Relief Society Lesson: The Life and Ministry of George Albert Smith

In 2012, we are again studying from the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church.  Like all of the manuals in this series, the first lesson chronicles the life of the prophet whose words we will be studying for the next two years: George Albert Smith.

Historical Context

George Albert Smith

George Albert Smith

As we study the words of Smith over the next two years, it will be important to consider the social context in which they were spoken.  Smith had some experiences that most modern church members have not had, which likely gave him a different perspective.  Looking at the gospel through the lens of a different person and time period can help us to broaden our views and remind us of the timelessness of essential gospel truths.  At the same time, we should be mindful that Smith was speaking to his own generation and some of his teachings may need adaptation to apply to the wide range of experiences and cultures of church members today, as well as their different kinds of challenges and opportunities.

Here are some historical events and personal experiences that the manual writers seem to emphasize as having the greatest affect on Smith’s worldview:

  • During Smith’s childhood and young adulthood, the LDS Church was still calling men with families to serve missions, leaving their wives at home to provide for and care for their children.   George Albert Smith’s father, John Henry Smith, was away serving a mission in Great Britain when George Albert was 4-5 years old.  Just a few weeks after George Albert Smith’s marriage to Lucy Emily Woodruff, he was called to a mission in the Southern United States.  He left his wife in Utah until she was also called to serve in the same mission four months later.
  • At the age of 18, Smith suffered permanent eye damage as a result of work for a railroad company.  He also had several other serious health problems during his lifetime.
  • Smith was called to be an apostle when he was only 33 years old.  His father, John Henry Smith, was also an apostle at that time.  John Henry had become an apostle when George Albert was only 10 years old.  They were the only father and son pair to serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles together in the history of the church.
  • Smith presided over the European Mission of the church when Europe was recovering from World War I and became the president of the church at the conclusion of World War II.
  • Smith worked with members of other faiths to promote several causes that were important to him, especially historical preservation and improving opportunities for the blind.

George Albert Smith’s Strengths

Smith’s life story, as documented in the manual, reads like a eulogy—it details Smith’s personal strengths, while failing to mention whether he had any faults.  In fact, some of the quotes in the text come from actual eulogies given at Smith’s funeral.

I do not have a problem with discussing the strengths of a deceased person instead of their faults.  It is nice to remember people for their best attributes.  However, I do think it is important to acknowledge that this lesson is not intended to be a balanced and critical discussion of Smith’s life.  Just because the manual only mentions Smith’s best qualities does not mean that he was a perfect person.  He certainly had weaknesses like the rest of us.  We should also remember that we are not all expected to develop the same strengths.  Some of us may have been blessed with some of the same strengths as Smith and others may have other strengths.

D&C 46:11-12

For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man [and woman] is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

I like to connect a person’s words with a face and voice, so I am sharing a video of George Albert Smith to introduce him to class members before we spend two years reading his speeches:

In the interest of time and to avoid becoming overwhelmed by learning about too many virtues in one day, I have compiled one page of information each about four of Smith’s strengths: Living with Sickness and Disability, Civic Involvement, Kindness and Respect for Others, and Respect for History.  While the video is playing, I will invite the ladies to pass around a binder divided into four sections, each containing several copies of the page related to that particular strength.  I will ask the women to choose just one attribute that they would like to learn more about and take one of the copies of the page about that attribute.  After the video, the ladies will be given some reading time, then asked to find one or two other women who also chose the same attribute with whom they can discuss the discussion questions until the conclusion of class.

Living with Sickness and Disability

When he [George Albert Smith] 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…As one who suffered from visual impairment himself, Elder Smith felt a special sympathy for those who are blind. [He served as] president of the Society for the Aid of the Sightless…from 1933 to 1949.  He supervised the publication of the Book of Mormon in braille, and he instituted a program to help people who are blind learn to read braille and adapt to their disability in other ways. Irene Jones, a member of the the Society for the Aid of the Sightless, expressed her appreciation to Smith in poetry:

…Although his tender loving face
From us is shut apart,
We see the gracious wisdom
Of his understanding heart;
We feel a peace within his soul
And know a peace our own;
We hear his silent prayer that tells
We do not walk alone;
His faith in us will give us strength,
As unseen paths we plod;
Our souls uplifted by a man
In partnership with God.

