On September 24, 1850, at age twenty-three, George Q. Cannon accepted a call to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. His Hawaiian mission would last nearly four years, culminating with his release in late July 1854. This following section chronicles his experiences as one of the first Latter-day Saint missionaries to Hawai‘i and details the fascinating and inspiring story of the beginning of the Hawaiian Mission.
Cannon’s Hawaiian mission journal begins the day of his call and continues through October 1854, when he arrived at the new Latter-day Saint settlement of San Bernardino, California, on his way home to the Salt Lake Valley. Although various overviews of Cannon’s mission experiences and the beginning of the Church in Hawai‘i are available, the publication of his journal now allows this pivotal chapter in his life and in the history of the Church to be told in detail. 1
Cannon’s connection with Hawai‘i did not end with his mission. As a missionary in Hawai‘i, he translated the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian but was released from his missionary service before the volume was published. An epilogue has been included here that examines the events surrounding the publication and initial distribution of the Hawaiian Book of Mormon, which occurred primarily between May 1855 and January 1858 while he was serving another mission—this time in San Francisco. 2
At the time of Cannon’s call to Hawai‘i, he had already been away from his home in the Salt Lake Valley for nearly a year. In the fall of 1849 he was called to join a company of Latter-day Saints bound for California, most of whom were to labor in the recently discovered gold fields. Regarding his call, Cannon later wrote, “My instructions were to go to California and be guided by the counsels of Elders Amasa M. Lyman and Charles C. Rich, two of the Twelve Apostles.” He further noted: “There was no place that I would not rather have gone to at that time than California. I heartily despised the work of digging gold. . . . There is no honorable occupation that I would not rather follow than hunting and digging gold.” 3 4
Nevertheless, on October 12, 1849, he began what would become a strenuous, exciting, and near-fatal journey along the southern route from Great Salt Lake City to Isaac Williams’s ranch near present-day Chino, California. For most of the trip Cannon faithfully kept a journal, but on December 9 he stopped writing, shortly before he reached the Cajon Pass.
When Cannon took up his pen again in late September 1850 after nine months of silence, he was at Slap Jack Bar, a mining camp on the Middle Fork of the American River, working at a branch store of the Salt Lake Trade Company. His first entry coincides with the arrival of Charles C. Rich on September 24 to issue new mission calls. The exact nature of Cannon’s activities during this nine-month period is largely a matter of speculation. It is no surprise, however, that Cannon and the other gold missionaries in his company ended up at Slap Jack Bar in fall 1850. By early August 1850, stories were circulating about the success miners were experiencing on the Middle Fork. The 5 Daily Alta California reported: “We learn that the most satisfactory results have attended the operations upon the bed of the river on the Middle Fork. Among other instances of the general success, a party of nine, who had just finished a wing-dam, took out the first day $1200, and increased daily up to one hundred and fifty ounces.” 6
Such luck, however, eluded Cannon and his associates. William Farrer, who had traveled with Cannon to California in 1849 and was with him at Slap Jack Bar in September 1850, later described his gold mining experiences this way: “We arrived in February and commenced work digging the precious metals out of the earth, at which I continued with not very good success till the 25th of September.” Henry Bigler, who had been present when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848 and was another Cannon associate on the trail and at Slap Jack Bar, told a similar tale in September 1850: “I have been at work ever sence my arrival in the mines which was the last of february exposeing myself liveing out in Rains & Snow, traveling and prospecting building and repaireing dams workeing up to my neck in water, and for weeks in water up to my waste & arms and have made but little, the expences over run the gain.” 7 8
On the same day that Rich reached Slap Jack Bar, a flash flood brought on by several days of unseasonably heavy rain destroyed the missionaries’ work. Concerning this deluge, the Daily Alta California reported that “many of those who have been engaged in damming operations for the last two months, find all their labor fruitless on account of the rise. The water had just fallen sufficiently to test the beds of the streams.” The mass destruction of dams caused by this flood prompted most of the miners along the Middle Fork to abandon their claims until the following year. 9 This latest setback prompted Bigler to write sentiments that his fellow gold missionaries understood only too well: 10
I am thankful that I am well and that the Lord has preserved my life thus far. . . . Many things I have past through that I shall not write because the most have gone from my mind at present. I have exposed myself much boath to indians and wether more than I ever want to do again, liveing out in storms of snow and rain without she[l]ter. Some of my brethren have died, . . . most all my Brethren have been sick haveing been much exposed working in the water up to their arms & necks building dams to get a little gold. . . . I am tired of mineing and of the Country and long to be at home among the Saints. 11
