Joseph Davis was born May 30, 1828 to David and Jane (Davis) Smith in Londonderry County, Ballykelly, Ireland. When he was nineteen years of age his mother and father moved him and his three siblings—William, David, and Martha—to America where they joined the multitude of immigrants seeking a new life in the United States. The Smiths settled in Philadelphia, but nineteen-year-old Joseph was restless to move west. He had received a good education in Ireland and was particularly skilled with English and Mathematics which combined with his experience in the printing business gave him tools he could use to relocate and work in a new place. However, it appears things did not work out as well as he had hoped because he settled in Kentucky for just a few years, but he managed to attend Centre College in Danville long enough to complete his freshman program. When he left Kentucky, he returned to Pennsylvania and graduated in 1856 from Jefferson College in Canonsburg. He professed his faith in Christ at the age of twenty two, which may have occurred during his time in Kentucky.
Having been called to the ministry, Joseph Smith entered the seminary at Princeton where he completed the full three-year program in 1859. He was licensed that same spring by the Presbytery of Philadelphia and tested his ministry skills supplying churches for a little over a year. One of the churches in which he preached was in Slate Ridge in Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River. The church had been having a difficult time locating a minister during the four years since the previous minister, Samuel Parke—who had served the church for over forty years—resigned his call. Contributing to the factors making finding and calling a pastor challenging was the church location of just about a quarter mile from the Mason and Dixon line; the increasing tensions regarding issues that would lead to war were making the border between North and South a chancy place to settle and do business. However, Licentiate Smith accepted the opportunity, was ordained, and then installed pastor of the Slate Ridge Church by the Presbytery of Donegal, October 30, 1860. The following spring, the Civil War began and young Rev. Joseph D. Smith found himself the pastor of a congregation meeting in a church within a stone’s throw of the line dividing North and South. Along with starting the pastorate that would be his only call, the year 1860 saw the death of his father, David.
In his presbytery, Rev. Smith was for some years the chairman of the theological examining committee and was known for his capable and knowledgeable testing of candidates for licensure and ordination. He was three times a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). He first attended an assembly in Cincinnati in 1867 as a commissioner from Donegal Presbytery, Synod of Philadelphia, Old School. The Cincinnati meeting was a busy one in part because of business related to the reunion of the Old and New Schools that would take place in 1869. In 1870, the Donegal Presbytery boundaries were modified as part of the reorganization of the denomination following reunion, so when Rev. Smith attended his second assembly in Brooklyn in 1876, he did so as a commissioner from the recently organized Westminster Presbytery. At the time the assembly convened on May 18, the Centennial Exposition had just opened in Philadelphia with its 285 acres of attractions to commemorate the independence of the United States. The General Assembly had often rebuked the government over the years for its failing to uphold the Sabbath, but in 1876 the assembly passed an extended resolution praising the Centennial Commission for closing the celebratory exposition on Sunday. The resolution was hand delivered to the Centennial Commission by a committee appointed by the assembly moderator with each of its thirteen members representing one of the original colonies. Rev. Smith’s final work as an assembly commissioner was in the scenic area north of Albany, New York, in the First Presbyterian Church of Saratoga Springs in 1884. He was appointed to serve on the Standing Committee on Aid for Colleges and Academies by Moderator George P. Hayes, D.D., LL.D.
As the years passed, Rev. Smith had enjoyed a steady ministry and an increase in his congregation. When he was installed its pastor the church communicant membership numbered 105 and by the time his call was dissolved in 1890, the flock numbered 150. He had a keen interest in the study of Greek and often tutored locals in the language, and he, as so many ministers did, tutored individuals to prepare them for college. During his ministry at Slate Ridge, he had a few of his sermons published, and his An Historical Discourse Relating the Origin and History of the Slate Ridge Presbyterian Church in Peach bottom, York County, Pennsylvania, was published in 1868. His pastoral relation with the Slate Ridge Church was dissolved April 8, 1890. Even though he was retired, he continued to fill pulpits and work with the extended church while residing on his tract of land abutting the church property. He died on December 21, 1906. The circumstances of his death were unusual but likely not uncommon for those in rural areas. He was in his stable unchaining some steers to take them to a nearby butcher when for some reason the animals were spooked and became uncontrollable. One of them knocked him down and another trampled him severely. He suffered considerable external and internal injuries that led to his death. Rev. Joseph D. Smith was not married, but he was survived by his sister, Martha, who had lived in his home with him for several years. He was buried in Delta, Pennsylvania.
BY BARRY WAUGH
Links to Articles of Associated Interest on Presbyterians of the Past
If you would like to know more about the New School and Old School, read the brief descriptions available in the article titled, “Synod of Pennsylvania Minutes, New School, 1865,” by clicking HERE.
Notes—Moderator of the 1884 General Assembly, George P. Hayes wrote, Presbyterians: A Popular Narrative of their Origin, Progress, Doctrines, and Achievements, New York: J. A. Hill & Co., 1892.
Sources—Rev. Smith’s booklet on the history of Slate Ridge Church; minutes of the General Assembly of the PCUSA for the years mentioned; biographical catalogs of Jefferson College and Princeton Seminary, and the Princeton Seminary Necrological Report; the book, Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of the Nineteenth Congressional District, Pennsylvania, Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens of the District Together with an Introductory Historical Sketch, S. T. Wiley, editor, Philadelphia, 1897; and vol. 2 of, History of York County Pennsylvania, Biographical, Illustrated, Chicago: J. H. Beers, 1907. The map of York County, Pennsylvania, has a red star at the approximate location of the Slate Ridge Church in the days of J. D. Smith; the church is currently located in Maryland because it moved a few years after Smith resigned his call.