Clergyman, author. Smyth was born on June 14, 1808, in Belfast, Ireland, the son of Samuel Smyth, a merchant, and Ann Magee. Thomas’s father, who had prospered in the “grocery and commission and tobacco manufacturing business,” lost much of his wealth in an economic depression in 1825. Thomas graduated with honors from Belfast College in 1829 and entered Highbury College, London, in order to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. His attendance at a theater in London caused a scandal, and he was forced to leave Highbury shortly after his arrival. Immigrating with his parents to the United States in 1830, he entered the senior class of Princeton Theological Seminary, where he came under the influence of Charles Hodge and other conservative Presbyterian theologians. In 1831, on the recommendation of Hodge, Smyth was called to be the supply pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, Charleston, South Carolina. Three years later he was called to be the congregation’s duly installed pastor, a position he held until 1870. On July 9, 1832, he married Margaret Milligan Adger, a parishioner and the daughter of James Adger, an elder of the congregation and one of Charleston’s wealthiest citizens. The couple had nine children.
Smyth moved in a circle of conservative Presbyterian scholars that included Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander of Princeton and James Henley Thornwell and George Howe of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbia. Their theological and social perspectives were deeply influenced by Protestant Scholasticism, the philosophical school of Scottish Common Sense Realism, and their social location in the midst of conservative and affluent elements of American society. They sought to avoid extremes in theology, ethics, and politics, believing that extremes led to disorder in thought and life.
Smyth was a great collector of books and made trips to Great Britain seeking rare volumes, especially those connected with the history of Calvinism. His personal library numbered almost twenty thousand volumes, most of which he eventually sold to Columbia Theological Seminary. Smyth was a compulsive writer, and the ten volumes of his Collected Works showed him to be a person of wide interests but not the deep learning of Thornwell or Hodge. For his studies in church history he received an honorary doctor of divinity from the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Perhaps his most important book was The Unity of the Human Races, in which he defended the full humanity of Africans and the sophistication of their past civilizations. In this study he attacked the claims of Louis Agassiz and southern radicals who were arguing that physiologically whites and blacks were so different that they must have had separate origins.
Smyth sought reforms within the system of slavery for more humane treatment of slaves, but he never challenged the system itself. He was a Unionist until the shots were fired on Fort Sumter. He then became an ardent Confederate and a bitter opponent of his old colleagues in the North. He died in Charleston on August 20, 1873.
Clarke, Erskine. Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690–1990. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Smyth, Thomas. Autobiographical Notes, Letters and Reflections. Edited by Louisa Cheves Stoney. Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans & Cogswell, 1914.