I was an inquisitive little chap raised in a large family with numerous Mormon pioneer ancestors who had many miracles and revelatory experiences that contributed to, as well as reinforced, their individual testimonies; but I wanted to know for myself if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was indeed sanctioned by God.
Initially, I was like a very small and tender plant emerging from a seed beneath the soil; and the examples, teachings and stories of these ancestors nourished my initial understanding of divine and eternal principles that made the Church so helpful to individuals and families until I had internalized them deeply within my being along with personal prayer and scripture study while early on my mission.
That was when my own testimony of the reality of God as well as His Church emerged as it were from the soil to the light of the sun. This illumination ended my inner uncertainty and puzzlement about the restored Gospel and further deepened my love and appreciation for the Lord … as well as my ancestors and others who had the courage to investigate the authenticity of divine truths and seriously ask God to help them learn the best ways to live as well as how they could most effectively help Him bless His children and build His kingdom.
A life full of personal experiences with the Lord followed as that initial tender plant emerged from the soil and grew into a substantial one bearing much fruit while partnering with God on many fascinating adventures.
[For readers with limited time, the following paragraphs show the effects of unique ancestral experiences on me and my personal observations. However, the key “nugget” of this journey begins with Section 2, “Personal Illumination: Acquiring My Own Testimony.”]
Ancestral Stories That Introduced Gospel Principles and Blessings
As a very young child, I seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about the world, country and society in which I lived. So, when my relatives had an interesting story to tell, I was a very eager and appreciative listener!
Some of the earliest experiences that they shared with me were those of my grandfather, George Q. Cannon, who was a thirteen-year-old Isle of Man/British convert to the Church in 1840, mentored from his late teens by his uncle, John Taylor, the third President of the LDS Church. Grandfather was living with the Taylors at the time the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was martyred. In fact, Uncle John was with Joseph then and was shot several times himself. So, Grandfather’s life was co-mingled with the Church’s early history.
Some of the most impressive stories that I heard about Grandfather were when he was a young missionary in the Sandwich Islands (i.e. Hawaii). Initially, he arrived with nine others, but half of them quickly became discouraged and left, as neither the sailors nor Protestant ministers were interested in their Gospel message.
To stay or to leave was a difficult decision for all of them. So, with all of the faith and inner determination that his youth could produce, Grandfather inquired of the Lord what he should do.
We were in a foreign land, far distant from the Apostles and First Presidency, and, therefore, could not appeal to them. Our only resource was to obtain revelation from the Lord for ourselves. This is the privilege of every man and woman in the Church. If Latter-day Saints seek for knowledge, God will give it to them to guide them in all the details of life, subject, of course, to the presiding authority and its teaching and counsels. By this means we were able, on the Sandwich Islands, to know what course to take. (George Q. Cannon, My First Mission)
Once knowing the Lord’s will, Grandfather “could not go home under any existing circumstances without feeling condemned. The Lord, in my opinion, … would hold me accountable for not doing my duty to that people, if I were to leave them; and the people might rise up in judgment against me at some future day, for not having given them the privilege of hearing the truth.” (George Q. Cannon, My First Mission)
Before Grandfather and his remaining four companions completed their missions, an amazing 4,000+ Hawaiians had joined the Church, and he had translated the Book of Mormon into the Hawaiian language with the assistance of Jonathan Napela, a district court judge of Hawaiian royal descent.
Being committed to serve the Lord in all things, Grandfather ultimately became an Apostle in 1860 at the age of thirty-three, a Counselor to four Presidents of the LDS Church, the Utah Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress (1872-82), principal negotiator for Utah statehood, editor of the Deseret News and founder of George Q. Cannon & Sons Publishing, which later became the Deseret Book Company.
Another early story Mother shared with me about staying true to the Lord was told by my Great Grandfather Edward Stevenson, one of the “First Seven Presidents” of the “First Council of the Seventy.” During his many missionary journeys, he made a point of seeking out each of the three witnesses who had actually seen the gold plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, and he “was personally favored with many conversations with” them. (Edward Stevenson, Joseph, the Prophet, and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon, 1893)
Previous to those visits, they had collectively testified:
… we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shewn unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an Angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; … the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. … (Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, “The Testimony of Three Witnesses”, The Book of Mormon, 1830 Edition)
“Notwithstanding everyone of these three witnesses withdrew from the Church in 1838, yet they remained firm in their declarations to the truth of their testimony.” (Edward Stevenson, Joseph, the Prophet, and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon, 1893)
As a young child, that amazed me. Their experience seeing the gold plates and hearing the voice of the Lord was so real that they dared not ever deny having had it no matter who laughed at them, ridiculed them or even gave them an easy way to “wiggle” out of their younger commitment. That tenacity was very important to me as a youngster, as it still is today.
