Dr. Miles Smith is an Assistant Professor of Government, History & Criminal Justice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He previously taught at Texas Christian University and Hillsdale College. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.
In 1789 Presbyterians in the new United States met and amended the Westminster Confession to more closely align with the American republic’s increasingly disestablishmentarian understanding of church and state. Thomas Jefferson’s violent hatred of the doctrine of the trinity and historical Protestantism dovetailed nicely with the anti-Anglican dispositions of the majority of Virginia’s population, which by 1790 attended Baptist or Methodist churches. Virginia’s Presbyterians, eager to remove the Church of England’s privileged institutional opinion, joined their low-church brethren in supporting disestablishment. Jefferson, however, proved less interested in religious freedom and more interested in attacking Christian orthodoxy. Athanasius’ defense of the Trinity, he told a friend, was “the hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, [and] had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs.” Virginia Presbyterians realized their mistake too late when Jefferson tried to install noted religious skeptic Thomas Cooper as the primary religion professor at the new University of Virginia. The appointment infuriated Presbyterians in Virginia like John Hartwell Cocke and John Holt Rice. The latter used his pulpit and the widely circulated Evangelical Magazine which he edited to mobilize respectable opinion. Jefferson chose another candidate and the controversy died, but Presbyterians subsequently confronted the dilemma of how to reconcile the consequences of their support for culturally and politically driven disestablishment with their belief in robust ecclesiology. Thomas Smyth, minister of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church, confronted that tension. At various times and in various works he seemed to take different positions. Smyth’s confessional commitments, however, ultimately anchored his public statements from the pulpit in accordance with the Old School Presbyterian Church, even as he used other writings to reach views that sometimes varied with the Old School orthodoxy.
The maintenance of the appropriate place and power of the church in North American republican society concerned Presbyterians. The interaction of a churchmanship formulated in Europe and in Great Britain and steeped in magisterial and monarchical tradition presented a paradox for the libertarian religious realities of the United States constitution. Many Presbyterians were heavily Americanized, and they sought to make the church both consistent with the Confession and familiar for American churchgoers. The most effective way of perpetuating the church proved to be aggressive catechesis. More importantly, the Westminster Confession bounded the beliefs of American churchmen, even those whose dispositions regarding the civil order and politics were heavily influenced by their personal experiences and societal moments. Such was the case of Smyth, a well-known Irish-born pastor in Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1840 Thomas Smyth wrote An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church. Rev. Smyth ostensibly wrote the catechism for family use, bible classes, and individual members. Yet it served a surprising wider purpose than mere catechesis. Smyth’s work helped preserve a cosmopolitan and transnational understanding of Calvinist churchmanship during a time when Evangelical and low-church innovation challenged the necessity and observance of the sacraments in Protestant worship.
Unlike his fellow South Carolinians John B. Adger or James Henley Thornwell, Smyth did not embrace the notion of high churchmanship as readily or as enthusiastically as a de facto panacea for Reformed churches. Still, he emerged as an intellectual and minister far more willing to maintain Calvinist sacramentalism than the so-called Evangelicals of his day. In many ways this was a struggle for Smyth. Like many Evangelicals he loved the United States’ republican liberties. He also saw republicanism as divinely ordained. Unlike other Old School Presbyterians, he did not see the ecclesiastic and civil realms as entirely separate, although he did not believe that the state should support a specific church. Smyth disagreed especially with the notion put forward by Charles Hodge that the Christian Scriptures did not put forth any natural framework for ecclesiastical structure. He also agreed with Adger and Thornwell that Presbyterianism was divinely instructed but went one step further and argued that nature and human association favored both Presbyterianism and republicanism. He defended his natural law argument for both against those who regarded “any alleged connection between the systems of ecclesiastical and civil government” as merely a “visionary dream, concluding, that because politically distinct and separate, their moral and intellectual relations are equally independent.” To such minds—like Hodge in his own time and John Knox and others historically—he presented “the considerations offered in the following work, and asks for them a candid and impartial hearing.” His “following work” was his Ecclesiastical Republicanism, which explained the history of divinely imprinted republicanism found in both Jewish and Christian civil and ecclesiastic history. Smyth’s arguments stemmed from his extreme dislike of Roman Catholicism and what he called high-churchism, both undoubtedly products of his upbringing in Ulster. Unlike Scotland, Presbyterianism did not enjoy state sanction in Northern Ireland. Smyth developed an intense dislike of Britain’s Anglican monarchy and Ireland’s Roman Catholic prelacy. Interestingly, however, Smyth’s views on slavery remained relatively moderate. 
A commitment to confessionalism kept Smyth’s diverse and Americanized notions of the relationship between church and state from impacting his understanding of doctrinal teaching or sacramental observation. His 1841 catechism affirmed the generally accepted understanding among Old School Presbyterians that “the Christian church is entirely separate and distinct from civil society, in its nature, objects, and ends. The church was “spiritual in its nature” and had as its reference the souls of men as its object.” He also affirmed scripture, rather than the natural order, as the source of the church’s government.
Smyth’s writings developed over the course of the 1850s. Historian Brooks Holifield argued that Smyth “flatly repudiated” the notion that religion and politics had nothing to do with each other, a position that placed him at odds with Thornwell and others. Holifield also noted however that Smyth rejected the reformism common among Evangelicals of the era. Smyth confronted a paradox and tension that confronted Reformed churchmen throughout the United States’ history. He resolved it by relying on the confession to guide his ecclesiastic practice, even as he intellectually questioned Old School orthodoxies on the civil order and the church in his writings.
 Thomas Jefferson to James Smith, 8 December 1822; Clement Eaton, The Mind of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1964), 7.
 Thomas Smyth, Ecclesiastical Republicanism (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1843), 7.
 Thomas Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1841), 30-31.
 E. Brooks Holifield, "Thomas Smyth: The Social Ideas of a Southern Evangelist," Journal of Presbyterian History 51 (1973): 24-39.