Smith, James Elimalet (DNB00)

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SMITH, JAMES ELIMALET, commonly known as ‘Shepherd Smith,’ (1801–1857), divine and essayist, son of John Smith of London, by his wife Janet, daughter of James Thomson, was born at Glasgow on 22 Nov. 1801, and was the brother of Dr. Robert Angus Smith [q. v.] The family was numerous and the father in narrow circumstances. A fervent, disputatious, well-read but poorly taught man, moving and breathing in an atmosphere of theology, it was his ambition to see all his sons in the ministry, which had the good effect of making him anxious about their education. By the aid of the university of Glasgow, James Smith acquired a fair amount of general knowledge and a degree, and went forth at the age of seventeen to become a private tutor and a probationer for the church. He continued to teach in various families until 1829, but, though occasionally preaching, made no serious attempt to enter the Scottish church. Already estranged in sympathy from that body, he fell about 1827 under the influence of John Wroe [q. v.], the Southcottian ‘prophet.’ He took up his residence with Wroe at Ashton-under-Lyne in 1829, and remained there until 1831, when he returned to Scotland. He had soon tired of Wroe, whom he nevertheless subsequently described as a very remarkable man, and set up a doctrine of his own, which might be described as a mystical universalism. On his return to Scotland he for a time practised painting, for which he evinced much talent, but only with a view to raising funds to take him to London, where he arrived in September 1832. He opened a chapel, charging a penny for admission, and circulating tracts and lectures. At first he appeared to have considerable success, but as the novelty of his views wore off he connected himself with Robert Owen [q. v.], and lectured at the socialist institution in Charlotte Street, editing at the same time various socialist journals. A breach with Owen soon ensued, and at the end of August 1834 Smith established his own organ, ‘The Shepherd,’ in which he discussed the subjects that interested him in his own way. He came to examine the grounds of his own opinions, and quietly dropped much that he now recognised as wild and eccentric. The substance of his thinking nevertheless remained the same, and might be described as oriental pantheism translated into Scotch. The chief peculiarity was his style, homely and conversational, yet like that of no other man. It might seem an illustration of his doctrine of the indifference of good and evil that upon the suspension of ‘The Shepherd,’ he should take refuge with the ‘Penny Satirist,’ for which, however, he wrote only the leading article. He was enabled to return to his own ‘pulpit, which he called newspaper’ (Carlyle), by the generosity of two ladies, Mrs. Chichester and Mrs. Welsh, who in that day spent large sums in fostering enthusiasm and eccentricity of every sort. Smith also took up Fourierism, and wrote in its organ the ‘Phalanx,’ but ‘longed to get out of it,’ and soon got into one of the most remarkable ventures in the history of cheap periodical literature, ‘The Family Herald,’ the first number of which appeared on 13 May 1843.

This celebrated publication, issued weekly at one penny, and mainly devoted to fiction of a very popular type, was, according to the prospectus, ‘the first specimen of a publication produced entirely by machinery, types, ink, paper, and printing.’ It met with an immediate success, and provided its ex-Southcottian, ex-Owenite, ex-Fourierist contributor, hitherto one of the obscurest of public teachers, with a platform from which he came to address weekly half a million readers. Smith's sphere was the leading essay and the answers to, frequently imaginary, correspondents, under cover of which he contrived to bring his own views before a very numerous public. As long as he remained connected with the ‘Herald,’ and the connection lasted until his death, there never was a number without something worth reading. He became ambitious, however, of a more select audience, and produced in 1854 his only book of importance, ‘The Divine Drama of History and Civilisation,’ a striking and grandiose view of the development of human destiny as it presented itself to his untrained but fertile imagination. His posthumous ‘Coming Man,’ not published until 1873, repeats the ideas of his principal work in the form of a novel. From this point of view it is ineffective, but it is valuable from its portraits of some of the socialist lecturers and religious enthusiasts whom the writer had known. He died of decline during a visit to Scotland in June 1857.

Though an enthusiast, Smith was by no means a fanatic, and his enthusiasm was qualified by a copious infusion of Scottish shrewdness. The general drift of his speculation is well expressed by a reviewer in the ‘Inquirer:’ ‘In the divine government of the world, all ages, all nations, all mythologies, all religions, all fanaticisms, all social phenomena, moral or abnormal, have had an ap- pointed place and function, a brief or abiding purpose to fulfil, and a spiritual meaning symbolically to convey.’

[Shepherd Smith the Universalist: the Story of a Mind. By (his nephew) W. Anderson Smith, 1892, which is based on his correspondence with his family and with the late Lady Lytton, whose mother, Mrs. Wheeler, had been one of his first patrons upon his coming to London.]

R. G.