Reverend Adam Smyth - Page 2

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

« Continued from page 1

It appears that a deed from Thomas Madison, conveying the land for a glebe to the vestry, had never been executed, and on 14 February 1795 Madison, “agreeable to an act of Assembly,” sold the 404 acres, “commonly called the Glebe Tract,” to Christian Abersole for £1,505. This was evidently the sum the trustees realized from the sale and it was more than sufficient to cover the Smyth family claim.22Since nothing more about the issue is found in the records, it can be concluded that Alexander Smyth collected the debt ten years after his father's death. The total amount recovered by Alexander can not be precisely determined, but the arrears, the funds Smyth had advanced for parish use, and the interest due for about twenty years may have added up to a sum approaching £1,000.

Since Smyth received no salary, how was he able to support himself and his children? After taxes for clerical salaries ceased as of 1 January 1777, virtually all parishes organized subscription programs, whereby parishioners voluntarily pledged to provide a fixed amount annually in support of the parish rector. The success of this plan varied from parish to parish, but generally the result was that the ministers took a drastic cut in pay. It seems probable that adherents of the Anglican Church in Botetourt also arranged for a subscription plan, but the churchmen were relatively few, suggesting that the money raised for Smyth was very meager indeed. The perquisites must have yielded a little income. During the colonial period the Anglican rectors had the exclusive right to perform all wedding ceremonies; the minister was legally entitled to twenty shillings for every wedding performed by license and five shillings for every one conducted by banns; but the Assembly gave dissenting ministers a limited right to join couples in 1780 and equality with Anglican parsons in 1785. Possibly the operation of the grist mill on the glebe land brought in some money for Smyth.

Presumably he managed agricultural production on the parish glebe and on his own lands. In 1780 Smyth took the oath in Botetourt County court that he had "imported himself and his son, Alexander . . . at his own expense." This qualified him for ownership of one hundred acres of public land, presumably in Botetourt County, under Virginia’s headright system. In his will Smyth mentioned "all my lands," in Virginia, and his lands in Kentucky. Smyth also owned thirteen lots in the town of Fincastle which he may have purchased for speculative purposes.23

Little about Smyth's record as a clergyman can be determined. No contemporary is known to have left a comment about his preaching or officiating. Bishop William Meade, the well known chronicler of the colonial church, had "no information" of Smyth's "character and usefulness as a preacher." In his will he left his "manuscripts and sermons" to Aaron Palfreyman, "requiring him to burn all the Sermons, except a charity Sermon and two fast sermons; those he may do what he pleases." What Palfreyman did with those three is not known, but apparently they are not extant. Smyth participated in colonial church affairs. In 1775-1776 he served as one of six clerical trustees of the Fund for Distressed Widows and Orphans of Clergymen, a subscription corporation organized in 1754. The subscribers met annually in the spring at the College of William and Mary to hear morning and afternoon sermons and to contribute their fees which the trustees then distributed to needy survivors of clergymen.24 His continued service as rector of the parish until his death without recompense, makes it apparent that Smyth was sincerely dedicated to his church and calling. In his history of Botetourt County, Stoner concludes that Smyth "is said to have served his people well. Unintentional though it may have been, this service developed into a labor for love alone."25

During the quarrel and ensuing war with the mother country, Smyth was an early and consistent patriot. Several times the Virginia insurgents and the Continental Congress called for days of fasting, prayer, and humiliation. On these days parishioners were to repair to their churches to hear appropriate sermons by their rectors. Since Smyth mentioned two fast day sermons in his will it is clear that he supported the Revolution from the pulpit. Apparently he also served on the Botetourt committee of safety. Virtually all the counties had elected these committees to execute the provisions of the Continental Association, an agreement to limit trade with Great Britain, which the Continental Congress had organized in 1774. In 1775-1776 these committees exercised vast powers in their respective counties. William Fleming informed Governor Benjamin Harrison that Smyth had been "an active member in several committees" during the Revolution, one of which must surely have been the county committee of safety. In July 1776 the Virginia Convention, an extralegal assembly, formally altered the passages in the Book of Common Prayer which included prayers for the king; henceforth rectors were to substitute prayers for the magistrates of Virginia. Since Smyth continued to officiate it is evident that he utilized the new prayers. In 1777 the new state of Virginia required all free, adult males to renounce their allegiance to the king and to swear true fidelity to the Commonwealth. Fleming wrote that Smyth "chearfully [sic] took the test, and swore allegiance to the States of America."26 Thus Smyth directly repudiated his solemn vows at his ordination when he swore allegiance to the king and promised to defend him against any threat, foreign or domestic, and swore to conform, without exception, to the Book of Common Prayer in the conduct of worship services.

