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 the degree.
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:
Certainly for the pastor as well as for the scholar, books can be tools. But like all other things in life, they can also become a hindrance, even an idol. Perhaps the best antidote to this problem is to maintain a close conscious sense of our responsibility before the Lord to use for His glory all that He has entrusted us with.