Source PageThe Down Survey PagesThe Reverend Dr. Edward Smyth

Edward Smyth was descended from William Smyth of Dundrum and held a Doctorate in Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin. After his expulsion from the Church of Ireland, he became a travelling preacher - with pronounced Methodist sympathies, becoming closely associated with John Wesley. According to one source, he first met Wesley on the Isle of Man in 1777. It is more probable, however, that they first met in Ireland.

There was a Benjamin Smyth/e who was a schoolmaster on the Isle of Man. His wife ran a college for 'young ladies'. This information may be significant in tracing the ancestry of Francis Smyth).

In 1779 Dr. Edward Smyth moved to Bath, near Bristol, for the sake of his wife's health. For a time, he worked in London for Wesley himself - and then returned to Ireland, causing some division ... but ended his days in Manchester (see 1825 - "The Salford Hundred") where he was responsible for the building of two churches - St. Clement’s in 1793 and St. Luke’s, in 1804. He became paralysed in 1817 and died 6th February 1825. He is buried in St. Luke’s Churchyard.

The following is an in-depth article, "The 'alarming' Edward Smyth" which does much to put matters in perspective and throws light on family relationships of the era. The article was written by Robin Roddie, Methodist minister of Newtownards, County Down , Chairman of the Down District of the Methodist Church in Ireland and secretary of the Irish Branch of the Wesley Historical Society. Gratitude is warmly extended to the writer and also to Mike King of the Down County Museum. The Museum's "Down Survey" pages may be accessed by clicking on the image.

Edward Smyth's Lineage

"At the time when Edward Smyth was preparing to take Holy Orders at the University of Glasgow in 1764, his career as an Anglican priest seemed set fair for the kind of swift advancement which was typical of the son of a well-connected church family of the period. If anything, his prospects seemed brighter than most. His father was Archdeacon John Smyth of Limerick, later Chancellor of Connor diocese. More significantly, his uncle was Dr. F. Arthur Smyth, Archbishop of Dublin, through whom he expected preferment and a bequest from the prelate's personal fortune of 50,000. This was a substantial sum even at a time when bishops lived well and frequently died rich.

Marriage to Agnes Higginson

It was while he was still in expectation of such an outcome that, in 1770, he married Agnes, the fifteen year old daughter of William Higginson of Lisburn. That same year he was ordained Deacon and the following year Priest in the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Lisburn. Unfortunately for Edward, his uncle Arthur died intestate in December 1771 before he had left his nephew a benefice or a bequest. Thus it was that he found himself in Dublin looking for a charge which met his diminished expectations, preferably in the city.

Although Edward was not interested in taking a country parish, there were influential lay people who felt that he would make a suitable candidate for the perpetual cure of the parish of Ballyculter in County Down, with its attendant role as chaplain to the estate of Lord Bangor at his new Castle Ward home. Among those who sought to induce him to take the appointment was Sir John Parnell (brother-in-law of Lord Bangor and ancestor of Charles Stewart Parnell). The enticements included the use of the fine library at Castle Ward, the temple in the grounds for private reflection and the use of a hunter always at his command. His initial hesitation was overcome following overtures by the Ward family to his uncle, Charles Smyth and through encouragement from the Bishop of the Diocese, James Traill. In making this offer, Lord Bangor, who appears to have been nothing if not a courteous and accommodating man, would have felt he was extending to the young clerical couple a splendid opportunity. Many, if not the majority, of Edward Smyth's contemporaries were noted for taking 'their social opportunities, and in some cases, their secular responsibilities, more seriously than their professional duties'. (Alan Acheson, 'A History of the Church of Ireland, 1691-1996' - Dublin 1997 p.106).

For reasons which will become clear, it is probably that Edward's temperament was such that he would have found any regular appointment uncongenial. However, influences of an entirely different nature were at work within the extended Smyth family that would, in turn, have a major impact on Edward's life and career.

Marriage of his older brother, William Smyth, to Mary Grattan
First influence of Methodism ...

