Reverend Adam Smyth

A Public Spirited Officeholder and Dedicated Clergyman: Adam Smyth of Botetourt County and Parish of Revolutionary Virginia

The Reverend Adam Smyth had been a resident of Virginia for only a few years when the Revolution began but he immediately and actively embraced the patriot position. He served Botetourt Parish as minister for more than a decade with little or no recompense and for many years he acted as justice of the peace of Botetourt County which yielded no income either. In 1962 Robert Douthat Stoner included a good discussion of Smyth's service to his church and adopted state in the context of his history of Botetourt.1 An inclusive, integrated biographical sketch of Smyth, however, has heretofore not appeared in print. The purpose here is to examine and analyze his background, his experiences as rector of a very disadvantageous parish, his public service as patriot during the Revolution, and his service as magistrate of his county of residence. Smyth was not a celebrated divine but he witnessed the disestablishment of the church and he experienced the vicissitudes associated with the Revolution. For historians to make valid generalizations about the clergy in revolutionary Virginia, moreover, they need correct data of individual parsons.

Smyth was born about 1740 on Rathlin Island, County Antrim, Ireland. Rathlin Island lies just six miles north of Ballycastle, in Northern Ireland, and fourteen miles from Mull of Kintyre, Scotland. In his will, which he signed in 1785, he mentioned, but did not name, his father and stepmother. He studied at Glasgow University, taking an M. A. degree in 1763. About that time an Anglican prelate, either the bishop of Down and Connor or the bishop of Armagh, ordained him to the priesthood. The next year Smyth married Catherine Stuart, also a native of Rathlin Island, and the union produced four children: Alexander, Nancy, Molly, and Andrew. Church records show that Smyth was curate of Ballinderry in Northern Ireland from 1765 to 1767 and curate of Ballintoy, located on the northern coast of County Antrim facing directly towards Rathlin Island, in 1768. Since his children were born on Rathlin Island, it is probable that Smyth also ministered there.2 "Some family misfortunes" prompted Smyth to come to Virginia without his family about 1772. A plausible conjecture is that his adversity was financial in nature, due to a dearth of clerical income. Curates in England and Ireland at that time seldom earned more than £40 or £50 annually. A few years after his arrival in the Old Dominion, Alexander, when he was about ten or twelve, joined him. The "interruption" in "Communication between Ireland and America" during the Revolution prevented Smyth from bringing over the rest of his family as quickly as he had intended. In December 1781 he requested permission from Governor Benjamin Harrison to visit Ireland in order to "settle some family affairs" and to bring over his younger children. By that date, much to his grief, his wife had died. The governor granted leave, Smyth accomplished his purpose, and the three children were united with their father and brother in Virginia.3 It is thought that Smyth returned to Virginia about August 1782.

In colonial Virginia the Church of England was established by law and supported by taxes. When Smyth arrived there were about ninety parishes, ecclesiastical units of the church, each with a rector. Often a county and parish were coterminous, but some counties had two, or three, or even four parishes. As the number of inhabitants increased and settlement moved westward the House of Burgesses created new counties and parishes by dividing existing ones that were becoming too populous or by organizing new ones from recently occupied areas. The administrative board of the parish was the vestry of twelve parishioners, whom the voters had originally elected; thereafter remaining members could fill vacancies by co-optation. The vestry had significant local obligations that were both civil and ecclesiastical in nature. Among its duties relating to the church were those of employing and compensating the minister, constructing and maintaining churches and chapels and the parson's residence and outbuildings on the parish farm, determining the annual budget, and setting the yearly parish tax rate per tithable. All free males sixteen or older and all slaves of either gender sixteen or older were tithables. Thus members of all religious denominations were responsible for taxes in support of the minister and parish. A designated official, often the county sheriff, then collected the taxes from the parishioners.4 The minutes of the periodic meetings of the church board were recorded in what was known as the vestry book. Botetourt's vestry book, which might have provided information about parish affairs, has been lost or destroyed. The chief duty of the parish rector was that of conducting Sunday morning worship, which included a sermon, in the churches or chapels of the parish. Generally there were at least two and often three or even more preaching places which the minister visited according to schedule. Laymen were to read the Anglican service in the houses of worship when the minister was absent. The parson was also to catechize the children, administer Holy Communion three times a year, and record each baptism, wedding, and burial in a parish register; Botetourt's register is not extant. For conducting baptisms, marriages, and funerals the minister was entitled to perquisites. By law his salary was to be 16,000 pounds of tobacco (plus 1,280 pounds for cask and shrinkage) per year. Since the western sections of Virginia grew little or no tobacco, the legislature had authorized the parishes there to compensate the rectors in Virginia currency. The parish was also to provide the parson with a farm or plantation, called a glebe, of at least 200 acres with a suitable residence and appropriate outbuildings for agricultural purposes.5