While the gold-seeking activities of Cannon and his fellow Mormon forty-niners had not been as profitable as hoped, their behavior was largely what Church leaders could have desired. In July 1850, Lyman and Rich wrote Brigham Young that “the Brethren which arrived last winter brought with them a good spirit and continue to act as patterens for those who have lost the spirit and have strayed from the paths of righteousness. There are but few of them who have fallen in to the path of the Gambler or the Drunkard.” According to family tradition, Cannon successfully separated himself from the negative aspects of the mining life: “This was the occasion for his first and last taste of whiskey. Some rowdy miners, resentful that he wouldn’t join their alcoholic festivities, threw him to the ground and forced whiskey down the throat of the resisting young man with the tightly closed eyes.” 12 13
Against this backdrop, Rich arrived at Slap Jack Bar to issue calls for some individuals to seek spiritual rather than temporal treasure. Rich had previously approached Cannon, Bigler, and others about the possibility of a mission to Hawai‘i. For others of the company, however, the call came as a surprise. On September 24, Rich officially extended a new mission call to Cannon. The following day he issued calls to Bigler and seven other Latter-day Saint miners in camp: Thomas Whittle, James Keeler, John Dixon, Thomas Morris, William Farrer, James Hawkins, and John Berry. 14 Additionally, Rich extended calls to two others laboring on nearby rivers: Hiram Clark, who was to serve as president of the mission, and Hiram H. Blackwell. 15
At least two factors influenced Rich’s thinking in issuing these calls. First, given the exorbitant cost of living in California, he felt that expenses during the winter months would be no greater preaching the gospel in the Sandwich Islands than remaining in or near the gold fields with little to do until mining activities began again in the spring. Second, Rich wanted to distance these Latter-day Saints from the evils associated with an idle miner’s life, particularly gambling and drinking. 16
These missionaries who opened the Hawaiian Mission came from varied backgrounds. At twenty-three years of age, Cannon was the youngest of the group, while fifty-five-year-old Clark was the oldest. Morris and Bigler were veterans of the Mormon Battalion. Dixon had been a member of the original pioneer company that entered the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young in July 1847. Clark, Hawkins, and Whittle were married, while Keeler was a widower with a young daughter back in Utah. Clark, who had been called the previous winter to assist Rich and Lyman with the work in California, was a veteran of several missions, including three in England. Blackwell originally had been called as a missionary to the Society Islands the previous year but concluded to stay in California instead.
Concerning his call, Cannon later noted:
When a youth, it was my good fortune to live in the family of President John Taylor [Cannon’s uncle by marriage]. It was my chief delight in those days, to listen to him and other Elders relate their experience as missionaries. Such conversations were very fascinating to me. They made a deep impression upon me. The days of which they spoke, were the days of poverty, when Elders traveled without purse and scrip, among strange people who were ignorant of our principles, and too many of whom were ready to mob and persecute. They traveled by faith, and were pioneers for the Lord in strange lands, and He was their only reliance. Their missions were rich in instances of His power exhibited in their behalf. What I heard strengthened my faith and increased the desire in my heart to be a missionary. No calling was so noble in my eyes as that of a standard-bearer of the gospel. 17
The Hawaiian missionaries of 1850 were not the first Latter-day Saints called to labor in those islands. Missionaries had been called to Hawai‘i in 1843 (they sailed from Massachusetts, across the Atlantic, and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Pacific), but upon reaching French Polynesia, these elders found a people receptive to their message and they chose to stay. Cannon and his associates were not even the first Latter-day Saints to visit the Sandwich Islands or to preach the gospel there. In June 1846 more than two hundred Latter-day Saints traveling from New York to California on the ship 18 Brooklyn had stopped at Honolulu for supplies. During their stay, the company’s leader, Samuel Brannan, preached the first sermon by a Latter-day Saint in the islands. 19
For the missionaries called to Hawai‘i, the timing of the call was less than ideal. Not only had they already been separated from loved ones for an extended period of time, but they had little hope of obtaining needed funds since the traditional mining season had ended. Nevertheless, following Rich’s departure, the missionaries quickly rebuilt their dam and started to work their claim. They then struck gold, gathering enough of the precious metal to outfit themselves for their missions, secure their passage to the islands, and still send some back to Utah.
