Mormon prophet George Albert Smith overcame depression, other demons

(To see Cal Grondahl’s photo that goes with this post, click here) This year Latter-day Saints are studying the teachings of the 8th church president, George Albert Smith. Albert Smith was the first LDS prophet who was monogamous, ending the hierarchal tenure of polygamy. It can be argued that his time was a transition from “ancient” toward “modern” leaders of the LDS Church. (I’m 48, and was born during the tenure of Albert Smith’s successor, President David O. McKay.) Mormons are taught that George Albert Smith was “sickly” at times, and that his health was improved, by his own acknowledgment, through the power of prayer. But his battle with severe depression, which incapacitated the apostle for more than two years, is not mentioned in its proper context, but only as physical ailments.

As blogger J Stapley points out in the bycommonconsent Mormon-themed blog, that’s not all the facts. (Read) To opine that George Albert Smith might have suffered from mental disorder is not unfair to him, nor is it an insult to the late LDS prophet.

Ultimately, it’s a story of triumph for Albert Smith, who was able to resume his life and work after his breakdown, that included depression and anxiety, and continue working for almost 40 years.

Rather than being downplayed, Albert Smith’s successful battle with depression, anxiety, and health-related issues should be a teaching tool to help members today who suffer from the same maladies. These are unique problems; just look at Utah’s statistics regrading depression, pain killers and tranquilizer use.

Albert Smith biographer, Mary Jane Woodger, a BYU professor of LDS church history and doctrine, penned a detailed look at the breakdown in the Fall 2008 edition of the Journal of Mormon History. “Cheat the Asylum of a Victim:” George Albert Smith’s 1909-12 Breakdown” refers to advice the 40-year-old Albert Smith, “down from nervous frustration,” received from his uncle, Dr. Heber J. Sears, who pleaded with Albert Smith to “dump your responsibility for a while before the hearse dumps your bones.”

As Woodger relates, physical and emotional health issues plagued Albert Smith all of his life. His eyesight was damaged early in his life while working as a surveyor. When he was called to be an apostle at age 33 in 1903, his father, apostle John Henry Smith, said, “He’s not healthy. He won’t last long,” relates Woodger.

It’s true that 100-plus years ago apostles had very rigorous jobs. They were not insulated from the public like today’s LDS leaders. They often traveled long stretches over tough routes in wagons, trains and early auto vehicles. It was the custom for traveling apostles to stay in the homes of local church members, rather than paid lodgings. For Albert Smith, who suffered from bowel discomforts, the rich food often served caused great discomfort. According to Woodger, the young apostle “averaged 30,000 miles a year as a young apostle.” Experiences included riding on top of a crowded boxcar on a hot day and a cold, rainy night in a wagon that leaked. Dysentery, perhaps enhanced due to stress, also plagued Albert Smith often.

The strenuous work schedule also affected Albert Smith’s wife, Lucy Emily. She often worried about her husband’s health, fretted over his frequent absence from the family, and frequently bemoaned how his absence affected her.

As Woodger writes, “… mental or emotional instability was seldom given much attention except for outright insanity in the early 20th century.” However, three of his grandchildren cite terms such as “depression,” problems associated with his mental health,” “tremendous stress,” and “being overwhelmed” as attributes of their grandfather. According to Woodger, Albert Smith often over-exerted himself in his work. He would also over-invest himself emotionally in the work of others, and end up emotionally overwrought at their failures. It’s worth noting that psychiatry as an accepted treatment in Utah was virtually non-existent for the first third of the 20th century.

After Albert Smith became too exhausted to work, LDS Church leaders — who were compassionate, encouraging and caring during his convalescence — moved him to Ocean Park, Calif., to recuperate. Away from his wife, Lucy, who stayed in Salt Lake City, Albert Smith did not improve and returned to Salt Lake City in August 1909. To try to improve his health, he lived in a tent outdoors, but mostly he remained ill, weak and bedridden. According to Woodger’s research, “George Albert’s father (apostle John Henry Smith) even took the unusual step of sending him ‘a dozen bottles of Basses Pale Ale,’ a British beer, assuring him that he had Joseph F. Smith’s ‘endorsement’ to drink it in the hopes that it would ‘tone up your stomach and put you in a condition to receive and assimilate food.’”

According to an anecdote that has been repeated many times in Mormon churches, during his convalescence, Albert Smith visited his deceased grandfather, George A. Smith, who asked him, “I would like to know what you have done with my name?” After Albert Smith answered that he had never shamed him, the pair hugged. Woodger writes, “This dream reassured him (Albert Smith) that he was free from transgression and acknowledged his worth.”

The still-bedridden Albert Smith was moved to St. George to recuperate. While there, again according to Mormon lore, his long recovery began when he requested that the Lord take him if his earthly work was done but keep him if he still had work to do. Although it’s hard to believe the apostle had not made that prayerful request earlier in his convalescence, of such tales are legends made, and Albert Smith returned to Salt Lake City and a slow recovery.