In 1870, Grandfather emigrated with Martin Harris, one of those three witnesses, to Utah, where he rebaptized him into the Church. Of their journey it was written “Mr. Harris is in his 88th year, though still quite vigorous and sprightly, and he is Mormon soul and body. He, as he claims, and as Mormons claim, together with two others, Oliver Cowdry [sic], deceased, and David Whitmore [sic], now an apostate living in Missouri, were the divinely appointed witnesses to the Book of Mormon. The old gentleman evidently loves to relate the incidents with which he was personally connected, and he does it with powerful enthusiasm.” (Daily Iowa State Register, August 28, 1870, p. 4, column 4). “… by his request” Grandfather “baptized him [September 17, 1870], and President George A. Smith, and of the Twelve Apostles, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith, and Orson Pratt confirmed him by laying on of hands, Orson Pratt being mouth.” (“Journal History of the Church,” September 17, 1870, p. 1; Deseret News, December 28, 1881, XXX, 763)
With Grandfather Cannon being, among other things, a book publisher and newspaper editor, my Mother’s Dad having gone east in 1888 to become an MD and her Mother having graduated from the University of Utah in 1881 and afterwards having been a principal of three schools while also helping organize the first Kindergarten in Utah, it’s understandable that continuing education was highly encouraged in our home.
However, I realized the principle goes much deeper than that, as it was a key concept within the Mormon faith. For instance, the Doctrine and Covenants, the fourth book of canonized scripture in the Church, contains these frequently quoted verses:
“… seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek ye learning even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)
“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.” (D&C 130:18)
Dad also took very seriously Brigham Young’s encouragement to learn multiple languages; and during my childhood, he knew seven. Mother knew five. So, when they wanted to speak privately, they chose a language their seven children did not understand. Once they caught on, Mother and Dad would switch languages.
As a busy doctor, my Grandfather Wilcox saw many women suffer greatly when their husbands passed away and they did not have sufficient skills and/or education to support their families easily. So that was an additional reason why, as a child, Mother was encouraged to get advanced degrees. This included her father matching her savings dime for dime, so that she could join her brother, Fred, in Europe, attend the 1910 (once every ten year, eight-hour long) Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, and even tour Egypt before starting classes at the Royal University of Berlin (1911) and private study in Paris (1910). Later, she was one of the first ten women in Utah to get a masters degree (1913), when only about 7% of Americans were graduating from high school. She continued to take doctoral classes into her late 80s. Her brother, Fred, studied medicine at Harvard.
As for myself, I never did graduate from high school. But with the help of my sister, Jane, my brother-in-law, Dr. Julian Steward, a world renowned anthropologist, and the encouragement of my parents, I began full scholarship studies at the avant-garde and prestigious Deep Springs College, located north of Death Valley, when I was barely 16 years old. Its goal was to educate practical idealists who would become future national leaders, and it was affiliated with Telluride House on the Cornell campus. In recent decades, Deep Springs entering-student test scores have ranked second only to Cal Tech.
Upon the death of my father just two years later, I transferred to the University of Utah, and Mother, having diligently followed her father’s advice to be well educated “just in case,” began teaching classes there.
I could have graduated at nineteen. But I chose instead to round out my education by being associate editor of the student paper, The Daily Chronicle; Chairman of Founders Day; swimming letterman; annual intramural debate champion and Student Body President. Meanwhile, I was working at the Hotel Utah as a page boy/bell hop and maintaining a high enough GPA to be admitted into a Harvard PhD program with a scholarship after my nearly three year Church mission to Argentina.
Among the many reasons that I worked so hard at my studies was because of a story that my Dad had told me as a young child about Grandfather Cannon’s serious efforts to learn the Hawaiian language and the miraculous results that followed:
My desire to learn to speak was very strong; it was present with me night and day, and I never permitted an opportunity of talking with the natives to pass without improving it. I also tried to exercise faith before the Lord to obtain the gift of talking and understanding the language. One evening, while sitting on the mats visiting with some neighbors who had dropped in, I felt an uncommonly great desire to understand what they said. All at once I felt a peculiar sensation in my ears; I jumped up to my feet, with my hands at the sides of my head, and exclaimed to Elders Bigler and Keeler who sat at the table, that I believed I had received the gift of interpretation! And it was so. From this time forward I had but little, if any, difficulty in understanding what the people said. (George Q. Cannon, My First Mission)
Another important dimension of the emphasis that the Church placed on education was shared with me by my Mother about two early studies by a Columbia Professor, E.L. Thorndike. In later life, I actually reviewed those studies and found them reassuring. In production of scientists, Utah (in relation to its population) was over 40% higher than the second highest state, Colorado. In production of men of achievement, Utah was over 30% higher than the second state, Massachusetts. This was, of course, despite the enormous energy that had to go into making the desert “blossom as a rose.”