On November 15, 1850, the elders boarded the
Imaum of Muscat for the voyage to Honolulu. Strong headwinds stranded the vessel in San Francisco Bay, a most unpleasant experience for Cannon and the other missionaries prone to seasickness. The Imaum finally made open sea after a harrowing journey through the Golden Gate.
The Imaum reached Honolulu harbor on December 12. The sea-weary Latter-day Saints on board knew little about the islands to which they had been sent or the people among whom they had been called to labor. As Cannon later wrote: “We landed upon these shores complete strangers,—totally ignorant of the language, customs, and prejudices of the people among whom we landed, with a strong influence to contend against, and that, wielded by these well acquainted with what we were ignorant of—ours seemed a hard lot, unless we could be aided by some power superior to that possessed by mortal.” 20
After dedicating the country for missionary work, the elders were assigned to each of the principal islands, with Cannon and Keeler having responsibility for Maui. Before leaving Honolulu they were joined by Bigler, who was left without a missionary companion when Clark counseled Morris to accept employment.
While some of the missionaries recalled Rich talking to them about wintering in the islands, others, such as Cannon and Bigler, believed that Rich had introduced the possibility of longer service when he suggested that the missionaries act as the Spirit dictated following their arrival. There was little consideration among the missionaries, however, that their mission would involve learning a foreign language. Cannon later characterized his first encounter with native Hawaiians this way: “The monotonous character of their language, their rapid utterance, their numerous gestures, caused us to watch them with interest. We thought them a strange people. I little thought at that time that I would ever learn their language, or become as familiar with their customs as I afterwards did; for, though we had been sent on missions to the Islands, we supposed our time would be occupied in preaching to the whites.” 21
After separating to the various islands, the elders discovered that the number of haole (nonnative Hawaiians) was not as great as expected. There were fewer than two thousand foreigners among the estimated eighty-four thousand residents of the Sandwich Islands in 1850. After the missionaries held public meetings for the foreign-born population, they concluded that the 22 haole had little interest in their message. Cannon later noted, “We soon became satisfied that if we confined our labors to the whites, our mission to those islands would be a short one.” 23
Within days of arriving on Maui, Cannon, Keeler, and Bigler determined to preach to the native population in their own tongue and to work with the haole as the opportunity presented itself. Cannon later recounted their decision: “The idea of leaving the islands, because there were not enough white men to preach the gospel to, was so foreign to the minds of my companions on Maui, and to myself. . . . It would sound badly for ten Elders to be sent out to the islands by Elder C. C. Rich . . . and when we found there were not whites that would receive us, turn around and go home, and leave a whole nation to welter in ignorance, because he did not happen to tell us that we were to preach to them in their own tongue.” Initially, the missionaries on the other islands likewise turned their efforts towards the 24 kanaka (native Hawaiians).
Not surprisingly, however, discouragement followed this new challenge. Hawaiian dictionaries were hard to come by, and with no organized means of learning the language, the missionaries surmised that it would take months, possibly years, before they could preach in Hawaiian. Those who understood their mission to be only for the winter determined to leave. By February, after counseling with Clark, three missionaries had left for home: Dixon, Whittle, and Blackwell. At this time Farrer decided to join the missionaries on Maui. The same month, Clark also left the mission. Before leaving the islands he baptized the mission’s first convert. In addition to the four Maui missionaries, Hawkins remained on the Big Island, where he labored by himself for several months.
