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d. 25 May 1917 in Montreal


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SMITHURST, JOHN, Church of England clergyman; b. 9 Sept. 1807 at Lea, Derbyshire, England, son of William and Christiana Smithurst; d. Sept. 1867 at Elora, Ont.

Nothing is known of John Smithurst’s childhood and youth. On 10 Sept. 1836 he was accepted by the Church Missionary Society of England as a probationary candidate and placed in their college at Islington (now part of London). Like most missionary candidates of this period, many of them country-bred and influenced by evangelical vicars, Smithurst was deficient in education but strong in practical skills and spiritual conviction.

The society’s committee appointed Smithurst to their North West America mission, and on 23 Dec. 1838 he was made a deacon by the bishop of London under whose jurisdiction the territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company fell. The latter appointed him a company chaplain at Red River Settlement at a salary of £100 a year. Because the company was concerned about the influx of Indians into Red River, it intended to send Smithurst to Cumberland House to establish a settlement and school there. On 26 May 1839 he was ordained priest and arrived in Rupert’s Land the following September.

In February 1840 the company agreed to Smithurst’s being permanently located at the Indian Settlement already established at Netley Creek where it enters the Red River some 12 miles below Grand Rapids (St Andrew’s). There had been an understanding with the company that missionaries might be sent to Cumberland, but a dispute about a bequest by James Leith*, former chief factor of Cumberland House, for the propagation of the “Christian Protestant Religion” among the natives of Rupert’s Land, caused this change in arrangements. Smithurst’s appointment as chaplain to the company ceased on 1 June 1840 and he served solely as a missionary of the society. He also took services at Grand Rapids. In October 1840 he officiated at the marriage of the important Saulteaux chief, Peguis.

Smithurst was the first Anglican missionary in Rupert’s Land to attempt to learn an Indian language. By March 1842 he had completed his translation of the service of Evening Prayer in the Prayer book and then turned to the marriage service. He used the Roman alphabet, claiming that the syllabic system of the Reverend James Evans* was too imprecise. He admitted, however, that the Indians found it as easy to learn English; hence he decided to produce a Cree-English dictionary. None of Smithurst’s linguistic work was published, and Bishop David Anderson* decided eventually to adopt Evans’ syllabic system. Two mission extensions under Indian catechists came under Smithurst’s care, that of Henry Budd* at W’passkwayaw (The Pas) and that of James Settee* at Beaver Creek; to both of these missions Smithurst paid visits, in 1842 and 1843 respectively.

In March and April 1842 Smithurst was involved in what came to be known as the colonial ordination controversy, after Recorder Adam Thom*, a rather inflexible individual, had published an Essay in which he questioned the authority of the Anglican bishop of Montreal to officiate in Rupert’s Land. Bishop George Jehoshaphat Mountain, with a warm welcome from William Cockran and Smithurst and the approval of the bishop of London, was to make the long trip west for an episcopal visitation in the summer of 1844. The possibility of such a visitation had been discussed in 1840, and Smithurst thought he saw in Thom’s Essay a fresh attack upon the privileges of the Church of England in Rupert’s Land. The HBC had admitted some Wesleyan chaplains in 1840 and the evangelicals within the Church of England were concerned about themselves as members within the “Established Church.” Smithurst informed the company that if Thom’s thesis were correct and those whom the bishop of Montreal ordained were laid under civil disabilities, they would nevertheless be “clergymen appointed by Apostolic authority” whereas the Wesleyan ministers were “only lay teachers being possessed of no valid or legal ordination whatever.” In the end, Smithurst was rebuked by both the company and the CMS for his share in the controversy. His lack of charity bore out an early description of him in his college days as “able to state the truth learnedly, but doing it without love. . . .”

