Presbyterians of the Past

Ellison A. Smyth, 1847–1942

One of the difficulties faced when writing biographies about church personalities from the past is locating information about the membership and service of those who were not ministers. Sources regarding ministers are fairly common; sources for those workers and officers seated in the pews often are not. There are exceptions regarding some in the history of the church such as has been seen in the biographies of Cyrus McCormick and Samuel Miller Breckinridge, will be seen in the current biography of Mr. Smyth, and in future accounts of the life of John Wanamaker and others. However, in the cases of these successful public figures and entrepreneurs the sources are more often concerned with their professional achievements than in their involvement in churches. Thus, this biography of E. A. Smyth focuses heavily on his career while the account of his church life and work is limited. The Lord has used the wealth of the prosperous over the years whether it was that of Joseph of Arimathea, Lydia, or the E. A. Smyths of church history, yet, one cannot but wonder about those saints lost to history that labored long, hard, and inconspicuously with their contributions to the Kingdom recognized and remembered only by their heavenly Father. Anyone who has been in the church for some years knows those who have served faithfully for the simple joy of honoring their Lord; it is not the intention of the author of these biographies to exalt certain Christians because they had business acumen and financial success, it is simply that a historian’s writing is, unfortunately, limited by the available sources.

E. A. Smyth, Charter Member, 75 dpi, 3.5x5, 10-3-12Joseph Ellison Adger Smyth was born in Charleston, October 26, 1847. His mother, Margaret, was a member of the Adger family of Charleston that had prospered financially in shipping, warehousing, and hardware. If one travels down East Bay Street, the signs marking “North Adger’s Wharf” and “South Adger’s Wharf” with their cobblestone access to the current pier and its view across the water to Patriots’ Point remind one of the Adger presence in Charleston. Ellison’s father was Rev. Thomas Smyth who was at the time the minister of Second Presbyterian Church, which was his first and would be his only call serving there for forty years. Ellison’s education included home schooling and private teachers including a time of residence studies in Columbia. He had the advantage of growing up in the home of his antiquarian father and his collection of books, maps, and manuscripts, which the lad could use to expand his learning. His studies prepared him for entrance into South Carolina Military College (The Citadel), where he studied until 1864 when he took a hiatus to serve in the Confederate Army.

Following the war, E. A. Smyth’s interests led him in a different direction than the ministry; he looked to his mother’s side of the family and their facility with business and finance. Ellison became a junior partner with the hardware establishment of J. E. Adger & Co. As with many who enter family businesses, Ellison was given jobs in many areas to obtain experience in all aspects of the enterprise. It was while he was on a business trip for the Adgers to Baltimore that Ellison saw Julia Gambrill riding in a trolley car, which he followed to her home and asked her father’s permission for courting. Ellison and Julia were married in 1869 and lived initially with his mother and father in their home in Charleston. However, the situation was changing at J. E. Adger & Co., which prompted the young businessman to become involved in a new business venture that would take him and his family to another part of the state.

Maybe it was the processing machinery coming into the port of Charleston on the Adgers’ piers from industrial powerhouses such as Manchester, England, that grabbed his attention regarding the up and coming textile industry, or possibly it was the investment acumen, advice, and funding of the Adger family that led him into the business, but whatever the case, he was entering uncharted territory given that he had never been inside a textile mill. Smyth and Francis J. Pelzer of Charleston formed a partnership to build a textile facility in Anderson County along the Saluda River that would be known as Pelzer Mills. Over the years the mill was expanded and a mill community was constructed for the labor force. “Captain” Smyth, as he was often called as his years in business passed, was president and treasurer of Pelzer Manufacturing Company for 43 years until it was sold in 1923 to Lockwood, Greene, and Company for several million dollars. In 1899, E. A. Smyth organized Belton Mills in Anderson County and was also instrumental in the organization of a bank in the town. The Smyths at one point moved from Pelzer to Greenville where he was involved in a number of enterprises including The Greenville News, which he had controlling interest in for seventeen years until he sold out in 1919 to its manager at the time, B. H. Peace. In 1920, he sold the majority of Belton Mill stock to Woodward, Baldwin, and Company. Captain Smyth served as president of the Cotton Manufacturers Association of South Carolina for fourteen years and at one time was president of the American Cotton Manufacturers Association. He was instrumental in the enactment of compulsory education laws and registration of marriages and births in South Carolina. Long before the enactment of labor laws, he set up a system in his mills to prevent the employment of children under twelve years of age while providing schooling up to that age.