Before some of the missionaries decided to leave, Cannon and the other Maui missionaries had an experience that strengthened their resolve to stay. As they prepared to scatter throughout the island in hopes of finding someone who would provide them room and board, a native Hawaiian woman named Nalimanui came forward and provided the means for them to remain together at Lahaina while they studied the language.
During this time, Cannon made note in his journal of receiving a personal confirmation that he was to remain in Hawai‘i: “The whisperings of the spirit to me were that if I should persevere and get the language & preach to this people I should be blessed” (Jan. 25, 1851). Later he wrote: “The Lord revealed to me the good that should be accomplished if I should stay and work [with] this people. So clear was I upon this point that I was resolved to stay here if I had to do so alone.” 25
Cannon’s desire to spread the gospel among the native Hawaiians was matched by his ability to learn the language, a gift that others did not equally share. He reportedly became fluent in Hawaiian more quickly than other foreigners. Before his mission ended, his skills in the language were well known throughout the islands. Latter-day Saint missionaries who subsequently went to Hawai‘i noted that the natives complimented them by saying they “were ‘akamai’ [smart] like George.” 26
By early March 1851 Cannon was confident enough in his language skills to set out to preach the gospel. Converts initially were hard to come by, and he did not perform his first baptisms until June 1851, six months after arriving in the islands. Individuals noting the Latter-day Saints’ initial lack of success reported the fact outside the islands. Church leaders in Utah, however, were more optimistic. In October 1851 the First Presidency wrote to Parley P. Pratt, “We trust a good work will yet be accomplished there, and that those elders who have tarried, and are preparing by the study of the language to fill their missions, will have a joyful reward for their labors.” 27 28
By the time the First Presidency wrote to Pratt, the missionaries in the islands, including Cannon, were already enjoying “a joyful reward,” as baptized membership in the islands exceeded two hundred. Of his early labors Cannon later wrote, “It was in much weakness that I labored in the ministry; but I began to taste a joy that I had never before known, and my heart was filled with praise and gratitude to the Lord for deeming me worthy to receive the priesthood, and to go forth on a mission.” Cannon recalled that word of what was transpiring “was noised about” the Hawaiian Islands: 29
The natives frequently went from one island to another. They are a talkative, gossipy people, and exceedingly fond of telling news, which never loses anything after its first recital. I afterwards traveled all over the group, and I found myself well known by name to all the people. This was frequently embarrassing to me, because I felt that I could not meet the expectations which had been created respecting my skill in the language, etc., etc. The king and his nobles all heard of us, and of what we were doing, and though we were often misrepresented, we could not blame the Hawaiians for much of this. If left to themselves, they had but little of the spirit of slander and persecution so common to the white race. 30
While Cannon is the best known of the Latter-day Saint missionaries who served in the islands at that time—mission president Philip Lewis even prophesied that his name would be held in honorable remembrance by the Hawaiians—and has received much of the credit for the establishment of the Church in Hawai‘i, others contributed much to the success of the mission. Within months of Cannon’s first preaching the restored gospel in the Hawaiian language, the other four missionaries in the islands were also busily engaged in spreading the word. Although frequently struggling with the language, these missionaries also pushed forward in spite of challenges and limitations.
These original elders were joined by four additional missionaries from Utah in the late summer of 1851 and nine more in February 1853. The full-time missionaries, in turn, were assisted by a number of converts who labored long and hard to ensure that the gospel banner was firmly planted in their nation. These individuals have not always received the credit they deserve.