Edward's older brother, William, had married Mary, the daughter of William Grattan, a wealthy Dublin goldsmith who, shortly before his death, received his son-in-law into partnership of the firm and subsequently bequeathed him his property. William's wife, Mary, who greatly admired the actor and dramatist, David Garrick, went to London for his last appearances on stage. While there, against the better judgment of her theatrical friends, she insisted on hearing William Romaine, a preacher with Methodist leanings, as a result of which, she was converted. Her husband, William, on hearing the news, hastened to London to rescue her from this extravagant religious extremism, but, on arrival, found himself likewise convinced by the charismatic preaching of Romaine. When they returned home they became members of the Methodist society in Dublin and subsequently played host to John Wesley as well as to the saintly John and Mary Fletcher of Madeley when they were in the metropolis.

At very much the same time, Edward's wife, Agnes, was undergoing a period of spiritual turmoil. She first came into contact with the Methodists at the home of her in-laws, William and Mary Smyth, in Dublin. Some time later, when visiting her father in Lisburn, following the death of her mother, and despite some misgivings, she sought consolation through attending Methodist preaching. Her initial hesitation in associating with those so ill-spoken of was swept away when she discovered that her aunt Henrietta of Derryaghy, who was married to Edward Gayer, clerk to the House of Lords in the Irish Parliament, had likewise become involved with the Methodists. The Gayer home at Derryaghy, like that of the Smyth's in Dublin, now became a staging post for the much-travelled Wesley during his frequent visits to Ireland.

Through their increasing contacts with the Methodist people and preachers, first Agnes and then Edward soon followed William and Mary Smyth into the Methodist conversion. Shortly afterwards, they were introduced for the first time to John Wesley at the home of the Gayers in Derryaghy in January 1775. Edward Smyth's ministry increasingly began to take on the appearance of that of Wesley and his band of lay preachers. He and Agnes held Methodist class meetings in their Ballyculter home and in nearby Dunsford. His parish ministry was further extended when he began to preach and pray in the fields, in private houses and barns in the manner of Methodist lay preachers, drawing congregations of up to six hundred. The Ballyculter parish church likewise could take on the atmosphere of a Methodist preaching chapel so that, on occasion, it could scarcely hold the large and enthusiastic congregations that attended.

The influence of Margaret (Peggy) Davidson

Among those whom Edward and Agnes Smyth met at the Gayer home at this time was a blind woman called Margaret (Peggy) Davidson. At this crucial juncture of the Smyth's spiritual pilgrimage this extraordinary woman contributed to the style and fervour of Edward's ministry. Margaret had been shunned by her family at Killinchy ever since, at the age of two, an attack of small pox left her blind and disfigured. Despite the poverty of her home, no formal education, the constraints of physical handicap and unsupportive parents, she displayed unusual abilities from an early age. She committed large portions of the Bible to memory through having it read to her. By her early teens she was increasingly driven in a quest for religious knowledge and inner peace.

Learning of the Methodists, she decided that she had heard enough to want to learn more, despite the admonitions of her family and the Presbyterian minister at Killinchy. With great single-mindedness she pursued her quest and, eventually, through constant pleading, wore down objections and was allowed to be led to the Methodist society meeting at Comber where she was welcomed by the little band of Methodists and their preachers. She now became a member of the Methodist society and had the happiness of meeting John Wesley on one occasion in Newtownards in 1775. For the remainder of her life, she struggled to survive by earning a subsistence living through spinning and by accepting the offers of shared accommodation for however long or short the arrangement lasted whether in Comber, Lisburn, Carrickfergus or Strangford. The one criterion that mattered was that she was close to a Methodist society where she was able to share in class meetings and fellowship. At these gatherings she sometimes prayed and displayed spiritual gifts of a high order; increasingly, he was invited to assist at public services.

One of the homes to which she was invited was the Smyth's. While there, Edward brought her to a meeting he had arranged at Dunsford. He invited Margaret to tell her story and such was the impact on the assembled gathering that he invited her to stay on to continue her work among the people of the area. During the next month, at largely attended meetings, she led a revival of religious life at which over a hundred local people professed to have been converted. Such was Edward's admiration for this woman that he became her 'amanuensis', recording her life story, editing some of her dictated letters and a selection of her hymns in a little posthumous volume "The Extraordinary Life and Christian Experience of Margaret Davidson", published in Dublin in 1782.

