Southern Presbyterian Review
Project: Author Biography
(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
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
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
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:
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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
White, Henry Alexander. Southern Presbyterian
Leaders, 1683-1911, 1911. Reprint, Banner of Truth, 2000.
[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
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.
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.]
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)
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
The Divine Appointment and Obligation of Capital Punishment, 1.2 (December
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
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)
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.
©PCA Historical Center, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO,
2009. All Rights Reserved.