Ultimately, the success of the mission surpassed expectations. When Cannon left Hawai‘i in July 1854, Church membership in the islands numbered around four thousand. These converts were drawn from among both the native and the foreign populations and included prominent members of the community. 31
Missionaries are often profoundly affected by their missions, and Cannon was no exception. His journal describes events that played a major role in his spiritual development. The journal shows him beginning to acquire characteristics that would make him one of the great Latter-day Saint leaders of the nineteenth century. For example, Cannon’s speaking abilities evolved during his mission. By his own admission a mediocre speaker prior to his call, he developed into a powerful orator by the end of his mission and could preach inspiring discourses at a moment’s notice. 32
In many ways Cannon’s Hawaiian mission experience is the story of one man’s success in overcoming obstacles—a story of faith and what it can accomplish. His faith shows through his journals in ways not always found in biographical works about him. The faith that brought him to the islands was strengthened by memorable lessons the Hawaiians taught him. Cannon later noted: “The natives of the Sandwich Islands had great faith to lay hands on the sick, and also to have hands laid upon them when they were sick. It was not contrary to their traditions for them to believe in this ordinance, for their old native priests before the missionaries came, had considerable power which they exercised, and in which the people had confidence.” The pages of Cannon’s journals, along with the writings of other Latter-day Saint missionaries of the time, testify of many miraculous events. 33
Cannon’s journal and other writings of the Latter-day Saint missionaries in Hawai‘i also provide a fascinating view of a country, people, and culture much different from that found in the islands today. Many readers of Cannon’s Hawaiian mission journal will be surprised by life on the islands in the 1850s, while others may find some of the commentary provided by Cannon and others to reflect intolerance. The missionaries’ views, however, were consistent with mid-nineteenth-century attitudes of nonnatives who were living in Hawai‘i. Similarly, Cannon’s phraseology when referring to other religions was consistent with the highly charged rhetoric most denominations employed during the time when referring to other churches.
Cannon and his associates also offer a glimpse of some of the growing pains experienced by a church and missionary program still in their infancy. For those accustomed only to the mature Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its current missionary program of more than eighty thousand missionaries, the depiction of these institutions when barely twenty years old may be somewhat startling.
The Hawai‘i that awaited Cannon and his fellow elders in 1850 was likewise undergoing great changes. These Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in the middle of a century of change that began with the efforts of Kamehameha the Great (Kamehameha I) to unite the islands into one kingdom in the 1790s and ended with the annexation of the islands to the United States in 1898.
Throughout the reign of Kamehameha I, Hawaiians practiced the centuries-old native religion, with its multiple gods and human sacrifices. An important facet of this religion was the kapu (taboo) system, which controlled all aspects of life—from what people could eat to what they could do on holy days—all designed to please the gods. Death was a common penalty for breaking even the most minor kapu. 34
In November 1819, six months after the death of Kamehameha I, his son Kamehameha II overthrew the kapu system, first removing the prohibition against men and women eating together. He then ordered the destruction of all heiaus (temples) and idols associated with the traditional religion. 35
Into this void the first group of Congregationalist missionaries associated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) arrived in Hawai‘i in April 1820. Arriving within a year of the death of Kamehameha I, these missionaries found success in their endeavors to Christianize the islands. At the same time, they exerted influence on most aspects of everyday life in the islands. For example, the missionaries were actively involved in education, creating a written Hawaiian alphabet, founding schools and seminaries, and publishing the Bible in Hawaiian. By 1850, Hawai‘i had a literacy rate estimated at 75 percent, one of the highest of any nation. One visitor to the islands in 1853 concluded: “In no nation on earth is the cause of 36 public instruction more widely diffused, or more sacredly honored and guarded. It is exceedingly difficult to find a child ten years of age who can not read his Bible and other school-books fluently. Probably every native child at the age of twelve and fourteen can read and write well, and is pretty well versed in the rudiments of scholastic science.” 37
With the encouragement of the Congregationalist missionaries, Hawai‘i began a governmental revolution in the 1840s. The nation adopted a constitutional monarchy based upon the British system of government that included a monarch, prime minister (
kuhina nui), privy council, and parliament. A written constitution, based on the United States Constitution, was adopted; it gave the right of religious freedom to Christians but outlawed many former practices of the native religion.
