I was also aware of some research about President Smith’s life that was not included in the biographical material. During the week of my preparation, J. Stapely over at By Common Consent provided more detail in that regard by linking an outstanding article in the Journal of Mormon History (J.’s post at BCC is here; the article is here, starting on page 120). In that article, BYU Rel. Ed. Professor Mary Jane Woodger presents compelling evidence from President Smith’s own journals that in addition to whatever physical maladies he may have had, President Smith also likely suffered from depression and anxiety disorders.
Prior to reading the article in JMH, I had decided not to mention what I’d heard about President Smith’s mental illness, but after reading the article, I felt like I should include it in my lesson. I can't say for sure I was inspired to do so, but I certainly could have been, and maybe I was. Of course, then I wondered about the balance of introducing material from outside the manual in my teaching compared with whatever benefit might accrue from sharing the information. I'm aware of the counsel to use the manuals and official sources in our lessons. And I'm also aware that the teacher, in the end, is the one called to teach.
Let’s be clear: the lesson I taught was from the manual. We read and discussed scriptures. We read passages of President Smith’s words. We illustrated them with examples from his life which were included in Lesson One and in the historical introduction in the manual. I did not teach a lesson on mental illness; I did not advocate for the rights of the mentally ill; I did not offer diagnostic or treatment recommendations (nor could I; I’m not qualified to do so).
What I did, however, is I pointed out, as J. did in his post, that there is considerable evidence from President Smith’s own journals that he likely suffered from depression and anxiety issues, and that those were likely a large part of his reason for his recuperative period mentioned in the historical overview. I also observed that it was unlikely that there would be any contemporary (to President Smith) diagnosis since the study of mental health at the turn of the 20th century was insufficiently developed to offer such a diagnosis. I added that perhaps this knowledge might comfort some who either wrestle with mental illness themselves or who have family members or close friends who do. I suggested that there is value in understanding that any illness need not be taken as an indictment of our worthiness or fitness for service to the Lord, as evidenced by the fact that President Smith served significantly and faithfully despite his illnesses, whatever they were. (We pointed out that he was not alone in serving while suffering with health challenges.)
There was, frankly, no discussion of the point. A few heads nodded. No one wondered why I had introduced this information that was not part of the manual (I identified it as such, by the way, since I suspect a fair number of our group would not have read the historical summary). (Oh, and no one died.) I think I was completely consistent with the instruction given to teachers at the end of Lesson One:
To help us teach from the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets, the Church has produced lesson manuals and other materials. There is little need for commentaries or other reference material (quoted from Teaching, No Greater Call: A Resource Guide for Gospel Teaching , 52).
It would have been interesting to go into more detail about his illness, but that was not the purpose of our lesson. The lesson was to talk about how we can live the gospel and not be members in name only, and I was happy to have ample material to illustrate that President Smith was a great example of that principle that he taught.