Julia Smyth, Charter Member, 75 dpi, 3.5x5, 10-3-12So much for the business acumen of E. A. Smyth, it is now time to turn to his work as a member of the Presbyterian Church. The Pelzer Presbyterian Church in the mill community had its beginnings and organization with help from Smyth. On November 20, 1881, in the meeting hall over the Brown, Williams, and Company Store, Rev. C. L. Stewart delivered the first Presbyterian sermon preached in the Pelzer community. The service and the Bible passage for the exposition were requested by Capt. Smyth. The text was Philippians 1:27, “Stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the Gospel.” From that first service and into 1882, the Presbyterians were able to have occasional preaching in Pelzer, but by the next year, the small group was of sufficient size to request Enoree Presbytery of the P.C.U.S. to organize the church. The petitioners’ request was granted and on October 29, 1883, a commission conducted the service constituting the church. Included among the nine original members of the congregation were E. A. and Julia Smyth. The Pelzer congregation was able to construct a church building that was dedicated in a service led by Rev. G. R. Brackett of Second Presbyterian Church, Charleston, on February 2, 1896. In 1892, the Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville was organized with a congregation that included E. A. and Julia Smyth, their son James Adger, and their daughter Margaret Smyth McKissick. Capt. Smyth’s motions to name the church, locate it on the west side of the Reedy River, and elect elders and deacons were adopted to accomplish these purposes. However, his interest in supporting the starting of new churches extended to other congregations in the area.

Two other churches that E. A. Smyth was involved in were Fourth Presbyterian in Greenville, and First Presbyterian in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He was a member of the presbytery commission that organized Fourth Church in 1912 and he donated the land upon which the facility was constructed near his home in Boyce Gardens. In Smyth’s later life he was a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville. The Smyths had purchased a home not far from Hendersonville in Flat Rock which served first as a summer residence but became in later years their primary home. The house is known today by its name that was given to it by the Smyths, “Connemara,” which is open as a museum for the owner that followed the Smyths who was, ironically, Carl Sandberg whose fame would come from his biography of Lincoln that earned the Pulitzer Prize. Ellison was largely responsible for funding the construction of a Sunday school building in Hendersonville built as a memorial to his son, James Adger Smyth, who had died in 1928 as the guests were gathering for his son Joe’s wedding the following day.

There were other aspects of E. A. Smyth’s life that can be traced to his heritage as a Presbyterian and the son of a minister. Not only did he follow in his parents footsteps in the church, but he also learned the love of books from his minister father. However, Smyth’s interest was primarily in collecting old manuscripts and books of South Carolina history. Over two hundred of E. A. Smyth’s books were donated to and are held in the archives of Presbyterian College in Clinton. He also served on the Presbyterian College board, 1913-1924, and in October 1924, he was awarded an honorary doctorate at the dedicatory exercises for the Thomas Smyth Dormitory.

Joseph Ellison Adger Smyth, member of the Presbyterian Church, ruling elder, supporter of new churches, and South Carolina textile manufacturer died at Connemara on August 3, 1942. Two funeral services were conducted in his memory with the first held at Connemara by Rev. L. T. Wilds, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, and the second was at his family’s home church, Second Presbyterian, Charleston, where he was buried in the cemetery next to Julia who had died in 1927. Capt. Smyth had dropped the use of “Joseph” early in his life, but his grave marker provides his full name. Written on his marker is the quote, “A man resolved and steady to his trust; inflexible to ill and obstinately just” (Horace). Ellison and Julia had twelve children together including eight daughters and four sons, but seven of the children died before they were seven years of age.


Sources—Clarification editing was done and the photo of Julia was added by the author on August 5, 2015. C. L. Stewart, Historical Sketch of the Presbyterian Church of Pelzer, South Carolina, Delivered Sunday, Jan. 10, 1897, Printed by Order of the Session, 1897; F. D. Jones and W. H. Mills, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina Since 1850, Columbia: R. L. Bryan Co., 1926; E. A. Smyth’s obituary in The Greenville News, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 1942; Louisa C. Stoney, ed., Autobiographical Notes, Letters and Reflections By Thomas Smyth, D.D., Charleston: Walker, Evans, & Cogswell Co., 1914.

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