For most of his life, George Albert did not have particularly good health…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.

Eventually Elder Smith began to regain his strength, and he emerged from this trial with a renewed sense of gratitude for his testimony of the truth. He told the Saints during a subsequent general conference: “I have been in the valley of the shadow of death in recent years, so near the other side that I am sure that [if not] for the special blessing of our Heavenly Father I could not have remained here. But, never for one moment did that testimony that my Heavenly Father has blessed me with become dimmed. The nearer I went to the other side, the greater was my assurance that the gospel is true. Now that my life has been spared I rejoice to testify that I know the gospel is true, and with all my soul I thank my Heavenly Father that he has revealed it to me.”

In 1919 President Heber J. Grant, who had recently been sustained as President of the Church, called Elder Smith to preside over the European Mission. During a general conference address just days before his departure, Elder Smith said: “I would like to say to you, my brothers and sisters, that I esteem it an honor—nay, more than an honor, I esteem it a very great blessing—that the Lord has raised me from the feeble condition that I was in a short time ago, restoring me to such a condition of health that the brethren have felt that it will be possible for me to fill a mission in a foreign land.”

Discussion Questions

  • How did Smith deal with his health problems?
  • How did Smith use his health problems to strengthen himself and others?
  • How can we cope with illness and disability in our own lives or in the lives of our loved ones?
  • How can we help others who struggle with illness or disability?


Civic Involvement

Elder Smith encouraged Church members to be involved in their communities and to use their influence to improve conditions in the world. He himself was involved in several civic organizations despite his demanding calling as a General Authority. He was elected president of the International Irrigation Congress and Dry Farming Congress, and he was elected to six terms as vice president of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. A strong proponent of aviation as a way for General Authorities to fulfill their travel assignments more efficiently, Elder Smith served on the board of directors of Western Air Lines. He was also actively involved in the Boy Scouts of America and in 1934 was awarded the Silver Buffalo, the highest honor given in Scouting. In the years after World War I he served as Utah state chairman of the Armenian and Syrian Relief campaign and as the state representative at the International Housing Convention, whose purpose was to find shelter for those left homeless by the war. Before his call as an Apostle, George Albert had been active in politics, earnestly campaigning for causes and candidates that he felt would improve society. Once he became a General Authority, his involvement in politics declined, but he continued to advocate causes he believed in. For example, in 1923 he helped introduce a bill in the Utah State Legislature that led to the construction of a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.

Elder Smith’s compassion for others was particularly evident in his service as president of the Society for the Aid of the Sightless, an office he held from 1933 to 1949. As one who suffered from visual impairment himself, Elder Smith felt a special sympathy for those who are blind. He supervised the publication of the Book of Mormon in braille, and he instituted a program to help people who are blind learn to read braille and adapt to their disability in other ways.

In 1930, the centennial year of the organization of the Church, Elder Smith helped establish the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association and was elected as the group’s first president. …At the dedication of This Is the Place Monument, George Q. Morris, then the president of the Eastern States Mission, noted a spirit of goodwill, which he attributed to President Smith’s efforts: “President Smith’s contributions to brotherhood and tolerance were reflected in the dedicatory service. … The monument itself had honored in sculpture—as far as possible in individual portrait sculpture—the men who had made history in the intermountain west preceding the Mormon Pioneers, regardless of race or religion. When the program for the dedicatory service was being prepared, it was President Smith’s desire that all the major religious groups be represented in addition to state, county, and city officials. A Catholic priest, a Protestant bishop, a Jewish rabbi, and representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were prominent speakers.”

On George Albert Smith’s gravestone is the following inscription: “…For his Church and his family he had unbounded affection and served them passionately. Yet his love was not limited; it included all men, regardless of race, faith, or station. To them and of them he frequently said: ‘We are all our Father’s children.’”

