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The Southern Presbyterian Review
Digitization Project: Author Biography

Thomas Smyth
(July 14, 1808 - August 20, 1873)
by Barry Waugh, Ph.D.
©PCA Historical Center, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO, 2003. All Rights Reserved.

Thomas Smyth was born on June 14, 1808 in Belfast, Ireland, the sixth son of Samuel and Ann Magee Smith. Thomas's father was English, a prosperous grocer and tobacco distributor, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church. Samuel had changed the spelling of his surname to "Smith," but in 1837, Thomas would return to the traditional "Smyth" at the General Assembly in order to avoid confusion with another Thomas Smith. His mother, of Scottish ancestry, exercised a great influence on Thomas by encouraging his love of reading and instructing him in the Christian faith. Thomas's education began at the Academic Institution of Belfast, and then he went on to study at Belfast College where in 1829 he graduated with honors. It was at the age of twenty-one that Thomas made his profession of faith in Christ while living in Belfast.

He then moved to London to attend Highbury College, but he was not able to complete his program there because he moved with his parents to the United States in 1830 where he lived with his brother in Patterson, New Jersey. His brother, Joseph, had done well in his new homeland and earned his living in manufacturing. Joseph was a member of the Presbyterian Church and Thomas attended services with him. To complete his ministerial training he enrolled in the senior class at Princeton Theological Seminary and graduated in 1831. It was in 1843 that Princeton Seminary, at the recommendation of Dr. Samuel Miller, conferred the Doctor of Divinity upon Thomas. Dr. Miller thought that Rev. Smyth's considerable academic pursuits and many publications justified his being awarded the D.D. despite his not having met all the jots-and-tittles normally required for the degree.
Thomas had been a Congregationalist in Ireland, but his involvement in the Presbyterian Church with his brother led to his being taken under care by the Presbytery of Newark. He was ordained by the Presbytery and subscribed to the Westminster Confession having taken exception to the sentence in chapter 24, which prohibited a man's marriage to his deceased wife's sister. When he was ordained it was the presbytery's intention to send him to Florida as a missionary, but his direction changed when the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina requested him to be their supply pastor in 1832. His Princeton professors, Samuel Miller and Archibald Alexander, encouraged him to go to Charleston. Thomas became the supply for a short time, and after a time of some uncertainty concerning his remaining there, he was called to be the pastor and installed in December of 1834. His uncertainty was due to his belief that the great size of the Second Church's sanctuary exacerbated his chronic health problems. In order to alleviate the stress of preaching, the church modified the sanctuary by lowering the ceiling and making other changes to decrease the volume of the room and thereby reduce Rev. Smyth's effort to project his voice. The call to Second Presbyterian was the first and last pastoral call of Thomas's life since he remained there until he died.
Shortly after Rev. Smyth's arrival at Charleston, he married Margaret Milligan Adger, who was the daughter of one of Charleston's most prosperous merchants, James Adger. James Adger's brother, John, would become the Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Polity at Columbia Seminary from 1857 to 1874. Thomas and Margaret were married by the Rev. William A. McDowell, pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church, at sunset on Tuesday, July 9, 1832. The couple was to enjoy a long marriage that was blessed with nine children, six of which-three boys and three girls-survived Dr. Smyth. It would be Dr. Smyth's granddaughter, Louisa Cheves Stoney, who would spend many hours of loving labor editing and compiling the final version of his autobiography.
Since Dr. Smyth enjoyed such an extended time as the pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, it might be concluded that he had a ministry without difficulties, but this was not the case. From the time he arrived at Charleston, he was involved in the controversies that led to the Civil War. According to T. Erskine Clark's article on Dr. Smyth in American National Biography, Smyth tried to take a moderate approach to slavery--in Charleston, he was thought an Abolitionist, while in Britain, he was seen as a supporter of slavery. He, along with John Adger and John Girardeau, was instrumental in establishing the Zion Presbyterian Church for slaves. Both Dr. Smyth and John Girardeau were mercilessly vilified by some Southerners for their efforts to provide a Presbyterian place of worship for Africans. His efforts at reforming slavery were resisted by some of the Whites in Charleston and this made for a rough road for his ministry. He defended the full humanity of Africans in his book Unity of the Human Race against the vocal protests of militant southern slavery supporters.
Along with the secession of the southern states came the greater issue, in the mind of Thomas Smyth, of splitting the Presbyterian Church into sectional denominations. He was against splitting the church because he saw the Civil War as a political issue and not an ecclesiastical one. For Dr. Smyth, the church stands as the body of Christ made up of many members united in the worship of God; the church is united spiritually through Christ and political conflict should not affect its unity. Dr. Smyth hoped that unity could be maintained, but when the split occurred, he supported the southern church.