Ward Castle - Bernard Ward (Lord Bangor) & Lady Anne

Even before their association with Methodism, Edward and Agnes Smyth had been uneasy with the lifestyle and constant round of social engagements and amusements at Castle Ward. Increasingly, they withdrew from what seemed to them superficial and frivolous entertainments. Despite this lack of involvement, Edward claimed that his and Lord Bangor's relationship remained reasonably cordial for the first year of his appointment. His Lordship, Bernard Ward, had in any case other domestic concerns consequent on the break-up of his stormy relationship with the feisty widow, Lady Anne Magill, whom he married in 1747. Their differences in temperament and interests were reflected for posterity in the complex nature of the new Castle Ward that they built. Unable to agree on the style and nature of the building, they agreed to a compromise so that one aspect of the building was built according to her choice in the contemporary Gothic fashion and his in the more conventional Classical idiom. Their battle and the separation of styles of the house were followed within two years of the completion of the building by a personal separation when Lady Anne left Castle Ward and her husband, Bernard, in 1766 and went to live in Bath, where she remained until her death in 1798.

By the time Edward and Agnes Smyth arrived at Castle Ward, Bernard and Lady Anne had been living apart for several years. Edward soon learnt what was common knowledge in the area concerning Lord Bangor's adulterous relationship with one of his servants. His curate wrote to Lord Bangor concerning the matter which was the subject of reports 'by all ranks, that one of your servant-maids, called Honour, is partaker of your Lordship's bed'. He asked Bernard to cease giving cause for scandal, to put the girl out of his house and set a good example to those of 'the lower class'. The only effect of the letter was a consequent 'great shyness and reserve' in Bernard Ward's demeanour towards his chaplain. (Quotations from 'An Account of the Trial of Edward Smyth' by Edward Smyth, Dublin 1777.)

Finding that the letter failed to effect a change in his Lordship's domestic arrangements, Edward Smyth next delivered a sermon on the text 'Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge,' without, as he subsequently wrote, 'making any personal application'. If Edward imagined that his sermon would have any greater success in appealing to his patron's better judgement than his earlier letter, he was mistaken. However, there was a reaction, swift and decisive. Lord Bangor wrote to Edward informing him that he required to take back the house which he and Agnes had been given and, since none of his Lordship's tenants would provide them with alternative accommodation, it was, in effect, the ousting of a troublesome cleric from his Lordship's domain.

Edward Smyth and Agnes ousted ...

Lord Bangor now discovered, what others throughout his life would learn, that Edward Smyth, once set upon a course of action was not easily diverted. He and Agnes managed to procure a small thatched cabin from a man not tied to the Ward estates, into which they now moved. He was at the same time determined to remain as curate at Ballyculter but offered a compromise as ingenious as Lady Anne's had been over the house. He suggested that he might be prepared to resign and move to nearby Dunsford if Lord Bangor was prepared to donate fifty guineas towards a preaching house there. Bernard's initial response was to play for time; he said he would reflect on the offer and seek advice from the Bishop and Dean. The outcome was that, on the same day that Edward went for his Lordship's answer, he discovered that the Castle Ward tenants had been approached with a view to getting up a petition to have him removed from the cure.

There followed a prolonged and unseemly wrangle in which Edward's relations with his Diocesan superiors deteriorated to the level of farce. He was first arraigned before a consistorial court at which he was charged with irregular behaviour, holding strange opinions contrary to the faith and that he publicly associated with the people called 'Swaddlers' (Methodists). The hearing began on 21st October 1776 at Knockbreda and rumbled on through November at Hill-hall until, much to Edward's surprise, the case was dismissed on 27th November due to some irregularities in the proceedings. Edward, who had kept the wider public informed of the trial through the medium of an advertisement in the Belfast Newsletter, now submitted further copy announcing his vindication. This was denied in subsequent correspondence by Ralph Ward, Vicar General of the Diocese, and eventually the Newsletter closed the correspondence by refusing to publish Edward's rebuttal.