(From Daughters in My Kingdom, Chapter 6) [Sister Belle S. Spafford, General Relief Society President, recommended to George Albert Smith that the Relief Society withdraw from the National Council of Women.] Had they not held membership for well over half a century? He [Smith] inquired. Sister Spafford explained how costly it was to go to New York, the time it took, and described the humiliation they occasionally experienced. She recommended that they withdraw because ‘we don’t get a thing from these councils.’ This wise, old prophet tipped back in his chair and looked at her with a disturbed expression. ‘You want to withdraw because you don’t get anything out of it?’ he questioned. ‘That is our feeling,’ she replied.‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘what is it that you are putting into it? Sister Spafford,’ he continued, ‘you surprise me. Do you always think in terms of what you get? Don’t you think also in terms of what you have to give?’ He returned that paper to her and extended his hand. With considerable firmness he said, ‘You continue your membership in these councils and make your influence felt.’ She did make her influence felt. She participated in the National Council of Women and the International Council of Women and held leadership positions in those organizations for years.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think that Smith dedicated so much service to organizations outside the church?
  • How can we work together with people of other faiths to promote worthy causes?
  • How can we make our influence felt in today’s world?

Kindness and Respect for Others

President Smith had been rushing to catch a train when [a] mother stopped him, hoping her children could have the opportunity to shake hands with a prophet of God. An observer captured the moment in the photograph [and sent it to him with a note:] “The reason we treasure [this picture] so is because, as busy as you were, in spite of the fact you were being hurried into your car and then to your waiting train, you still took time out to shake the hand of each child in this family.”

“Father’s affection and consideration for mother were beautiful,” Edith [his daughter] wrote. “He never lost an opportunity to show his appreciation of her. Everything they did, they did together, after well-laid plans and teamwork. She was precious to him. … While we all adored Mother, I am sure that his thoughtfulness and tenderness toward her made her even more beloved by us children.”

One Christmas Day, after the gifts had been opened, he asked his young daughters how they would feel about giving away some of their toys to children who had not received any Christmas presents. Since they had just received new toys, the girls agreed that they could give away some of their old toys to the needy children. “Wouldn’t you like to give them some of the new ones, too?” George Albert gently suggested. His daughters were hesitant, but eventually they agreed to give up one or two of their new toys. George Albert then took the girls to the home of the children he had in mind, and they delivered the gifts. The experience was so uplifting that as they left, one of the girls said with excitement in her voice, “Now let’s go and get the rest of the toys for them.”

On Tuesday, October 6, 1903, George Albert Smith had a busy day at work and was unable to attend the sessions of general conference that day…He started for home with plans to take his children to the fair. When he arrived at his house, he was surprised to find a crowd of visitors [because without his knowledge, he had been sustained an apostle during the session]… Even after the report had been verified, George Albert determined that he would still take his daughters to the fair as promised.

World War II ended just months after George Albert Smith became President of the Church. The war had left thousands of people homeless and destitute in Europe, and President Smith quickly mobilized the Church’s welfare resources to provide aid…President Smith also knew that there were great spiritual needs among the people of the world in the aftermath of such a devastating war. In response, he took steps to reorganize missions in countries where the war had interrupted missionary work, and he encouraged the Saints to live the gospel of peace in their personal lives. “The best evidence of gratitude at this time,” he said shortly after the close of the war, “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. 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.”

Elder John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recounted an experience he had while trying to resolve a weighty, difficult issue: “I was weary. Just then there was a knock upon the door, and in walked George Albert Smith. He said, ‘I am on the way home after my day’s work. I thought of you and the problems that you are expected to solve. I came in to comfort you and to bless you.’ ”

A local businessman, not a member of the Church, said of him at his funeral: “He was an easy man to know. He was a man you would just like to know. His friendly smile, his hearty handclasp, and the warmth of his greeting made you feel inwardly, in your heart, the sincerity of his friendship for you and for his fellow man.”

On George Albert Smith’s gravestone is the following inscription: “…For his Church and his family he had unbounded affection and served them passionately. Yet his love was not limited; it included all men, regardless of race, faith, or station. To them and of them he frequently said: ‘We are all our Father’s children.’”