For generations Hawaiians lived under a type of feudalism in which the king owned all the land and individuals could be removed from their homes at any time for any reason. Nobody’s land, not even the highest chief’s, was secure. Under that system, people had little incentive to improve their lands or personal circumstances, and many never learned basic agricultural skills. Through the Great Mahele of 1848, the king relinquished to the chiefs and the people his claims to much of the royal domain, allowing private ownership of land for the first time. During the 1850s, many individuals grappled with what it meant to be a landowner and how to handle the responsibilities that went with it. 38
They also struggled with how to identify their nation. While Captain James Cook proclaimed the archipelago the Sandwich Islands—and it was the name by which the nation was popularly known both within and outside the islands in the 1850s—government officials and the population at large began increasingly to call the islands the Hawaiian Islands or, simply, Hawai‘i. 39
Hawai‘i of the 1850s was not the resort paradise of today, and the Latter-day Saint missionaries faced many challenges. An underdeveloped infrastructure frequently made traveling difficult. Recurrent rain turned dusty roads into muddy quagmires. The many streams that nourished the land frequently swelled with the rain, adding to the challenge. The hot sun and humidity could be stifling, often forcing journeys to be taken late at night or early in the morning. Thomas Karren, a Latter-day Saint missionary who reached Hawai‘i in 1853, noted that “it is not going to Heaven in Golden Slippers preaching the Gospel on these Lands or Islands.” 40
While the lot of the missionaries was not always easy, the circumstances of the Hawaiian convert could also be difficult. Members of the Church experienced various degrees of persecution. False stories circulated against the Church; meetings were disrupted; members and missionaries were physically attacked; some members had their homes and possessions destroyed; others were jailed, fined, or threatened with the loss of their property; some lost their means of employment and standing in the community; and at least one meetinghouse was destroyed. The Latter-day Saint missionaries placed the blame for the persecution largely on the Congregationalist ministers who had spent so many years creating a stronghold in the islands. Cannon later recalled:
The [Congregationalist] missionaries had great influence with the chiefs and the government. Their religion was, in fact, the State religion, though not so declared by law; it was popular to be a member of their church, while it was unpopular not to be connected with it. It looked like a formidable and hopeless task to attempt to preach the gospel to a people and in a government over whom sectarian priests had such complete control. But we knew God could break down every barrier, and remove every obstacle. We put our trust in Him, and we were not disappointed. 41
Because of Hawai‘i’s evolving government, it was often unclear which government officials held which responsibilities and what was the intention of various laws and ordinances. On several occasions Cannon met with national government officials in an effort to secure rights for the Church and its members. For the most part these officials applied the laws of the land fairly, if unenthusiastically, towards the Church, and the Latter-day Saints were ensured equal rights with other Christian denominations. Occasionally, enforcement of the law at the local level was another matter, and the redress Church members received for wrongs committed against them was frequently less than what they had hoped for.
As was the practice of the time, Cannon and the other Latter-day Saint missionaries traveled without purse or scrip, relying solely upon those they met to provide for their needs. They tried to conform as much as possible to the native mode of living, and as a result they came to know the native Hawaiians as only those who daily share meals and lodgings can do. Cannon left detailed accounts of native culture, including feasts and food, housing and habits. He commented on the Hawaiians’ legal and educational systems, as well as on former practices in the islands, including the ancient Hawaiian religion. During his mission he traveled to each of the principal islands and gave descriptions of the places he visited, including Haleakala, the dormant volcano on Maui, and Kilauea, the active volcano on the Big Island.
Cannon later wrote of the physical challenges he experienced and the spiritual blessings he received:
When an Elder has the spirit of his mission, self-comfort is forgotten. He is perfectly happy in declaring the gospel and laboring for the salvation of others, and he gives but little thought to the kind of food he eats, or how he fares in other respects. His bodily wants are swallowed up in his joy in Christ.
