Thomas Smith (missionary)

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The Very Rev Dr Thomas Smith DD LLD (8 July 181726 May 1906) was a 19th-century Scottish missionary and mathematician who was instrumental in establishing India's zenana missions in 1854. He served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland 1891/92.


Early life

Smith was born in the manse at Symington, Lanarkshire, on 8 July 1817, the eighth of ten children on Jean Stodard and Rev John Smith. [1] He was educated at the local parish school in Symington and then studied mathematics and physics at the University of Edinburgh, matriculating in 1830 aged 13 (this was normal at that time). In 1834 he studied theology at Divinity Hall in Edinburgh under Rev Dr Thomas Chalmers. [2]

Calling as a missionary

Cowgatehead Mission Church (in foreground) as seen from Candlemaker Row Cowgatehead from Candlemaker Row - - 1352172.jpg
Cowgatehead Mission Church (in foreground) as seen from Candlemaker Row

In 1839, under the influence of Rev Alexander Duff, Smith was ordained by the Church of Scotland and travelled to Calcutta in India, as a missionary, teaching mathematics and physics in the schools. From 1840 he suggested the use of female missionaries as male missionaries were not permitted to speak to the Indian females. [3]

At the Disruption of 1843 Smith left the established church and joined the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church set up its own mission in Calcutta and Smith transferred to this new building. [4]

From 1851 to 1857 he was editor of the Calcutta Review and Calcutta Christian Observer. In 1840 he proposed the establishment of what would become known as the zenana missions, and his scheme was later implemented in the 1850s by John Fordyce.

When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857, Smith acted as the chaplain of the 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch) at Calcutta, accompanying the regiment when it was on active service. [2]

Smith resigned his post in Calcutta in 1858 due to ill-health (claims of cholera are perhaps exaggerated). He returned to Scotland in 1859 when he was recovered enough to travel and settled in Edinburgh to do mission work in the poorest parishes. The following year he became minister of the Free Cowgatehead Mission Church.[ citation needed ] He then lived in a modest flat at 4 Keir Street, south of the Grassmarket. [5]

In 1880 he was appointed Professor of Evangelistic Theology at New College, Edinburgh, a role in which he continued until 1893. [6] His new-found wealth allowed him to purchase a large villa in the Grange district at 10 Mansionhouse Road. [7]

In 1891 he succeeded Rev Thomas Brown as Moderator of the General Assembly, the highest position in the Free Church. [8]

He received two honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh, a Doctor of Divinity (DD) in 1867 and a Doctor of Laws (LLD) in 1900.

He died at home 28 Hatton Place in Edinburgh on 26 May 1906. [9] He is buried in the Grange Cemetery.


Smith wrote on both mathematical and religious subjects:


In 1839, before his departure to India, he married Grace Whyte (d.1886), the daughter of D. K. Whyte, a Royal Navy paymaster and sometime bookseller of 10 Scotland Street in Edinburgh. [14] Their five children included Rev William Whyte Smith, minister of Newington, Edinburgh and David Whyte Ewart Smith, Sheriff Substitute for Haddingtonshire.

Artistic recognition

His portrait by John Henry Lorimer RSA hangs in New College, Edinburgh. [15]

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  1. Gray, W. F. (23 September 2004). Ritchie, Lionel Alexander (ed.). Smith, Thomas (1817–1906), missionary and mathematician. 1. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36160.
  2. 1 2 Lee, Sidney, ed. (1912). "Smith, Thomas (1817-1906)"  . Dictionary of National Biography (2nd supplement). 3. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  3. ODNB: Thomas Smith
  4. Ewing, William Annals of the Free Church
  5. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1862
  6. Hugh Watt, New College, Edinburgh: A Centenary History (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1946), p. 251.
  7. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1882
  8. Free Church Monthly July 1891
  9. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1906
  10. Smith, Thomas (25 February 1857). "An elementary treatise on plane geometry, according to the method of rectilineal co-ordinates". William Whyte & co. via Hathi Trust.
  11. "Biography of Alexander Duff, Missionary to India". 14 June 2017.
  12. "The James Begg Society".
  13. Smith, Thomas (25 February 1902). "Euclid : his life and system". Edinburgh : Clark via Internet Archive.
  14. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1939
  15. Gray, William Forbes. "Smith Thomas (1817-1906)" via Wikisource.