In July of 1863, Vicksburg fell and Lee was defeated at Gettysburg. The tide had turned and many southerners saw that the days of the Confederacy were numbered. Second Presbyterian Church's congregation scattered due to the growing uncertainties regarding Charleston's future. Because of the fear of Union forces invading Charleston, the Smyths had moved inland to Clarendon County for about two years beginning in August 1863. During this exile, Dr. Smyth became a circuit-riding minister serving several Methodist churches. When he returned to pick up the pieces at Second Presbyterian, he found that the war had left his congregation depleted and confused. In August of 1866, the church had to be reorganized due to the great loss of members during the war, and in October of 1867, three new elders were ordained to help with the work of the church.
Another difficulty during his years of ministry involved the ejection of the New School from the Old School and the end of the Plan of Union between the Presbyterians and Congregationalists in 1837. Thomas Smyth attributed this division to three factors: the Albert Barnes heresy case, abolitionism, and differences over how missions should be governed by the church. The New School generally supported Barnes, was abolitionist, and believed that missions could be governed by interdenominational organizations. The division that occurred at the national level had ramifications for the presbytery in which Dr. Smyth ministered. The Charleston Union Presbytery met in December of 1837 to decide how the national division would affect its own situation. One group, led by Thomas Smyth and Benjamin Gildersleeve, called for the congregations to support the General Assembly's actions, and those who would not support them should leave. In opposition to the Smyth-Gildersleeve group was another faction led by Rev. White, which would not support the Old School Assembly. After considerable debate during the following year, Dr. Smyth and Benjamin Gildersleeve walked out of the Charleston Union Presbytery meeting in the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston taking with them the presbytery records to a lower floor and proceeded to establish the Charleston Presbytery on December 4, 1838. The followers of Rev. White continued as the New School, Charleston Union Presbytery, until 1852 when it reunited with the Old School presbytery.
There were other points of contention and difficulty over the years, some were substantial while others constituted the somewhat petty matters pastors sometimes have to deal with. Dr. Smyth saw great problems with the limited authority and power allowed to the elders by the congregation. The elders, basically, did nothing more than examine candidates for church membership. Dr. Smyth believed that an elder's rule entailed great responsibilities as a spiritual overseer. Another point of conflict was the resentment some felt towards him because of the wealth of Margaret's family. James Adger was, according to one reckoning, the fourth wealthiest man in the United States, and he was generous with financial gifts to the Smyths. Some criticized Thomas for being rich and when the financial aspects of the pastoral call were discussed, these people voiced their opposition to a raise in salary. Even though other members of the Second Presbyterian Church staff received gifts from members of the congregation, the givers did not see fit to make gifts to the Smyths. On one occasion, during the remodeling of the sanctuary, the worship services were held in a meeting room. The windows in this room could not be properly opened and Rev. Smyth pushed for having the windows replaced. This was finally accomplished after an extended time. Anyone who has been in Charleston on a hot summer day knows how important open windows would be. In 1842, while the General Assembly was trying the Rev. Archibald McQueen for his marriage to his deceased wife's sister, the Assembly affirmed that such a marriage was incestuous. One member of the Second Presbyterian Church believed that the Presbyterian Church was wrong about the McQueen marriage, and after several years of attendance, he informed Dr. Smyth that he was leaving the congregation even though he still benefited from Dr. Smyth's ministerial oversight. Sometimes the conflicts became too great for him and on several occasions he submitted his resignation because of the difficulties of his ministry, but these were not accepted.
Nineteenth century life could be tragic and difficult, and the Smyths faced some of the century's vicissitudes. In the fall of 1836 Rev. Smyth, Margaret, and his sister-in-law were traveling by ship when there was a horrible storm that caused the ship to run-aground and leave the passengers stranded on a small island off the coast of North Carolina. They had very little food and suffered having their trunks ransacked by some members of the ship's crew. In 1837 scarlet fever ravaged Charleston and two of the Smyth children were stricken. Sarah Ann Magee died of the fever on November 27 at the age of four and her younger sister, Susan Adger, died less than a week later. This double dose of tragedy was very difficult for Thomas and Margaret. Margaret expressed her grief to friends and relatives in letters, while Thomas tried to keep his thoughts about the girls' deaths to himself. On the first Sabbath Dr. Smyth preached following the two deaths, he was able to get through the first hymn, but when he stood to read the Scripture, he broke down, took his seat, and wept. Many in the congregation joined him in his uncontrolled sorrow. Two sermons regarding the salvation of infants delivered by Dr. Smyth following his daughters' deaths were published in the book Solace for Bereaved Parents. Death struck the Smyth household once again when in November 1841 Augustine, the Smyths' eleven month old son, died. The modern reader is often surprised at the number of children born to nineteenth-century families, but even though parents might have ten or more children, it was not uncommon for several of them to die in the early years of life.