These were our feelings at the time of which I write. We were willing to live on any food that would sustain our bodies, however common or even disagreeable it might be; we were glad to get a shelter, however humble, to lie under; our desire was to fill our mission: and because we felt thus, the Lord made up for any lack of comfort by giving us His Holy Spirit. I had never been so happy in my life before as I was then. When I prayed I could go unto God in faith; He listened to my prayers; He gave me great comfort and joy; He revealed Himself to me as He never had done before, and told me that if I would persevere, I should be blessed, be the means of bringing many to the knowledge of the truth, and be spared to return home after having done a good work. Many things were revealed to me, during those days, when He was the only friend we had to lean upon, which were afterwards fulfilled. A friendship was there established between our Father and myself, which, I trust, will never be broken nor diminished, and which I hope has continued to grow stronger from those days to these. 42
Before the opening of the Hawaiian Mission, most of the Church’s converts came from a Western background. Native Hawaiians, however, came from a culture and lifestyle previously unknown in the Church. Given the situation, it is not surprising that practices and programs that had worked in Utah, the United States, and Europe did not necessarily work in Hawai‘i. The Hawaiian missionaries had to deal with these differences without the benefit of long-established practices and programs; without manuals, handbooks, or other guidelines; and with only limited assistance from more experienced Church leaders in Utah.
Moreover, the missionaries were not prepared for the success they encountered in terms of the number of baptisms. Francis Hammond reported fellow missionary Thomas Karren’s concern that it “is but a small part of to baptise the natives [ sic], but the taking care of them afterwards is what puzzles him.” The missionaries realized that the 43 kanaka were at a disadvantage since the Book of Mormon and other Church-related writings were not available in Hawaiian. For their part, the native Hawaiians expressed a desire to experience the Book of Mormon firsthand.
One of Cannon’s best-known contributions while on his mission was his work on a Hawaiian translation of the Book of Mormon. This effort, which he began in January 1852, was completed two years later with the assistance of William Farrer and local
kanaka Jonathan Napela and J. W. H. Kauwahi.
Cannon was driven to share the Book of Mormon with the Hawaiians in part because of what the book had come to mean to him during his early days on the islands. As he explained in
My First Mission:
Some of my readers may be placed in circumstances similar to those which surrounded me a part of the time on the Sandwich Islands; and it may be profitable to tell them how I kept from losing courage and becoming home-sick. My love for home is naturally very strong. For the first year after I left home I could scarcely think about it without my feelings getting the better of me. But here I was in a distant land, among a people whose language and habits were strange to me. Their very food was foreign to me and unlike anything I had ever before seen or tasted. I was much of the time separated from my companions, the Elders. Until I mastered the language and commenced preaching and baptizing the people, I was indeed a stranger among them. Before I commenced holding regular meetings, I had plenty of time for meditation, and to review all the events of my short life, and to think of the beloved home from which I was so far separated. It was then that I found the value of the Book of Mormon. It was a book which I always loved. But I learned there to appreciate it as I had never done before. If I felt inclined to be lonely, to be low spirited or home-sick, I had only to turn to its sacred pages to receive consolation, new strength and a rich outpouring of the Spirit. Scarcely a page that did not contain encouragement for such as I was. The salvation of man was the great theme upon which its writers dwelt, and for this they were willing to undergo every privation and make every sacrifice: What were my petty difficulties compared with those afflictions which they had to endure? If I expected to share the glory for which they contended, I could see that I must labor in the same Spirit. If the sons of King Mosiah could relinquish their high estate and go forth among the degraded Lamanites to labor as they did, should not I labor with patience and devoted zeal for the salvation of these poor red men, heirs of the same promise? Let me recommend this book, therefore, to young and old, if they need comfort and encouragement. Especially can I recommend it to those who are away from home on missions. No man can read it, partake of its spirit and obey its teachings, without being filled with a deep love for the souls of men and a burning zeal to do all in his power to save them. 44
He further noted the challenge he faced of balancing the translation of the Book of Mormon with his other missionary responsibilities:
My fellow-laborers, the Elders, encouraged me, and from the First Presidency at home—Presidents [Brigham] Young, [Heber C.] Kimball and [Willard] Richards—came words of cheer, approving of what I was doing, and counseling me to persevere. The labor of preaching, baptizing, confirming, organizing branches, administering to the sick and traveling around visiting branches, and over other islands, pressed upon me and claimed the greater portion of my time. Those were busy seasons for all who would labor, and they were exceedingly delightful. The Lord seemed very near to us upon those islands in those days. The time occupied by me in translation, were the days and hours which were not claimed by other duties. . . . 45
My labors in the ministry have always been to me exceedingly joyful; but no part of them ever furnished me such pleasure as did my work at translating that precious record. After I commenced it, I had, in preaching, an increased flow of the Spirit, in testimony I had greater power, and in the administration of all the ordinances of the gospel I felt that I had greater faith. I felt very happy. In truth, my happiness was beyond description. Thankfulness constantly filled my heart, because of my being permitted to do this work. 46
In their effort to spread the news of the restored gospel, the missionaries felt that having a press would be a great benefit for printing the Book of Mormon and other Church works in Hawaiian. Cannon spent much of the last six months of his mission traveling the islands raising money for a printing press, which he used to publish the Book of Mormon after the completion of his mission.
