George Albert Smith was just 13 years old in January 1884 when Zebedee Coltrin, an ordained patriarch who had been a confidant of the Prophet Joseph Smith during the turbulent days of early Church history, appeared unexpectedly at the Smith family home in Salt Lake City with the intention to bless the boy.
"Thou shalt become a mighty prophet in the midst of the sons of Zion," Brother Coltrin said in the blessing. "Thou shalt become a mighty apostle in the church and kingdom of God upon the earth, for none of thy father's family shall have more power with God than thou shalt have, for none shall excel thee."
A compelling interpretation of that blessing is that young George Albert one day would lead the covenant people of God as prophet, seer, revelator and president of the Church.
It was a bold pronouncement to be sure. And the repeated word "mighty" in the blessing may have seemed unlikely at times, as George Albert, though vigorous and competitive, with a social gregariousness and a talent for entertaining, was beset throughout his life with frail health and at times debilitating propensity to nervous tension.
But what he lacked in physical stamina he more than made up for in sheer dedication to and zeal for the work of the Lord and service to others, both within and outside of the Church.
Adult Latter-day Saints this year will study the teachings of this eighth Church president as the Relief Society and Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and groups in the Church resume their study of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series.
A newly published manual in the series is now being distributed to Church members in individual wards and branches. This follows a two-year interlude during which a revised Gospel Principles manual was studied in the priesthood quorum and group and Relief Society meetings on Sunday.
Earlier books in the series have covered teachings of Presidents Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball. The intent in launching the series was that, over time, Latter-day Saints would accumulate a collection of reference books on gospel themes as taught by the Church presidents. Past books in the series may still be obtained from Church distribution centers or ordered on line from store.lds.org.
In President George Albert Smith one sees in some ways a personified bridge between the early and modern eras in Church history. Much of his travel was by train and, in the earlier days of his ministry, even horse and buggy. But he was a champion of air travel, then in its infancy, as a means of accelerating the work of the Lord and for much of his life served on the board of directors of Western Airlines.
President Smith was the last in a line of Church presidents beginning with Brigham Young to have a beard, reflecting the styles and conventions of an earlier day. Though it is safe to say that most Church members today are unacquainted with his presidency, there are many in the Church still alive today who remember him, as he did not die until 1951 on April 4, his 81st birthday.
One of those who remembers him is Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve. Elder Ballard was a young man about to depart on a mission to Great Britain in 1948 when the Church president attended his missionary farewell and sat next to him with his arm on his shoulder.
Elder Ballard's grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, had been an apostle in the Church and had earlier served as President Smith's counselor in the YMMIA general superintendency. A dream President Smith had implied there was trouble in the Ballard family, so out of concern, President Smith attended the missionary farewell. It was an act of caring that touched the new missionary deeply.
Such kindness hallmarked the life of George Albert Smith and so characterized him in the minds of those who knew him.
There are many incidents that illustrate that kindness, such as the occasion when he helped a youth who had come to Salt Lake City to work. The young man's father had encouraged him to call on Elder Smith, who was then in the Quorum of the Twelve. The son ignored the counsel, fell in with a bad crowd and was accused of being an accessory to robbery.
At that point, the boy did call on Elder Smith, and asked for help. With the boy's father and the authorities, Elder Smith worked with the young man to help him straighten out his life. The boy heeded Elder Smith's counsel from then on to "keep on the Lord's side of the line." He eventually served a mission for the Church and became successful in life, reflecting on what would have happened had not "one of God's apostles cared enough to help his fellow man."
Whether or not such love and service came naturally to President Smith, he made a studied effort to cultivate that aspect of his character. The first lesson in the new book contains his "personal creed" that he wrote when he was yet a young man of 34, 11 ideals that he committed to live by:
"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 mankind.
"I would seek out the erring one and try to win him back to a righteous and 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.
"Knowing that the Redeemer of mankind has offered to the world the only plan that will fully develop us and make us really happy here and hereafter, I feel it not only a duty but also a blessed privilege to disseminate this truth."
As reflected in the above ideals, President George Albert Smith was an untiring and courageous champion of the truth, yet never one to be overbearing in his approach.
Many Church members recall that President Gordon B. Hinckley on occasion expressed the Church's attitude toward those of other faiths in this way: "We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service" (meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, Feb. 17, 1998). Fewer understand or realize that President George Albert Smith much earlier expressed the same sentiment.
While president of the European Mission, he on one occasion conversed during a train ride with a Protestant minister and said, "We are asking you to keep all the truth you have acquired in your church, then let us sit down and share with you some of the things that have not yet come into your life that have enriched our lives and made us happy. We offer you these things without money and without price. All we ask you to do is hear what we have to say, and if it appeals to you, accept it freely. If it does not, then we will go our way to somebody else that we hope will be more fortunate" (as recalled in a sermon in Washington, D.C., Nov. 4, 1945).
President Smith's good will toward individuals found a broader expression in a public spiritedness that was reflected in his leadership in such organizations as the Sons of the American Revolution and the Boy Scouts of America.
Consistent with his interest in these organizations, he was an avid trekker, trail marker and preserver of historic sites. Many of the Church historic sites and monuments of today bear his mark as the first president of the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association, which he helped to found in the Church's centennial year, 1930. Earlier, he negotiated for the Church the purchase of the Joseph Smith Sr. farm in Palmyra, N.Y., befriended the owner of the Hill Cumorah property, an association that led to the eventual purchase by the Church of that momentous site.
And it was President Smith who, on July 24, 1947, dedicated This Is the Place Monument at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, marking the site where Brigham Young gazed at the Salt Lake Valley and identified it as "the right place" for the exiled Latter-day Saints to establish their Rocky Mountain headquarters. The date was the centennial of that event.
Later, with Gov. J. Bracken Lee of Utah, President Smith encouraged legislation providing for a state park on the site of the monument, thus preventing encroachment of commercial development. Today, that park has been privatized by the state legislature and is known as This Is the Place Heritage Park, a living-history attraction that memorializes the pioneering efforts in Utah of the Mormons and others.
President Smith's reverence for the contributions of Church leaders in the past may have been motivated in part by his own family history. He was the grandson of his namesake, George Albert Smith, an apostle and counselor to President Brigham Young and a cousin of the Prophet Joseph Smith. George Albert's father, John Henry Smith, was a counselor in the First Presidency to President Joseph F. Smith.
But with that rich family heritage, President George Albert Smith had strong feelings against nepotism and was embarrassed by the perception of it among the leading councils of the Church. His fervency and witness was not about family dynastic connections but about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of the Restoration to be carried to all of God's children.
Readers of the new book will find that reflected in its 24 chapters covering such diverse topics as love, testimony, priesthood, temple blessings, scriptures, revelation, the Word of Wisdom and sharing the gospel. A chronology of his life and an introductory article about his life and ministry, together with a relevant introduction in each chapter drawn from his life, provide rich insights into the personality and character of this prophet of God.
Note: Information for this article was drawn primarily from Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith and from Francis M. Gibbons', George Albert Smith: Kind and Caring Christian, Prophet of God.