How I intend to teach George Albert’s Smith’s mental illness.

January 6, 2012    By: Matt W. @ 11:34 am   Category: PH/RS Lessons

If it’s in italics, George said it. If it’s in bold, it’s from the Manual. If it’s underlined, it’s from Mary Woodger’s JMH article. Otherwise, it’s annotated or my own notes…

In preparing for this lesson, I have thought long and hard about the material within, and today I would like to focus not just on what President Smith said about living what we believe, but also on how he lived what he believed.

[An] observer wrote of George Albert Smith: “His religion is not doctrine in cold storage. It is not theory. It means more to him than a beautiful plan to be admired. It is more than a philosophy of life. To one of his practical turn of mind, religion is the spirit in which a man lives, in which he does things, if it be only to say a kind word or give a cup of cold water. His religion must find expression in deeds. It must carry over into the details of daily life.”

George Albert Smith is well known throughout the church for his religious conviction and for his compassion and careful shepherding of the world after WW1 as an apostle and after WW2 as President of the Church. But did you know he was nearly blind?

When he was 18, he found work with a railway surveying party. While working this job, the glare from the sun on the desert sands damaged his eyes. This left George Albert’s vision permanently impaired, making it difficult for him to read and causing him discomfort throughout his life.

George’s eyesight, for most of his life was so bad that he needed to have others write for him and read to him, because it gave him terrible headaches to try and focus and read. This in a time and place where there was limited technology, and so his responsibilities perpetually required reading and writing. None would have blamed Smith if he had given up. Yet Smith’s own conviction which he preached was that:

We cannot live like the world and expect to obtain our rightful place in the Kingdom.

On top of his vision troubles, George had a reputation for poor health, so much so that:

When Church President Joseph F. Smith called him as an apostle on October 8, 1903, at age thirty-three, his father, who had not been consulted about the calling, feared, “He’s not healthy. He won’t last long.’”

George Albert’s work as an apostle was strenuous. He averaged thirty thousand miles a year as a young apostle, usually traveling by train. However, long stretches also had to be navigated by horse and buggy (or later by early automobiles) over rough roads. Apostles almost always stayed in members’ homes, and sleeping in unfamiliar beds caused anxiety for the young apostle. In an effort to provide their best, hostesses often prepared rich foods that upset George Albert’s delicate digestive system, yet he feared to offend by rejecting their menus…

In the second year of his apostleship, Dr. Stephen Richards treated him for excessive “uric acid” but apparently without much success.

Smith wrote in his Journal in January 1909- Suffered all the balance of the day with indigestion. . . Went to home of John L. Smith for dinner but was too sick to enjoy it. . . Stomach bad today. . . Quite tired and miserable with a cold. . . My voice is so husky I can hardly speak [a]loud. . . My back is quite lame. . . Had a bad spell with my stomach. . . . I talked on the first principles of gospel and having fasted felt strong spiritually but weak physically and was about played out with the heat when I sat down. . . . My heart seems to be weak this morning. . . . I am afraid I have overdone during the last year

Besides his chronic eye problems, Elder Smith suffered from stomach and back pain, constant fatigue, heart trouble, and many other ailments throughout his life. The stress and pressure of his many responsibilities also took a toll on him, and at first he was unwilling to slow his busy pace in order to preserve his health. As a result, from 1909 to 1912 he fought an illness so severe that it kept him bedridden and prevented him from fulfilling his duties in the Quorum of the Twelve. It was a very trying time for Elder Smith, who wanted desperately to resume his service. The death of his father in 1911 and a serious bout of influenza afflicting his wife made Elder Smith’s recovery even more difficult.

To recap, troubles and sicknesses George Albert Smith suffered from 1903 to 1912: poor vision, a delicate digestive system, excessive “uric acid” in the stomach, nosebleeds, dysentery, upset stomach, vomiting and purging, sinking spells, severe bowel pain, laryngitis, influenza, a sick wife, and a “misplaced rib.”

Compounding these issues, George Albert Smith suffered from and struggled with major episodes of depression, anxiety disorder, mood disorder, “nerve problems”, and possibly some form of somatoform disorder. He was having depression, feeling incompetent, and being overwhelmed. Much of this had to do with guilt Smith felt for leaving the work of his apostleship to be done by others. He knew the work was hard, and felt it was even harder when distributed across 11 instead of 12.

