Reverend Thomas Smith of First Parish Portland

A story by Kristina Minister, Ph.D. from 1725-1800

Thomas Smith, born in 1702, entered Harvard College at age 14, graduated at age 18, took up theological studies, and began preaching in 1722. In 1725 he preached in Falmouth (now Portland, Maine), and two years later Falmouth called him to be their settled minister. Now that the town had a pastor, the people built the original First Parish, a small meeting house standing on the edge of the harbor near where the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad stands today (2021).

Why would an educated young preacher leave the center of the Massachusetts colony for Falmouth, 120 miles north of Boston with a population of only 400 and no church building? Answers can be found in his meticulously kept 700-page diary, an artifact that speaks to the man’s lifelong orderly routines, self-awareness, and motivation to control his legacy.

First to be noted, Smith could risk leaving Boston, the center of the Colonial Massachusetts, as he was sturdy and in good health. He rode horseback throughout the region and his career, even in the winter and often down to Boston for clerical matters. To do this, Smith had to be physically fit. His health enabled him to risk seeking opportunities in a relatively undeveloped region of the colony.

Sarah Tyng became his first bride in 1728. She died 14 years later after giving birth to 8 children. Smith outlived his second wife, Olive Jordan. Only his third wife, Elizabeth Wendell, outlived her husband. This close succession of 3 wives testifies to the essential and demanding role of the Colonial minister’s wife in managing a large household while supporting her husbands’ pastoral work as well as providing a model for the proper behavior for women. The Reverend Smith made sure of the continuity of a prodigious helpmeet at his side. These 3 wives made a vital contribution to the health and status of their husband.

Remarkably, Smith was not only the minister of the small sea port, he also was prepared in medicine and so became the town’s doctor. Despite his close contact with disease, he served the First Parish community from 1727 until 1784, a total of 57 years. Those 57 years of his ministry exceeded the average lifespan in that era. Smith died in 1795 at age 94.

The young pastor was a Calvinist, preaching the authority of the Bible and the sovereignty of God. However, the first editor of Smith’s diary asserts that Smith was a strict Calvinist in his early career and later became more moderate. Throughout the Colonial era the minister’s authority had no equal. His judgement could bring esteem or disgrace, such as the 1738 First Parish suspension of a “drunkard woman.” By 1740 the congregation had outgrown the small meeting house and acquired land farther from the harbor and on higher ground. A much larger wooden church was erected there that came to be known as Old Jerusalem.

Although Rev. Smith’s church salary was modest throughout his long career, supplementary resources gave him and his growing family a comparatively affluent life. The parish hired a carpenter to build a house for their pastor on a three acre lot given him by the town at the head of what is now India Street. The first editor of Smith’s diary describes the house as the “best house in town, and in 1740, contained the only papered room in town.”

The parish supplied firewood, and, as Smith notes in the diary, individuals brought frequent gifts of food. As Wabanaki retaliation grew to being pushed off the land and the rivers that had sustained them, Falmouth became increasingly alarmed. However, the pastor had less to fear than others when a garrison of soldiers is “done up” at his household in 1737.

A well appointed house and its spacious grounds, an unrivaled position of moral and religious authority, as well as the town’s dependence on his medical skills more than compensated Smith for the gamble of living close the edge of the Colonial world. His wealth steadily accumulated. The following dairy entry from 1769 speaks to Smith’s pride in possessions: “Had a new wig, a rich one, and hat. Had my super fine black clothes.”

And particularly salient to us in the 21st century, a 5-word dairy entry in 1774 identifies the existence of an extended member of the Smith household: “Our negro man, Jack, died.” Further, in 1776, when Smith’s son, Thomas, Jr., died, the father and the daughter-in-law vied for possession of the most valuable items in the son’s estate: 2 enslaved persons. After 3 years of legal examination, the widow, Lucy Smith, was declared the beneficiary of her spouse’s property. The issue was settled when Smith bought Lucy’s enslaved persons, “a man and a likely young negro woman,” for the considerable sum of 700 English pounds. It is not known if Smith volunteered to make the purchase or if the legal judgment required him to do it.

