A Prophet’s Lifelong Battle with Depression and Anxiety: George Albert Smith

“Sunday Sermon”

Our Mental Health Struggles

As one who has suffered from anxiety and depression, I take solace from the life and struggles of Apostle and Prophet George Albert Smith.

His experience dispelled the harmful myth that if your are living the gospel you won’t suffer from anxiety or depression. He destroyed the pernicious myth that all you need is will power or a priesthood blessing.

My heart goes out to Brother Smith. His health care providers didn’t have access to modern medications and therapies which could have greatly eased his lifelong suffering.

President Smith was known as one of the most sensitive, kind, compassionate and caring church leaders. His own struggles increased his sympathy and empathy for others. 

George Albert Smith’s 40 Year Struggle with Depression and Anxiety

 Quoted Excerpts From George Albert Smith: Kind and Caring Christian, Prophet of God, by Francis M. Gibbons

February 1909 opened the door to several years of trial and trauma for Elder George Albert Smith.  During this long period, he was unable to perform his apostolic duties….

Nervous Breakdown and Exhaustion

He suffered a nervous breakdown.  His stamina was gone.  The meager reserved of energy had been used up….

The consensus of all except George Albert seemed to be that it was a classic case of nervous exhaustion

            Complete bed rest over a long period was prescribed as the remedy….

Incapacitated and Attempted Recovery in SoCal Beach Home

He went to Southern California.  He needed rest and relaxation, but no one would tell the patient how to rest and relax.  Long hours in bed, beach combing, and idle recreations were not calculated to ease the tensions of one burdened with an exaggerated sense of duty, a gnawing feeling of inadequacy, and a crushing load of responsibility. Indeed, the remedy may have postponed the cure…. Nervous prostration….    

Return to Salt Lake, Doctors Recommend Sleeping in a Tent for “Fresh Air”      

He returned to Salt Lake in August 1909… His doctor, following an apparent trend of the day, decreed that he should have more fresh air and should discontinue sleeping indoors and should sleep in a tent…. To do nothing eroded his self-confidence, created feelings of worthlessness, and aggravated his nervous tensions….

 Six Months Sleeping in a Tent in St. George for “Fresh Air” Cure

           The family moved to Saint George in November and Elder Smith still slept in the backyard in a tent.  Here he spent almost six months, never once dressing in street clothes….

He became depressed and discouraged…. He became so weak that at times the slightest exertion of arranging his bed covers caused nervous chills.

  Occasionally, he suffered “sinking spells” when his whole system seemed to cease functioning.  And one day, he fainted twice during a series of these attacks, losing consciousness completely….

            Following the doctor’s instructions meticulously, nothing changed.  He was as weak as ever, as nervous as ever, and as incapable of working as ever.  There appeared to be no viable prospect that conditions would change

Feelings of Hopelessness and Uselessness

Feelings of hopelessness and uselessness gradually began to dominate his thoughts.  That his illness imposed a heavier burden on the brethren was an added source of concern, as was the knowledge that, while he lived, no one could replace him in the Quorum of the Twelve.  Such musings led to the resolve to ask the Lord to release him through death if his recovery were not possible. 

Return to Salt Lake, Sleeping Outside on Back Porch and Salt Lake Pier

            In May the family returned to their home in Salt Lake where Elder Smith slept on the back porch, where he slept well “when the dogs and cats would allow.”  

In mid-June he moved into a large room at the head of the north pier at the Great Salt Lake where he spent most of the summer.  Toward the summer it was decided to have him stay in a sanitarium where his diet could be controlled and he could receive massages and exercise. 

Doctors Shift Recommendation from Absolute Rest to Exercise

             The doctors shift his prescription from absolute rest to exercise and decreed that he should walk as much as possible.

In December 9, 1910 he wrote in his journal, “Nerves quite unsteady.  I cannot talk or visit without discomfort.” 

In January 1911 he started attending quorum meetings again.

Incapacitated and 16 Month Return to SoCal

In January 1912 he “gave out again” and was “out of commission.”  He returned to the coast for another 16 months, taking occasional trips.  He attended the October general conference in 1912 and spoke for five minutes, the first time he had spoken in the Tabernacle in three years.   

Return to Apostolic Duties After 3 Year Incapacitation          

  The following year, 1913, would witness the end of this molding process and Elder Smith’s return to his apostolic duties.  He continued to have health problems, physical and emotional, throughout his life, but fulfilled his duties with distinction.

Another Breakdown

On New Year’s Day, 1920, he suffered another “breakdown” and was confined to bed for three weeks. 

            Throughout his life he would be “out of commission” for a few days or a few weeks at a time to regain his health and strength.

Developing Compassion and Understanding

Elder Smith’s long illness gave him vital insight into the frailties, infirmities, and fears of humanity, giving him compassion and understanding toward their faults and foibles.  George Albert Smith was equally solicitous of ordinary people, especially those who were ill, discouraged, or down on their luck.  He was often found in hospitals, nursing facilities, and the homes of the poor or the disheartened….

Optimism In Suffering

To hear George Albert Smith speak might have caused one to think his life consisted of an unbroken chain of happiness of good fortune.  He was always positive and optimistic.  He never complained, and he never mentioned in public his many adversities. 