Cannon and the other missionaries believed that the gospel was intended to save people physically as well as spiritually. While the population of the islands is estimated to have been as high as three hundred thousand at the time Captain Cook visited them in 1778, diseases introduced by the haole took a heavy toll. By 1850 the population had plummeted to just over eighty-four thousand. By 1854, when Cannon departed his mission, the population had fallen further to around seventy-three thousand, a decrease of eleven thousand. This was due in large part to a devastating smallpox epidemic in the summer of 1853. Concerned about the future of the islands’ inhabitants if the trend continued, the Latter-day Saint missionaries reasoned that if the Hawaiians were to be saved as a people, a lifestyle change was required. Feeling that the Hawaiians’ living conditions, including eating with their fingers from a common dish and keeping farm animals in the house, were exacerbating the problem, Cannon and his associates taught them Western-style habits and ways of living. 47
The effort to change the Hawaiian lifestyle was also motivated by the encouragement most Latter-day Saints at this time were given to gather to Utah to build up the Lord’s kingdom there. If the native Hawaiians were to move to Utah, they would fare better if they knew the ways of the people among whom they would be living. Throughout Cannon’s mission, however, it was uncertain whether Hawaiian law allowed
kanaka to emigrate and whether the Utah climate would be agreeable to them if they could. Finally, Brigham Young encouraged them to find a temporary location in the islands where Church members could be taught gospel principles and practices, including self-sufficiency and cleanliness, separate from outside influences. Cannon participated in the search for such a location during the last part of his mission. At the time he left Hawai‘i, plans were in place to gather the Hawaiian Saints together on the island of Lana‘i.
Cannon’s departure from Hawai‘i in July 1854 naturally was an emotional one. He wrote in his journal about the feelings he experienced at a farewell banquet: “The thoughts of leaving those with whom I had been associated in all circumstances for years on the closest terms of brotherly intimacy, deprived me of all relish for food, and I sat busily engaged in reviewing the past, finding ample food for reflection; my feelings were poignant, and the pangs of parting deprived me of all feelings of joy at the prospect that was opening before me of seeing my mountain home with all its loved associations” (July 29, 1854).
When Cannon returned to Hawai‘i in 1900 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Hawaiian Mission, he again took the opportunity to reflect upon the experiences he had faithfully chronicled in his journal years earlier:
I landed here fifty years ago . . . with very little money, a comparative youth without experience and knowledge of the world. When I commenced my ministry I was a stranger to the people and to the language and friendless and homeless. My lonely and friendless condition and the opposition and enmity I met with at the hands of those who [lacked] the truth caused me to shed many tears, but when the message I bore was received and obeyed, then I was no longer with no one but God, my father, for in conformity with my pro[m]ise to the people that if they would obey the truth, the Lord would give them a testimony and a knowledge for themselves. He did bestow His Spirit upon them and they became witnesses of the truth of the Gospel as well as myself. In this way, thousands of friends were raised up. When I think of the goodness and mercy of God in sparing my life for so long a period and to witness the grand results that God has caused to follow the planting of the Gospel here, I am filled with praise to the Almighty Father for prompting me to do what I did. To Him all the praise and glory is due. 48