Smyth also served in the military conflict with the Cherokee Indians, British allies, on Virginia's western border in 1776 and 1777. One military register lists him as chaplain of the Botetourt militia in 1777, but other evidence reveals that he also acted as a soldier. On 4 November 1776 Virginia's Council issued a warrant for Smyth for nine pounds "for riding express two hundred and forty Miles from Colonel Christian." William Christian was the military commander in the area. Particulars of the long ride, if available, would undoubtedly provide very interesting reading. On 10 June 1777 a petition from Captain Thomas Rowland reached the Assembly in which he requested compensation for himself and his company "for services in protecting the inhabitants of the Frontiers" which were being “invaded by the enemy.” One member of the company was Smyth. The legislators found the request reasonable and resolved that Smyth, as well as the others, be allowed £0-1-3 per day for seventeen days service.27

Smyth was a committed public servant. Stoner wrote: "That he was a good man is not denied; that he was a useful man in his community; and that his public services were many and varied is amply borne out by the court records." His military service has already been noted above. On 28 May 1774 the governor's Council appointed him to act as justice of the peace in the county and he attended the sessions of the court regularly until his death. The justices, who met monthly, were the chief magistrates of the county and had a wide variety of judicial and administrative duties. One duty was the time-consuming one of periodically identifying and listing tithables in districts of the county. He served on commissions to lay off and convey lots in Fincastle, to acquire additional lands for county purposes, and to build a prison in 1777. He acted as judge "of paper currency in circulation" in Botetourt. For his labor and pains Smyth received his expenses and the satisfaction that he was doing his duty as a gentleman.28

Identifying himself as "rector of Botetourt Parish," Smyth signed his will on 13 January 1785 and died later that month when he was only forty-five years old. He asked three individuals to bury him under Botetourt Church; according to printed cemetery records he lies in the burial ground of the church among the “Revolutionary War Soldiers and Patriots.” He gave "his whole estate in Virginia" to four executors and begged them immediately to procure a bill of exchange for £200 sterling on their own credit and dispatch £40 with all possible haste to his father if alive and if not to his stepmother. The balance, £160, was to be equally divided between daughters Nancy and Molly. As soon as possible the executors were to recoup their expenditures with interest from the estate. After converting “all my lands into money, or Bonds," the executors were to divide the amount in equal parts among his children, "with this injunction, that none of them except Alexander shall ever settle in Virginia." He committed Alexander, who was about nineteen at the time, to the care of three guardians in Petersburg "till he is of age." He did not name son Andrew in the will. He requested that Colonel James Knox "endeavor to secure what lands of mine he can in Kentucky." As mentioned above he wanted the executors to sue the parish for his salary and Aaron Palfreyman to destroy most of his sermons. In closing he entreated the executors and his friends to "exert their compassion & Benevolence to the distressful Family of an unfortunate Man."29 He did not mention a spouse and thus it is apparent that he had not remarried in Virginia.

The will raises some questions that can not be answered satisfactorily. His father and stepmother no doubt were aged and Smyth urgently wanted to do a filial act of love and kindness before it was too late. It seems plausible that Nancy and Molly were in immediate need of assistance; hence they were to share in the bill of exchange. Why did he fail to name Andrew? Why could Alexander, but not Nancy, Molly, and Andrew, reside in Virginia? Why did he appoint guardians for Alexander but not for the younger three children, who ranged in age from about fifteen to eighteen? Understandably Smyth may have harbored some bitterness toward Virginians because of the treatment he had received at the hands of the Botetourt parishioners. His desire to have his manuscripts and most sermons destroyed is not readily explicable. His reference to "the distressful Family of an unfortunate Man" may have been a lament upon facing an untimely death and upon leaving orphans behind.