Mother also set up an appointment for me at the home of scientist and Apostle Joseph F. Merrill, so that he could explain to me how scientists could also have faith. I found it significant that people whose profession required that they accept as certain only that which was proven by indisputable evidence could also be strong members of a Church that was convinced of the three members of the Godhead, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and modern revelation.
I was also very impressed early on that, in the LDS church, the most educated members were usually the most active in the Church—a fact that has since been substantiated by Dr. Stan L. Albrecht, current President of Utah State University, and also by Dr. Richard T. Wootten (Saints and Scientists, 1992). Thus, one of my favorite Sunday activities while at the University of Utah was to attend Church firesides and sacrament meetings that featured prominent scholars like the chemist Dr. Henry Eyring, who had published hundreds of scientific articles and worked with Albert Einstein at Princeton.
Another major concept emphasized within the Church was that of one’s individual responsibility in maintaining health and wellness. For instance, the Church’s book of modern scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, describes an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables and adequate rest, as well as avoiding that which would harm the body, long before these issues were commonly researched and widely promoted throughout the country.
My parents also encouraged that healthy lifestyle. We ate lots of salads and other fresh fruit and vegetables while also avoiding red meat except during the winter months when fresh produce was scarce. Dad also urged me to drink eight to ten glasses of good water, take modest-sized portions and chew my food twenty times each bite.
To further emphasize the importance of choosing foods wisely, Dad took me to lunch with Apostle John A. Widtsoe, a prominent chemist, at the Lion House located next to the Church’s headquarters building. After a very interesting discussion about the many diseases that are encouraged by refined sugar, he implored me to eat as little as possible of it. He was convinced that refined sugar was as addictive as morphine.
Now, of course, there are numerous studies as to the damaging effects of consuming sugar as well as the long-term effects healthy lifestyles have had on active practicing Mormons. One of my current favorites that emphasizes longevity was conducted by non-Mormon UCLA Public Health professors James E. Enstrom and former dean Lester Breslow. It involved 9,815 California high priests and their wives over a twenty-five year period. They concluded that males who were highly committed to the Mormon lifestyle had a life expectancy of 84.1 years, which was 9.8 years greater than the average for U.S. white males. Highly committed females had a life expectancy of 86.1 years, which was 5.6 years longer than the typical life expectancy of U.S. white females. (Preventive Medicine, 2008)
Another study that supports the emphasis on health that I like was conducted by the Intermountain Medical Center. Its 14 researchers concluded that Mormon-type fasting for 24 hours without food or water on the first Sunday of each month resulted in a 40% reduction of risk for the dreaded coronary heart disease. The results were so astounding that they duplicated the study and the previous conclusion was completely reaffirmed. (American Journal of Cardiology, 2008; Journal of Cardiology, June 1, 2012)
When life’s journey still leads to illness, accident, or confusion, members of the Church are encouraged to get special blessings from authorized priesthood holders such as those told about in the New Testament. There are many impressive stories about the resultant healings throughout Church history. One that had a unique impact on me as a child was hearing how Grandfather Cannon restored sight to a blind man while on his mission in Hawaii.
However, over time, each of us ultimately passes from this life to the next; and one of my first experiences being taught what that is like came from my Mother. Dad was in Colombia, working on a business project with financing from Jesse Knight, and she had just settled the family into her parents’ summer mountain retreat at Spring Dell when she contracted diphtheria. It was also the height of the 1918 influenza epidemic, and her condition became very severe.
“My mind was suddenly overwhelmed with an other-world atmosphere that rushed in on me. It took me back to my earliest memories. I realized that the scenes of my whole life were passing before my mind. … Silently, I slipped out of my cumbersome human framework. … The dreadful headache, the choking throat, the ache from the antitoxin shots were all gone. I felt light and strong and free and full of health. My intelligence and understanding seemed greatly sharpened. The dross was washed away and there was a flood of clarity …. Everything seemed functioning in perfect harmony. Everything felt so right. This was exquisite joy. …”
Among the throng of people she saw were her grandparents, Edward and Elizabeth Stevenson. Her companion/escort then “said,”
‘You may elect to go back to mortality if you desire. … If you do return, you will be going back to trouble and illness.’ … I understood that this was not a threat but a simple fact of life. … Although it was all I could do to handle my complicated life when I was well and strong, I felt a resurgent feeling that I should take my place at the side of my husband. ‘I will go back’, I announced to my guide. (Ramona Stevenson Wilcox Cannon, unfinished autobiography, tentative chapter title “Through the Portals of Death With a Joy”, 3rd draft, 1978)
Thanks to her selfless decision, I was born ten years later. By then, Mother had cancer; but she delayed having a mastectomy until after I had been weaned. She lived a very challenging yet fulfilling life and finally passed away sixty years later, in 1978, of pneumonia at 91 years of age. She had published more than 4,000 articles after the age of 60, received numerous awards and served on four stake boards. Her last publication, “One Cannot Live Long Enough to Outgrow a University,” was the lead article in the University of Utah’s feature book Remembering. It was released in 1981, following her passing, and was still being displayed and distributed by them decades later.
