Green Clay Smith
by James A. Crisp, Jr., 1983
The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Kentucky, is indeed fortunate to have such a distinguished founder. Green Clay Smith was a many faceted personality. Like Sir Thomas More, he was a man for all seasons. He had several distinct careers. He was a soldier, lawyer, state legislator, military officer, congressman, territorial governor, Baptist minister, and uncompromising Prohibitionist.1 His accomplishments equal to that of a dozen men.
He was born in the vicinity of Richmond, Kentucky, and was named for his grandfather, Green Clay, who was a planter and a slave owner, and whose plantation was called Whitehall. He was the distant cousin of Henry Clay, whose father was a Baptist minister, and the nephew of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a prominent politician who served in Congress. Sources give several dates for his birth. July 4, 18262 and July 2, 18323 are the most widely used. He began his education at Danville (probably Centre College), but when the Mexican War came in 1846, his patriotic nature caused him to run away and join the army at age sixteen.4 His uncle, Cassius Clay, also volunteered for this war.5 According to one source, Green Clay Smith rose to a second lieutenant of infantry.6 After the Mexican War, he returned to his studies at Transylvania University where he graduated at eighteen. Three years later, he took a law degree from Lexington Law School and entered into practice with his father.7
The young lawyer and his father evidently did not agree on slavery. In 1858, the younger Smith moved to Covington and developed a successful practice. He was elected to the Kentucky State Legislature in 1860. As the Civil War came, Kentucky was torn between the North and the South. The state made an attempt to stay neutral - an impossible task. Smith took the side of the Union.
When the Civil War began, he volunteered as a private for a three month enlistment. When the enlistment expired, he was offered a position as a major in Colonel Jackson's Regiment. He rose to the rank of Colonel, 4th Kentucky (Union) Cavalry on March 15, 1862.8 After a fight with the dashing Confederate Cavalry Commander John Hunt Morgan at Lebanon, Tennessee, Smith was promoted to Brigadier General on June 11, 1862. In this battle, he was wounded in the leg with a minie ball. The wound occasionally bothered him for the rest of his life.9 In later clashes against Morgan he was not so successful, which caused Smith's commander to ask General Don Carlos Buell, "don't you want General G. Clay Smith?"10 Smith fought the famous Confederate Commander Nathan Bedford Forrest at Franklin, Tennessee, and was honored by General Rosecrans, who had succeeded General Buell after the Battle of Perryville. He was later brevetted a Major General "for meritorious service during the war."11 A brevet is a commission often granted as an honor, promoting an officer in rank without additional pay or authority. Green Clay Smith used the title of general for the rest of his life, even after he became a Baptist minister. His last military service was to command the military district of Northern Kentucky. He resigned this position on December 4, 1863, after he was elected to Congress.
In running for Congress, General Smith was known as an "Unconditional Unionist Democrat" in contrast to the "Peace Democrats."12 He would have been a Republican, but Lincoln received only 1,364 votes in Kentucky in 1860, and did not carry a single county.13 The Louisville Journal called the Union Democrats "a Republican craft sailing under Union colors."14 Still, the paper had high regard for General Smith and expressed its best wishes for his personal success.
In his congressional race, he was supported by two influential Cincinnati papers. Smith won the election in 1862 over two opponents, with 6,916 votes to their combined total of 4,316 votes.15 In 1863, he voted with the Republicans to organize the United States House of Representatives.16 For this he received some criticism. In 1864, he was a delegate from his district to the National Union Convention which was held in Baltimore.17 At this convention, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson were nominated for President and Vice-President of the United States. There is a story in Williamsburg that has come down through oral tradition that Smith was a candidate for the Vice-Presidency at this convention and came very close to winning.18 This could be true. His uncle, Cassius Clay, had been a vice- presidential candidate of the Republican Convention in 1860.19
He was re-elected to Congress and voted for the Thirteenth Amendment which freed the slaves. This amendment passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 119 to 56, with eight abstentions, barely passing with the required two-thirds plus three.20 Thus, his vote helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment.21
In the Spring of 1866, Smith resigned from Congress and was appointed the Territorial Governor of Montana by President Andrew Johnson.22 He proved to be a successful governor.
Over the years, Green Clay Smith had become increasingly motivated toward religion. In 1872, he resigned as territorial governor and was ordained into the Baptist ministry. His first charges were small churches in Madison County. His pastorates during the next several years were Winchester, eighteen months, Frankfort, five years, Mount Sterling, two years, and Somerset (in 1882).23 He preached the convention sermon at Paducah in 1873 and was Moderator of the General Association of Kentucky Baptists for nine years, from 1879 to 1887. His tenure as moderator is the longest unbroken period in Kentucky Baptist history.24
In 1883, he became pastor of Twenty-Second and Walnut Street Baptist Church.25 Under his leadership, the small mission grew rapidly into a thriving church.