For Smith’s contemporaries, owning humans not only frees the master from labor and enables him to pursue more rewarding endeavors; owning human beings was a conspicuous display of wealth that increased the esteem in which the master was viewed. These three enslaved persons were Smith’s most valuable possessions. Their scant mention in the diary helps us understand an important source of Smith’s energy for multiple roles in the community, his long life, and no doubt the gratitude of his 3 wives whose backbreaking labor was transferred to those chained to obedience.

How was Rev. Smith able to finance the cost of three human beings? Though praying for the town’s souls and tending to the sick and was Smith’s public responsibility, his dairy reveals a good bit more about his more private passion: pursuit of his own enrichment.

Smith was involved in real estate all his life. He bought three lots to the west of his home and another two lots to the east and eventually owned about 60 acres extending to Back Cove and part of Munjoy Hill. Included was the 6.8 acres of the Eastern Cemetery. Also owned: about a third of Peak’s Island, a third of House Island, as well as property in Gorham and in North Yarmouth. Throughout his life Smith bought old land titles and old debts owned by the parish and the town. The editor of the 1849 second edition of the diary found among the Smith papers the pastors’ handwritten estate inventory. The transcript, typed and single-spaced, covers more than three-quarters of an entire page! In short, Smith was a real estate speculator. This is more than ample evidence that Falmouth’s pastor was an opportunist who quietly and strategically acquired land that the colonists had claimed from the Wabanaki.

Another more lucrative opportunity for Rev. Smith arrived with the increasing tension between the settlers and the Wabanaki who had been pushed out of the region. Ten years into his career at First Parish, Rev. Smith begins noting hostile incidents with Indians. In 1745 Indians kill settlers’ cattle and burned a garrison and sawmill, “the first mischief in this eastern country.” More alarms are noted: “A man killed at Topsham, and a boy scalped.” Also in 1745 he notes “We live very quiet on account of the Indians. . . . People seem wonderfully spirited to go out after the Indians.” He gives special emphasis on the following: “the government offer four hundred pounds for the scalp of a man to those who go out at their own expense, and three hundred and ten pounds to those who have provisions from the Province.”

Considering Smith’s attentiveness to material possessions, It is no surprise to learn of his response to Massassachusetts Lt. Gov. Phips’ 1755 declaration that sanctioned “pursuing, captivating, killing, and destroying all and every” of the Eastern Indians. This legitimization of genocide promised bounties ranging from 20 to 50 English pounds. The Maine Historical Society’s 2019-2020 exhibit “Holding Up the Sky” affirms that by “June 1756, the Massachusetts assembly voted to raise the bounty to 300 pounds per person—equal to about $60,000 today.”

The bounty was Massassachusetts’ responsibility; ammunition and provisions for the slaughter was the local responsibility. Thus, Reverend Smith—at least in the extant 1757 agreement—assumed a fourth role in Falmouth. He became the vital agent between local action and the Colony’s bounty. And we know Smith’s reward for serving as “clerk” of this arrangement: the 1757 entry in the diary: “I received £165 and 33 of Cox, my part of scalp money.” Smith snatched the opportunity to not only be instrumental in defending Falmouth and the region from Indian attack but to earn a portion of the generous bounty for himself.

Responding to Phips’ 1755 offer, agent Smith turned to the wealthy men of his parish for pledges of ammunition and provisions for the volunteers to support 60 days of “scouting” for and “cruising” Indians. Men on the 1757 supplier list who were First Parish congregants include men who are memorialized in the present meeting house on plaques along with a bust of their pastor. These church members include:

• Captain James Milk, company commander of Falmouth Neck, also a First Parish supplier

• Jedidiah Preble who served with the British in battles against the French and in the French and Indian War as well as the American Revolution.