Having failed to get rid of Edward by means of a consistorial court, Bishop James Traill travelled to Castle Ward on Christmas Eve 1776 and put in place a procedure to remove the rebellious curate by revoking his licence. On Christmas Morning, Edward arrived at Ballyculter church at the usual time for service only to find that a great part of Morning Prayer was already over, having begun half an hour earlier. The Bishop, Lord Bangor, Sir John Parnell and Rev. Ward were all in attendance. Edward attempted to claim a place in the liturgy by shadowing the Bishop, reading the set epistle and moving with him to share in the administration of Holy Communion. On the following Saturday the notice of the revocation of his licence arrived with Edward, signed by the Bishop on December 23rd, exactly three years by date since the original licence was granted. The next day, being Sunday, Edward took the precaution of going early to Ballyculter church, only to find that the two church-wardens were posted,'like sentinels' with orders not to allow anyone in until the Bishop arrived. Edward began an impromptu prayer meeting in the porch in which some parishioners joined. So it was that when the Rev. William Traill, Chancellor of Connor and nephew of the Bishop and Rev. Ralph Ward arrived, they had to scramble through the group in the porch to gain entry to the church. Edward followed them in and, amid some scuffles, twice attempted to gain entry to his prayer desk but was resisted 'violently'. He attempted once again to claim the desk when the Bishop arrived but he was taken by the shoulder and ejected. With a last rallying cry, Edward led a considerable portion of his parishioners out of the service. After this, Edward and Agnes departed for Dublin where they joined William and Mary Smyth in uniting their energies completely with the Methodist people.

Edward Smyth and Agnes in Dublin ...

His arrival in Dublin and the association of Edward and William with Methodism, bringing as they did comparative wealth and ecclesiastical connections, together with Edward's conversion and subsequent itinerancy, was of propaganda value for the Methodists. When he preached at the Methodist chapel in the city, multitudes flocked to hear this sincere and eloquent firebrand. John Wesley's initial reaction was that Edward's fate was providential. Writing to Jane Freeman at Dublin on 27th May 1776, Wesley said his "being pushed out of his house is a good sign: he must be like me, a wanderer upon the earth." Within a year of Edward's withdrawal from the regular ministry, he was followed by two other Church of Ireland curates. John Abraham of Londonderry, a young clergyman on whom Edward had considerable influence, offered for the Methodist itinerancy in 1778, and the same year, James Creighton, curate at Swanlinbar, also was convinced that he should join the itinerancy.

In 1777 Edward was employed by Wesley for work as 'a general Missionary', the second such appointment made in Ireland. Hearing that John Wesley was about to visit the Isle of Man, Edward and Agnes came to meet him. Wesley received them with customary kindness and he extended his hospitality on Monday 2nd. June 1777 when he set out for Douglas in a one-horse chaise bringing Agnes with him. Wesley noted in his Journal for that day:

"In about an hour, in spite of all I could do, the headstrong horse ran the wheel against a large stone. The chaise overset in a moment, but we fell so gently on smooth grass that neither of us was hurt at all."

Mrs. Smyth's version was somewhat different than that described by her companion. She also harboured doubts about Wesley's driving capabilities.

"He told me when we got into the carriage that he could drive a chaise forty years ago; but, poor dear man! his hand seemed out of practice, as I thought we should be overturned several times. At last, one of the wheels being mounted on one side of a ditch, we were both pitched out in a great plain as the Lord in mercy ordered it; for had we been overset on some parts of the road, it is more than probable we should have been killed on the spot. I found no bad effects from the fall at the time; but in the next mornaing I was scarce able to stir, and felt so sore and bruised that I thought it likely I should lay my bones in the churchyard at Douglas."

Edward Smyth and Agnes in Downpatrick ...

Edward now moved with his family to Downpatrick. Here, he began to hold services in the town and surrounding neighbourhood; preaching, holding love-feasts, and administering the sacraments. As in Dublin, his notoriety, vigourous prosecution of his ministry and undoubted commitment contributed to the success of his meetings. Numerous societies were formed and in Downpatrick itself, Edward secured a suitable site for a Methodist preaching house, collected the necessary money and even contributed to its completion by joining with others in manual labour. He completed the task on 26th November 1777 by conducting the opening service.

