James Smith

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister

1798 - 1871


The First Historian of A Frontier Church

By James D. Smith, III

In his "Foreword" to A People Called Cumberland Presbyterians (1972), C. Ray Dobbins singles out the Rev. James Smith for notice as writer of the first history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1835). His remained the standard work for a half-century, prior to the Rev. B. W. McDonnold's History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1888), and retains a unique historical value to this day.

On this 175th anniversary of the church, however, Smith (like many of his era) must certainly stand as a remote and shadowy figure to most readers. At the Editor's kind invitation, and in anticipation of publishing a fuller biographical account, the following summary of "work in progress" is offered as indicative of the wealth of CP history.

Biographical Sketch

James Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 11 May 1798. His mother died in childbirth, his father a few years later, and he was raised by an uncle. When he became of age, he asked for his inheritance and declining local opportunities, decided to sail to America-"a thoughtless youth, buoyant with hope in relation to the future." Before leaving, he and his sweetheart, Elizabeth Black, were married. By 1820, the pair had survived a torturous Atlantic voyage and entered the mercantile business in Cincinnati. Later in the year, the first of their eight children were born.

After a time, Smith turned to writing and lecturing. A well educated Deist, he occasionally held forth on the subject of religion. In 1824, the young family moved out of the city to Southern Indiana, where he taught school and held supplementary jobs. There, in the following year, Smith and some companions went into a camp meeting to "make sport." As the Rev. James Blackwell (1800-1875) solemnly preached the Word, however, the Scotsman was convicted and converted, returning to take part the next evening. In October, he was licensed by Logan Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and in April, 1826, he was transferred to the newly formed Indiana Presbytery, in which he was ordained on 3 April 1829.

The Rev. James Smith served as a Cumberland Presbyterian minister through October 1844, at which time he went over to the Presbyterians. His departure was, as Milton Baughn notes (A People, 236-391), caused by "problems with publications."

In February, 1845, he began a three-year pastoral ministry in Shelbyville, KY. As the Rev. James Smith, D.D., he pastored the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, IL (where the Abraham Lincoln family soon began to attend) from 1849-56. Thereafter he continued as a fund-raiser for Peoria University and returned to "his most powerful work": evangelistic preaching at special meetings from Chicago to New Orleans.

On 11 June 1861, Dr. Smith accepted President Lincoln's invitation to visit the White House, on occasion of his eldest son's appointment as U.S. Consul to Dundee, Scotland. The old Scotsman savored the thought of returning home, hoping to do "much good by preaching on the Sabbath to the destitute." Only months later, however, his son, Hugh, returned to America due to illness. His wife, Elizabeth, was similarly obliged in 1867, while Dr. Smith stayed on in Dundee, serving as consul until his death on 4 July 1871. (He preceded his wife in death by one year. Tragically, only four of their children outlived them.)

Source Material

Several kinds of surviving sources enable us to reconstruct a picture of the life and thought of the Rev. James Smith among Cumberland Presbyterians:

His Publications:

He edited two volumes of the Posthumous Works of the Reverend and Pious James McGready . . . (1831-33) while serving as a minister in Henderson, KY.

He also edited Evangelical Hymns Adapted to Private, Family, Social, and Camp-meeting Worship (1833), while co-editing The Revivalist paper with the Rev. David Lowry and "pastoring" in Nashville: that same year he bought out Lowry and continued the paper (after 1834 known as the Cumberland Presbyterian) through 1840.

He published CP sermons in the Cumberland Presbyterian Pulpit (1833-34).

He wrote the first CP history as a History of the Christian Church from Its Origin to the Present Time, Compiled From Various Authors, Including a History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Drawn from Authentic Documents (1835).

He wrote The Christian's Defense (1843), a text of apologetics growing out of a debate with the "infidel" C. G. Olmsted in Columbus, MS, in April, 1841. This volume was later influential in the religious life of Lincoln.


The Finis Ewing Papers, in the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, consist of 64 items of incoming correspondence, 1823-1841. The largest number (20) is from Smith, and gives a remarkable picture of their friendship and breadth of concerns (including doctrine and home missions) from 1833 until "Uncle Finis'" death in 1841.

Biographical Materials:

Also in the Tennessee State archives, the Papers of the Rev. William A. Provine include a folder of biographical gleanings on Smith. (The James Smith Papers, also located there, collects letters largely from the period 1843-71, some by wife Elizabeth, joined by biographical reflections of two granddaughters.)

Church Records:

Smith was Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church for six consecutive session, 1834-1840. Assembly minutes evidence his activities as (among other things) fund-raiser for Cumberland College (1829), commissioner from Indiana and member of Committee on Education (1830), general agent for the CP "Book Establishment" (1833), consultant-printer for Ewing's Lectures and the Confession of Faith (1834), founding member of the CP Educational Society and first president of the Foreign Missions Society (1836).

In 1837, he resigned as Editor of the Cumberland Presbyterian, agreeing to continue only after appeals for circulation assistance. In 1838, Smith was approved as one of the trustees of Cumberland College. The minutes of Logan Presbytery are of help, 1825-1826. Pertinent local records have not yet been found, and may not exist.

Secondary Sources:

McDonnold's History (230-240) has shaped a century of CP historical opinion on the controversial Smith. He claims to have had access to many letters concerning the issues under contention and is supposed to have deposited all his source materials at Cumberland University, Lebanon, TN, but these have not survived. What remains is an interpretive secondary source, relating a chapter called "the darkest one in all the history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church."

It is interesting that McDonnold has nothing but praise for Smith's milder editorial predecessor, David Lowry. Yet Lowry, in a letter of 4 June 1833, advising Ewing of his leaving the press in favor of mission teaching, names as causes many of the same difficulties which would plague Smith thereafter: conflicts with the college, inability to pay off debts, failure of the brethren to make good on their pledges, suspicions of his wishing to enrich himself, and more attractive opportunities. "My difficulties in conducting the press thus far have been great . . . I hope it will prosper, though I am not without my fears."

The General Assembly Minutes of 1880 contained a "Historical Sketch" by the Rev. Richard Beard, one of the last of Smith's generation of ministers. His statement here stands both as a fitting conclusion to this review, and as a model of Christian charity:

"Smith's Cumberland Presbyterian" would compare well with any of its successors in the same line. He was an extraordinary man, and we ought not to have lost him. He was clearly one of the most powerful preachers of his age. Our people idolized him a while, then a quarrel arose, and then a separation. Money was at the bottom of it. Smith joined another church, but with his departure from us, in a great measure, his sun went down. We dwell upon such cases with no pleasure. If I stood by his grave today, I could not refrain from dropping a tear upon it."

James D. Smith III, a descendant of Rev. James Smith, is a Baptist minister. He is a Th.D. candidate and Teaching Fellow at Harvard University.

[Source: "The Cumberland Presbyterian Quill", Winter, 1985]

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Updated February 18, 2008