SMITH, JOHN, Presbyterian minister; b. 19 Jan. 1801 in Cromarty, Scotland, son of the Reverend Robert Smith and Isabella Gair Rose; m. 30 Aug. 1838 Jane Morson, in Bytown (Ottawa), Upper Canada, and they had six children; d. 18 April 1851 in Beckwith Township, Upper Canada.
John Smith was the sixth of ten children, and, like his father before him, was educated at King’s College (University of Aberdeen), from 1814 to 1819. A shy man, quiet and pious, he tutored while studying theology and later became assistant to the Reverend William Mackay, minister of Dunoon, one of the foremost Gaelic scholars of the time. Smith learned the language from Mackay, and in so doing acquired a skill that would later bring him to the attention of church authorities seeking a minister to serve in a remote bush settlement in Upper Canada.
Beckwith Township had been settled in 1818 by Scots from Laggan (Highland), Scotland. Early in the following year the Presbyterians among them wrote to the governor in Quebec, the Duke of Richmond and Lennox [Lennox*], for help in securing and supporting a minister able to preach in Gaelic. When no reply was received they turned to the Reverend William Bell, a nearby Presbyterian clergyman, and asked him to petition Scotland on their behalf. Bell, a secessionist, complied, and wrote to the Associate Synod of Scotland. In 1822, after the congregation had again given up hope, a secessionist minister, George Buchanan, was sent to be their pastor. Buchanan must have been a valuable member of this pioneer community: a minister who could preach in English and Gaelic, he had also received medical training. Initially pleased, the congregation welcomed him and his large family “and did all in their power to render them comfortable.” However, differences, largely religious, gradually arose between Buchanan and his flock. The discontent came to a head in May 1832 when the barn Buchanan had used as a church was destroyed in an accidental fire. His parishioners decided to take the opportunity for a fresh start and planned to build a stone church where services would be held in connection with the Church of Scotland and not with the secessionist body to which Buchanan belonged. Although Buchanan, 70 and ailing (he died in 1835), was being considered for admission to the Church of Scotland connection, a call went out to the Glasgow Colonial Society [see Robert Burns*] for a minister of the established church who was fluent in English and Gaelic.
The society requested the Reverend Thomas C. Wilson, minister at nearby Perth and himself only a recent arrival in Upper Canada, to comment on Beckwith’s prospects. He reported that “the people are in general industrious and comfortable in worldly circumstances, and warmly attached to the Church of their fathers. And I know of few country places here, where, a faithful minister may be more agreeably situated.” Satisfied, the society then sought a minister to serve in Beckwith. It was not easy to be chosen for that station since the society was adamant it should go to someone fluent in Gaelic. John Smith was well qualified and, on his decision to go to Canada, received the support of his colleagues. The Reverend William Mackay wrote a glowing letter to the society praising his character and abilities. Another clergyman wrote: “He is not a popular preacher but he is evangelical in his views and amiable in his disposition and conduct. His talents are respectable, his want of popularity is owing to a nervous diffidence that he cannot easily surmount.” At a test sermon preached in Glasgow on 26 May 1833 Smith was well received and praised. One of the society’s officials who assessed him wrote that “I could not have discovered that the Gaelic was an acquired language with him, had he not told me so.” He did so well on the trial sermons that he was given the choice of two ministries, Lancaster Township, also in Upper Canada, or Beckwith; he chose the latter, perhaps feeling some kinship with the settlers from Laggan which he had recently visited. Smith received his appointment from the society on 27 May, and on 9 July was ordained by the Presbytery of Chanonry.
Travelling with two sisters, Smith arrived in Beckwith late in October 1833 and preached his first sermon in the nearly completed stone church, St Andrew’s, on 3 November. Disappointed that a house had not been built, he lived for a time in a log building through the kindness of a member of the congregation, and in 1834 oversaw the building of a stone manse which subsequently housed four successive ministers. By autumn of that year work was completed on the church itself.
Smith’s congregation soon came to consider him a kindly, understanding man, and particularly appreciated his fluency in Gaelic. His ministry flourished. In a letter dated 21 April 1834 Smith wrote: “As one called to minister in Holy things among them I have met with every mark of esteem and respect from my congregation; in every way also in which they can add to my personal comfort they have shown the utmost kindness – the most cheerful willingness to oblige. Upwards of 300 regularly attend my public ministrations. On some favourable days during the sleighing season the number attending could not have been less than 500. During the summer months when our roads are passable I hope the average number of hearers will be 400 or rather more. This in one of the back Townships is considered a very respectable audience.”
Controversy seems not to have touched Smith’s life, although William Bell, who described him as having “a great talent for silence,” resented the appointment in Beckwith of a minister ordained by the Church of Scotland at a time when negotiations were underway to readmit the secessionists. Smith remained with the Church of Scotland connection during the disruption of 1844 which saw the formation, led by John Bayne, of what was popularly called the Free Church. Smith’s congregation supported him and responded generously to his fund-raising efforts on behalf of Queen’s College, Kingston, which also retained its original affiliation. His congregation, whom Smith described as “working farmers,” donated some £130 at a time when its account totalled only £34.
Although there is no evidence to support the belief, family tradition, citing Smith’s “saintly and impractical character,” has it that he died of pneumonia “as a result of giving his overcoat to a beggar.” Three other ministers in turn succeeded him to the charge at Beckwith, but within 25 years of Smith’s death the church closed its doors and was allowed to fall into ruin.
PAC, MG 9, D7, 35, 30 Aug. 1838. QUA, Queen’s Univ. letters, John Smith to F. A. Harper, 10 June 1840. UCA, Biog. files, John Smith, especially Mabel Ringereide, “The Rev. John Smith and his Rockcliffe kin” (typescript, 1976); Glasgow Colonial Soc., corr. Croil, Hist. and statistical report (1868), 89–90. Bathurst Courier, 2 May 1851. Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiæ scoticanæ, vol.7. Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church. Mabel Ringereide, The flourishing tree (Ottawa, ); “Beckwith Manse,” Presbyterian Record (Don Mills [Toronto]), 99 (1975), no.11: 2–3.