|November 1, 1999|
Our first president
John Blair Smith, Union's first president
We all know the name of the College's first president -- Eliphalet Nott.
Except he wasn't.
Nott, in fact, was Union's third president. The first was John Blair Smith, who lived a life that combined academics and the ministry. His three years at the College were no match for Nott's sixty-four. But whereas Union was Nott's life-blood, Smith's time at the College was just a brief respite before his return to his true passion -- preaching.
Smith was the son of a prominent Presbyterian minister in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was educated at his father's academy and graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1773. Following graduation, he became a tutor at the College of Hampden-Sidney. In 1779, at age twenty-four, he was ordained to the ministry and succeeded his brother as president of the College of Hampden-Sidney and pastor of the churches of Cumberland and Briary (it was common for presidents of colleges to also act as pastors in their communities).
While he taught at the college, Smith served for a short time as a captain of a militia company composed of Hampden-Sidney students. A longtime supporter of the American cause in the Revolutionary War and an avid defender of the Federal Constitution, he was a friend of James Madison, arguing vigorously for the Constitution's ratification in the Virginia legislature.
But Smith's true place was in the pulpit. He was by all accounts an inspiring and eloquent preacher, and from 1786 to 1788 he led a religious revival in the church at Briary and its associate congregations. An attractive and popular man, and a fervid and animated preacher, he had a great impact on the religious, moral, and literary spheres of Virginia and North Carolina. One biographer wrote: "I have heard certain aged men and women, whom Providence has spared to our time, speak with tears of the labors of Smith at that eventful period, giving neither sleep to his eye nor slumber to his eyelids. They likened him to an apostle wrestling with the powers of Darkness, and coming out conqueror over them all."
Recognizing that his true calling was the pulpit, Smith resigned the presidency of Hampden-Sidney in 1789. In 1791, he became pastor of the Pine Street Church in Pennsylvania. He saw his congregation through the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, but his own health began to weaken, and in 1795 he accepted the presidency at Union, perhaps hoping that a break from the arduous preaching would improve his health.
Union at that time had one building, nineteen students, and one tutor (or professor). Smith oversaw the purchases of books for the library, which showed a much greater proportion of modern science and modern literature than was customary among colleges at that time. He led the almost immediate introduction of French into the curriculum, and the College's early emphasis on American history and constitutional government reflected great innovation.
His career at Union was not longlasting, however. His health improved, and four years after coming to Union he returned to his pastorate in Philadelphia. In his letter of resignation to the trustees, Smith said that while he was honored to have served as Union's president, "at the same time I must declare myself better pleased with the station to which I am again called, and which I find more congenial with my habits, as well as more suitable to my disposition and qualifications."
On January 28, 1799, the Board of Trustees accepted his resignation, and Smith left the College after Commencement in May. Shortly after returning to his pastorate in Pennsylvania, he was stricken with yellow fever. He died on August 22, 1799.
From John Blair Smith's inaugural address
"But, above all, [the liberal education of the young] is most useful to the general welfare of the state. In our republic, where all men have the same advantages and the same difficulties and where the path to the gaining of honors and offices has been opened to all men, a wide dissemination of knowledge is absolutely necessary. It nourishes freedom, resists servitude, stands up against autocratic domination. It explores and sanctifies the rights of man; it considers liberty of supreme value, and age after age it propagates this most prized heritage of free citizens."