Discussion Questions

  • How did Smith demonstrate his love and respect for others?
  • Which of these examples of kindness impressed you most?  Why?
  • How can we emulate Smith’s example in our relationships with others?

Respect for History

As a young Apostle he went to Palmyra, New York, and negotiated the purchase of the Joseph Smith Sr. farm in the name of the Church. While in New York he also visited with a man named Pliny Sexton, who owned the Hill Cumorah, the place where Joseph Smith obtained the gold plates. Mr. Sexton was unwilling to sell the land to the Church, but he and Elder Smith nevertheless became friends. Due in part to the good relationship Elder Smith maintained with Mr. Sexton, the Church was eventually able to purchase the property and dedicate a monument there.

George Albert Smith was elected to six terms as vice president of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution…In 1930, the centennial year of the organization of the Church, Elder Smith helped establish the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association and was elected as the group’s first president. Over the next 20 years, this organization placed more than 100 monuments and markers, many of them memorializing the pioneers’ trek to the Salt Lake Valley…Explaining the Church’s interest in historic sites, he wrote: “…There are many points of interest that are being forgotten and the people have felt that it was desirable to mark them in a substantial way so that those who follow will have their attention called to important events.”

As one whose grandfather had walked to Utah with the pioneers, Elder Smith felt deep respect for those early Church members who had sacrificed so much for their faith. In an address to the Relief Society, he shared the following experience he had while retracing the route of the handcart pioneers: “…It seemed to me that we were in the very presence of those who had given their all that we might have the blessings of the Gospel. We seemed to feel the presence of the Lord. As we walked away, after we had shed our tears—for I doubt if there was a dry eye in the group of about 30 or 40 people—the influence that came as a result of that little gathering had touched our hearts, and one of the good sisters took me by the arm and said, ‘Brother Smith, I am going to be a better woman from now on.’ This woman … is one of the best of women but I believe she was touched as probably most of us were, by the fact that in some particulars we felt we had not measured up to the ideals that should have been in our souls.”

[George Albert Smith related this dream he had about his grandfather:] “… [Grandfather] looked at me very earnestly and said: ‘I would like to know what you have done with my name.’ Everything I had ever done passed before me as though it were a flying picture on a screen—everything I had done. Quickly this vivid retrospect came down to the very time I was standing there. My whole life had passed before me. I smiled and looked at my grandfather and said: ‘I have never done anything with your name of which you need be ashamed.’ He stepped forward and took me in his arms, and as he did so, I became conscious again of my earthly surroundings. My pillow was as wet as though water had been poured on it—wet with tears of gratitude that I could answer unashamed. I have thought of this many times, and I want to tell you that I have been trying, more than ever since that time, to take care of that name. So I want to say to the boys and girls, to the young men and women, to the youth of the Church and of all the world: Honor your fathers and your mothers. Honor the names that you bear.”

One of the highlights of George Albert Smith’s six years as President of the Church came in 1947, when the Church celebrated the centennial of the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. President Smith oversaw the celebration, which gained national attention and culminated in the dedication of This Is the Place Monument in Salt Lake City, near the location where the pioneers first entered the valley…He was careful, however, to make sure the monument also honored early explorers, missionaries from other faiths, and important American Indian leaders from that era. At the dedication of This Is the Place Monument, George Q. Morris, then the president of the Eastern States Mission, noted a spirit of goodwill, which he attributed to President Smith’s efforts: “President Smith’s contributions to brotherhood and tolerance were reflected in the dedicatory service. … The monument itself had honored in sculpture—as far as possible in individual portrait sculpture—the men who had made history in the intermountain west preceding the Mormon Pioneers, regardless of race or religion. When the program for the dedicatory service was being prepared, it was President Smith’s desire that all the major religious groups be represented in addition to state, county, and city officials. A Catholic priest, a Protestant bishop, a Jewish rabbi, and representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were prominent speakers.”