Her profound example of personal sacrifice on behalf of my six older siblings as well as myself and others was in keeping with what I knew of many other Saints throughout Church history. For instance, though having a meager income by being a seamstress following the passing of her husband, Grandmother Cannon was the first to donate to the building of the Laie Hawaii Temple; although quite advanced in years, she also accepted an invitation by Church President Heber J. Grant to make the extensive trip by train and ship across the Pacific Ocean to be the first woman to speak at a Mormon temple dedication (11/27/1919).
Grandmother Stevenson was also very dedicated to serving others. Along with Grandmother Cannon, she was a charter ordinance worker in the newly dedicated Salt Lake Temple (1893). They both also served on the Church’s presiding women’s general board, called the Relief Society, as did Grandmother Wilcox. It was on one of these numerous speaking assignments that Grandmother Stevenson got sick and passed away.
Her ambition to do her duty fully led her to go on that last journey when she was really so ill she should have been taken care of in her home. It was at Emery City in Emery County sixty miles beyond the railroad, that she died of pneumonia, April 25, 1906. Her faithfulness and her zeal were among her most outstanding characteristics. (Elizabeth Jane Stevenson Wilcox, Stevenson Family History, p245)
Further examples of service that influenced me were how, during the Great Depression, my parents readily took in a hobo, Colonel Worthington, to live with us. He was full of fascinating stories for a curious young man such as myself. Later, Dad’s brother, Angus, his wife, Miriam, and Grandmother Wilcox also moved in with us, as did Mother’s sister, Mary. Being a popular Granite High School history teacher, Aunt Mary had a prodigious knowledge of American history and a love of our heroes. Thus, she heavily influenced my desire to be a part of that American heritage.
Also representative of how supportive the extended family was, descendents of Grandfather Cannon’s sister, Ann, invited me to live with them in the Mormon colony of Colonia Dublan, Chihuahua, Mexico, for six months when I was just twelve years old. Here the Wilford Farnsworth/Orrin Romney families immersed me in Spanish as well as stories about the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa’s bullets could still be seen in the upper walls of their home. Through these and many other experiences, I was introduced to the importance of preserving and appreciating family history as well as the Church’s history.
While working for the Church as First Counselor in the General Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association presidency, Dad had access to genealogical information. I really enjoyed hearing his stories about how we descended from Alfred the Great, Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror, Charlemagne, etc. as well as seventh/eighth cousins of both General Douglas MacArthur and Republican presidential candidate Governor Thomas E. Dewey. My relationships with such leaders as Abraham Lincoln (third cousin four times removed) and Brigham Young (first cousin four times removed) were also mentioned.
In one instance in the 1940s, Church President George Albert Smith came to a surprised Cannon family reunion that I attended to tell us that he had been prompted by George Q. Cannon, from the other side of the veil, to come to the reunion and urge his descendants to live up to their heritage by maintaining even higher standards of the Gospel. This visit intensified the motivation of many of us in the audience to strive to do more to help people in need and to help build the Kingdom of God as well as to excel in our professional pursuits.
However, having complete faith in the Lord as well as trust in His Church’s leaders is not always easily executed in real life experiences. This I observed first hand when I was six years old. In November 1934, Dad received a phone call from the President of the Church, Heber J. Grant.
[He] left immediately and was back within the hour. Coming into the house he looked five years older. His blue eyes burned in a face turned chalk white. He sank into a chair, overcoat and all. ‘I am called on a mission,’ he said.
Joseph had a deep love for the gospel as anyone I knew. And missionary work was a way of life with him. When his business had called him to other cities he would pick up hitchhikers to extol the beauties of the gospel to them … ‘I am going to England, that is all I know. President Grant had to go to a meeting and couldn’t finish the interview.’ (Ramona Stevenson Wilcox Cannon, unfinished autobiography, tentative chapter title “Surprise!”, 3rd draft, 1978)
This was the latter end of the era when men were called to leave their wives and families to fill missions. Since missionaries had given up traveling without purse or scrip, their families had to find ways to send them money. In the depth of the Great Depression, up to one third of the people were unemployed and job vacancies essentially nonexistent. So, despite Dad’s working as managing editor of the Deseret News, we “were financially crushed — not a stock or bond left, or any investment bringing in a penny.”
