chapter X: Dignity and Worth of the Human Personality; 52. A Practical Utopia

The influence certainly also flowed the other way also. Richard Cracroft sees possible influence from Bellamy’s work on Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon[1], as did Scott Hales just a couple weeks ago[2]. I suspect that the role of utopia in Mormon letters is a fertile area for many future studies.

Given all this, here is how Cannon reacted to Looking Backward:

Discourse (excerpt)

by President George Q. Cannon

There are at the present time organizations being formed for the purpose of carrying out some of the views set forth in a novel lately written by a gentleman named Bellamy. The novel is called “Looking Backward.” It has had an extraordinary effect in many quarters, and organizations have been formed in various places with the view of carrying out practically some of the views set forth therein.

In thinking about this I was struck with a remark made to me many years ago by the late General Thos. L. Kane. General Kane in his early life, when secretary of the United States Legation at Paris, became deeply interested in the labors and efforts of Fourier and St. Simon and other French socialists and communists for the purpose of elevating the French and introducing a better order of society there, and they strove diligently for some time to carry out their reforms. General Kane had been a close observer of these efforts and the results of them, and on one occasion, in speaking about such systems, he said: Mr. Cannon, I am satisfied of one thing, that it is impossible to have anything of that character effective, or that will result in any permanent good without religion. There must be religion, he said, and that must be appealed to, and its aid must be sought and rendered in order to make such schemes for the amelioration of the condition of men successful.

I have been greatly impressed of late with that thought, and I am sure it is true; and however desirable it may be, or however great the efforts put forth of the character to which I allude, they, I am sure, can result in no great success, or anything lasting and beneficial to mankind, unless religion, true religion, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, is associated with them. Its principles alone will save mankind; there is no other plan of salvation, either temporal or spiritual, than that which is found int he Gospel, and there is no salvation, temporal or spiritual, excepting that resulting from obedience to it. Its principles are from God; by its principles God is what He is today. By observance of its principles heaven is made heaven, and is peopled by beings who have obeyed the Gospel, and through their practical obedience to the Gospel have produced heaven, or rather made themselves fit to dwell in heaven. And through those glorious principles, which we have received to some extent at least, and through obedience to them, carrying them out practically in our lives, the children of men can be elevated into the region of God and angels, and heaven can be brought about, to a certain extent at least, upon the earth, thus fulfilling the prayer of the Savior when He commanded His disciples to pray, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”

No man made scheme, however cunningly and wisely arranged, can bring this state of things about. It is true something may be done to help men; men by combining can help each other; but to bring about perfection in this direction, to bring about results that will be perfectly satisfactory, recourse must be had to the principles of the everlasting Gospel; and through them alone, administered through the authority that He has restored, can the condition of mankind be truly ameliorated, or the human family be put in a condition such as men in their aspirations and dreams have yearned for.

In this respect, my brethren and sisters, we have great advantages. We have no advantage in regard to a code of morals. I have heard beautiful discourses, as you no doubt have, upon moral principles. I have sat and wondered why the people were not better, having such grand moral truths taught to them. Eloquent men, men of large conception and extended views, men who have loved their fellow men, have discoursed most eloquently and learnedly upon the good effect of better moral living. I suppose that from every pulpit in the land on this day there are discourses of th is character heard. Ministers of the Gospel preach delightful things, tell delightful truths, dwell in a very attractive manner upon the great moral truths, and deliver eloquent sermons upon them. One would naturally think that such views, expressed in such manner, would cause the people who listened to them to become a very moral and elevated people, and to be united, and that love would abound, that poverty would cease to exist, that men would cease to take advantage of their fellows, that the strong would help the weak, the wise the foolish, and the prudent the imprudent, aud men who have ability to make money would help those who are deficient in that respect–one would naturally think that such results would be common among a people who were in the habit of listening to such truths so beautifully set forth; but how different everything of this kind is. There is not that union, there is not that love, there is not that care one for another that one would naturally expect. It might truthfully be said the fruits of such teachings are everywhere lacking, and that therefore the eloquent discourses, as well as the system of morality of modern Christendom, are complete failures. “¦

If we read the writings of some of the heathen philosophers we find that they abound also with sentiments of this character; but they seem to have had no greater effect than the teachings of Christian philosophers and Christian ministers. Why is this? As I have said, there are discourses delivered far more eloquent than we hear in this Tabernacle or in any other meetinghouse. Our Elders do not compare with these learned men, so far as beauty 0f language and oratory, and all the graces that make language attractive to those that listen to it are concerned.