His recovery, whether through prayer, extended rest, or both, is a triumphant account, and the compassion and patience exercised by his colleagues in the church hierarchy also must have played a role in his recovery.

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13 Responses to Mormon prophet George Albert Smith overcame depression, other demons

  1. Pingback: 11 January 2012 | MormonVoices

  2. clairB says:

    Nice write-up Doug. I think people with mental illness can find strength in the life of George Albert Smith.

    He also had two other bouts of mental illness in addition to the 1909-1911 episode — in the 1930s and again from 1949 to 1951.

    What may have contributed to his 1909 difficulties was an encounter with rouge apostle John W. Taylor. Taylor continued to perform plural marriages contrary to the wishes of church leaders. George Albert Smith suggested Taylor was living in adultery when he married polygamously in 1909. Taylor responded by threatening to kill George Albert Smith, and then apparently cursed him with the priesthood. Taylor later concluded that George Albert Smith’s mental illness was due to the curse. Taylor was excommunicated.

    LDS-Church-History is detailing these stories, plus other aspects of his life at http://bit.ly/iHBN4u.

  3. Jesse Brown says:

    My father was raised in President Smith’s neighborhood. After he married my mother in New York (she was converted and baptised there), they eventually traveled to Utah where they were sealed by President Smith (approximately 1937). They then spent part of a day with him. During WWII, you couldn’t buy cream, so my father would bring him some fresh cream every day from his own cow. My mother told me that she had never been in the presence of someone who radiated love like President Smith did. Perhaps some of that “radiance” came from the fact that President Smith had suffered so much himself and he had true compassion and empathy for others.

  4. You, my wise, old friend, are really good at this! Old meaning I’ve known you for 25 years.

  5. Mark Shenefelt says:

    Smith seems to have been one tough hombre. Good “Gee, I didn’t know that” piece, as usual.

  6. tom says:

    Great stuff Doug – thanks.

    It is a good thing for the Church Pres. GA Smith lived before the advent of mind numbing drugs to deal with depression. If he would of lived today the church might have a zombied out on valium president! Can you imagine the fun the Church detractors would have with that?

  7. Deanne williams says:

    On a medical web site it lists George Albert Smith as someone who probably suffered from Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. There was little known about Lupus. Today they have reported that no two cases are alike; may come on suddenly or develop slowly; be mild or severe; be temporary or permanent; come in “flares”; improve or even disappear completely. Lupus has many different symptoms and a person may have one or many of them. I noticed that depression and photo sensitivity appear on those lists. Maybe this information will give an added perspective.

  8. Tana says:

    Thanks Deanne for mentioning lupus. As a church member with lupus, I can tell you how devastating it has been. I have gone from holding many challenging and fulfilling callings to not being able to hold a calling or serve at all. If I do anything at all to help, it takes me days to recover. I mean – I’m in bed for days – not just tired. It has taken a lot of my sense of worth away from me and I have to ration my energy severely to function at all. It is a painful and debilitating disease. It’s no wonder he dealt with depression. It makes me sad to think that he had to deal with it all without a diagnosis and medication to help him. He’s to be admired for his fortitude.

  9. Will says:

    Including accounts of his depression/anxiety/illness make him that much more respectable to me. It’s sad that I doubt there’ll be much mention of it in the handbooks in an attempt to rewrite history in the usual unblemished idolizing fashion, but with how much stress-induced mental illness Utah faces (that pushes so many out of the Church) it would be one of the most valuable lessons from his life we could learn today. Thanks for sharing that.

  10. Charles says:

    I think it’s extremely helpful to note leaders in senior positions have struggled with poor mental health. Personally I have struggled with issues (I blog about it at http://www.mormon-ocd.blogspot.com). It gives hope and encouragement to see others open up about their emotional problems.

    • Deseret JIM says:

      Doug. If Elder George Albert Smith would of been around today, he could of been “linked-up” with the likes of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. {AKA: NAMI}.
      Those of us seeking recovery, and longing for the days of being “Well Grounded” are urged to contact the NAMI HelpLine at
      1-800-950-6264.

      A “Pro Mental Health Day” to U, this day and always!!

  11. You are so interesting! I do not believe I have read through a single thing like this before. So great to discover another person with some original thoughts on this topic. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that is needed on the web, someone with a bit of originality!

  12. I appreciate this post. As an LDS member, I struggled with anxiety and depression for a number of years and it took me a long time to figure out how to overcome it. I didn’t know what was going on with me and when I finally figured it out, the doctor just threw some pills at me and said “take these and you should be fine”.

    I felt there was a better way and as I prayed for strength I was led and over the course of 2-3 years I completely overcame the anxiety and depression.

    Had I known about a prophet’s struggles, it could have helped me a lot.

    I wrote a book about my journey in hopes that other people could learn about what it is like to struggle with anxiety and depression and how to overcome it without drugs. If you visit: http://www.discoveringlight.com you can learn more about the book “Discovering Light: 12 Steps to Overcoming Anxiety and Depression without Medication”.

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