At the following 1778 Methodist Conference in Dublin, Edward Smyth, still smarting from the events at Ballyculter, moved a vigorous debate to have an immediate separation of the Methodists from he Established Church, labouring 'with all his might and with manifest uprightness of mind to persuade Mr. Wesley and the brethren to separate from it,' (William Myles, 'A Chronological History of the People called Methodists" (London 1813) p.141.) stressing 'the wickedness both of the clergy and the people.' It was an important question on which, twenty years earlier, John Wesley appeared to waver in his attachment to the church. Now, under Smyth's strident challenge, Wesley drew his preachers back from the brink and he carried the day, as his Dublin journal recorded:

"Tues[day, July], 7. Our little Conference began, at which about twenty preachers were present. On Wednesday we heard one of our friends at large upon the duty of leaving the church; but upon a full discussion of the point we all remained firm in our judgement that it is our duty not to leave the church wherein God has blessed us, and does bless us still."

Henceforth, though the issue recurred throughout his lifetime, Wesley would re-iterate his steadfast view that the Methodist people were - and would remain - loyal to the Established Church; would not hold Methodist preaching during 'Church' hours and not allow their lay preachers to administer the sacraments. Indeed, the policy was strengthened by the addition in the Large Minutes of 1780 of the resolutions passed by the 1778 Irish Conference condemning separation from the church.

Agnes' poor health takes them to Bath ...

Edward Smyth was again involved in an incident during which Wesley's authority was called into question when, for the sake of Agnes Smyth's health, in 1779, they removed to Bath. Agnes, at the request of Dr. Thomas Coke and with much hesitation, undertook the charge of a Methodist class meeting there. Wesley, impressed with Edward's efforts in Ireland, gave him authority to preach in the chapel every Sunday evening over the head of the Conference appointee, Aleander McNab. It led to ill-feeling and division in Bath and the temporary departure from the Connexion of McNab. McNab had argued that the lay preachers were appointed by Conference and even Wesley ought not to override that authority by appointing a clergyman over their heads. Charles Wesley saw in the agitation a more sinister plot by a group of preachers intent on overthrowing Methodist allegiance both to the Established Church and Wesley himself. John Wesley was more sanguine over the matter and allowed McNab back after a matter of months, although not to Bath.

Return to Dublin ...

The Smyths remained in Bath for some eighteen months, after which, in the Spring of 1781, they returned to Dublin, taking lodgings for a period in Killiney and holding meetings there. They remained in the city for about a year and a half.

Move to London and the death of Agnes ....

In late October 1782, with Agnes' health rapidly deteriorating, they moved to London where Edward became one of Wesley's London curates in that city, and also to itinerate, with an annual salary of sixty guineas. In connection with one of those evangelistic journeys out of London, Wesley, in correspondence with one of his preachers, Samuel Bardsley, wrote, "I hope that you have seen and conversed with Mr. Smyth and that his preaching at Macclesfield had been useful. He is an alarming preacher!" Writing to Bardsley a short while later, Wesley responds to the former's reply: "I am glad Mr. Smyth preached at Macclesfield. He is indeed a son of thunder. I believe God employed him to awake several poor sinners at Manchester." Meanwhile, in London, despite all best eforts, Agnes continued to decline and this remarkable woman died on 22nd. May 1783. Edward's wife was the spiritual driving force which supported him durring his period of itinerancy with the Methodists. He, in turn, sought appointments that would ameliorate her increasingly delicate state of health. When she died, he published her spiritual diary.

Dublin and a second marriage ...

Edward once more returned to Dublin and married again. His second wife was a Miss Dawson, sister-in-law to Dr. Murray, Dean of Ardagh. [Elizabeth Dawson - marriage 18th February 1785 - St. Andrew's] It was probably clear to all by this stage that he had no real stomach for the itineracy. In any case, after the earlier demand that the Methodists should leave the Church, Edward and his brother were moving again closer to Anglican orthodoxy. Where once Edward had pressed hard for the Methodists to leave the Church he now became increasingly critical of any activities among Dublin Methodists that might be interpreted as widening the breach between the Methodists and the Established Church. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Wesley, by his actions, frequently gave cause for concern. In 1784, the year of Wesley's first ordinations, Edward withdrew from the itinerancy and his brother William, at his own expense, began the building of the Bethesda Chapel in Dublin in 1784, which became the first of a number of proprietary Anglican chapels to be built in the city. Bethesda was opened on the 25th June 1786 and Edward Smyth was appointed co-chaplain. He brought with him over a hundred Methodists amongst whom were the richer members of the Dublin Society.

