Bishop James Cannon, Jr.: Biography of Prohibition Leader

Bishop James Cannon, Jr., became the most powerful temperance leaders in the U.S. He was head of the  Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals. Cannon emerged as the most powerful after the death of Wayne Wheeler in 1927.  Journalist H. L. Mencken said of Cannon that “Congress was his troop of Boy Scouts and Presidents trembled whenever his name was mentioned.”1  

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

After his ordination, James Cannon held many posts within the church. His appointment as bishop in 1918 gave him nationwide influence. He used it effectively as he worked to achieve National Prohibition.

Bishop James Cannon, Jr.

Bishop James Cannon, Jr.

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

Bishop Cannon hated Catholicism almost as much as alcohol. He called it “The mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance, and sin.”2 The presidential campaign of 1928 was between Catholic Al Smith and Protestant Herbert Hoover. During it, Cannon “launched extremely personal attacks on Smith that shocked even many seasoned political observers.”3

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.4

However Bishop Cannon’s short-lived power came to an end when a political enemy released information about him. 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. His illegal wartime hoarding of flour, which he later sold at a large profit, was disclosed. Cannon denied any wrong-doing. But the charges kept mounting.

In 1930, church bishops decided to bring Cannon to trial before a church court. Then newspapers published private letters between Cannon and his secretary. The letters proved they were having a sexual affair while his wife was ill. The bishops reopened the case and the church again voted not to convict its bishop. This time for adultery. In October 1931, a federal grand jury brought criminal charges against Cannon for violating federal election laws. They alleged 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 scandals of his illegal activities, dishonesty and sexual immorality destroyed his reputation. And they destroyed the influence of this once powerful dry leader.

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

The expose and disgrace of Bishop Cannon was one of many factors contributing to the repeal of prohibition. That’s 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.”

One biographer described Cannon as an unpleasant and deceitful person. He “loved power and prestige, profit and pleasure,” but was very distant and aloof. A colleague in the Anti-Saloon League described him as “cold as a snake.” Another, with whom he had worked closely for forty years, reported having never seen him laugh and rarely smile.

Bishop James Cannon, Jr., died in 1944. But his temperance efforts may not have been in vain.

National Prohibition failed. It also  caused serious problems. But today, nearly one of every five adults in the U.S. favors making drinking illegal. Many more support neo-prohibition  and defend the vestiges of Prohibition that continue to exist.

Resources on Bishop James Cannon, Jr.

  • Bristow, N. Review of Prohibition and Politics. The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. J South Hist, 2001, 67(1), 202-203.
  • Dabney, V. Dry Messiah. The Life of Bishop Cannon. NY: Knopf, 1949.
  • Hohner, R. Prohibition and Politics. The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Columbia: U. of South Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Hohner, R. Dry Messian Revisited. Bishop James Cannon, Jr. In Clayton, B. and Salmond, J. (eds.) The South is Another Land.  NY: Greenwood, 1987.
  • Kirby, J. Review of Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Church Hist, 1999, 107(3), 331-332.
  • Link, A. Review of Bishop Cannon’s Own Story. Life as I Have Seen It. J South Hist, 1955, 21(4), 564-565.
  • Moger, A. Review of Bishop Cannon’s Own Story. Life as I Have Seen It. Virginia Mag Hist Bio, 1955, 63(4), 481-483.
  • Moore, J. A tribute to Bishop James Cannon, Jr., (funeral sermon) Richmond, VA: n.p, 1944.
  • Patterson, M. The fall of Bishop James Cannon, Jr., versus Carter Glass, 1909-1934. J South Hist, 1973, 39, 493-518.
  • Pegram, T. Review of Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. J Am Hist, 2000, 87(2), 712-713.
  • Watson, R. (Ed.) Bishop Cannon’s Own Story. Durham, NC: Duke U. Press, 1955.

Selected Publications by Bishop James Cannon, Jr.

  • Why I am a Fighting Dry. Westerville, OH: World League Against Alcoholism, 1929.
  • The Church and the Present Prohibition Situation. Washington: James Cannon, 1933.
  • The Present-day Whisky Rebellion and How to Meet It. Washington: G.P.O., 1932
  • Prohibition Repeal Unthinkable. Liquor Problem. OCLC #27065610
  • Prohibition and the Presidential Campaign, Liquor Problem. OCLC  #27065610
  • Bishop James Cannon, Jr. and Richard L. Wason. Bishop Cannon’s Own Story. Life as I Have Seen It. Durham, NC: Duke U. Press, 1955.
  1. Wills, G Head and Heart. NY: Penguin, 2007, p. 424.
  2. Burns, E. Spirits of America. Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 2004, p. 177.
  3. Rose, K.D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York U. Press, 1996.p. 60
  4. Winkler, J. What we say, what we do. Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, April 22, 2007.