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think that preserving history was so important to Smith?
  • What can we do to remind ourselves of the history of our church, nation or family?
  • How can learning about history help us today?

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Twitter: @aprilyoungb

You may also like...

14 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    An odd posting. Nothing in the manual suggests that there was any intention to have such a lesson. Of course, a particular RS presidency might choose to use a first Sunday for that purpose.

  2. spunky says:

    Brilliant post. I really appreciate having an introduction to the man we are supposed to study and place him in the context of his place in time. Thanks for putting together such a thoughtful introduction!

  3. namakemono says:

    I wish we would start with an introduction lesson like that, but I have been told to start with lesson 1, and only a brief intro if I really feel its necessary. The introductory chapter is long and interesting, and I think worth doing a lesson just on that, but the stake says start week 2 on lesson 1 so that is what it is going to be.

  4. Of course I picked “Respect for History” from your virtual binder. I was struck by the reaction of the woman who heard him speak about the handcart pioneers. The typical reaction from church members — honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything else — is “oh, I’m so glad I didn’t live then; I could NEVER have been a pioneer!” There must have been something truly graceful about the way GeoASmith spoke of the contributions of those pioneers, to have the woman react with the inspiration to live her own life better rather than gratitude for not having to live a pioneer’s life.

    Whether a lesson like this is actually taught in our wards or not, I’m glad to have read it here.

  5. dorothy says:

    Am anxiously waiting lesson 1 to be posted…will be teaching this after our intro on George Albert Smith this next sunday….thanks so much for these lesson plans they have helped my immensely this past year… I love my calling…

  6. EmilyCC says:

    What a resource, April! I’m glad to head into the New Year knowing this background. (And, bedridden for 3 years and NOT released? I’ll stop complaining about my callings now 🙂 )

  7. Anonymous says:

    I was asked by my RS President to teach the Historical Summary and The Life and Ministry of George Albert Smith this Sunday and have been completely overwhelmed with the 32 pages worth of information. I have been looking for a way to condense and organize it and this gives me a great option! I really appreciate you sharing this!

  8. Julie says:

    Thank you for the great information and video. I was wondering what format you use to show the video clip in Relief Society? Do you know if the meeting houses block acess to youtube?

  9. anonymous says:

    Thank you for a great outline! I am teaching this Sunday but will be teaching the first lesson. However, I will be adding some of your fun facts about George Albert Smith to enrich the lesson.
    Just a thought….for those of us who are starting the year with Lesson 1 means we will not be able to see the future outlines for the lessons before we teach (it seems like we are all on different schedules). Is there anyway you could post lesson 1-2 this month and the 3rd lesson the first of Feb for those of us who teach the 2nd Sunday? Thank you for always sharing wonderful lesson plans. They help me so much.

  10. J says:

    I am using some of this post for my lesson and was wondering how you are going to show this video? I’d like to also, just not sure how to show it at church (no internet).

  11. April says:

    Sorry about my late response! I am afraid the holidays prevented me from checking comments in a timely manner. I hope those who taught this lesson today were able to figure out how to download the video. For those who still have this coming up, there is info about how to copy YouTube videos to your computer here: http://www.friedbeef.com/5-easy-ways-to-download-youtube-videos-to-your-computer/

    With regards to the schedule, we plan to post Lesson 1, Living What We Believe, on Jan 3. and Lesson 3, Our Testimony of Jesus Christ, on the 31. I think those lessons should be up on time to help everyone regardless of whether you are starting with the intro or lesson 1 in your local ward or branch. However, I am afraid our scheduled date for lesson 2 may be a late for those of you who are not doing an intro. I am going to see if I can resolve this and get it up earlier than planned. Thank you so much for bearing with me!

  12. dorothy says:

    Thanks so much April…I will be anticipating your lesson 1 post….can’t wait to show the video…it’s so nice to actually see George Albert Smith as a real person, and hear his voice….thanks again for your response…

  13. Alison says:

    I’m anxiously awaiting Lesson 2 because I’m teaching that this Sunday. Any way it will be up before then?!

Leave a Reply