A few months earlier, John Wesley, writing to his brother Charles, expressed his apprehensions over Edward's demeanour. He wrote:

"While I live, Dr [Thomas] Coke and I shall go through Ireland by turns. He will have work enough this year with gentle Edward Smyth. I doubt Edward needs a bridle, but who can put the bit into his mouth?"

Writing to Henry Moore on 16th June 1788, Wesley stated with some confidence that "Neddy Smyth wrote lately to me, and I to him, but without a word of dispute." The dispute, when it broke a year later, took a more serious turn. Wesley had managed to weather the controversy over his allowing preaching services at the Dublin Chapel during Church hours, but the storm broke over his action of 29th March 1789 when he allowed one of his lay preachers, William Myles, to assist at the distribution of the elements at the Communion service. No sooner had Wesley left the city than an acrimonious war of words was launched in correspondence columns of the Dublin Chronicle which ran for over three months. With the exception of one early rejoinder, Wesley refused to become embroiled in the controversy, confiding in Henry Moore on 5th July 1789, "We had very hot work in Dublin, occasioned by Mr. Smyth's and Mr. Mann's [letters] in the newspapers. But I say nothing and go straight on my way." Despite Smyth's actions and the suggestion that he fermented the difficulties and correspondence in the Dublin papers, Wesley maintained a friendly, if uneasy, relationship with him, preaching on at least nine occasions at the Bethesda Chapel.

The Smyth brothers gave Bethesda a Wesleyan character, combining charitable endeavour with evangelistic preaching; William added an orphan school and asylum for female children, and further added an asylum for destitute females.

Dublin City Records - Lock Penitentiary: About 1789, a chapel was opened in Dorset-street, called the Bethesda, at the sole expense of William Smyth, Esq. nephew of Dr. Arthur Smyth, Archbishop of Dublin; who added an Orphan School and Asylum for female children only, who are lodged in apartments over the chapel. To this was annexed, in 1794, a penitentiary or Asylum for the reception and employment of destitute females, leaving the Lock hospital. These unhappy creatures are accommodated in an excellent house attached to the chapel, and are supported by contributions, by the collections in the chapel, and by the produce of their own labour, in washing, mangling, &C ...

Edward compiled the Bethesda Hymn Book which is important as evidence of the penetration of Methodist influences into wider evangelical circles, but also because it appears to have been the first hymn book compiled for the use of members of the Church of Ireland. It was strongly redolent - in format and content - of Wesley's large collection of 1780. In addition, Edward published an important Prayer Book revision in Forms of Common Prayer for those who attend in Bethesda Chapel, Dublin, 1786 - an abridgement of which omitted services for baptism and marriage.

Edward's influence declines in Dublin ...
His move to Manchester

All did not go well for Edward Smyth and it appears that he, in turn, experienced a declining congregation at Bethesda. Writing to Adam Clarke on 28th October 1790, John Wesley declared that

"Poor Mr. Smyth is now used just as he used me. He must either bend or break. Although you cannot solicit any of Bethesda to join with us, yet neither can you refuse them when they offer themselves."

Later that year, Smyth found himself ejected from Bethesda for quarrelling with his Calvinist assistant, Mr. Mann. He then removed to Manchester, where he officiated as curate of St. Clement's and St. Luke's churches and retained friendly relationships with Methodists in the city. [further controversy] He then built two proprietary chapels in 1793 and 1804 respectively, attracting Methodists still affiliated with the Church of England. He died in 1823.

Since his early days in Ballyculter in the County of Down, Edward Smyth attracted controversy, failing to conform to any stereotype. Among the majority of Anglican evangelicals, he broke ranks in his rejection of Calvinist theology. Nonetheless, he was among a group of young clerics within the Georgian Church of Ireland who took their calling and mission more seriously than most and who, in time, would usher in a renewal which came to fruition in the early nineteenth century. He was not politic enough to seek accommodation among those who were the movers and shakers of his time. His controversies with the Methodists, on the other hand, despite suggestions that in stirring up ferment in Dublin he was self-seeking, appear to be likewise born of strong conviction.

John Wesley had preceptively remarked, at the time of Edward's difficulties at Bethesda, 'he will either bend of break'. Edward Smyth was never willing to bend on matters of principle, and, if at times he came near to breaking, he managed to test both the complacency of a somnolent Church of Ireland and the flexibility of the Methodist structures which were beginning to emerge."

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