Smyth's name first appears in the Virginia records on 19 November 1772 when the vestry of Augusta Parish in Augusta County chose him to act as curate for their rector, John Jones. According to the parish vestry book Jones was "incapable of the ministerial Functions through age and infirmity" and had agreed to accept only £50 and the perquisites in lieu of his full annual salary of £150; the residue, £100, was to be the salary of his assistant. Smyth served in this capacity for five months. The relationship between rector and curate was not without friction. On 19 June 1773 Jones filed suit in the county court against Smyth, charging that he had performed four wedding ceremonies in the parish and had kept the fees. This was in violation of the agreement Jones had made with the vestry that he retain claim to the perquisites. Three fees, it was alleged, had amounted to £0-7-6 each and the fourth to £1-0-0.6 The outcome of the suit is not recorded but presumably Jones won a judgment against Smyth. After giving up the curacy in Augusta, according to one church authority, Smyth went to South Carolina, evidently to check clerical employment opportunities, but about mid-1773 he accepted the responsibilities of Botetourt Parish in Botetourt County. When organized from a portion of Augusta County in 1769 the coextensive county and parish of Botetourt "covered the whole territory of the southwest as far as settlement extended, and beyond." Thus Smyth's cure was a distant outpost in southwestern Virginia and was two hundred miles long and sixty miles wide. In 1772 the colonial government constituted Fincastle County from western Botetourt County, but boundaries of the parish were left unchanged and Smyth would be parson of both counties. In 1776 the legislators formed Kentucky, Washington, and Montgomery Counties from Fincastle, with the original county becoming extinct. In each new county a parish was created bearing the same name as the county. The next year the state legislature took Greenbrier and Rockbridge Counties, with their respective parishes, from parts of Botetourt, leaving the smaller coterminous county and parish of Botetourt.7 The several changes in the size and dimension of Smyth's parish would have unpleasant results for the reverend.

Botetourt was not a good parish from an Anglican minister's perspective. Its location on the frontier meant that social and cultural opportunities were limited and that the prospects for clerical income were poor. The area had first been settled by dissenters, primarily Scots-Irish Presbyterians, who resented having to pay taxes in support of the established church; this is not to say that all Anglicans gladly paid their parish dues. The dissenters constituted a very sizable majority of the inhabitants in Botetourt during Smyth's tenure. In the words of William Fleming, a very prominent local public figure, "a majority of the inhabitants" of Botetourt wished that "every trace of the . . . Established Church might be done away." Because of an insufficient number of qualified Anglicans, some Presbyterians at first acted as vestrymen, evidently without taking the required oath "to be conformable to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England."8 The first vestry, elected in 1770, qualified in some manner and functioned, but on 30 May 1777 five remaining vestrymen informed the Assembly that some members had resigned and others, because of the divisions, now resided outside the parish. As a result they lacked a quorum, which was seven, and were “incapacitated by law to regulate the affairs of the parish.” The rector had not been paid for three years. They prayed for “such relief as shall be thought just and reasonable.” The legislature observed that "the business of the vestry" had "been for a considerable time unsettled" and ordered the voters to elect a new one with "full power and authority” to conduct the affairs of the parish. On 10 January 1778 the delegates noted that the parishioners had failed to elect a vestry as directed and ordered the election of a vestry on 1 March 1778. The local authorities also declined to honor this directive. On 4 November of the same year William Fleming informed the Assembly that there was not the "least probability" of any vestry qualifying in Botetourt. In the meantime the Assembly, admitting that there was no vestry in Botetourt, assigned its duties to “Commissioners of the tax” who were to “settle and recover all debts“ due the parish and to “liquidate all demands against the same.”9 The commissioners, however, neglected those duties relating to the church. Thus Smyth as minister of the parish was without organized parochial support. The number and names of the churches and chapels in Botetourt are not definitely known, but there were at least two. Since the extent of the parish was twice greatly reduced, some worship centers, which once were in Botetourt, may have fallen into the newly created parishes. In November 1771 the vestry acquired an acre of land in the town of Fincastle on which they erected a church building and laid out a burial ground. No doubt this was the "Botetourt Church" which Smyth mentioned in his will. Later there was a chapel on the Roanoke River and there may have been other chapels elsewhere. In the absence of a vestry, it can be surmised that the maintenance of the structures was neglected. After Smyth’s death the Anglican house of worship in Fincastle became a Presbyterian church which is still in use today.10

