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Thursday, January 5, 2012

The "Humanity" of George Albert Smith

Every couple of years or so, the Curriculum Committee for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) presents to the general membership of the church a new study manual to be used in various church classes. For the past two years the church has used "Gospel Principles" as its official study manual. Before that, the church spent two years on "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith." And in 2012, the church has produced "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith" as the official text for this year's study.

I'll be honest, spending the last two years on "Gospel Principles" was a bit of a personal drag. I just couldn't get into it. With that said, I am VERY excited about this year's manual. George Albert Smith has been my favorite church president for as long as I can remember. Ever since my youth, George Albert Smith has stood out to me. I recall learning about his personal creed and hearing stories of how he helped to bring the church into modernity in a number of ways. For example, G.A. Smith was a passionate supporter of the Boy Scout's program, and helped to integrate it into the Young Men's program of the church (he was awarded the Silver Buffalo in 1934, which is the highest honor in the Boy Scout's program). Smith was also a major history buff and helped to organize the Utah Pioneer Trail and Landmarks Association, was elected six times as vice-president of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, and dedicated the "This is the Place" monument and the centennial celebration of the Mormon Pioneer's arrival into the Salt Lake Valley. In addition, G.A. Smith was an ardent supporter of Teddy Roosevelt's "progressivism" (a fact that I am sure makes Glenn Beck sick to his stomach) and was a vocal advocate for the blind (he helped to push forward the first ever braille Book of Mormon in 1935). G.A. Smith was also the first president of the church to not practice polygamy. All of these facts and accomplishments helped G.A. Smith to lead the Mormon church into the world of modernity.

And though I greatly admire G.A. Smith for all of these (and other) accomplishments, this is not what makes him my favorite church president. What I admire so much about G.A. Smith was his "humanity." Don't get me wrong, I recognize that all church presidents have/had their human side as well. However, G.A. Smith, for whatever reason, seems more "human" and "approachable" than the others. After all, G.A. Smith wore his emotions out on his sleeves for everyone to see. He was an incredibly sensitive man who internalized the world and the struggles that people faced. He took it personally when he encountered individuals who were hurting or suffering, and did all that he could to assist those in need. He was a staunch supporter of the Church Welfare program and did more to advance it than perhaps any other church authority. For example, at the conclusion of WWII, G.A. Smith initiated one of the largest relief efforts in church history. A massive surplus of food, equipment and other relief supplies were made ready and available for the destitute people of Europe who had been left in ruins. When U.S. President Harry S. Truman finally called on the church for assistance, he was astonished to discover that the church was already prepared. All that was needed was to know when and where to ship the goods. Even in the aftermath of war, G.A. Smith understood the worth of every human soul. As he stated:

Let us extend kindness and consideration to all who need it, not forgetting those who are bereft; and in our time of rejoicing for peace, let us not forget those who have given their loved ones as part of the price of peace.
Not only did G.A. Smith preach tolerance and love for those of different (once enemy) nations, but he taught tolerance and acceptance of every member of the human race. G.A. Smith vehemently opposed racial prejudice and vocally denounced the KKK. He made efforts to reconcile bitter rival nations by reintroducing missionary work into parts of Europe and by reconciling church members of those nations. As he stated at the conclusion of WWII:

The best evidence of gratitude at this time is to do all we can to bring happiness to this sad world, for we are all our Father’s children, and we are all under the obligation of making this world a happier place for our having lived in it.
In short, George Albert Smith loved and empathized with humanity. He believed in the goodness of all people. It therefore comes as no surprise that the majority of the lessons in this year's G.A. Smith manual center on topics like "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself", "The Power of Kindness", and "Of You it is Required to Forgive." After all, these were the fundamental themes of his personal life creed:

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.
But for a man who could empathize so well with the plight of humanity, George Albert Smith wasn't without his struggles. Aside from the many physical ailments that effected him throughout his life (vision problems, stomach ailments, and lupus erythematosus which eventually caused his death), G.A. Smith was also plagued by ailments of the psyche. As the good folks at the By Common Consent blog point out, George Albert Smith was a deeply emotionally afflicted man. We can say with almost absolute certainty that G.A. Smith suffered from some sort of chronic depression and anxiety disorder. There were multiple times in his life when he was rendered incapacitated by overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, guilt and sadness. His responsibilities as a church apostle often exacerbated his condition, as he found it very difficult to deal with the problems of those he encountered. As he confided to a local state president:

[Even] when things are normal my nerves are not very strong
and when I see other people in sorrow and depressed I am easily affected.
Even members of George Albert Smith's family could tell that something was wrong. As BYU Professor Mary Jane Woodger points out:

George Albert’s “good work ethic” exposed him to additional pressures because of an apparent “personality style that lent itself to hypersensitivity,” manifest in a preoccupation with “what he ate along with a lot of pressure he seems to have felt to measure up to other’s expectations.”


