Making Your Calling and Election Sure IV. Hard Times. When Pioneer Living is not Enough.

I was in the LDS Church History Library some time back, dwelling amid the dusty productions of yesteryear as is my wont, when I came across a transcription of the diary of James Cantwell.[1] Cantwell was an Irishman. Cantwell became a Mormon in 1842, but financial issues kept him in Britain until 1850 when he took his family to St. Louis. Six years passed before he could get to the Valley.

Cantwell’s diary reveals a remarkable soul, ordinary in many respects, terrifying in others, but never passing that threshold of notice. This is Cantwell’s narration of a kind of Dickensian youth:

I well remember the day of [my father’s] death. I went into the garden immediately after and sat down under a poplar tree, and indulged in Sincere grief. And tho only 7 years old, I in a measure realized the irreparable loss I had Sustained . . . and though 48 years have passed over my head Since that event, I still have the Same feelings, for many I times I have been called on to witness the Same thing, or I Should Say Similar things, during my eventful if not interesting life . . . . After the first outburst of grief had Subsided, I was missed and a Kind Roman Catholic woman named Sweeney came to search for me, and found me . . . and took me with many words of condolence back to the bedside of my dead father, there to behold the lifeless form of one of my best friends, and also to witness the unextinguishable grief of my Mother.

James’s mother died four years later, and he and his brother were taken in by an uncle in Wigan, England. The Cantwells were Irish Protestants but his uncle had married a Catholic. The difference in religion was a fateful one. James narrated his life in Wigan

Thus we left the home of my childhood, the land of my nativity, The graves where the Sacred ashes of our dead repose. I was 11 years, 8 months, and 19 days old, at the time. I have visited it once Since, in 1833. It was immediately after our arrival at my Uncles house that I was, (accompanied by my brother) first introduced to his wife, the Bridget Murray . . . . and from the first moment, I Saw her I didn’t feel pre-disposed toward her.

She Said She was about to be pestered with Somebody else’s brats, for the rest of her days, and upbraided her husband with his folly in entailing extra expence on his family. She little Knew that one of those brats would live to write the elegy of So great a woman, in a far distant land, and that, when her drunken carcase was long Since mingled with her mother earth.

Mrs. Murray cemented James’s dislike for Catholics. However, prospects were looking up, since his uncle had great designs for James but his aunt finally managed to get James out of the house and apprenticed in Lancaster. Before James left his uncle’s home, and during one of the many arguments his aunt and uncle had over religion he mentions this:

I wish to record a circumstance that occurred in 1827. It was Sunday. My Uncle and Aunt quarrelled about religion, and I went out of their way, into the Street wondering which of them were right, when an intimation was presented before my mind to the effect that neither of them was, & the day would come when I would know it, and confusion would cease. It was the work of an instant. And I have lived to Know that the above is true.

His uncle died a year later and James’s boarded with his master, George Murray. “I spend two pleasant years there, and had a great deal of time to myself as my master Spent much time in the ale house. I rambled in the fields, fished in the river, and canal, and as the half yearly assizes was held there, being a county town, I attended the trials, listened to Henry Brougham (afterwards Lord Brougham) James Scarlett, Starkey, and a host of other able lawye~s of that day, romped with Mary Ann and Margaret, read, Sung to the piana, as the latter played it. And as pleasure is not all without pain, I have Seen about 12 persons hung, (one of them a woman) for various crimes.”

The failure of his master led James to break his indentureship in 1833. Sailing to Dublin under an assumed name, he lived with another uncle for a year. Returning to England for work, his journeys led him to John Wilkinson. He married one of Wilkinson’s step-daughters (1838)—not without worthy drama.

James and family found themselves in Liverpool in 1841 where James met a Mormon at work. In December he saw a notice that Elder George J. Adams would preach on his reasons for leaving Methodism and joining Mormonism. Adams was a colorful figure but no space for that here. After some very interesting events that altered the lives of many Mormon luminaries of the day, Cantwell and family took their journey to America. In Utah, in the midst of the Utah war, Cantwell wrote:

On Friday morning about daylight I was aroused from Sleep by my wife. I immediately Saw that she was near her time of childbirth. I made what preparation I could, and went to call the assistance of two of the females living in the place name McGhie and Chase. Having introduce them I went to obtain the assistance of a midwife name Phebe Covert, and found she had gone on the same errand in another direction . . . I was therefore obliged to be content with the help I got. After labouring as near as I could judge for about an hour she was confined of a son and from that moment she manifested signs of dissolution and died about two hour after the birth of the boy. I . . . was left with 7 children, oldest 17 years, youngest 2 hours old . . . I buried her in the Big Cottonwood grave yard. [James finds a wet nurse for his baby] Having accomplished my errand and desire, I re-traced my steps to
Cottonwood and found my motherless children all asleep. Feeling lonely and wretched I lay down beside them, and Sleep didn’t visit my tired frame for many hours.

On June 29, 1858, James and his children (except baby) were living in what is now Orem, Utah in a dugout. His daughter Ellen was lighting a fire in their fireplace when a gust of wind blew sparks around and set fire to the contents of their home. They lost everything. “I was completely destitute, without a home for my children, and nearly naked.” The children are taken in by various families. He saw them a few days each month. His younger children never lived with him again. Several years later, James purchased land in Smithfield and brought his older children to help with the homestead. James was a force in the community and Church for twenty years until he began to suffer from what he called “nervous attack” probably Parkinson’s.

Cantwell’s life struck me (and it’s connection to the admittedly somewhat mysterious post series title is part of this) in that he apparently never gets the call to go back to the temple for its last blessings—despite his fitting nearly every common category for the group in the era. The mechanisms adopted by Church leaders of the day to select men (and then women) for higher blessings seems rather hit and miss. And eventually, the private theology seems to reflect this, though it’s only “public” acknowledgment does not.[2]

[1] James Sherlock Cantwell. Diary transcribed by Blair Holmes. Really. The original is found at Utah State University Library, Logan, Utah. There is a digital version: here.

[2] By public, I mean Mormon public, in the sense of the modern temple endowment.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Your series is fascinating.

  3. jaxjensen says:

    Fascinating… Thanks!

  4. There are excellent records for this in Nauvoo–do they likewise exist for the Utah period to rule this out?

  5. By the way, really enjoying your book on.132.

  6. jpv, I’m not cluing in on your question about Nauvoo/Utah. And thanks for reading the book!

  7. “he apparently never gets the call to go back to the temple for its last blessings”

    I guess I’m asking is this determination based on his journal, or is there an accessible Utah-era equivalent of the Nauvoo book of anointings?

  8. christiankimball says:

    I like the story. I’m still puzzled by the title, as I have been for the whole series. I suppose the answer is “all in due time”?

  9. jpv, I’m only making an educated guess here. But I think it’s a pretty good one.

  10. Christian, it’s all about the parameters of salvation assurance. I’ll get more specific eventually.

  11. Kristin Brown says:

    Thank you. I look forward to more!

  12. A little confused says:

    When you mention the Temple’s “last blessings” and “higher blessings” are you referring to Cantwell receiving his Second Annointing?

  13. Confused: correct.

  14. James Cantwell is my great great grandfather. I enjoyed reading his journal when I was much younger for its fascinating sketches of life in England and among the early saints. Things like this didn’t stand out to me. I should dive in again.

  15. I’m happy you saw this amyhanks. I admire James and find his description powerful.