Others tried to comfort and persuade George to take the necessary rest he was avoiding.

Joseph F. smith wrote him: “We were all glad to hear from you but sorry you did not seem to be making better progress in regaining your health. We sincerely hope and pray that you may soon start out for rapid recuperation and recovery of your perfect health and vigor. We remember you earnestly in our prayers from week to week and daily our petitions ascend to the great giver of all good for His blessing to descend upon you.”

President Joseph F. Smith, seeing George Albert’s distress at not being able to resume his apostolic duties, sent him a comforting letter on September 7, 1909: “I do not want you to worry about anything. . . . Please remember what the Lord said to his apostles—‘Take no thought of what ye shall eat and etc. . . .’ I say this to you. The Lord will provide for you, therefore don’t worry.

Dr. Heber J. Sears of Chicago, George Albert’s uncle, wrote a long letter that combined both professional and personal concern. In addition to encouraging George Albert to “cheat the asylum of a victim,” he warned in vivid prose: For years I have seen the necessity of a period of complete relaxation and have endeavored to warn you of the consequences that are sure to follow such a period of prolonged tension. Nature is now giving you a warning which you will do well to take. When the nervous system is once broken down that patient is too often a wreck for life. No class of diseases resist so stubbornly the effects of the physician as nervous diseases. In fact there is but little hope after they reach a certain stage. Their manifestations cover a wide range—from slight nervous instability to insanity . . . and let me whisper a very significant fact in your ear: it is only a step from nervous frustration to insanity. For Heaven’s sake George—“Side step or step backward not forward”—Cheat the asylum of a victim. Dump your responsibility for a while before the hearse dumps your bones. Once more I will make the plea. If you are doing all this for humanity stay with humanity as long as you can. .. . If the Church requires your life give it to the Church in a thinner layer spread over 30 or 40 more years instead of 3 to 5. Could you not do more good in this way? . . . Now George! Wake up—We can’t afford to lose you. Give the “other fellows” an inning while you drink lemonade in the shade. Call “Casey to the bat” and you watch the game while the others run the bases for a while or you’ll be hauled off in the ambulance before the game is half over. . . I remain, Your affectionate Uncle.

Smith felt like he was letting his brothers in the quorum and God down. (If time, George A. Smith Dream). He sunk so low that the thought struck him that he should pray for death, so that he could be released from his calling and someone more capable than he could fill it.

[Lucy Woodruff Smith said:] “My husband had been ill for many years and he longed to know what our Father in Heaven had in mind about him. One night [he] confided in his wife that “he was going to ask the Lord to release him from his position as an Apostle of the Lord, take him home and put someone else more suitable in his place.” The next morning Apostle Smith told me that he had talked with the Lord in the night and had asked the Lord to release him from his position whereupon the Lord told him he should come with his wife before him in prayer to petition him. Over tears I said I could never consent to pray with him for such a purpose. However, Apostle Smith had the same advice again a few nights later. We discussed this matter again and I finally consented to pray with him for his release from this life. No one knows what a strain it was on my feelings and my great love for my husband and children to accept such a resignation. To the astonishment of many, this was the turning point of his betterment in health. Apostle Smith recuperated from his long illness from this time on. He received a testimony that he was to live as he was one of the chosen to lead his people sometime in the future.

In the act of giving himself up, Smith was able to follow the AA motto “Let go, and Let God.” By resigning himself to the will of the Lord, he was able to become well, living for another 41 years. Yes, he slowed his pace. Yes, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, but the Book of Mormon teaches that “it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength,” and if we look at Smith’s life we cannot say he was not diligent to “obtain the prize.” (Mosiah 4:27)

One could argue it was these experiences that allowed Smith the compassion and strength needed when he later lead the church through the trying times of WW2 and the European devastation that followed. It could be argued that these experiences are what deepened his testimony and steeled his resolve.

He himself said:

“I have been in the valley of the shadow of death in recent years, so near the other side that I am sure that for the special blessing of our Heavenly Father I could not have remained here. . . . The nearer I went to the other side, the greater was my assurance that the gospel is true.”

No one could ever argue that he did not live what he believed. With the context of the things that he suffered, I would like to offer the meat of what he preached regarding “living what we believe.”