In July 1786 the Botetourt court recorded Smyth's will. The executors declined to serve and upon Alexander’s motion, he became the sole executor of his father’s estate. The burden imposed on the executors by the will may have been too great, or the appointees may simply have deferred to Alexander. By 1786 Alexander, who had studied law, was deputy clerk of Botetourt. He soon began practicing law and made his residence in Wythe County. He served in both houses of the Virginia legislature before joining the military in 1808. At the request of the Secretary of War he compiled a new official drill manual for the army. During the War of 1812 he became inspector general with the rank of brigadier general and was a commander of units attempting the invasion of Canada. After his military service Smyth represented his district in Congress for about thirteen years. Smyth County, Virginia was named in his honor. Alexander married Nancy Binkley and had five children. What became of Nancy and Molly is not known. Genealogical notes reveal that Andrew married Ann Taylor Ustick in Washington County, Virginia about 1820 and died in Jackson County, Missouri about 1843. This union produced eight children.30

What real and personal property Smyth may have left behind has not been determined. Surely he owned the hundred acres in Botetourt acquired under the headright system, yet the Botetourt County Deed Books and the Botetourt County Land Tax Books do not mention his name.31 An inventory of Smyth’s personal property in the pertinent county will book has not been found. Whether he owned slaves, or how many, has not been learned. Careful checks of the Botetourt Personal Property Tax lists, which begin with 1783, failed to find Smyth’s name.32 His call for a £200 bill of exchange and his language about his lands in Virginia and Kentucky in his will suggest that Smyth was not poverty stricken.

Although the record of Smyth's life and career is not as complete as one might wish, it does permit the conclusion that he was a capable and dedicated minister and a public-spirited citizen who served his county and state well. Despite the lack of parochial support, he persevered as minister of the parish until his death. At an earlier period and in one of the tidewater parishes, he may well have enjoyed a less stressful and more successful clerical career. As he lamented in his will, Smyth was an unfortunate man in several ways. He found it necessary to leave his family and native land, his wife died at a young age, he reached Virginia at an unpropitious time, he landed in an unfavorable parish, and he faced death before his children reached maturity.


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.



22 Botetourt County Deed Book, No. 5 (1793-1796), 223, reel 2, LVA; Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic, 344.

23 F. B. Kegley, Kegley's Virginia Frontier: The Beginning of the Southwest, the Roanoke of Colonial Days, 1740-1783, with Maps and Illustrations (Roanoke, Va., 1938), 395; Smyth's will, Botetourt County Will Book A (1770-1801), 240, reel 20, LVA; Chalkley, Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement, 2:232-33.

24 Meade, Old Churches, 2:319. Smyth's will, Botetourt County Will Book A, 240; Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), 13 May 1775 and 30 March 1776; Pinkney's Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), 11 May 1775; Purdie's Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), 29 March 1776.

25 Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic, 338.

26 Fleming to Governor Harrison, 26 December 1781, Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 2:671-72; William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, 7 vols. (Charlottesville, 1973-83), 7:708; Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 9:281-82.

27 John H. Gwathmey, Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution, Soldiers, Marines, 1775-1783 (Richmond, 1938), 719; Henry R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, 5 vols. (Richmond, 1931-82), 1:225; Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, 1777, 93; on the Cherokee conflict, see John E. Selby, The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783 (Williamsburg, 1988), 187-88.

28 Henry R. McIlwaine, et al., eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, 6 vols. (Richmond, 1925-66), 6:564; Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800 (Chapel Hill, 1986), 421; Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic, 319.

29 Smyth's will, Botetourt County Will Book A, 240, reel 20; Botetourt County History Before 1900: Through County Cemetery Records (privately printed, n. d.), 41.

30 American National Biography s.v., “Smyth, Alexander;” Stoner, A Seed-Bed of the Republic, 328; Andrew Keogh’s data base:

31 Botetourt County Deed Books (1770-1773) and (1780-1788), reels 1 and 2, LVA; Botetourt County Land Tax Books (1782-1809), reel 38, LVA.

32 Botetourt County Personal Property Taxes, Pre-1850, reel 1, LVA.