The parish glebe was involved in controversy. Before Smyth's arrival the vestry had purchased two tracts of 425 acres for a parish farm from Joseph Cloyd.11 In mid-1775 the vestry of Botetourt petitioned the House of Burgesses, explaining that before they erected the necessary buildings on this acreage, Thomas Madison, a local multiple officeholder and second cousin of James Madison, the future president, had offered to sell a plantation which was more convenient and which had the necessary improvements, that is, a dwelling house and outbuildings. The request was for permission to sell the first glebe and to buy the second. Immediately a counter petition from some inhabitants of Botetourt reached the burgesses. Their protest was that the vestry had purchased the first acreage for £300 and soon thereafter had sold it without legislative authorization; then the board had purchased 500 (actually 404) acres of land, which included a "water grist Mill and other valuable improvements," for £700. The vestry had also assessed the parishioners for "other illegal expenses." Their prayer was for the burgesses to dissolve the vestry; since the royal governor prorogued the house because of revolutionary issues, the burgesses were unable to act on either memorial in 1775. On 26 October 1776, however, the state’s House of Delegates found the vestry’s request reasonable and after the Senate added its approval, a law of mid-1777 authorized the vestry to sell the first glebe and to purchase the second one.12 It appears the Assembly gave its approval after the real estate transactions had already been made. The purchaser of the first glebe was Curtis Alderson who paid £400 for it but there was no vestry to give him a valid title. Finally in 1790 the Assembly appointed trustees who were to convey the land to Alderson in fee simple. The trustees complied and the deed was recorded on 12 July 1791. Local tradition holds that Smyth and his family made their home in a log house on the second glebe. It seems obvious that Smyth had no assistance from the parish in keeping the residence and ancillary buildings in repair. According to one account, the log house is still there but has been incorporated into a modern dwelling.13 The attempt by Smyth, and his executor after his death, to collect his salary is a long story. What salary the vestry and parson had agreed upon is not known, but since Augusta Parish paid its minister £150 Virginia currency annually, it is assumed that the Botetourt vestry had accepted a similar arrangement. In 1776 Virginia's state legislature took the first step toward the disestablishment of the church by terminating clerical stipends from tax sources as of 1 January 1777.14 Thus the parish was legally responsible for Smyth's salary for about six months of 1773, and for 1774, 1775, and 1776, adding up perhaps to a total of £500 Virginia currency. Over the years interest on the obligation accrued.