If the gospel of Jesus Christ does not make me a better man, then I have not developed as I should, and if our neighbors not in this Church can live among us from year to year and see no evidence of the benefits that come from keeping the commandments of God in our lives, then there is need for reform in Israel…Are you doing your duty? Are we performing the labor that the Lord has entrusted to our care? Do we sense the responsibility that is upon us? Or are we idly floating down stream, going with the tide taking it for granted that in the last day, we will be redeemed…”

“If there ever was a time when we should examine ourselves, to find out if we are doing what the Lord would have us do, it is today; if there ever was a time when we should be sure that we are in the pathway of eternal life, it is now. We can’t slight these opportunities.”

Are we examining our lives and striving to improve? If George Albert Smith could do all the things he did, despite the struggles he had, do we have a reason not to recommit?

Question: How do we balance our limitations with our desire to live what we believe? How do we keep from either completely giving up to our limitations or beating ourselves up with impossible perfectionism?

When he was 34 years old, George Albert Smith made a list of resolutions that he called his personal creed—11 ideals that he committed to live by: I would be a friend to the friendless and find joy in ministering to the needs of the poor. I would visit the sick and afflicted and inspire in them a desire for faith to be healed. I would teach the truth to the understanding and blessing of all mankind. I would seek out the erring one and try to win him back to a righteous and a happy life. I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather love them into doing the thing that is right. I would live with the masses and help to solve their problems that their earth life may be happy. I would avoid the publicity of high positions and discourage the flattery of thoughtless friends. I would not knowingly wound the feelings of any, not even one who may have wronged me, but would seek to do him good and make him my friend. I would overcome the tendency to selfishness and jealousy and rejoice in the successes of all the children of my Heavenly Father. I would not be an enemy to any living soul. Knowing that the Redeemer of mankind has offered to the world the only plan that will fully develop us and make us really happy here and hereafter, I feel it not only a duty but also a blessed privilege to disseminate this truth.

You have in your manual this creed of George Albert Smith. With a new year begun, we make resolutions like lose 10 lbs, stop cussing, read the scriptures every day, etc. If you are like me you have already broken most, if not all, of your resolutions. I would like to challenge you this year to not just look at the near term tactical things, but, like Smith did, look at the whole of your life. Look and decide how you want to live. Take time in the coming weeks and write your own creed. Talk to your wife about it. Who do you want to be? What are your limitations? When you look at the whole of your life, and not the moments, what do you want the forest to look like, despite the trees?

To close, I’d like to reference again the Sermons of George Albert Smith:

Brethren and sisters, let us go to our homes. If our houses are not in order, let us set them in order. Let us renew our determination to honor God and keep His commandments, to love one another, to make our homes the abiding place of peace. Each of us can contribute to that in the homes in which we live. ( Conference Report, Apr. 1950, 169.)


  1. This is fantastic. I, too, have been assigned to give the first George Albert Smith lesson tomorrow. I’ve been pondering how to introduce some of his life struggles as context for material in the first lesson proper. This has been very helpful in my thought process. Thanks, Matt.

    Comment by David T — January 6, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

  2. Great post, Matt. I’m half way through the “Cheat the Asylum” article in the Journal of Mormon History, and enjoying it very much. I think you’ve done a great job of combining his life struggles with his teachings, and I can envision the lesson being very “real”, relevant, and edifying.

    Comment by Clean Cut — January 6, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  3. Nice writeup.

    Comment by Clark — January 6, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

  4. Really nice. I like how you have incorporated the emotional/mental struggles seamlessly into the lesson, rather than replacing the printed lesson with one that focused on this new material. Sometimes I think we ‘naclers have a tendency to advance the new “cool” stuff we’ve been talking about at the expense of the formal material. You’ve used just enough to support the intended lesson without overwhelming it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 6, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

  5. Nice lesson plan, Matt.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 6, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

  6. Matt, this is really great stuff. Well done and thanks!

    Comment by Christopher — January 6, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

  7. Matt, I really like this–thanks for posting it. I’m in Primary these days, so all my Sunday School lessons are virtual. I really love the challenge to write a personal creed (although I’d be tempted to steal President Smith’s if I thought I were a good enough person to make such aspirations reasonable!)