My Mother further wrote:
For me, that night was one of the most wide-awake experiences in my lifetime. … Suddenly, unaccountably, the words: ‘Peter’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever’ jumped into my mind. So, Peter was a married man. How did his wife feel, I wondered, when he gave up his fishing enterprise, his family’s livelihood, to follow Jesus? …
I reflected upon our pioneer women and all the early saints. … I had read and heard so much about them; I praised and honored them. But I had thought of them as created out of some different kind of clay — or ‘dust of the earth’ than was used for my contemporaries. I could now understand how they felt.
I thought about my own great grandmother, Maria Wealthy Dewey Richards Wilcox, who lost, and mourned deeply, her first three babies. Then in subsequent years she had to endure the loss of her son, killed in the Hauns Mill massacre, and the loss of son George in the Mormon Battalion March and the loss of a third son in the mission field in England. Tributes had been paid to her for her patience, sweetness and courage through her many trials. …
Morning light was streaking across the sky — time to get the family up and going. I said a little prayer: ‘Well, dear Lord, I’ll leave it up to you. Whatever is to be, I’ll do the best I can’. …
Joseph came home for luncheon at noon. As he came into the kitchen, he looked peaceful and very dear. I gazed at him in wonder. ‘Sit down’, he said. We sat. ‘President Grant didn’t make it clear yesterday, but we are called on a mission. I am to preside over the British Mission — England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. We go as a family. A home is provided and a modest amount for maintenance of the family.’ … a mountain seemed to slide off my shoulders into some invisible abyss. (Ramona Stevenson Wilcox Cannon, unfinished autobiography, tentative chapter title “Surprise!”, 3rd draft, 1978).
However, like Abraham of old when commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, she had passed an excruciatingly difficult test of her willingness to have faith in the Lord and trust His designated Prophet.
In 1863, Grandfather Cannon also served as a mission president in England as the Saints there prepared to immigrate to Utah. Having read many tales by Charles Dickens, I was very interested that he came to the dock and observed the congenial and orderly passengers boarding the ship Amazon. Later he described them as “the pick and flower of England.” Of special interest to him was their practicality, efficiency and cheerfulness. (Dickens, in Mulder and Mortensen, Among the Mormons, 337)
When my family arrived in England in 1934, tensions were beginning to build on the continent that ultimately led to World War Two. These were also dynamic times in England. During our stay, there were three kings. King George V, known as “George the Good,” died in 1936. King Edward VIII was then crowned but shortly thereafter abdicated, leaving George VI as King. Each change was accompanied by parades, which I was privileged to attend.
Mostly, however, I was immersed in the world of the British Mission and how much fun they had developing innovative activities to attract interest in the Church as well as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dad recapitulated the Savior’s command that the missionaries were fishers of men and women. He poignantly emphasized that fishermen do not catch fish unless they have the right bait for the particular fish they are catching, and that to be effective missionaries they had to develop alternative approaches to be able to use the best for each need.
Thus, in addition to teaching the Gospel, Dad encouraged a variety of events that would further improve the attitude of the people towards the Church. Amongst these activities was the first basketball game ever covered on BBC radio. Featured for that game was a highly praised team of our missionaries. Missionary Woody Marriott, brother of J. Willard Marriott who was the founder of the international Marriott Corporation, created (under Dad’s direction) the Rochdale Grays, who, during their first year, won the championship in England with as many as 10,000 people watching. They also won multiple European championships.
Missionaries also formed choirs and performed American Indian/Native American dances in feather headdresses and costuming that were provided by missionary Elder Hicks’s father as part of their efforts to increase interest in the Book of Mormon. They also increased subscriptions to the Church’s magazine, the Millennial Star, from 1300 to 6000. (In 1902, immediately after serving his first mission to Sweden, Dad had been asked to be its editor for two years.)
A bit more challenging, however, was speaking in Hyde Park. Prior to our arrival, missionaries had stopped preaching there because of the hecklers threatening to throw them into the Serpentine, a stream filled with sewage. However, my brave older brother, Adrian, who at seventeen was serving his own mission while we were there, decided with his companion, Jack Boud, that they would try once again in spite of what the consequences might be.
