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.
Words to Live By:
Suffering a similar affliction (though my own library paled in comparison), I found some years ago that the best way to temper the disease was to realize that I was responsible before the Lord for each volume I purchased. Was it a truly necessary purchase? Would I in fact read it, or at least use it in a way that would justify the expense? Pastors typically need the resources of a good many books and so it is never a foolish expenditure when they are first wisely chosen and then wisely and well-used. Software programs for the study of the Bible add new abilities for search and access, and even make it possible to carry an entire library on a single laptop, tablet, or even a phone.