After Smyth was unable to get satisfaction for his clerical services from the parish, he appealed to state authorities because he felt he had no other recourse. On 11 November 1776 the delegates noted in their journal that a petition from Smyth had been received, in which he averred that he had not been paid his salary for three and a half years. Because of "the inattention of the vestry, the affairs of the parish have been entirely neglected for the last two years," Smyth wrote. He was appealing to the Assembly with "great reluctance" because his "private circumstances" were "really pressing."15 Smyth was not overstating his case. About this time, as mentioned above, the vestry's rump admitted that the rector had not been paid. In response the Assembly appointed commissioners who were "to liquidate, levy and pay all claims against the parish." In May 1782 the legislators noted that these appointees had "liquidated the claim of the incumbent," that is, they had agreed with Smyth on the amount due him, but they had "failed to make provision for paying the same." Thereupon the Assembly ruled that within twelve months, the three or four most senior magistrates of Botetourt were to assess all tithables of the parish "a sum sufficient," to enable them to pay Smyth's claims as well as the "lawful interest" that had accrued. The county sheriff was to collect the tithes and he was to pay Smyth within six months after he had exacted the assessments. Upon failure to comply the sheriff would "be liable to judgment" either in the county court or the general court.16 The act of 1782 did not have the intended effect. A petition that had been circulated for signatures by George Skillern, a magistrate and militia officer, reached the delegates. This memorial argued that the obligations in question should be shared by those tithables who were Botetourt parishioners before the parish was reduced in size. The Assembly found this to be reasonable and repealed the act of 1782. The next year the delegates ordered the Botetourt County court to collect the needed taxes to reimburse Smyth from the tithables of Botetourt and also from the tithables in those counties which had been a part of Botetourt Parish when the arrearages had accumulated. Those who had become residents of the counties in question after 1776 were exempt. The legislators added "a qualification." It was that those counties taken from Botetourt should be allowed a proportional discount for the taxes they had paid to cover the cost of Botetourt's glebe. The exact discount was to be ascertained by two individuals chosen by the court of each county.17 This was virtually an unmanageable solution to Smyth's problem.

In a few months "sundry inhabitants" of Botetourt, most probably dissenters, petitioned the Assembly, begging leave to sell the glebe and to use the proceeds to discharge the debt due the incumbent minister of the parish. In essence this was a proposal to rob Peter to pay Paul. Smyth might have won his salary arrears but lost his residence and farm. The Committee for Religion recommended that the petition be rejected.18 The act of 1783 also failed to achieve its purpose. Probably in 1784, Smyth appealed and complained to Governor Patrick Henry, charging George Skillern, a fellow justice, with "misfeasance" in his "Judicial capacity." This letter has not survived but some of its contents can be inferred from a missive which Skillern addressed to the governor in early 1785, in which he sought to vindicate himself. He reviewed the case and justified himself for having sent in the remonstrance in 1783, the one that had led to the passage of the convoluted act of that year. Just before the adjournment of a meeting of the court, Skillern declared, Smyth, a justice, had moved to initiate the provisions of the act in question. Thereupon Skillern had refused to sit because of his known public position, a weak and insincere excuse from the parson's perspective. This denied the court a quorum and the motion was doomed. The implication was that if Skillern had participated there would have been a quorum and he would have been in the minority in opposition to Smyth's motion when it came to a vote.19 It was this refusal which upset Smyth. Whether the aggrieved reverend raised his motion again before his imminent death is not known. Smyth did not live to see Botetourt Parish pay his arrears in salary. In his will, which he signed in January 1785, he instructed the executors of his will "to sue for the debt the Parish owes me." In November 1793 the delegates recorded that Alexander Smyth, the parson's son who had become the sole executor, had dispatched a petition to them. Alexander explained that his father had not been paid for his ministerial services, although the legislature had "passed various acts providing for the payment thereof." His request was that the delegates appoint commissioners who would again determine the sum due to his father's estate and that they invest the glebe lands in trustees with authority to sell that acreage and use the money from the sale to discharge the debts. The committee to which the petition had been referred declared it reasonable and ordered that a proper bill be "brought in.”20 There would be no successor to Smyth and thus Botetourt had no need for a parish glebe. The resulting law, of 23 November 1793, read that Smyth had not received his salary from 1773 until 1 January 1777 or the money he had "advanced to the use" of the parish; the act termed the debt "a considerable claim." The Assembly appointed nine commissioners who were to "to examine, adjust and finally settle" the claims within a period of twelve months. Then the same nine gentlemen were to act as trustees of the Madison glebe and were to sell it on 11 January 1795. From the funds of the sale the trustees were to pay Alexander Smyth, executor, the debt due his father, which included the salary arrears, the money Smyth had advanced for parish use, and the “legal interest.”21

Continue on next page

Otto Lohrenz is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He holds a B. A. degree from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas and  M. A. and Ph. D. degrees from the University of Kansas. His area of interest and research is the Anglican Clergy of Virginia and the American Revolution.  Approximately forty of his biographical sketches of ministers have appeared in various history journals.