    Comment by Kristine — January 7, 2012 @ 6:30 am

  8. Wow, Matt. You’ve nailed the sort of thing I was flailingly trying to describe here in #3:

    Comment by BHodges — January 7, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

  9. I can’t thank you enough for this. I’m going to print it and keep it in my scriptures for the lessons this year.

    Comment by annegb — January 8, 2012 @ 8:21 am

  10. I understood from the Quinn books that GAS also suffered a mental breakdown as Prophet; and that he was in an institution in California when he died. Isn’t that the case?

    I ask because you stated:

    “By resigning himself to the will of the Lord, he was able to become well, living for another 41 years.”

    which sounds a little like he didn’t have any recurring problems.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — January 8, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  11. Kent: I don’t recall that from the Hierarchy of Power Books, but from what I’ve read, Quinn seems to play a little fast and lose with the facts regarding smith, going for sensationalism. Smith was in a Sanatorium for 5 weeks as an apostle. They did things like give him daily massages, proper nutrition and lots of fresh air. We would probably think of it more like a day spa than like a mental institution. He died on April 4, after spending all of February in a hospital with no appetite, a fever, and having fainting spells. He repeated that he had turned his life over to the Lord, and was willing to die if that was what was right. Then in mid march he had a stroke which paralyzed one of his arms. Finally a doctor diagnosed him with lupus erythematosus from blood samples that were sent after the stroke. It is unknown if this is what he’d suffered from his whole life, but anyway, he was diagnosed with this after March 20th and was gone by April 4th.

    You are right, that I made it sound a little like he never had more problems. That is not correct. What I meant was that he was able to overcome his debilitating depression and sense of guilt, and thus move on.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 8, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

  12. Thanks all for your comments. The lesson went pretty well. I wish I had put in a few more discussion points and had pruned a few more quotes. I started late due to going to Primary to here my daughter give a talk on choosing the right, so I was a little rushed, but all in all, it went well.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 8, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  13. Your lesson went great for me. I read it during sunday school and then the JMH article during priesthood. Then I made a short comment to contribute to the lesson being taught up front. Thanks for posting.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 8, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

  14. I taught today and used much of your post, and organized the material around 3 themes from GA Smith’s life: history, health, and help. THANK YOU! Now, will someone write about GA Smith’s work with the Third Conventionists? The manual (the introductory history section) briefly mentions GA Smith’s visit to Mexico, but I understand there’s quite a bit more to the story: he was very busy combining his empathy and peacemaking skills in reaching reconciliation with the Third Conventionists.

    Comment by Joanne — January 8, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  15. Joanne: Try this.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 9, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  16. Thank you very much. Fascinating story. One person can make a such a huge difference in a touchy situation.

    Comment by Joanne — January 10, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  17. I didn’t know that he’d been successfully diagnosed with lupus erythematosus. That sounds like an amazingly horrible thing to suffer from. It seems like auto-immune diseases are among the worst. It’s no surprise he also suffered from depression. It’d be remarkable if he hadn’t. It’s also remarkable how well he dealt with his disease and accomplished so much in spite of it.

    Comment by Clark — January 10, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

  18. I didnt know where to start because this Sunday im giving a talk… Thank u sooo much

    Comment by Valencia — January 18, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

  19. Matt, I ran this off to go through but it got lost in those other pages. I have to disagree with your basic premise of “George Albert Smith’s mental illness.” I don’t believe his depression was the primary issue….I think he was so sick, in so many ways (check out my post on MM) that he became discouraged, depressed and overcome with guilt and inadequacy. Chronic illness is, in many ways, harder to deal with than terminal illness. I read this in some literature I found on chronic fatigue “The good news is…you’re not gonna die. The bad news is…you are not going to die.” You are going to live a long time, feeling like crap. I’ll put a link on my post. Not that anybody’s reading it. I just forgot about this, sorry.

    Comment by annegb — January 26, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  20. No worries annegb. You may be correct. I am merely riffing off of Stapley’s earlier post and Mary Woodger’s own pseudo-diagnosis.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 27, 2012 @ 7:50 am

  21. Wow, Matt! Guess I’ll have to star visiting EQ.

    Comment by Don F — February 7, 2012 @ 4:46 pm