• Benjamin Titcomb, a Deacon of First Parish.

• Simon Gookin is listed among the "cruisers and scouters" as well as pledging arms and provision for them.

• Sam Waldo Jr., son of Brigadier General Samuel Waldo, who owned an estate of extensive land holdings in Maine and Nova Scotia.

• Stephen Longfellow the 2nd, town Grammar School Master for 15 years, Town Clerk for 22 years, and First Parish Clerk for 28 years. Tilly Laskey, Curator at the Maine Historical Society confirms that “Stephen Longfellow who signed the 1757 agreement to kill Indians was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s great-grandfather” although “it could have conceivably also been Stephen Longfellow the elder who signed the document.”

The 1757 First Parish agreement to kill Indians was but one of many such government sanctioned hostilities against the people of Dawnland. However, the minister of First Parish together with the church’s wealthy congregants’ zeal for supporting scalping parties provides an existing documented example of colonists’ determination to profit from systematic dispossession and genocide of the indigenous Wabanaki people.

The closing chapters of Reverend Smith’s life are markedly different from the early chapters. The diary discloses more about events that afflict the writer rather than events that the writer instigates. In 1775, to avoid the British attack on Falmouth, the Smith household moved to Wyndham in the same period that Smith and daughter-in-law Lucy were involved in their legal wrangle. In a 1777 entry, Smith complains that he was “slighted” over his preaching. He becomes ill in 1782. In 1787, a sizable faction of First Parish dissidents depart from the mother church to establish a second parish, and Smith notes “Poor Portland is plunging into ruinous confusion by the separation.” He notes in 1779 that food becomes scarce, and currency is devalued. He complains that “Common laborers have four dollars a day, while ministers have but a dollar, and washerwomen as much.” On December 15, 1784, Reverend Smith preached his last sermon. The journal ends in 1788.

On May 25, 1795, the 94 year-old man’s life ended. Death denied the Reverend Thomas Smith the satisfaction of witnessing the steady revival of First Parish signified by today’s venerable granite structure, standing since 1826 on the same ground as Old Jerusalem at 425 Congress Street.

On his death bed Smith gave his extensive peninsula properties to the town now called Portland, writing “that they may know that I give something very considerable to them, and that I never had it in view to get their money, but to do them good and save their souls.” Apparently the minister’s obsession with acquiring property had become common knowledge. Gifting it to the town quieted the critics. Saving souls and mending bodies was Reverend Thomas Smith’s public role; strategic accumulation of wealth and display of his success was his personal passion.

Reverend Thomas Smith was an important player in the colonization of Falmouth. Choosing an undeveloped outpost gave him immensely more prestige and influence than he could have earned in the Boston region. Smith met the spiritual and medical needs of the nascent community where he was the only representative of God and one the few educated men.

Indeed, Thomas Smith’s obsession with material possessions led him on a
lifelong quest to accumulate wealth, including the possession of three human beings, all while publicly engaged in “saving souls.” However, it is important to qualify that what we today judge as opportunistic and racist was representative of the values of Smith’s time.

Making a good living by the individual’s own strengths has long been extolled as a central foundation of the new democracy called the United States of America. What has been left out of this myth is that part of White persons’ climb to success has been on the backs of enslaved Africans and the attempted erasure of Indigenous people.

Comparing our beliefs to Thomas Smith’s beliefs will not absolve us of racism. We need his story to startle us into making our own values and behavior problematic. Smith’s story can dredge up the extent to which we have been culturally co-opted into racist belief and behavior. Then we can begin again to tell another story, one for the common good.

Parson Thomas Smith, Portland, ca. 1795

Parson Thomas Smith, Portland, ca. 1795

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Agreement to hunt Indians, Portland, 1757

Agreement to hunt Indians, Portland, 1757

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Rev. Thomas Smith cane, Portland, 1750

Rev. Thomas Smith cane, Portland, 1750

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

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