Though Dr. Smyth was loved by his congregation, it does not mean they were happy with every aspect of his ministerial practice. He had a habit of preaching too long, or so some in the congregation thought. In order to address this problem, a speaking tube was installed from the choir loft to the pulpit. This was used by the violinist to let Dr. Smith know when he was preaching too long. Despite these warnings being loud enough that the people in the front pews could hear them, he paid no attention to them and continued to preach at length. Another attempt was made to arrest the lengthy sermons. A man, who sat in the congregation on the aisle close to the pulpit, suggested that he take his hat and place it in the aisle as a signal to Dr. Smith that he was running too long, but this signal was also ignored.
Dr. Smyth's life was troubled by bouts with illness from his earliest years; the Apostle Paul had his thorn in the flesh, and Thomas Smyth felt the pain and discomfort of chronic physical problems. When he was born, his parents did not know how long he would survive because he was so frail. On two occasions, during his educational years, one at Belfast College and another at Princeton Seminary, his studies were interrupted by illness. As the years passed, he continued to be afflicted by sickness. While he was the pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, he often had debilitating headaches that would make it difficult to study and execute his ministry. He tried to relieve the pain by soaking his head in ice-cold water. In 1848, he was affected by a partial paralysis that left him with reoccurring severe pain. In 1853, he was once again stricken with a paralysis that was severe enough to leave him crippled and on crutches. Dr. Smyth had difficulty standing with the crutches while preaching, so his pulpit was modified by constructing a saddle-like seat with a mahogany backrest. By using this special furniture he could straddle the seat as if he were on a horse, lean back against the backrest, and have his hands free to turn his notes and make descriptive gestures. Despite these painful and reoccurring problems, Dr. Smyth persevered in his ministry until the final blow came in 1870 when his speech was paralyzed. He did not give up but instead developed speech and elocutionary exercises so that he could regain his ability to talk. Despite his persistent efforts, he could not restore his speech sufficiently to satisfy himself that his verbal abilities were adequate for acceptable preaching, so he retired from the pulpit about a year after his speech paralysis began. Though he no longer preached, he often ended the worship service with prayer.
Thomas Smyth's interests were many and his writing was prolific, but there are some reoccurring areas of specific interest found in the massive ten volumes that constitute his collected works. He contributed greatly to the cause of missions. A considerable portion of the seventh volume of his work is dedicated to missions. He was particularly concerned that children of the church develop an interest in missions, so he published The Duty of Interesting Children in the Missionary Cause (VII: 329-369). He also established, in his first year at Second Presbyterian Church, the Juvenile Missionary Society and published a missionary paper for children. When he was a student at Highbury College, Thomas was expected to go onto the mission field with the London Missionary Society, but due to his health and his move to the United States, his calling took the direction of the pastoral ministry. Ecclesiology was another area of great interest to Dr. Smyth. He produced works that presented and defended Presbyterian polity, enumerated the responsibilities of the ruling elder, and discussed other ecclesiastical concerns. He served at Charleston through the tumultuous years of the Civil War and contributed works relevant to that time including: The War of the South Vindicated and The War Against the South Condemned, The Soldier's Prayer Book, An Outline of The Soldiers Hymn Book and The Sin and the Curse; The Union, The True Source of Disunion, and Our Duty in the Present Crisis (Works, VII: 539ff). He also wrote on the Trinity, Unitarianism, baptism, matrimony, John Calvin, the Lord's Supper, the Young Men's Christian Association, the Westminster Assembly, and many other subjects and issues. Dr. Smyth even found time to do some self-guided readings in law from Blackstone and attend lectures at the Medical College of Charleston. It was noted by some that as Dr. Smyth's health continued to deteriorate, he still could be found in his chair stooped over his desk with books propped-up around him.
As with many ministers and theologians, Thomas Smyth was afflicted with bibliomania. His symptoms appeared early in his life. As a young child, he was a voracious reader and while at Belfast College he worked as the librarian. Reading and cataloging were not sufficient to alleviate his love for books; he had to own them as well. He wrote in 1829, "My thirst for books, in London became rapacious. I overspent my supplies in procuring them, at the cheap repositories and left myself in the cold winter for two or three months without a cent " (Autobiography, 39). Dr. Smyth's comments on his developing bibliomania are reminiscent of Erasmus and his practice of buying books first, and then, if any money was left, he bought food. A few years later as he entered his ministerial service in Charleston, he specifically purposed to develop a theological and literary library similar to Dr. Williams's Library in London. Over the years, he accumulated about 20,000 volumes. One unusual book in his possession was a Hebrew Psalter with the autographs of Jonathan Edwards, Edwards's son, and Rev. Tryan Edwards, who gave it to Dr. Smyth. The Grand Debate and other original documents of the Westminster Assembly were procured at great cost, as well as forty works by members of the Assembly along with ten quarto volumes of their discourses. Dr. Smyth's compulsive, though purposeful, book buying may have been a point of tension for he and his wife. In a letter written by Margaret to him in the summer of 1846 she informed him of the expenses they were incurring due to the addition of three rooms to their home:

"I tell you all this now as a preface to a caution, not to involve yourself too deeply or inextricably in debt by the purchase of books & pictures; of the last, with the maps, we have enough now to cover all the walls, even of the new rooms; & the books are already too numerous for comfort in the Study & Library. But I would enter a protest not only against books & pictures, but all other things not necessary & which can come under the charge of extravagance. Do be admonished & study to be economical." (Autobiography, 384f).

It should be noted that one of the reasons the three rooms were built was to accommodate Dr. Smyth's ever-growing library; one of the new rooms was thirty feet long and intended for his use. As Dr. Smyth's health continued to deteriorate, he made the difficult decision to sell over half of the volumes of his library to Columbia Theological Seminary. He was concerned that since he could not take full advantage of his magnificent library it would be best that ministerial students have access to the books. The actual sale was dated May 28, 1856 and the seminary contracted to pay the Smyths $14,400 for the volumes. The seminary organized the collection in a special area designated the Smyth Library. Dr. Smyth continued to add to the collection by donating other books so that by May of 1863, the special collection contained 11,845 volumes, and by the time a posthumous inventory was taken in November of 1912, the number was over 15,000. Even though he had sold and donated thousands of volumes to Columbia Seminary, his remaining library was still large, but it was reduced once again when a fire, in 1870, burned about 3,000 books. Though the affliction of bibliomania can become all-consuming, it is certain that many Presbyterian ministers trained at Columbia Seminary benefited from the collection gathered by Thomas Smyth.
Despite a physical constitution that would lead others to complaining, depression, and withdrawal, it was said of Dr. Smyth, by Rev. G. R. Brackett, Smyth's successor at Second Presbyterian Church, that: "Dr. Smyth was a cheerful, happy sufferer. His sufferings never made life dark, dismal or undesirable. He had cultivated a merry, joyous spirit. He had learned to smile on suffering, " (Smyth, Works, X: 787). He was a persistent student and reader even as his afflictions increased. He continued to read voraciously, study, and minister as he could, but he succumbed to the weakness of the flesh and died in Charleston on August 20, 1873. Dr. Smyth's four decades of ministry had seen both difficult and glorious times. He had ministered through the antebellum years of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, but despite the challenges, he had experienced a fruitful ministry exemplified in at least thirty-six men from his congregation entering the ministry, including his son, Augustine Thomas.
It is surprising that such a prolific southern Presbyterian minister has not generated any more study than he has. Part of the problem may be that his works are not readily available because they have not been reprinted extensively like those of James Henley Thornwell, Robert L. Dabney, or T. E. Peck. Dr. Smyth's desire for access to his writings for future generations may have been his own undoing. In his will he provided the funds for his heirs to have his works published and given to colleges, seminaries, personal friends, and the poor of his community-this means that his works were not available on the open market for pastors, lay people, and other parties to purchase. If he had provided not only for the free sets of his works, but also for private sales, there would have been more first editions available, and therefore, more sets on the used book market for public access. When sets of his works become available it is generally because libraries have removed them from their collections. Dr. Smyth's magnanimous gesture may have worked against the use of his works rather than encouraging study of his life and thought.