And yet among the Latter-day Saints we perceive these moral truths carried out frequently in the lives of the people. Why is this? It is because God has revealed to us the truth, and it has this effect when accompanied by the Spirit of God upon the hearts of the people. It is not man’s learning that makes the Latter-day Saints what they are today; no man can claim any glory for this, for there are far more eloquent men, far more learned men, far wiser men according to the wisdom of the world outside of this Church than in it. Why Is It? It is because God has revealed the everlasting Gospel; revealed it to unlearned men, illiterate men, to whom He has given authority to administer the ordinances of life and salvation; and the principles of the Gospel thus administered have this effect upon those who receive their teachings, though taught ungrammatically, perhaps,many times; taught in the utmost simplicity, sometimes with the greatest awkwardness; but taught, nevertheless, by men who have been Commissioned of God to administer the ordinances of life and salvation, and to teach them to their fellows; and the truth thus taught is accompanied by the convincing Spirit and power of God; and, therefore, to God belongs the glory, and He will have the glory of this work and not man. No man will be able to stand before Him and claim any credit connected with the building up of His work on the earth. He will have all the glory of it, and our salvation will be due to Him, not to our fellowmen.

But I have been greatly struck in listening to discourses of this character of which I speak, and I have wondered, as I have said, at the little effect they had upon their hearers, in changing their lives, in elevating them and in abolishing the evils which exist, and which cry loudly to heaven for correction. And this is so with us to a great extent. I thought that we ourselves came far from reaching the standard that God has held up for us. We are not as self-sacrificing as we should be; we do not love our neighbors as we should do. In our struggles we think little of those that are weaker than ourselves, that have not the ability that we have, and we pass them in the race, and frequently we jostle them out of the track. There is too much of this among us; but I hope for Zion; I am full of faith for the future of this work, knowing as I do that God is with it, and that He will deal with us until He takes all that is evil out of us, and that He will make us a people that He will be delighted to own aud bless and call His own. Those who fail to live up to this standard will lose his Spirit, and if they go far enough in the other direction they will apostatize; but the pure in heart will march forward until they obtain that perfection that all earnestly desire.

I don’t think there is a human being that has thought about these things who has not yearned in his heart for a better condition of affairs than that which we witness. And I repeat, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus is the means by which it will be brought about; and that Gospel is here, and its power is here, and it will continue here, gradually fulfilling its high destiny until these evils under which the human family so groan shall be abolished and removed from the earth, and the love of God will reign supreme in every human breast. This is no dream, no imaginary thing. But it is that, which will be realized, for God has said it shall be fulfilled.

Delivered at the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City,
February 23rd, 1890.

I know this excerpt was very long, but I didn’t really see how to cut it down and still get all of Cannon’s thoughts into the excerpt. While it basically expresses the idea that a utopia must be based not only on true principles but also the authority of God, it also expresses so many additional ideas about the role of Mormonism in letters. I particularly like the recognition that

“there are discourses delivered far more eloquent than we hear in this Tabernacle or in any other meetinghouse. Our Elders do not compare with these learned men, so far as beauty 0f language and oratory, and all the graces that make language attractive to those that listen to it are concerned. And yet among the Latter-day Saints we perceive these moral truths carried out frequently in the lives of the people.”

I don’t think that Cannon is suggesting that there isn’t any value in beautiful language and oratory, just that it alone isn’t sufficient to lead an audience to change enough to make a difference. In part I have doubts about that idea, since demonstrable change has followed some of the great oratory of our nation (although it might be argued, for example, that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, great as it was, only motivated those already disposed to hear it, and that change would have happened anyway).

Given this, I think Cannon’s thoughts add a worthwhile viewpoint in Mormon criticism.