Thus, by the eve of King George VI’s coronation, “continuous speaking by the missionaries and singing by the Millennial Chorus were carried on for eight hours at Hyde Park. Thousands of people stopped to listen.” (Ramona Stevenson Wilcox Cannon, unfinished autobiography, tentative chapter title “Surprise!”, 3rd draft, 1978)
Since the European Mission headquarters was also located at ours, young Gordon B. Hinckley, future President of the Church, often mingled with our missionaries, including preaching at Hyde Park. Thus, when referring to his 1995 interview with Mike Wallace for the 60 Minutes TV program, President Hinckley occasionally mentioned how his own speaking at Hyde Park as a young missionary was helpful in preparing him for this challenging opportunity. The courage of these missionaries was a great example to me.
At a seminar for new mission presidents on June 23, 1996, President Hinckley referred to Dad having emphasized that the primary responsibility of the missionaries was to testify of the divinity of Jesus Christ. He said,
Sixty two years ago I was a missionary in London and attended a meeting of the British Missionaries, a zone meeting it might have been called. Joseph J. Cannon was the president and he said to the missionaries, ‘What is the greatest thing we can do for the people of the British Isles?’ … When they had all given their responses, he said, ‘In my judgment, the greatest thing we can do is to bring to the people of Britain a knowledge concerning Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior and the Redeemer of the world.’
The longer I have lived, the more I have come to that conclusion. The greatest thing we can do is to bring to men and women everywhere, first to ourselves and then to those we teach, a living testimony, a vibrant witness of the reality of Jesus as the Son of God, the Redeemer of mankind. (President Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p 280-1)
At Mother’s funeral, he said that that Dad “was really a remarkable man. I have seen many, many mission presidents, but I think I have seen none who was more anxious to find a way to work more ethically, more efficiently and more fruitfully than Joseph J. Cannon. His head was as full of ideas as a nut is full of meat.”
Dad had hoped that British Mission would also be a period in internalization of the Gospel for me. Consequently, he often took me with him to his activities and, where possible, explained things to me. For instance, Dad also asked me, along with the missionaries, to memorize scriptures for their morning meetings when I was not otherwise at school. By then, I had already acquired a strong Cockney accent. One scripture that I still remember well, accent and all, was “Mark 12:28-32 And one of the scribes came and having heard them reasoning together and perceiving that he had answered them well asked him which is the first commandment of all? …” Another favorite was John 3:16. On March 4, 1937, I was the first person to be baptized in the beautiful and new Ravenslea Chapel in London by my father; and President Richard R. Lyman, Apostle and President of the European Mission, confirmed me.
1937 also marked the centennial of the British Mission. So, President Grant came over to attend the festivities as well as tour the mission. On some of those travels, I was invited to accompany him and my Dad and even to sit on the President’s lap as he taught me several lessons. Thus, the Gospel and its accompanying life with its joys and hardships were deeply ingrained in my soul.
Another vital concept that the Gospel highlights is that of the reality of a very pure quality of love. It is described as celestial love and the most precious and highly valued of all. Other than through divine intervention, such magnificence is impossible to experience for oneself. However, I had the great fortune to have parents that magnified it with each other and, as far as it could be reasonably possible, with their family, friends and associates.
Just one illustration of their near perfect love was reflected in their letters. For instance, Dad opened his letters with salutations such as: “My dear Sweetheart,” “My treasure Wife,” “My own sweet Lady-Love,” “Querido mio – Cuanto te amo,” “To the Light of my Life,” and “Beloved Mona.” He also often ended his letters to Mother with comments such as “Your own true lover forever” and “Fly to me in my dreams, Precious One. I adore you.”
His letters were informative and expressed interest in family members, with occasional comments of his deep feelings, such as: “Think and pray over our affairs and write me your feelings in all these things. In all the uncertainties of life there are a few things that are fundamental and sure. The Gospel of course and the fidelity and love of the dearest girl on all the earth. I dearly worship you my darling sweetheart.” In another letter: “Before very long I do hope that I will be able to be home among you and enjoy the greatest happiness I have ever had on earth, that is in the company of my family.”
Mother’s love and admiration for Dad were equally profound. I can only remember one time when I ever heard them raise their voices (far below the level of screaming). Afterward they were so sorry that they poured out their love and apologies. Even though they often had different perspectives on things, they enjoyed and benefited from each other’s perceptions and wisdom without having ego fights as to whose view was the most correct.
