Thursday, January 12, 2012

What I taught about GAS...and how nobody died

Last Sunday I taught Lesson One from the new Teachings of the Prophet manual. As I was preparing for the lesson, I determined to use parts of the overview of President Smith’s life included in the manual, since I assumed many of the high priests in our group are like me and don’t know a whole lot about President Smith. Furthermore, there’s plenty from the historical sketch that illustrates that President Smith practiced what he preached in Lesson One, namely living the gospel instead of being a member in name only.

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 [1999], 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.


  1. Sounds great. I appreciate reading reports like this of what actually goes on in various church classrooms, and why, especially when they tie into issues we've been discussing int he Bloggernacle.

    It's too bad, though, that teachers like you and me feel constantly that we have to defend our choices to include even the merest whisper of something that isn't printed on the page of a manual, and to stress that we went "this far and no farther" lest somebody think we've apostatized and refuse to sustain the Brethren by not reciting the manual in all particulars. I wish we trusted teachers to do the right thing, especially teachers who have demonstrated trustworthiness by our class history and by our online writings.

  2. Thanks, Ardis. I almost didn't post this, but after reading some of the more reactionary responses over at BCC, I thought I would.

    My very conservative wife who is in our stake RS presidency reminded me of another perspective. The first time she taught Teachings for the Prophets in our stake (in our ward) was while I was bishop. The RS president recommended her with the hope that she would actually teach what was in the manual -- or at least refer to it! Teachers at that time were regularly taking the "topic" of the lesson from the manual and then writing their own elaborate lessons on that theme, but never once reading the words of the prophet whose words we were "studying" that year.

    Clearly, reason (and hopefully inspiration) is somewhere in the middle.

  3. It sounds like exactly the type of lesson I would have liked to hear - based on the manual, using the manual but adding detail that is very important from solid, faithful sources to teach a very important principle **that is a key part of the Plan of Salvation**.