Grandchild George Albert Smith V suggests that his grandfather struggled with depression, feeling incompetent, and being overwhelmed. There were times when “he just could not pull it all together.” Another granddaughter, Shauna Lucy Stewart Larsen, who lived in George Albert’s home for twelve years as a child, remembers
that “when there was great, tremendous stress, mostly [of] an emotional kind, it took its toll and he would literally have to go to bed for several days.”
As someone who has personally struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety I can empathize with G.A. Smith's feelings. Depression and anxiety are real struggles that can render an otherwise normal and successful person completely vacant. It is a real struggle that you don't simply "pray away" or "get over." Unfortunately, too many people (even today) don't understand this fact, and in G.A. Smith's day there was even less tolerance for such conditions. As Professor Mary Jane Woodger notes, G.A. Smith's uncle, Heber J. Sears, demonstrated the ignorance of his day when he addressed his nephew's bout with depression:

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.
And though I am sure that Mr. Sears was only trying to be helpful, this type of "cowboy up" response is typical of many who don't suffer from or understand the realities of depression. This is especially true of times past when psychology was either non-existent or still in its infancy. I have blogged before about the "melancholy" nature of Meriwether Lewis (which in reality was probably bipolar disorder) and how it eventually drove him to suicide. And most people are aware of Abraham Lincoln's deep struggles with depression. These problems are nothing new to humanity, we just happen to recognize them now.

The fact of the matter is that humans are complex creatures who are, as a result of genetic, environmental and other factors, often susceptible to a wide variety of physical and mental struggles. Yes, even prophets (who are only humans) fall victim to such things, and why should any of us assume differently? Nobody seems to make a big deal of a church president who suffers the infirmities of age, sickness or injury. Why would mental illness make any kind of difference?

The real beauty of the life of George Albert Smith is the fact that he overcame these ailments and insecurities to change the world for the better. I think that the best example of George Albert Smith's "humanity" and goodness can be found in his handling of the "Third Conventionist" controversy. Most Mormon members are probably unfamiliar with this controversy, since it took place in the 1930s. The Third Convention controversy was a case in which a number of Mexican Mormons essentially chose to break off from the church and establish their own autonomy. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 had created a strict separation of church and state and isolated Mexican Mormons from church leaders in Salt lake city. In consequence, many Mexican members, led by District President Abel Páez, requested that the church call only full-blooded Mexican citizens to positions of authority within the country. When rebuffed by the church, these members elected to break away and created the "Third Convention", which held meetings, carried out missionary work and many other regular church functions without church approval.

Needless to say, this upset a large number of church authorities, not to mention many loyal Mexican Mormons. Many within the "Third Convention" were excommunicated in the wake of the escalating tensions between Salt Lake City and Mexico. Church leadership scoffed at the blatant apostasy that was taking place right under their noses. President George Albert Smith, however, had a different opinion. After making a trip to Mexico (the first church president to do so) President Smith met with "Third Convention" leaders and listened to their complaints. No judgements were passed, no fingers were pointed. As had become G.A. Smith's style he simply showed love and empathy for the people. In the end, President Smith reversed the excommunications and most of the Third Convention's followers were welcomed back as brothers and sisters of the church. Sure, President Smith was more than justified to spew out fire and brimstone rhetoric and to rebuke the Third Convention members for their betrayal of the faith. President Smith could have declared the Third Convention a heresy and made them an example to the church of the consequences of apostasy. Heck, President Smith could have avoided the trip to Mexico altogether, kept the excommunications in place, and simply ignored the situation. All of those courses of action would have been justifiable. Only one problem: they weren't what Jesus Christ would do, and President Smith knew it. Today Mexico is the second largest nation in terms of Mormon population. Would such be the case had G.A. Smith blown off the concerns of the Third Convention and other Mexican members in their time of need?

George Albert Smith is my favorite church president for one basic reason: he loved humanity. It didn't matter if they were good or bad, kind or mean, believers or non-believers. All humanity has worth and G.A. Smith knew it. His example is a lesson to every single member who feels the need to rebuke others. Whether it be a member who has "fallen away", a person with a disability or an individual in the depths of depression, George Albert Smith's example shows us the correct code of conduct to all humanity. I for one look forward to this year's curriculum on the life and teachings of a fantastic man, example and prophet.

Another way that George Albert Smith helped to modernize the church was via television and media. He was actually the first church president to broadcast his messages on television. I enjoyed this one because it not only shows G.A. Smith's joyous personality but also reveals how he was essentially a "bridge" between old school and modern Mormon preaching. President Smith's boisterous demeanor and use of hand gestures was common of 19th century preachers (including Mormons). You can tell in this video that G.A. Smith was clearly influenced by that style, but was also trying to also change the mold. This is good stuff. Enjoy:


Anonymous said...

LDS-Church-History is detailing George Albert Smith's life In depth at http://lds-church-history.blogspot.com/2009/01/lds-history.html

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Anon. I'll check it out.