I know of nothing more beautiful in life than perfect congeniality of husband and wife. I do not look for the congeniality of which I speak merely in fondness of the couple for each other …. But I look for it in community of interest, in a real partnership which entails mutual appreciation, respect and love. My observation convinces me that such congeniality always existed between Joe and Mona. Their tastes seemed to be alike; their interests were mutual and they had marked abilities along similar lines. I have heard him speak his admiration for her. I believe their association has been as nearly perfect as I have ever known among my associates. (Stephen L. Richards, Apostle, future First Counselor to President David O. McKay and Mother’s second cousin, once removed; Joseph J. Cannon Funeral Address, November 6, 1945)
Yet, the question for me remained: Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints truly the Savior’s? Grandfather Cannon wept as a child because he didn’t live at the time of the Savior and therefore couldn’t have been a help to Him; but upon hearing the Gospel message taught by his uncle, John Taylor, he knew the truthfulness of it and latter-day service came easily to him. Great Great Grandmother Wilcox had one of her precious sons murdered at the Hauns Mill massacre, just because he was a believer.
The prominence of good versus evil was real to me. So, as a four/five-year-old, I had conversations with two imaginary friends. Brook always chose good and helped things turn out well, while Ditch always chose evil and got into trouble. Then, as well as when I was a maturing adult, I wanted to be good. That meant serving an LDS mission for the Church after graduating from the University of Utah.
Personal Illumination: Acquiring My Own Testimony
I arrived in Argentina in September, 1949, after a long steamship trip with three other missionaries, having just graduated from the University of Utah at the age of 20. President Harold Brown was young, bright, articulate, well organized and super committed. He sensed the seriousness of my wanting to make the most of my mission and gave me a great first assignment as companion to Elder Crosby, the president of the Buenos Aires District. This was somewhat like having both missionary and church organization responsibility for a giant city like Los Angeles or Paris. Over the decades, that single District grew into multiple Stakes of 7-10 congregations with a beautiful Temple.
I loved the intensity of our work and the wonderful Argentine Saints but, at the same time, I was praying intensely and repeatedly sought spiritual confirmation that our Church was created by God and was the restoration of the pure original Church created by Christ when He was on earth. In return for a complete testimony, I promised that I would devote my entire life to living Christ’s commandments to the best of my abilities and helping to build His Kingdom.
This was before missionaries were given language training, but I had learned enough Spanish for basic communication. So, I accepted an invitation to speak in a Sacrament Meeting in the Caseros chapel, along with President Crosby, less than a month into my mission. I carefully and studiously wrote down every word of my talk. Before the early evening meeting, I read Apostle Orson Pratt’s cogent piece “Was Joseph Smith Called by God?”
Following the reading, I prayerfully thought about it and received a peaceful calm spiritual communication of the Holy Ghost to my spirit that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was created and led by God, not by humans alone! This was not like thunder. It was a great illumination, a sense of being privy to the big picture. It was deeply satisfying. It was a clarification that the multitude of positive observations about and experiences with the Church that I had previously were all part of the big picture, but alone missed the central cause of it all.
It simply could not have all come from pure chance. It was somewhat like imagining seeing many dozens of beautiful ripe apples in the air and realizing that they could not be created and exist by accidental pure chance. To think so would miss a major part of the image. It was the tree that created, nourished and grew the apples from its own roots and methods and held them in the air until they were picked. There was no way that the apples could have been created by accidental chance. It, and multitudes of other complicated objects, had to have had an intelligent creator with divine intelligence—i.e., God. It was also like trying to define an automobile by describing all of its parts and abilities but without including the motor that made it operate.
Therefore, I concluded that all the beautiful things in the teachings of the scriptures, the Church, the successful activities and growth of the Church, and the wonderful lives and growth of those who consistently followed the commandments could not have come from pure chance. Something critical was missing. That was the role of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. With them, everything converged!
It is critically important to note that this was categorically different from learning something through reading, conversation or thought. Paul urged the Philippians to “let your requests be made known unto God” with “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” “And the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
This spiritual communication and illumination brought me “the peace that passeth all understanding.” Indeed, this brief statement describes the miracle of an answer to prayer that millions of others have experienced, and all are invited to experience it. It has stayed with me for the six-plus decades since then, and such divine guidance has been repeated. I felt that experience sealed a permanent relationship with God that was promised in my patriarchal blessing.
So, with this new and very clear confirmation of the reality of God and His divinely established Church, I set aside the written speech that I had intended to give to the Caseros members and instead spoke fluently under the influence of the Spirit without any notes.
A Life Partnered With God
With this clarity of knowledge and partnership with God, I prayerfully determined to be the most effective possible missionary that I could. As an example, mission president Brown asked the missionaries to add to the lower economically depressed areas we tended to work some upper middle class homes. I felt guided to choose an attractive area that we had seen while bicycling toward our assignments and sensed that we should start with a large home on a corner. We clapped at the gate many times and obtained no response. Peddlers pushing their carts down the street stared at us as if they were saying “Don’t you know that they are either not home, or they do not want to talk with YOU?” Nevertheless, I felt a spiritual impression that we should continue to clap.
