George Q. Cannon's Faith Led to Miracles in Early Hawaiian Mission

Contributed By By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 30 June 2014

During the Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series, Chad Orton of the Church History Department speaks about George Q. Cannon and the beginnings of the Hawaiian Mission.  Photo by Sarah Reid.

Article Highlights

  • The faith of Elder George Q. Cannon led to remarkable, miraculous experiences.

“When George ... sailed for home after three and a half years in the islands and nearly five years away from home, more than 5,000 individuals had been baptized.” —Chad M. Orton, Church History Department historian

Accepting a call to serve as one of the first 10 missionaries in the Sandwich, or Hawaiian, Islands on September 24, 1850, George Q. Cannon was for nearly four years “at the center of one of the most inspiring and successful 19th-century Latter-day Saint missions,” a historian with the Church History Department said in a June 12 lecture.

Chad M. Orton, a history specialist working with the Historic Sites Division, was the latest speaker in the monthly Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series sponsored by the Church History Library and held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

“During this time, he began to develop the traits that would lead to him becoming one of the great Latter-day Saints of the 19th century,” said Brother Orton of Elder Cannon’s service.

Titling his lecture “The Lord Has Opened Our Way,” Brother Orton recounted the fortitude and faith of Elder Cannon and his associates that led to remarkable, sometimes miraculous, experiences.

“George’s Hawaii mission in many regards is the epitome of Doctrine and Covenants 4,” Brother Orton observed. “He approached it with faith, hope, charity, and love, with an eye single to the glory of God.

“Throughout his mission he also manifested virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, and diligence. As a result, God gave him power to do the work that he was called to do.”

The mission almost didn’t happen, however, Brother Orton observed.

Technically, it began in the gold fields of California. Called by Church leaders to work the mines to obtain financial means to support the Church, newly settled in Utah Territory, Elder Cannon and his associates “spent an unpleasant and unfruitful year away from home,” Brother Orton said.

Residing at the Slapjack Bar mining camp high in the Sierra Nevada, the missionaries were instructed by Apostle Charles C. Rich to go to the Sandwich Islands for the winter with the thought that it would be as cheap for them to reside there as to remain in the mining camps, where they might fall prey to the gambling and drinking associated with a miner’s life.

But prior to leaving, they suffered a serious setback that ravaged their ability to obtain needed items. A flood destroyed a dam they had been building just as they were getting ready to work their claim.

Dams all along the American River had been harmed or destroyed. “While others along the river immediately left the mines, these Hawaii-bound missionaries, needing a miracle, chose to rebuild their dam and work their claim,” Brother Orton said. “And their efforts paid off: they struck gold.”

Two weeks later the gold gave out, just in time for them to leave for Hawaii.

“No doubt it is all right,” wrote missionary Henry Bigler in his journal, “for our eyes might have been so filled with gold dust that we might not have been able to see.”

It was with considerable difficulty that they sailed for Hawaii; a storm struck the area and trapped the ship in the harbor for a week.

“While trapped in San Francisco Bay under these unpleasant circumstances, George had a dream that would have a great influence on his life and the course of the Hawaiian Mission,” Brother Orton recounted.

In the dream, the men were struggling to raise the ship’s anchor that was held fast in the mud. George saw the Prophet Joseph Smith on the deck and approached him. The Prophet prayed aloud that the anchor might be loosed. Thereafter, one of the men raised it with ease. George told the Prophet he wished he had such faith. Joseph responded that it was his privilege and that he ought to have it.

The experience was harrowing, but the ship finally left the harbor, reaching Honolulu on December 12, 1850, nearly three months after the missionaries received their call.

“The Lord ordered all things for the best; and I could not help thinking of my dream and Joseph’s words in regard to faith,” Elder Cannon wrote.

Among the first acts of the missionaries was to go to Nu’uanu Valley and dedicate themselves and the country for the preaching of the gospel. They were thereafter appointed to their separate fields of labor.

True to his spiritual impression, the island of Maui was assigned to Elder Cannon. There, a turning point awaited Elder Cannon and his companions, Elders James Keeler and Henry Bigler.

Unfamiliar as they were with the language and culture, it had been assumed they would preach to the whites in the islands, who turned out to be fewer than expected. “I felt it to be clearly my duty to warn all men, white and red,” Elder Cannon wrote. “I made up my mind to preach the gospel to the natives and the whites whenever I could obtain the opportunity and thus fulfill my mission.”

They spent their days in study, the task made harder by the scarceness of Hawaiian dictionaries. But the wife of a Congregationalist missionary kindly gave them a dictionary.

A new challenge faced them: By mid-January 1851, they had run out of money. The three missionaries were about to split up when George went to see the elderly woman who lived next door to ask where they might “find a man who would entertain strangers.”

“To his surprise, she offered to move in with her daughter and allow the missionaries to stay in her house,” Brother Orton said. With a full heart, Elder Cannon blessed her and gave her his only possession, a blanket.

By the end of that month, 5 of the original 10 missionaries had either left the mission or were in the process of leaving, either thinking the mission was short-term or concluding that it would be of no use to learn the language because the missionaries had concluded the people were, as one missionary put it, “debased.”

Elder Cannon recounted, “The whisperings of the Spirit to me were that if I should persevere and get the language and preach to this people I should be blessed.”

That was fulfilled. By early March 1851, he set forth to preach the gospel. He started north from Lahaina, the principal city on Maui.

Passing through Wailuku, he felt impressed to return. Two women emerged from a house and, upon seeing Elder Cannon, called out to some men inside, “Oh, here’s a white man.”

Three men came out and exchanged greetings with Elder Cannon: Jonathan Napela, William Uaua, and H. K. Kaleohano. These would be converted and become stalwarts in the Church.

“George is frequently associated with his work of translating the Book of Mormon [into Hawaiian],” Brother Orton said. “This grew in part out of his experiences with this book of scripture during his early days in Hawaii.”

Elder Cannon observed that the natives of the Sandwich Islands had great faith to lay hands on the sick and to have hands laid on them, Brother Orton said. Miracles resulting therefrom became almost commonplace.

Seemingly as an afterthought, he recorded in his journal that a man whom he had blessed the previous Thursday was healed from his blindness that had lasted some 30 years.

“When George and the other former gold miners-turned-missionaries sailed for home after three and a half years in the islands and nearly five years away from home, more than 5,000 individuals had been baptized, which was more than 5 percent of the island’s population,” Brother Orton concluded. “Hundreds came out to bid them goodbye, in sharp contrast to when George had found himself in a distant land among a people whose language and habits ‘are strange to me and I a stranger among them.’”