[1] Cracroft, Richard H., Nephi, Seer of Modern Times: The Home Literature Novels of Nephi Anderson. BYU Studies, v25 n2 (1985)

[2] Hales, Scott. Welcoming the Scapegoat Back Into the Fold; or, Why We Should Stop Being Embarrassed by “Added Upon.” The Low-Tech World, 4 April 2012.

10 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George Q. Cannon on Bellamy”

  1. “We are not as self-sacrificing as we should be; we do not love our neighbors as we should do. In our struggles we think little of those that are weaker than ourselves, that have not the ability that we have, and we pass them in the race, and frequently we jostle them out of the track.”

    That’s quite powerful oratory right there.

  2. Yes, I like it. When the Church does the MP/RS manual series for 1st counselors in the 1st presidency (t-i-c), they clearly should include this quote in the George Q. Cannon volume. [GRIN] I can’t wait to read the John W. Young volume!!

    Seriously, I think Mormon oratory has improved since GQC’s days, certainly beyond the levels of 1890. And even from before 1890 there are gems like this.

    But I do think GQC’s point is well taken. Good literature can do a lot, but it has limits.

  3. The thing that strikes me is Cannon’s point that correct teaching is not enough; it has to be accompanied by divinely authorized administration in order for the nature of man to change.

    Utopian fictions typically focus on the creation of mechanisms by which society can be improved without human nature changing in some fundamental way, or in which it changes automatically — i.e., not as a result of choice but of circumstances. In some cases, such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, ideology plays a role in that: people act better because they follow a superior set of beliefs. It’s harder to think of examples where this is linked to some external authority. Perhaps some of Asimov’s robot stories?

  4. Jonathan, I think you are exactly right. This occurred to me earlier today as I continued to read through Walen Two because the proponent of the utopia suggests the need to “make” those who live there act a certain way.

    While I do see that individuals can be persuaded or manipulated into taking actions or even thinking a certain way, that sounds more like a distopia than a utopia to me.

    Which makes me wonder, if a utopia is so dependent on controlling or changing human nature to some degree from the outside, can any of these systems really work?

    So, the Mormon in me agrees with Cannon: A utopia can only succeed when the individuals in it have decided to make the “mighty change” that the Book of Mormon speaks of.

  5. The examples I was thinking of with Asimov are the stories where he plays with robots (either in general or specific robots) as being ethically/morally superior to humans: more altruistic, less biased, and sometimes wiser as well.

    I agree with you that authority exercised in other ways tends to make such stories dystopias.

  6. Jonathan, I know the robot series you are talking about — I’ve read them all, along with Asimov’s other series that might be sorta kinda utopian in vision, the Foundation series. He even managed to tie the two together in the end.

    FWIW, next week I think I’ll mention Heinlein.

  7. This is a great find, Kent. I’m very interested in the intersections of Mormonism and nineteenth century Utopianism, but I haven’t had a whole lot of time to do much research on it. I’m hoping to do some this summer, though, and this post has given me a few avenues to investigate.

    This is unrelated to the current discussion, but what I think is equally fascinating is the way many church leaders in the twentieth century–particularly during the Cold War–minimized and sometimes denied the influence of Utopian ideals on early Mormonism because of the uncomfortable way they smacked of communism. It makes me wonder how we as a church situate ourselves in relation to Utopianism today. Has there been enough distance between now and the Cold War to embrace our past Utopian ideals again?

  8. I’m not sure that is even unrelated, Scott. I’ll bet we will find the rejection of communism and of utopian ideas expressed in some piece of Mormon literature somewhere.

    To be honest, I don’t think there has been enough distance to get past the anti-communist feelings, and the continued dominance of purportedly communist regimes in China, North Korea and perhaps elsewhere keeps the anti-communist rhetoric alive among many conservatives in the U.S.–Russia just isn’t considered communist any more.

    And, unfortunately, the presence of LDS socialists and even communists in other countries hasn’t hit the radar of most LDS Church members in the U.S.

  9. I think the guardedness about utopian ambitions today is more complicated than anti-communism. We’ve also had to react against the utopian rhetoric of fascism, and perhaps most importantly against the failures of technology and economic development to really make us happy.

    In the nineteenth century, I think people still felt like they were on the verge of beating history. Now that history has pummeled us in spite of our technology, our knowledge, and our democracy, we’re a bit more pessimistic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s