Thomas Heyward House — 18 Meeting Street, Part III
By Peg Eastman
As discussed in part II of the 18 Meeting St. series, James Adger purchased the property in 1855. After his death in 1858 the property was conveyed to the Rev. Dr. Thomas Smyth who had married his daughter, Margaret Milligan Adger, in 1832.
Born Thomas Smith in Belfast, Ireland, June 14, 1808, he was a son of Samuel and Ann Magee Smith. His father had prospered in the “grocery commissioning and tobacco manufacturing business.” He was also an elder in the Presbyterian Church. It is important to note that Smith’s parents did not know how long he would survive because he was so frail that he suffered health problems his entire life.
Unfortunately, the elder Smith lost much of his wealth in an economic depression in 1825. However, Thomas graduated with honors from Belfast College in 1829 in spite his education being interrupted by illness.
To prepare for the Presbyterian ministry, young Thomas entered Highbury College in London. However, shortly after his arrival he attended the theatre, and the resulting scandal forced him to flee Highbury.
In 1830, Thomas and his parents emigrated to the United States. He entered the senior class of Princeton Theological Seminary, where he came under the influence of conservative Presbyterian theologians. Sadly, his education was again interrupted by illness.
After his ordination, in 1831 Thomas Smith was called to be the supply pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston. However, there was uncertainty concerning his remaining because of his health issues. Namely, Smith feared that the size of the sanctuary would exacerbate his health problems by forcing him to project his voice. To alleviate the stress, the church modified the sanctuary by lowering the ceiling and making other changes to decrease the volume of the room. Smith was installed as pastor in December 1834. In 1837 he adopted the spelling “Smyth” to avoid confusion with another U.S. Presbyterian minister named Thomas Smith.
Although he was held in high regard by his congregation, Dr. Smyth’s sermons tended to be a bit verbose. To solve this problem, a speaking tube was installed from the choir loft to the pulpit, the idea being that the violinist could subtly advise Dr. Smith that he had been preaching too long. Although the warnings echoed through the sound tube’s horn loudly enough for people in the front pews to hear them clearly, he paid no attention and continued to preach. Another suggestion involved having a man throw his hat in the aisle as a reminder to put for the preacher to put a lid on it, but Smyth could receive a hint and continued to preach on and on and on.
Another point of conflict was resentment because of the wealth of his wife’s family, for James Adger was generous with financial gifts to the Smyths. When the financial aspects of the pastoral call were discussed, some voiced their opposition to a raise in salary despite the fact that other members of the church staff received gifts from members of the congregation.
Dr. Smith had a passion for books and made trips to Great Britain seeking rare volumes, especially those about Calvinism. He eventually acquired almost 20,000 volumes.
His bibliomania caused problems with his wife who deplored depleting household funds with Smyth’s book and document buying binges. While they were constructing an addition to their house to make room for more books, she wrote in 1846: “I tell you 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.”
Later, as his health deteriorated, Smyth sold more than half his library to Columbia Theological Seminary. Also, a prolific writer, his publications were compiled into ten thick volumes after his death.
Since arriving in Charleston, Smyth had been involved in many of the controversies that led to the Civil War. He attempted to take a moderate stance on the question of slavery, helping to establish Zion Presbyterian Church for slaves. At times his efforts to reform slavery made it difficult for his ministry: Politically, Smyth was a Unionist until the battle of Ft. Sumter, when he became a Confederate and outspoken opponent of his colleagues in the North.
Dr. Smyth often suffered from debilitating headaches — he tried to relieve the pain by soaking his head in ice-cold water, but in 1848, he was afflicted with partial paralysis that left him with reoccurring severe pain. In 1853, he was once again stricken with paralysis, leaving him crippled and on crutches. Still, he persevered in his ministry until 1870 when lost the ability to speak. In spite of his best efforts to regain his speech, he waw forced to retire from the pulpit. As Smyth’s successor at Second Presbyterian Church remarked, “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 died in Charleston on August 20, 1873. He and Margaret along with several other family members are buried in the Second Presbyterian churchyard. Six of the Smyths’ nine children survived to adulthood. Their son, James Adger Smyth served as mayor of Charleston from 1896 until 1903. Joseph Ellison Adger Smyth became a prominent industrialist.
Another son — attorney and state Senator Augustine Thomas (Gus) Smyth — changed his surname to Smythe, a spelling his descendants still use. During the Civil War, he was a Confederate signalman positioned in St. Michael’s steeple, which was a prominent target during the Union bombardments of Charleston from 1863-65. Every so often, while he was in the yard of the family home at 18 Meeting St., the impact of a shell fragment would knock the pipe from his mouth. He was so used to the shelling that he was more angered by the loss of his pipe than he was concerned about his narrow brush with death.
It would be improper not to mention Second Presbyterian: The Presbyterians were dissenters from the Church of England and by 1731 they had established First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, modeled after the Church of Scotland, and the congregation grew rapidly.
In 1809, 15 men met and began planning for a second church which was built on land obtained from the Wragg family at a cost of $100,000. On April 3, 1811, it was dedicated with the corporate name of “The Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston and Its Suburbs.”
The church was designed by James and John Gordon in the Jeffersonian Classical style, inspired by the architectural designs of Thomas Jefferson. The Gordon brothers also designed St. Paul’s in Radcliffeborough —now the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul (1811-16) — in the same style. A Roman Doric portico with arched openings including a fanlight in the pediment defines the style. Second Presbyterian also has a Roman Doric engaged portico on its south side. St. John’s Lutheran Church (ca. 1818), architect unknown, is also in this style, except for the Italian Renaissance Revival bell tower which is attributed to artist Charles Fraser. Second Presbyterian and St. Paul’s towers both had structural problems, so the planned steeples were never completed. Second Presbyterian’s tower was capped by a lantern; St. Paul’s by a Gothic parapet.
Second Presbyterian’s unfinished steeple served as a lighthouse for families that owned shipping businesses. There was one flaw in this splendid temple to commerce: The vast sanctuary strained the voices of its ministers, a problem that was addressed in 1833.
My appreciation to Bob Stockton and Lish Thompson at the Charleston County Public Library for contributing to this article.
A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill, The History Press, Evening Post Books, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.