“The mills of God grind very slowly and exceedingly fine”

Few people were aware of the variety and the complexity of the personal difficulties he endured…. George Albert Smith was once quoted as saying that “the mills of the God grind very slowly and exceedingly fine.”

(George Albert Smith: Kind and Caring Christian, Prophet of God, by Francis M. Gibbons, p. 60-77, 95, 118, 129, 151, 156

Quoted Excerpts from J. Reuben Clark, Jr. The Church Years, by D. Michael Quinn

            Within weeks of George Albert Smith being set apart as President of the Church and J. Reuben Clark being set apart as his first counselor, President Clark became concerned about the health of the new Church President. 

On 27 June 1945 President Grant was too weary . . . to join the rest of the General Authorities in a temple session . . .  Fatigue . . . was not unusual, but President Smith’s . . . occasional comments about “tired nerves” were disturbing echoes of his earlier health problems.

Counselor J. Reuben Clark’s Ongoing Effort to Shield the Prophet from Administrative Pressure

In fact, President Clark’s greatest challenge from 1945 to 1951 was his effort to shield George Albert Smith from the administrative pressures that could cause the Church President to relapse into an earlier health breakdown.

            The severity of previous [mental] health problems required President Clark to give first priority to preserving President Smith’s medical stability.  Assistant Church historian Preston Nibley wrote that as a young Apostle, George Albert Smith “had exhausted his supply of nervous energy.”  Due to overwork and a frail physical condition, Elder Smith had suffered from January 1909 to mid-1913 with what was described in his diary as a “general collapse,” by a physician friend as “nervous prostration,” and by a recent biographer as “nervous collapse.”

            By whatever name one classifies the health difficulties of George Albert Smith, the symptoms seemed to emanate from the pressures of his Church service.  After attributing the onset of his symptoms in 1909 to overwork in the previous year, his condition deteriorated to the point that he perspired, trembled, had a “nervous chill,” and had to sit down after speaking to a general conference of the Church for only three minutes. 

Remained in Bed for 5 Months

Elder Smith made several unsuccessful attempts to continue his Church activities, but his withdrawal from public life was so intense that beginning in November 1909, “I remained in bed until about the 1st of May [1910] when I had my clothes brought to me and dressed for the first time in over five months.”  With much recuperation and relative seclusion in California, he was finally able to resume active service as an Apostle in mid-1913.

            He seemed to be able to cope with the physical and nervous strain of Church service from 1913 until 1930, when Church President Heber J. Grant feared that the Apostle was heading for another breakdown, because he “is getting very nervous.” 

Teetered on the Edge for 3 Years

For the next three years he seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge of a collapse, as indicated in his self-descriptions: “a condition of nervousness that was most distressing,” “my nerves were run down,” “My nerves were nearly gone but am holding on the best I know how,” and “I was appointed to Alpine Stake Conference but my nerves are trembling so I have been excused.” 

President of the Church: Struggles Continue

Twelve years later, George Albert Smith received the office of ultimate responsibility (and therefore the greatest pressures) in the Church….  

            By the fall of 1948 President Smith’s condition came frighteningly close to repeating his earlier breakdown.  On 6 October 1948, his diary read, “My nerves are giving me some discomfort as a result of exhaustion,” and his condition gradually worsened until he recorded in January 1949 that he remained at home in bed “with tired nerves.” 

President Clark dreaded a return of George Albert Smith’s 1909-1913 incapacity, or the conditions in the First Presidency from 1940-1950, and grimly remained at his post in the First Presidency’s office as the President’s condition worsened. 

L.A. Hospitalization and Recuperative Stay SoCal Beach Home

Present Smith was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital on 20 January, from which he was discharged on 8 February so that he could recuperate at Laguna Beach until March 1949. [The church owned a home in a gated beach community in Orange County.] Despite the rest, he was not able to attend all sessions of general conference in April. . ..

            [On 5 May 1949] President Smith’s physician informed him that there was “nothing organically wrong with me”; yet the President remained in bed instead of attending the temple meeting of the Presidency and Twelve. . ..

            Although by now [9 October 1949] President Smith was trying to reduce the tensions he was under and to rest a little more, the strains of the Presidency caused further deterioration of his health.  Ten days [later] . . . his younger daughter . . . telephoned President Clark at Church offices to report that her father would not be in the office due to “a dose of nerves.” . . . .

Recuperative Stay in SoCal and Trip to Hawaii

            From 12 January to 27 February 1950 George Albert Smith was at Laguna Beach, California; he returned there for ten days in March and from 30 July to 29 August President Smith was absent on a trip to Hawaii, a trip taken primarily for recuperative purposes. 

Added to these absences from Utah were the days when President Smith rested at home or was able to be in the First Presidency’s office only a few hours. 

Counselor J. Reuben Clark Shouldered the Administrative Burdens of the First Presidency

            J. Reuben Clark shouldered the added burdens of the First Presidency’s office without complaint . . ..  He eagerly made whatever adjustments necessary in his own activities and office routine to accommodate President Smith’s failing health, frequent absences, and diminished attention span.

            [President Smith passed away on 4 April 1951]

(J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years, D. Michael Quinn, BYU Press, pgs.  95-97, 107-110, 112)

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