Sources:
Brackett, Gilbert Robbins, "The Christian Warrior Crowned--A Discourse, Commemorative of the Life, Character and Labors of the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D.," delivered in the Second Presbyterian Church, Charleston, S. C., Dec. 14th, 1873, (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans & Cogswell, 1874), 63pp., 23cm.
J. William Flynn, ed. Complete Works of the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D. 10 vols. Columbia: R. L. Bryan Co., 1908-1912. 10: 747-813.
Clarke, T. Erskine. "Smyth, Thomas." American National Biography. Oxford.
Howe, George. History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. Vol. 2. Columbia: W. J. Duffie, 1883. Reprint, Columbia: Synod of South Carolina, 1966.
Nevin, Alfred ed. Presbyterian Encyclopedia, 1884. Scott, E. C. Ministerial Directory of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., 1861-1941. Published by Order of the General Assembly, 1942.
Stoney, Louisa Cheves ed. Autobiographical Notes, Letters, and Reflections of Thomas Smyth, D. D., (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co., 1914).

[The editor was Dr. Smyth's granddaughter and she did a wonderful job of compiling and organizing this book. The narrative portions have relevant letters appropriately interspersed. There is a genealogy of the Smyths as well as a complete and detailed index. There is also a partial bibliography of Smyth's works on pages 296-300.]

White, Henry Alexander. Southern Presbyterian Leaders, 1683-1911, 1911. Reprint, Banner of Truth, 2000.
Other Sources on Thomas Smyth:
T. Erskine Clarke, "Thomas Smyth: Moderate of the Old South," (Th.D. diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1970).
See also the brief biographical sketch in Myers, Robert Manson, The Children of Pride (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972), page 1681.