The temperance movement and the anti-slavery movement, two of the great social reform movements in American society, had developed simultaneously. Like Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes, Green Clay Smith was an uncompromising leader against beverage alcohol. "For over twenty years he had been prominently connected with the temperance cause and was a member of every one of their societies, from the Sons of Temperance to Good Templars."26 He was the nominee of the National Prohibition Party in 1876, and attracted 9,522 votes.27 He was sometimes ridiculed for his stand, but this did not deter him.
As a minister, Smith was of an evangelical bent.28 His preaching made him a popular and successful evangelist in Kentucky, especially in its southern mountains.29 In September, 1883, he preached for eighteen days in Williamsburg, and was instrumental in the founding of Williamsburg Baptist Church. He returned on several occasions afterwards. On October 3, 1886, the recently completed sanctuary of the Williamsburg Baptist Church was dedicated. "The beloved Green Clay Smith, ever welcome, preached the dedicatory sermon."30
At a meeting of the Mount Zion Association of the United Baptist Churches which was held at Williamsburg Baptist Church (now First Baptist) in September, 1886, a committee called attention to the great need for the founding of a Baptist college for educating their children.31 No doubt, Smith's aid was requested.
In September, 1887, at the Associational meeting at Bethlehem Baptist Church, R. C. Medaris, the pastor of the Williamsburg Church, was appointed the financial agent for Williamsburg Institute. He was given the power to call an extra associational meeting which he did on December 31, 1887. At this meeting, Green Clay Smith was guest speaker. His earnestness and zeal aroused the people to give or subscribe the amount of $4,000.00.32 So, he helped found Cumberland College as well as First Baptist Church.
The Western Recorder in an article about him on April 30, 1885, describes General Smith. This article was copied from The Courier Journal. "General Smith is a man of wit and eloquence, an entertaining conversationalist and a fascinating stump speaker."33 He was of medium height and build with strongly marked facial features. His face was deeply lined and his eyes dark and keen. He wore his hair and beard long. His dress was that of an ordinary man with no suggestion that he was a minister. He wore a diamond stick pin of remarkable purity and constantly smoked a pipe.34 This is a description of him circa 1885.35
From 1890 until his death on June 29, 1895, he was pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, Washington, D.C. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.36
The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg set aside Sunday, August 18, 1895, as a day of mourning for the death of their founder.37 If ever a man deserved to be remembered, Green Clay Smith was such a man.
1 Western Recorder, Thursday, April 30, 1885.
2 Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue, Louisiana State University Press, 1964, p. 457.
3 Western Recorder, op. cit.
5 Article, "Cassius Marcellus Clay," Dictionary of American Biography.
6 Warner, op. cit., p. 457.
8 M. M. Boatner, Civil War Dictionary, David M. McCay Company, 1959, p. 771.
9 Western Recorder, op. cit.
10 Warner, op. cit., p. 457.
12 James Larry Hood, "Kentucky's Unconditional Unionist Congressmen," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Volume 76, July, 1978, pp. 197-215.
13 Ibid, p. 210.
14 Ibid., p. 202, Quoted from The Louisville Daily Journal, May 21, 1863.
15 Ibid., p. 203.
16 Ibid., p. 205.
17Ibid., p. 209.
18 Whitley Republican, July 4, 1976.
19 "Clay," op. cit., Dictionary of American Biography.
20 Hood, op. cit., pp. 211-212.
21 James G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, Second Edition Revised, D. C. Heath and Company, 1969, p. 397.
22 James Thane, Jr. , "An Ohio Abolitionist in the Far West," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 1976, pp. 151-162.
23 Western Recorder, op. cit., Frank M. Masters, A History of Baptists in Kentucky, Kentucky Baptist Historical Society, 1953, p. 93, et passim.
24 1980 Annual of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, pp. 542-543.
25 Chester Raymond Young, To Win the Prize: A History of The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Kentucky, 1883-1983, 1983, p. 3; Western Recorder, op. cit.
26 Western Recorder, op. cit.
27 Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, Daniel Aaron, The American Republic, Volume Two, Prentice-Hall, 1959, p. 696.
28 Warner, op. cit., p. 457.
29 Young, op. cit., p. 4, Western Recorder, op. cit.
30 Young, op. cit., p. 34.
31 Ida Janie Hall, A History of Cumberland College, non-published, M.A. Thesis, p. 7.
32 Ibid., p. 8.
33 Western Recorder, op. cit.
36 Warner, op. cit., p. 458.
37 Whitley Republican, op. cit.
[From The Kentucky Baptist Heritage Journal, Volume X, Number 2, November, 1983, pp. 1-4; document via Adam Winters, SBTS Archivist. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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