(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.