Making Believers, Making History

Today I have a story about another man of the cloth — my great-great-great-great grandfather on my father’s side. It’s a long story, coming to us from a great distance in both time and space. But it’s also long because the telling of it requires an explanation of changes occurring in England during the life and ministry of The Rev. Francis Smith.

Francis was the middle child of Robert Smith and Lydia Toon, born July 3, 1719, in Melbourne, Derbyshire, England. His parents were faithful members of the Church of England, his mother in particular devoting time and attention to the spiritual growth of her children. What we know of Francis’s young adulthood was written in The History of the English General Baptists, Part Second: The New Connection by Adam Taylor, 1818:

He lost both his parents when only sixteen years of age: and thus was left, at that dangerous period of life, without restraint. — Having given the reins to his lusts, for seven years, he was induced, through motives of curiosity, to hear the Methodists: by which means his former impressions were revived; and he was roused to a sense of his danger. . . . In this state of mind, he went to hear preaching of every denomination, in hopes of obtaining relief [from “the vileness of his nature”]; and was especially entangled with the quakers and mystics. At length, he was persuaded to attend the ministers from Barton . . . .

The Act of Uniformity was passed by Parliament in 1662 and required that all clergymen be ordained by the Anglican church; that they use only the rites, ceremonies and doctrines prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer; and that they subscribe to the hierarchical form of church governance by bishops.  Many withdrew from the state church and became known as Nonconformists or Dissenters. In 1688, Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which allowed Nonconformists to worship in their own churches, so long as their meeting locations were registered, but they were forbidden from meeting in private homes. They could have their own teachers and preachers, so long as they accepted certain oaths of allegiance and rejected belief in transubstantiation.

The group which appealed to Francis Smith “after carefully comparing their doctrines with the scripture, for more than a year” were Nonconformists, more particularly, General Baptists. Francis studied with them, registered as a dissenting minister, and preached his first sermon in 1746, at Kirby-Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, from Luke 2:10:  “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.'” He became Ruling Elder of the Melbourne Baptist Church in Derbyshire, and later its pastor, and also helped establish many other churches.

The marriage of Francis Smith and Elizabeth Toone was probably the first Nonconformist wedding in Melbourne. It took place on August 20, 1753; Francis was 34 years old, Elizabeth 18. Remember that although they had the protection of the Act of Tolerance, dissenters were still persecuted. Couples who were not married under the aegis of the Church of England were sometimes viewed as adulterers, shunned, vilified and verbally abused. Francis and Elizabeth went to great lengths to conduct their marriage ceremony in such a way that their union would be respected as the sacred commitment and communion it was. First the couple made a public declaration on three occasions at the licensed meeting-house in Melbourne that they intended to marry, so that they could not be accused of having acted clandestinely. Taylor’s History of the English General Baptists describes the August 20 wedding in detail.

[I]n a solemn manner, he, the said Francis Smith, standing up and taking the said Elizabeth Toone by the hand (she also standing up) did publicly declare as followeth, viz. ‘ Brethren and sisters, in the fear of the Lord, and in the presence of this assembly, whom I desire to be my witnesses, that I, Francis Smith, take this our dear sister Elizabeth Toone, to be my lawful wife; promising, through divine assistance, to be unto her a faithful and loving husband, till it shall please the Lord by death to separate us.’ And then and there in the said assembly, she, the said Elizabeth Toone, in like manner taking him the said Francis Smith by the hand, did likewise publicly declare as followeth, viz. ‘Brethren and sisters, in the fear of the Lord, and in the presence of this assembly, whom I desire to be my witnesses, that I, Elizabeth Toone, take this our dear brother Francis Smith to be my lawful husband, promising, through divine assistance, to be unto him a faithful and loving wife, till it shall please the Lord by death to separate us.’ And the said Francis Smith and Elizabeth Toone, as a further confirmation thereof, and in testimony thereunto, did then and there set their hands and seals.

The Toone-Smith wedding took place none too soon. The next year, the Marriage Act of George II was passed, taking effect on March 25, 1754.  It took away the privilege from Dissenters (except Quakers and Jews) to be married in their own places of worship and using their own form of service.  Dissenters were denied this right until the Bill of Lord Russell was passed in 1836, more than 80 years later.

Francis worked during the day at his trade, as a journeyman staymaker. A journeyman was a craftsman who had finished an apprenticeship and had achieved a certain level of skill. A staymaker in those days made corsets for women so they would have a fashionable silhouette. Staymakers visited clients in their homes and also attended those who came to their workshops.  It was essentially a trade for men, because the stays were made from canvas, strengthened and shaped with whalebone or steel strips, and required a man’s strength to construct. Being a staymaker also required a certain temperament and restraint: they must be “very polite Tradesmen . . . possessed of a tolerable Share of Assurance and Command of Temper to approach [ladies’] delicate Persons in fitting on their Stays, without being moved or put out of Countenance.”

Not only did Francis have the qualities necessary to gain the trust of gentlewomen (and their husbands), he also was possessed of an amazing constitution. It was his custom to work until three in the afternoon, walk 14 miles to Barton, to preach or attend to the business of the General Baptist conference, which was seldom over before midnight, walk back home, and then be at work again the next day! On Sundays he preached two or three times and travelled up to 30 miles by horse — all of his ministry being unpaid.

Francis and Elizabeth had six children — two daughters and four sons. Elizabeth died in 1768 at the age of 33, two years after my great-great-great grandmother Lydia was born. Francis apparently remained unmarried until 1777, when he married Mary Hucknall, but she predeceased him as well.

On Sunday, March 17, 1796, at the age of 76, Rev. Smith rode to Packington, where he preached twice; in the evening he preached at Ticknall on Isa. 1:18 – “Come now, let us settle the matter, says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” By the time he rode home, he had traveled 18 miles by horseback that day, as well as preaching three times and doing “his other labour,” as Adam Taylor put it.

Two days later, he complained to his daughter of chest pain, sat down in his chair and died, “without a sigh or a groan.” Taylor wrote, “He had been diligently, faithfully and very successfully employed in the work of the ministry for nearly fifty years: and had uniformly maintained a character as a man and a Christian which had adorned his profession. The church, which had grown up under his fostering care, and been the constant object of his most anxious solicitude and earnest prayers, acknowledged his worth and deeply lamented their loss.”

Francis Smith wrote his Last Will and Testament in 1791, beginning with “considering the mortality of my nature, and that life itself is but a vapor, [I] do make this my last will and Testament in the manner and form following — PRINCIPALLY and first of all I give my soul into the hands of my Ever Blessed God (who out of Infinite Love gave his only begotten son for my Redemption) and my Body to the Earth to be decently interred at the discretion of my friends. Nothing doubting that at the Resurrection of the Just I shall rise to Life Eternal thro my Ever Blessed Redeemer.”

The property shown below, at 4 Potter Street in Melbourne, was Francis Smith’s residence, and most likely his workshop. His Will left Lydia “two rooms on the ground floor, three chambers and two garrets and part of the cellar.” His daughter Elizabeth was to have “the parlour and chamber over it at the north end of the said house” until her death, at which time it also would go to Lydia. In 2015 the property was occupied by the Bay Tree Restaurant.

francis smith house

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