During 1846–47 Smithurst voluntarily conducted garrison services for the 6th Regiment of Foot, about half of whom were quartered at Lower Fort Garry. In June 1849 he was appointed to the Council of Assiniboia. That same year he became involved in the dispute over freedom in the fur trade. By supplying Governor William Bletterman Caldwell* with information favourable to the HBC, he aroused the wrath of the Métis who succeeded in alienating the loyalties of a large part of his Indian flock. Smithurst’s remaining two years in Red River were unhappy and, suffering from acute rheumatism, he resigned in 1851 and returned to England.

Smithurst immigrated to Canada West in 1852 and ended his days in Elora. For a time he was minister of St John’s Church there, then he took up a bush farm in the township of Minto which he named Lea Hurst after his birth place. He never married. Lea in Derbyshire had also been the home of Florence Nightingale and it has been suggested that she and Smithurst were first cousins who would have married but for parental disapproval. This story, encouraged by Miss Nightingale’s donation of a communion service to the church at Elora through Smithurst, her “dear friend,” seems to have no basis in fact.

Smithurst was a conscientous missionary. During his 12 years in Red River he performed 323 baptisms at the Indian Settlement. He was also a man of great practical ability, whose mission had “the best arranged house and garden in the Red River Settlement.” He was a churchman who held to evangelical standards. In August 1845 he told the CMS that he differed with his colleague Cockran over the latter’s “irregularities in the reading of the Liturgy” and he was unsympathetic to Presbyterian scruples among the Kildonan settlers. His Tractarian churchmanship worried the society because he taught his Indians how to establish the dates of movable feasts, so that those away on winter traplines could return for Easter communion, but he declared he attached “no importance to ritual observance except as auxiliaries to devotion.”

Smithurst bequeathed his books to the bishop of Toronto, John Strachan, for use by the University of Trinity College and also left money in trust for the building of a church. His residence went to the CMS.

A. N. Thompson

CMS Arch., Committee minutes, XV–XVIII, XXVIII; North West America mission, correspondence: colonial ordination, 1842; London correspondence outwards, 1821–60; Letters and journals of William Cockran, 1825–65; Letters and journals of John Smithurst, 1839–51; Letters of David Anderson, 1849–64; Letters of Robert James, 1846–51; Letters to home secretaries, 1822–74. HBC Arch. A.5/12, f.281; A.6/25, ff.114–15, 137; A.6/26, ff.88–89; A.36/12, f.219; D.4/39, ff.109d.–10; D.5/7, 157d.–58, 186–86d., 192–92d.; D.5/12, 335d.; D.5/24, ff.435d.–36; D.5/25, ff.225–26, 581–82. Methodist Missionary Soc. Archives (London), Correspondence, Canada, 1838–53 (mfm. at PAC). PABC, Donald Ross papers, letters of John Smithurst to Donald Ross, 1844–51. Canadian North-West (Oliver), I, 354. Church Missionary Soc., Proc. for Africa and the East (London), 1838–52 (includes reports for North America). G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1857, Report from the select committee on the HBC. HBRS, XIX (Rich and Johnson). Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod). [G. J. Mountain], The journal of the bishop of Montreal, during a visit to the Church Missionary Society’s north-west America mission . . . (London, 1845). I. [G. Simpson] Finlayson, “York Boat journal,” ed. A. M. Johnson, Beaver, outfit 282 (December 1951), 32–37. R. M. Ballantyne, Hudson’s Bay; or, every-day life in the wilds of North America, during six years residence in the territories of the honourable Hudson’s Bay Company (2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1848), 91. Boon, Anglican Church. Sarah Tucker, The rainbow in the north: a short account of the first establishment of Christianity in Rupert’s Land by the Church Missionary Society (London, 1851). M. A. MacLeod, “The lamp shines in Red River,” Beaver, outfit 267 (September 1936), 41–45.

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Cite This Article

A. N. Thompson, “SMITHURST, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smithurst_john_9E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smithurst_john_9E.html
Author of Article:   A. N. Thompson
Title of Article:   SMITHURST, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   May 25, 2024