Smyth, Edward

Evangelical clergyman, the son of the Rev. John Smyth (1697-1781). He was educated at Glasgow University and ordained in 1770. His impassioned preaching proved popular and effective. In 1773 he was appointed perpetual curate of Ballyculter, Co. Down, but was ejected from the parish in 1776 for Methodist tendencies and for rebuking his patron, Lord Bangor, for adultery. For several years he assisted John Wesley in London and as a 'general missionary' in Ireland. He proved problematical and Wesley wrote of him, 'I doubt Edward needs a bridle.' More than once he urged Wesley to leave the Church (e.g. at the Irish Conference in 1778). He was the focal point of dissention in Bath in 1779, when Alexander McNab protested at his authority as Superintendent being abrogated. Wesley had authorised Smyth to preach at the evening service in the chapel and the resultant dispute divided the society. Despite her poor health, his first wife Agnes (née Higginson, 1754/5-1783) provided strong spiritual support to his ministry. After her death in 1783 he published her spiritual diary.

Smyth left the itinerancy in 1784 and in 1786 his brother William built the Bethesda Chapel on Granby Row to give him a settled base in Dublin. Though never under Methodist control, it was at first regarded in the city as both Methodist and Church of Ireland (Anglican). His ministry there, as at Bath, divided the Methodist society, more than a hundred of the members, including some of the richer families, leaving to join him at Bethesda. John Wesley preached at Bethesda in 1787 and 1789 in spite of ill-natured attacks by Smyth in the Dublin press. Smyth's Bethesda Hymn Book (showing the influence of Wesley's 1780 Collection of Hymns) is evidence of the penetration of Methodist influence on wider evangelical circles.

Throughout his tenure of the chaplaincy Smyth gave the Bethesda a Wesleyan character. His brother built an Orphan School and asylums for female children and for destitute females in association with it. His last years were spent in a Manchester parish and he died on 6 February 1823.

After Smyth's departure the Bethesda Chapel became one of the several trustee chapels in the city maintained outside the parochial system by Church of Ireland evangelicals, mostly Calvinist. In 1802 one of his successors, the Rev. John Walker SFTDC, published An Expostulatory Address to the Members of the Methodist Societies in Ireland. To this the younger Alexander Knox published a reply. Walker later attacked the Church of Ireland, for which he was deprived of both his chgaplaincy and his Fellowship. By 1909 the Bethesda congregation had dwindled and the Trustees gave the building to the Representative Church Body of the Church of Ireland. They sold it and for some decades it served as a cinema. It was more extensively altered in the 1960s and in the 1980s the interior was reconstructed to house the National Wax Museum.


John Wesley's Journal:

November 1779: 'Some time since Mr. Smyth, a clergyman whose labours God had greatly blessed in the north of Ireland, brought his wife over to Bath, who had been for some time in a declining state of health. I desired him to preach every Sunday evening in our chapel while he remained there; but, as soon as I was gone, Mr. McNab, one of our preachers, vehemently opposed that, affirming it was the common cause of all the lay preachers, that they were appointed by the Conference, not by me, and would not suffer the clergy to ride over their heads, Mr. Smyth in particular, of whom he said all manner of evil. Others warmly defended him; hence the society was torn in pieces and thrown into the utmost confusion. 'I read to the society a paper which I wrote near twenty years ago on a like occasion… In the morning, at a meeting of the preachers, I informed Mr. McNab that, as he did not agree to our fundamental rule, I could not receive him as one of our preachers till he was of of another mind… A few at Bath separated from us on this account, but the rest were thoroughly satisfied.'

  • John Wesley, Journal, vols. 6-7
  • John Wesley, Letters, Standard Edition, vols. 6-8
  • C.H. Crookshank, Memorable Women of Irish Methodism in the Last Century (1882) pp. 126-39
  • C.H. Crookshank, History of Methodism in Ireland (1885-1888), vol. 1 passim
  • D.A.L. Cooney, 'The Bethesda Chapel, Dublin', in Bulletin of the WHS(I), Summer 1990
  • Robin P. Roddie, 'The "alarming" Edward Smyth', in Down Survey: Yearbook of Down County Museum (2000) pp.38-45
  • Oxford DNB