Bishop James Cannon, Jr.

Bishop James Cannon, Jr., was a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. After the death of powerful Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne Wheeler in 1927, Cannon, chairman of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals, emerged as the most powerful leader of the temperance movement in the United States. Journalist H. L. Mencken said of Cannon that "Congress was his troop of Boy Scouts and Presidents trembled whenever his name was mentioned."

The son of James and Lydia R. (Primrose) Cannon, James Cannon, Jr. was born in Salisbury, Maryland on November 13, 1864. After attending schools in Salisbry, Cannon received his A.B. degree from Randolf-Macon College (1884), his A.M. from Princeton University (1889), and his D.D. from Randolf-Macon (1903). Later, Princeton awarded him an honorary D.D.

After his ordination, James Cannon held many posts within the church and his appointment as bishop in 1918 gave him nationwide influence as he worked tirelessly to achieve National Prohibition through the Eighteenth Amendment.

Bishop Cannon also held important positions within the Anti-Saloon League. In 1909, he became Superintendent of the Virginia State Anti-Saloon League and then Legislative Superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League of America.

Bishop Cannon hated Catholicism almost as much as alcohol and called it "The mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance, and sin." During the presidential campaign between Catholic Al Smith and Protestant Herbert Hoover, Cannon "launched extremely personal attacks on Smith that shocked even many seasoned political observers."

Cannon also used blatant bigotry. He told voters that Smith wanted

…the Italians, the Sicilians, the Poles, and Russian Jews. That kind has given us a stomach ache. We have been unable to assimilate such people in our national life, so we shut the door on them. But Smith says ‘give me that kind of people.' He wants the kind of dirty people you find today on the sidewalks of New York.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was a major supporter and defender of Prohibition.

However Bishop Cannon's short-lived power came to an end when a political enemy released information that Cannon had been engaged in shady or illegal stock market manipulations with a corrupt firm. Fellow bishops called for a church investigation. Reports that he used Methodist church money to support the Anti-Smith Democrats in 1928 led to federal investigations. Cannon proclaimed his innocence, but with disclosure of his illegal wartime hoarding of flour which he later sold at a large profit, the charges were mounting faster than his friends could deny them.

In 1930, church bishops decided to bring Cannon to trial before a church court. Then national newspapers published private letters between Cannon and his secretary showing they were having a sexual affair before his first wife died. The bishops reopened the case and the church again voted not to convict its bishop, this time from the adultery charges. In October 1931, a federal grand jury brought criminal charges against Cannon for violating federal election laws, alleging he borrowed $65,000 for the campaign but kept $48,000 for himself. After a complex series of trials and appeals Cannon was not found guilty in 1934, but the revelations of his illegal activities, dishonesty and sexual immorality had destroyed the reputation and influence of this once powerful dry leader.

The expose and disgrace of Bishop Cannon was one of many factors contributing to the repeal of prohibition because "the drys were thoroughly discredited by Cannon's conduct of his personal and financial affairs. Opponents of Prohibition had long argued that many prohibitionists were hypocrites" and "the opprobrium he earned for himself was transferred to the whole prohibition movement."

One biographer described Cannon as an unpleasant and deceitful person. Although he "loved power and prestige, profit and pleasure," Cannon was a distant and aloof individual. One Anti-Saloon League colleague described him as "cold as a snake" and another, with whom he had worked closely for forty years, reported having never seen him laugh and rarely smile.

Bishop James Cannon, Jr., died on September 6, 1944. However, his temperance efforts may not have been entirely in vain.

In spite of the failure of National Prohibition and the serious problems it created, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the numerous vestiges of Prohibition that continue to exist.


Resources on Bishop James Cannon, Jr.:

  • Bristow, Nancy K. Review of Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Journal of Southern History, 2001, 67(1), 202-203.
  • Christian Advocate. The new bishops. Christian Advocate, May 24, 1918, p. 56. (Introduced James Cannon, Jr. as a new bishop.)
  • Dabney, Virginius. Dry Messiah: the Life of Bishop Cannon. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
  • Hohner, Robert A. Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Hohner, Robert A. Dry Messian Revisited: Bishop James Cannon, Jr. In Clayton, Bruce and Salmond, John A. (eds.) The South is Another Land : Essays on the Twentieth-century South. NY: Greenwood Press, 1987.
  • Kirby, James E. Review of Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Church History, 1999, 107(3), 331-332.
  • Link, Arthus S. Review of Bishop Cannon's Own Story: Life as I Have Seen It. Journal of Southern History, 1955, 21(4), 564-565.
  • Moger, Allen W. Review of Bishop Cannon's Own Story: Life as I Have Seen It. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1955, 63(4), 481-483.
  • Moore, James W. A tribute to Bishop James Cannon, Jr., (funeral sermon) Richmond, VA: n.p, 1944.
  • Patterson, Michael S. The fall of a bishop: James Cannon, Jr., versus Carter Glass, 1909-1934. Journal of Southern History, 1973 (November), 39, 493-518.
  • Pegram, Thomas R. Review of Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Journal of American History, 2000, 87(2), 712-713.
  • Watson, Richard L (Ed.) Bishop Cannon's Own Story. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1955.

Publications by Bishop James Cannon, Jr.:

  • James Cannon, Jr. Why I am a Fighting Dry. Westerville, OH: World League Against Alcoholism, 1929.
  • James Cannon, Jr. The Church and the Present Prohibition Situation. Washington, DC: James Cannon, 1933.
  • James Cannon, Jr. Shall We Unite? Richmond, VA: Guardian Pub. Co., 1924.
  • James Cannon, Jr. The Present-day Whisky Rebellion and How to Meet It. Washington, DC: U.S. G.P.O., 1932
  • Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Prohibition Repeal Unthinkable. Liquor Problem. OCLC number 27065610
  • Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Prohibition and the Presidential Campaign, Liquor Problem. OCLC number 27065610
  • James Cannon, Jr. Constitutionality of Anti-Poll Tax Law. Richmond, VA: n.p., 1944.
  • James Cannon, Jr. and Richard L. Wason. Bishop Cannon's Own Story: Life as I Have Seen It. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1955.
  • James Cannon, Jr. Preservation of Genuine Unification. Richmond, VA: n.p., 1940.

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