Remembering Dr. Morton H. Smith
Dr. Morton H. Smith, founding professor of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), founder of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS), first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and one of the world's foremost authorities on American Presbyterian history and theology, passed into glory on Sunday, November 12, 2017. He was 93 years old.
He was the fourth of five sons born to James Brookes and Margaret Morton Smith of Roanoke, Virginia on December 11, 1923. His early childhood was characterized by a love for the mountains of western Virginia and a heartfelt commitment to Christ from a young age. The Smith family maintained an active membership in the Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church, where Mr. Smith served as a Ruling Elder until they moved to the Mt. Washington area of Baltimore, Maryland.
It was at the Mt. Washington Presbyterian Church that Dr. Smith publicly professed his faith in Jesus Christ. Later on in life, Dr. Smith would credit Pastor James E. Moore with having the greatest influence on his life outside of his parents. The elders received Dr. Smith as a communing member when he was eleven years old. During the membership interview, the senior elder of the session asked Dr. Smith, "What does Jesus mean to you?" The generally shy young man expressed his love for Christ when, choking up, he eked out an answer that communicated, "He means everything to me, and I trust Him as my Savior."
In the Spring of 1941, Dr. Smith graduated from the St. Paul's School for Boys in Baltimore. He enrolled at the University of Michigan that Fall to study Forestry. In his first year at Michigan, he met his future wife, Miss. Lois Knopf. They married on June 30, 1944 while Dr. Smith was serving as a military flight instructor during World War II. After graduating with a degree in Botany in 1947, he accepted a position as the office manager in the Registrar's office.
The Lord used teaching and preaching opportunities at Grace Bible Church (Miss. Lois' home church) to call Dr. Smith to the gospel ministry. He enrolled at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia in the Fall of 1949. While at Columbia, Dr. Smith gravitated to the last remaining confessional professor at the seminary, Dr. William Childs Robinson. Recognizing the entrenched theological liberalism of the institution as a whole, the Smiths decided to transfer to Westminster Theological Seminary in the Fall of 1950.
The Smiths spent one year at Westminster, and Dr. Smith later recalled it as the most intellectually stimulating year of his life. He particularly profited from time spent with Dr. Cornelius Van Til and Professor John Murray. Though their year in Philadelphia was a great blessing to the Smiths, Dr. John R. Richardson of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta convinced them to return to a denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in order to prepare for ministry in that body. Dr. Smith completed his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in December of 1952.
Like many students of Columbia Seminary at the time, Dr. Smith was active in pastoral and preaching ministry while pursuing his degree. In 1952, he was ministering to an unaffiliated core group of believers in Valdosta, GA who ultimately organized as a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). After consulting with Dr. Van Til and PCUS missionary to Japan Dr. David McIlwaine, both of whom urged Dr. Smith to remain in the PCUS in order to maintain a confessional witness within the Southern Presbyterian church, he elected to pursue a call in the PCUS. In 1954, he accepted a call to a two-church field: Springfield-Roller, near Baltimore, MD.
That same year, however, he received a call to teach Bible at Belhaven Colleg in Jackson, MS. He would hold that position until 1963. It was during this time that the Smiths adopted Samuel and Suzanne in 1958 and 1962, respectively. In 1962, he completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree on a Fulbright Fellowship to the Free University of Amsterdam, under the tutelage of Professor G.C. Berkouwer. His doctoral dissertation is in publication under the title, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology. In 1963, Westminster Theological Seminary invited Dr. Smith to join the faculty as a guest lecturer in practical theology.
In 1964, the Smiths moved to French Camp, MS to serve on the faculty of what would become Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Smith taught classes in several locations around the country, locations to which he would travel by plane in his own Cessna 150. He would fly his plane all over the continental United States as both a professor and a churchman for decades, finally selling his last aircraft in 1988.
Dr. Smith was on the original faculty in the Fall of 1966, when Reformed Theological Seminary commenced classes with 17 students. He taught there until 1978, at which point his role as Stated Clerk of the PCA grew into a full-time responsibility. The Steering Committee of the Continuing Presbyterian Church (what would become the PCA) commissioned Dr. Smith to produce a book outlining a rationale for separating from the PCUS. How is the Gold Become Dim was published shortly before the Continuing Church met in December of 1973. At that first meeting of the Continuing Church, the gathered elders elected Dr. Smith to serve as Clerk at the Convocation of Sessions and at the First General Assembly of the fledgling church. He would continue in this role until 1988, serving the new denomination which from its start devoted itself to three great aims: to be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.
In 1978, once he began to work full-time as Stated Clerk. Toward the end of his tenure as Stated Clerk, Dr. Smith began working with a group of elders from Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC to establish an Old School Presbyterian Seminary in Upstate South Carolina. In the Fall of 1987, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary began classes to equip preachers, pastors, and churchmen for Christ's Kingdom.
After resigning as Stated Clerk of the PCA, Dr. Smith continued to serve on denominational committees, take an active part in the Western Carolina Presbytery of the PCA, and participate in the life of Cornerstone PCA in Brevard, NC. He also traveled extensively around the world to teach, preach, and train pastors in many different countries: South Africa, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Russia, and New Zealand. In 2013, the Board of Trustees of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary named a Chair in Systematic Theology in honor of Dr. Smith.
Generations of his students will remember him as a godly, gentle, and quiet man of strong Christian character and conviction. As a scholar, he was committed to the depth and breadth of the Reformed tradition, founded upon the rock-solid foundation of God's Word. His was an exegetically grounded theology. Committed to preparing and equipping Reformed ministers, his academic work flowed out of the instruction which he provided to his students. As a true child of God, Dr. Smith had a humble, simple faith in Christ. For Dr. Morton Smith, all true doctrinal inquiry finds its ultimate terminus in Christ. He loved to talk about and preach Christ.
The PCA recognized his contribution as one of the founding fathers of the denomination when the 28th General Assembly (2000) elected him to serve as Moderator. To date, he appears to be the last bearded moderator of the PCA General Assembly.
In a festschrift published in honor of Dr. Smith's eightieth birthday in 2004, I described Dr. Smith's influence on the PCA in no uncertain terms: "no man has had a more profound impact on the early development of this denomination than he." Reformed Theological Seminary Chancellor and CEO Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, who studied "The Theology of the Westminster Standards" under Dr. Smith at Covenant Theological Seminary, identified him as both a family friend and "one of the key figures in late twentieth-century North American Presbyterianism." Reformed Theological Seminary Professor Emeritus Dr. Douglas F. Kelly commended Dr. Smith as a man who has "stood for what he understands to be God's truth no matter how offensive it has been to the spirit of the age."
In the last few years of his life, Dr. Smith enjoyed receiving guests into his home, many of whom were students and colleagues from various seasons of his life. He also lovingly cared for his wife as her health declined more rapidly than his. It was only a severe stroke on Thursday, November 2, 2017 that caused him to pass more quickly into glory.
We thank God for the life and legacy of Dr. Morton Howison Smith, even as we mourn his death. Yet our loss is his gain. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Q. & A. 37, "The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves til the resurrection." Having passed into glory, Dr. Morton Smith is now perfect in holiness, beholding his beloved Christ.