Bibliography:
Books:
Complete Works of Rev. Thomas Smyth, D.D., edited by Rev. Prof. J. Wm. Flinn, D.D., (Columbia, SC: Reprinted by The R.L. Bryan Company, 1908), New Edition with Brief Notes and Prefaces; Biographical Sketch in Last Volume; in 10 volumes.Many of the items contained in the Complete Works were originally published as individual volumes, pamphlets, discourses, and sermons. Some of his works were printed in several individual editions in both the United States and Europe. [Click here for the tables of contents of the ten volumes of Smyth's Works.]
Published Articles:
in the Southern Presbyterian Review--
Assurance-Witness of the Spirit-And the Call to the Ministry, 2.1 (June 1848) 99-133. [To post soon]
National Righteousness, 12.1 (April 1859) 25-36.
Objections to the Doctrine of the Trinity from the Unity of God, as Taught in Scripture, Answered, 8.3 (January 1855) 305-328.
On Elohim as a Title of God, and as Implying a Plurality in the Godhead, [alt., "Elohim"], 8.4 (April 1855) 545-559.
On the Trinity ["A Priori Objections to the Doctrine of the Trinity Considered"], 8.1 (July 1854) 54-90.
Parochial Schools, 2.4 (March 1849) 520-549.
Presbyterianism - The Revolution - The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, 1.4 (March 1848) 33-79.
Presumptive Arguments for the Doctrine of the Trinity, 9.1 (July 1855) 1-31.
Teachings of the Dead Sea, 10.2 (July 1857) 233-275.
The Battle of Fort Sumter: Its Mystery and Miracle-God's Mastery and Mercy, 14.3 (October 1861) 365-399.
The Bible and Not Reason, the Only Certain and Authoritative Source of Our Knowledge, Even of the Existence of God, 7.3 (January 1854) 325-347.
The Bible and Not Reason, the Only Authoritative Source and Standard of Our Knowledge of the Nature of God--What it Teaches Concerning the Unity of God, 7.4 (April 1854) 461-484.
The Call to the Ministry-Its Nature and Evidence, 2.2 (September 1848) 157-183.
The Distinctions in the Godhead Personal, and not Nominal, 12.2 (July 1859) 289-310.
The Divine Appointment and Obligation of Capital Punishment, 1.2 (December 1847) 1-30.
The Doctrine of the Trinity either the Offspring of Reason or of Primitive Revelation, 9.2 (October 1855) 246-249.
The Doctrine of the Trinity, Not Theoretical or Speculative, but Practical in its Nature and Fundamental in its Importance,
8.2 (October 1854) 153-181.
The Late Dr. Chalmers, and the Lessons of his Life, from Personal Recollections, 1.2 (December 1847) 56-88.
The Nature and Origin of the Pagan Doctrine of Triads, or a Trinity [alt., "The Trinity of Paganism"] 8.4 (April 1855) 560-579.
The Necessity and Importance of Controversy, 7.1 (July 1853) 60-74.
The Office of Deacon, 2.3 (December 1848) 341-361.
The Primitive Revelation of a Divine and Incarnate Saviour Traced in the History and Rites of Bacchus, 3.4 (April 1850) 658-671.
The Province of Reason, especially in Matters of Religion, 7.2 (October 1853) 274-292.
The Scriptural and Divine Right for Using Mechanical as well as Vocal Instruments in the Worship of God, 19.4 (Oct. 1868) 517-556.
The Scriptural Doctrine of the Second Advent, 17.4 (December 1866) 509-551.
The Testimony of the Ancient Jews to the Trinity, 10.1 (April 1857) 94-105.
The Testimony of the Early Fathers to the Trinity, 9.3 (January 1856) 313-344.
The Testimony of the Reformers to the Trinity, 9.4 (April 1856) 473-491.
The Trinity of the Godhead, the Doctrine of the Scriptures, 11.1 (April 1858) 68-91; 11.2 (July 1858) 175-194; 14.1 (April 1861) 92-96 and 14.2 (July 1861) 227-245.
The Victory of Manassas Plains, 14.4 (January 1862) 593-617.
The War of the South Vindicated, 15.4 (April 1863) 479-514.

 

 

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