1 Robert Douthat Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic: A Study of the Pioneers in the Upper (Southern) Valley of Virginia (Roanoke, Va., 1962), 318-20, 332-44.

2 E-Mail, Andrew Keogh, Scottish genealogist, to the author, 10 May 2005; E-Mail, Elizabeth Hamilton, Enquiry Service, Glasgow University Library, to the author, 18 May 2005; letter, the office of the bishop of Connor to the author, 12 September 2005. See also Andrew Keogh’s data base:

3 Colonel William Fleming to Governor Benjamin Harrison, 26 December 1781, William Pitt Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond, 11 vols. (Richmond, 1875-93), 2:671-72.

4 John K. Nelson, A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776 (Chapel Hill and London, 2001), 33.

5 William W. Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 13 vols. (New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, 1819-23), 6:88-90.

6 "Augusta Parish Vestry Book," Lyman Chalkley, Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia: Extracted from the Original Court Records of Augusta County, 1745-1800, 3 vols. (Rosslyn Va., 1912-12), 1:370, 2:459-60; Joseph A. Waddell, Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, from 1726 to 1871 (2nd ed., Staunton, Va., 1902), 216-17; William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, 2 vols. ([Philadelphia, 1857] Baltimore, 1966), 2:319.

7 Frederick Lewis Weis, The Colonial Clergy of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina (Boston, 1955), 47; George MacLaren Brydon, Virginia's Mother Church and the Political Conditions Under which It Grew, 2 vols. (Richmond and Philadelphia, 1947-52), 2:126; Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 9:257-61, 420-24; Henry R. McIlwaine and John Pendleton Kennedy, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 13 unnumbered vols. (Richmond, 1905-15), 1773-1776, 88, 107, 118, 226.

8 Stoner, A Seed-Time of the Republic, 334-35, 345.

9 Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, 1777 (Williamsburg, [1777]), 56, in Clifford E. Shipton, ed., Early American Imprints, 1st. Ser., 1639-1800, microcard # 15695; Ibid., 1778, 117-18, microcard # 16155; Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic, 345; Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 9:318, 527, 11:56, 13:228.

10 Botetourt County Order Book (1770-1771), 526, reel 26, Library of Virginia, Richmond (cited as LVA hereafter); Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic, 337; James Minor Holladay, A Partial History of Fincastle Presbyterian Church (Richmond, 1902), 13

11 Botetourt County Deed Book, No. 1 (1770-1773), 373-74, 544, reel 1, LVA.

12 McIlwaine and Kennedy, eds., Journals House of Burgesses, 1773-1776, 197; Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, 1776 (Williamsburg, [1776]), 37-38, in Clifford E. Shipton, ed., Early American Imprints, 1st Ser., 1639-1800, microcard # 15204; Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 9:318-20, 13:228;

13 Ibid., 13:228; Botetourt County Deed Book , No. 4 (1788-1793), 283, reel 2, LVA; Willard J. Webb and Anne C. Webb, The Glebe Houses of Colonial Virginia (Bowie, Md., 2003), 107, 109; for a photograph of the Botetourt Parish glebe as it appears in renovated form today, see ibid., 108.

14 Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 9:164-66, 10:197-98

15 Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, 1776, 69.

16 Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 11:56.

17 Ibid., 11:338-39.

18 Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, 1783 (Richmond, [1784]), 79, in Clifford E. Shipton, ed., Early American Imprints, 1st Ser., 1639-1800, microcard #18859.

19 Col. [George] Skillern to Governor Patrick Henry, 19 February 1785, Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 4:10-11.

20 Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1793, (Richmond, [1794]), 39, 52, in Clifford E. Shipton, ed., Early American Imprints, 1st. Ser., 1639-1800, microcard #28002.

21 Samuel Shepherd, ed., The Statutes at Large of Virginia, from October Session 1792, to December Session 1806, Inclusive, 3 vols. ([Richmond, 1835-36] New York, 1970), 1:274-76; Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic, 344.