James Smylie was born in 1780 in Richmond County, North Carolina, and attended David Caldwell’s Log College, an institution that trained numerous frontier ministers. Smylie moved to Mississippi in 1805 and two years later helped to organize the first Presbyterian church in the Mississippi Territory, located at Pine Ridge, four miles west of Washington in Adams County. The congregation began with twenty-two members, most of them Scottish or, like Smylie, the sons and daughters of Scots. Working with three other ministers, Smylie served the Pine Ridge Church through the 1810s, delivering sermons and administering the sacraments while helping to organize additional Presbyterian churches in Adams and Amite Counties. Smylie also became wealthy, owning more than one thousand acres of land in Amite County and as many as fifty-three slaves.
As a Presbyterian leader in the state’s wealthiest area, Smylie held considerable influence in Mississippi’s religious circles. A strong supporter of education, Smylie served as a vice president of the Amite and Florida Bible Society, which distributed Bibles to poor people. In 1815 Smylie traveled to Tennessee and convinced Presbyterian leaders to organize the Synod of Mississippi and South Alabama; two decades later, he was involved in the creation of the new Synod of Mississippi.
Smylie is perhaps best known as a vocal defender of slavery. As clerk of the Mississippi Presbytery, Smylie received an 1836 letter from the members of Ohio’s Chillicothe Presbytery urging their colleagues in Mississippi to give up the “sin” of slavery. Smylie responded with a letter rejecting the idea that slavery was a sin. Published as a pamphlet, that letter became a popular tract in antebellum southern discussions of slavery. Smylie argued that the Bible did not condemn slavery and asserted instead that the Bible upheld good family order, with wise patriarchal figures in charge of wives, children, and all other dependents, including slaves, as the basis for a kind and just society.
Smylie condemned abolitionists for using the Bible for what he perceived as unbiblical and secular ends. He was one of the Mississippi leaders of the Old School Presbyterians whose views on slavery and abolition led to a split in the Presbyterian Church in 1838. Smylie helped write the document condemning northern Presbyterians as “hostile to at least one of the domestic institutions in the South.”
He died on 4 April 1853 in Amite County.
- Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (1977)
- Walter Brownlow Posey, The Presbyterian Church in the Old Southwest, 1778–1838 (1952)
- Randy Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773–1876 (1994)