Thomas Smyth was born on June 14, 1808 in Belfast, Ireland. His mother, of Scottish ancestry, exercised a great influence on Thomas by encouraging his love of reading and instructing him in the Christian faith. Thomas's education began at the Academic Institution of Belfast, and then he went on to study at Belfast College where in 1829 he graduated with honors. It was at the age of twenty-one that Thomas made his profession of faith in Christ while living in Belfast.
He then moved to London to attend Highbury College, but he was not able to complete his program there because he moved with his parents to the United States in 1830 where he lived with his brother in Patterson, New Jersey. His brother, Joseph, had done well in his new homeland and earned his living in manufacturing. Joseph was a member of the Presbyterian Church and Thomas attended services with him. To complete his ministerial training he enrolled in the senior class at Princeton Theological Seminary and graduated in 1831.
When he was ordained it was the presbytery's intention to send him to Florida as a missionary, but his direction changed when the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina requested him to be their supply pastor in 1832. His Princeton professors, Samuel Miller and Archibald Alexander, encouraged him to go to Charleston. Thomas became the supply for a short time, and after a time of some uncertainty concerning his remaining there, he was called to be the pastor and installed in December of 1834. His uncertainty was due to his belief that the great size of the Second Church's sanctuary exacerbated his chronic health problems. In order to alleviate the stress of preaching, the church modified the sanctuary by lowering the ceiling and making other changes to decrease the volume of the room and thereby reduce Rev. Smyth's effort to project his voice. The call to Second Presbyterian was the first and last pastoral call of Thomas's life since he remained there until he died.
Shortly after Rev. Smyth's arrival at Charleston, he married Margaret Milligan Adger, who was the daughter of one of Charleston's most prosperous merchants, James Adger. James Adger's brother, John, would become the Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Polity at Columbia Seminary from 1857 to 1874. Thomas and Margaret were married by the Rev. William A. McDowell, pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church, at sunset on Tuesday, July 9, 1832. The couple was to enjoy a long marriage that was blessed with nine children, six of which-three boys and three girls-survived Dr. Smyth.
Since Dr. Smyth enjoyed such an extended time as the pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, it might be concluded that he had a ministry without difficulties, but this was not the case. From the time he arrived at Charleston, he was involved in the controversies that led to the Civil War. According to T. Erskine Clark's article on Dr. Smyth in American National Biography, Smyth tried to take a moderate approach to slavery--in Charleston, he was thought an Abolitionist, while in Britain, he was seen as a supporter of slavery. He, along with John Adger and John Girardeau, was instrumental in establishing the Zion Presbyterian Church for slaves. Both Dr. Smyth and John Girardeau were mercilessly vilified by some Southerners for their efforts to provide a Presbyterian place of worship for Africans. His efforts at reforming slavery were resisted by some of the Whites in Charleston and this made for a rough road for his ministry. He defended the full humanity of Africans in his book Unity of the Human Race against the vocal protests of militant southern slavery supporters.
In July of 1863, Vicksburg fell and Lee was defeated at Gettysburg. The tide had turned and many southerners saw that the days of the Confederacy were numbered. Second Presbyterian Church's congregation scattered due to the growing uncertainties regarding Charleston's future. Because of the fear of Union forces invading Charleston, the Smyths had moved inland to Clarendon County for about two years beginning in August 1863. During this exile, Dr. Smyth became a circuit-riding minister serving several Methodist churches. When he returned to pick up the pieces at Second Presbyterian, he found that the war had left his congregation depleted and confused. In August of 1866, the church had to be reorganized due to the great loss of members during the war, and in October of 1867, three new elders were ordained to help with the work of the church.
Nineteenth century life could be tragic and difficult, and the Smyths faced some of the century's vicissitudes. In the fall of 1836 Rev. Smyth, Margaret, and his sister-in-law were traveling by ship when there was a horrible storm that caused the ship to run-aground and leave the passengers stranded on a small island off the coast of North Carolina. They had very little food and suffered having their trunks ransacked by some members of the ship's crew. In 1837 scarlet fever ravaged Charleston and two of the Smyth children were stricken. Sarah Ann Magee died of the fever on November 27 at the age of four and her younger sister, Susan Adger, died less than a week later. This double dose of tragedy was very difficult for Thomas and Margaret. Margaret expressed her grief to friends and relatives in letters, while Thomas tried to keep his thoughts about the girls' deaths to himself. On the first Sabbath Dr. Smyth preached following the two deaths, he was able to get through the first hymn, but when he stood to read the Scripture, he broke down, took his seat, and wept. Many in the congregation joined him in his uncontrolled sorrow. Two sermons regarding the salvation of infants delivered by Dr. Smyth following his daughters' deaths were published in the book Solace for Bereaved Parents. Death struck the Smyth household once again when in November 1841 Augustine, the Smyths' eleven month old son, died. The modern reader is often surprised at the number of children born to nineteenth-century families, but even though parents might have ten or more children, it was not uncommon for several of them to die in the early years of life.
Dr. Smyth's life was troubled by bouts with illness from his earliest years; the Apostle Paul had his thorn in the flesh, and Thomas Smyth felt the pain and discomfort of chronic physical problems. When he was born, his parents did not know how long he would survive because he was so frail. On two occasions, during his educational years, one at Belfast College and another at Princeton Seminary, his studies were interrupted by illness. As the years passed, he continued to be afflicted by sickness. While he was the pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, he often had debilitating headaches that would make it difficult to study and execute his ministry. He tried to relieve the pain by soaking his head in ice-cold water. In 1848, he was affected by a partial paralysis that left him with reoccurring severe pain. In 1853, he was once again stricken with a paralysis that was severe enough to leave him crippled and on crutches. Dr. Smyth had difficulty standing with the crutches while preaching, so his pulpit was modified by constructing a saddle-like seat with a mahogany backrest. By using this special furniture he could straddle the seat as if he were on a horse, lean back against the backrest, and have his hands free to turn his notes and make descriptive gestures. Despite these painful and reoccurring problems, Dr. Smyth persevered in his ministry until the final blow came in 1870 when his speech was paralyzed. He did not give up but instead developed speech and elocutionary exercises so that he could regain his ability to talk. Despite his persistent efforts, he could not restore his speech sufficiently to satisfy himself that his verbal abilities were adequate for acceptable preaching, so he retired from the pulpit about a year after his speech paralysis began. Though he no longer preached, he often ended the worship service with prayer.
Despite a physical constitution that would lead others to complaining, depression, and withdrawal, it was said of Dr. Smyth, by Rev. G. R. Brackett, Smyth's successor at Second Presbyterian Church, that: "Dr. Smyth was a cheerful, happy sufferer. His sufferings never made life dark, dismal or undesirable. He had cultivated a merry, joyous spirit. He had learned to smile on suffering, …" (Smyth, Works, X: 787).