Finally, a very irritated man walked from behind the house to the gate to see who was bothering him. Though it was not our typical starting discussion, I explained about the Book of Mormon. Mr. Guzman looked very European. However, he completely lightened up, said that he had a little indigenous ancestry and that he had always been curious about earlier people in the Americas. The discussion made clear that this book contained scripture from ancient people and was part of the restored gospel of Christ. He was fascinated with this possibility and promised to visit our Church on Sunday. This he did—and never quit.
His wife and three daughters soon decided that he had become a better husband and father since he became interested in our church, and they all started attending with him. Ultimately all were baptized, and the daughters went on missions. In time, the whole family moved to the United States. The daughters married solid, high-energy LDS men, and their children also had productive missions—many to Chile.
Family members have estimated that if you count all the people they helped bring into the Church, all that those converts had helped bring and all that those additional converts had helped bring in, etc. there could easily be 400 to 500 new members of the Church as a result of my heeding that divine prompting to stay at the gate and continue clapping. Such dramatic miracles as this certainly come through divine intervention. I am so grateful that I faithfully responded to the Spirit and continued to clap at that gate, thus assisting the Lord in introducing so many to His encompassing love.
In my life, I have had the good fortune to win numerous scholarships, awards, and jobs. However, in no case did I feel that the result was totally, or even largely, from my effort. I have always felt that there was divine help. Many times I have received heavenly guidance.
Let me give one additional example. When I had emerged as a finalist from a field of more than seven hundred for the new statutory position of Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice of the United States (now called Counsel), a Columbia professor who knew Washington, D.C., having served as Deputy Attorney General, said that no one would be able to stay in this new position more than six months. Furthermore, Chief Justice Warren Burger had something of a “tough guy” public image. So, even though I had submitted my application in a somewhat casual way, I now had to face the possible question of whether I wanted to accept a job from which I might be publicly ejected in a few months—a thought that somewhat terrified me.
After my long and fascinating interview with the Chief Justice. We agreed that we would both think about it for a week until the following Saturday. I prayed earnestly several times. On Wednesday, I woke up at 3 AM with a feeling of complete illumination and calm and with three salient inspired conclusions in my mind: first, the Chief Justice was going to offer me the position; second, I would be able to develop a very close, warm and productive relationship with him and I should accept the offer; third, it would be a very good thing for my children’s growth and opportunities. That was a very important goal of mine!
So, I quickly wrote him a brief letter and sent it to him special delivery saying that I had thought it over, that I was very excited about the potential to help him modernize the judiciary, and that, if he offered the position, I would happily accept it. On Saturday, he phoned to offer the position and urge me to come to Washington as soon as possible.
Such heavenly communication has helped many times since I received my testimony, and the “peace that surpasses all understanding” has been part of my life ever since. It has allowed me to keep my cool in sometimes very complicated circumstances and has helped me resolve difficult situations without destructive “warfare.” I have sincerely tried to do my best and then let God do the rest.
It has also been my experience that Heavenly Father teaches us with His perfect timing in unique and personalized ways based on our desires, diligence and readiness. May you also feel His love and personal interest during this magnificent journey of your own.
Mark W. Cannon (M.P.A, Ph.D., Harvard University) served on congressional staffs in both the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States prior to chairing the Department of Political Science at Brigham Young University. From there, in 1965, he went to the Institute of Public Administration in New York, serving as its director from 1968-1972. Between 1972 and 1985, he was Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice of the United States, in which role he had responsibilities relating to the entire federal judiciary. From 1985 to 1988, he served as Staff Director of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution.
Co-author of Urban Government for Valencia, Venezuela and The Makers of Public Policy: American Power Groups and Their Ideologies, Dr. Cannon is also the author of more than eighty articles dealing largely with innovative planning, managerial leadership, and voluntary service in public and private sectors. He served as guest editor for a special issue of Phi Kappa Phi’s National Forum entitled Toward the Bicentennial of the Constitution, securing articles by President Ronald Reagan, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and a number of leading scholars that, among other things, was sent by the American Bar Association to all of its members. He has lectured at more than seventy institutions in eighteen countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Japan, Taiwan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Nigeria.
Dr. Cannon has been an officer for the American Political Science Association and in various private enterprises in the technology and energy sectors, chaired the National Advisory Council of Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management, served on the Inter-American Advisory Council for the U.S. Department of State, and, from 1979 to 1985, was a member of the Harvard Overseers’ Committee to Visit the Law School.
Posted March 2016