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Bishop A. Coke Smith

Written By: information_management - Jun• 17•09

There’s a story, and I can’t find the citation this morning,
that a man had moved from Columbia to Spartanburg in the late 19th
century, but was shortly thereafter seen on the streets of Columbia.  When a friend inquired why he was back in the
capital city, the man replied that to live in Spartanburg, one had to accept
three things as fact, that Wofford College was the greatest  educational institution since Oxford, that
Dr. James Carlisle, Wofford’s president, was the greatest astronomer since
Copernicus, and that Wofford professor Coke Smith was the greatest pulpit
orator since Saint Paul.  And he’d be
darned if he could accept them all! 

SmithAC001 Alexander Coke Smith may not have been the greatest pulpit
orator since Paul, but he must have been pretty good, because within two years
of his graduation from Wofford, he had been assigned to Washington Street
Methodist Church in Columbia, which, despite its encounter with fire in 1865,
was arguably the most important Methodist pulpit in the most important city in
the Conference. 

Born in Lynchburg, in Sumter County, in 1849, Coke Smith was
the son of The Rev. William H. Smith, a member of the South Carolina Annual
Conference.  He studied at Wofford from
1868 to 1872, and after his graduation, he taught in the Reidville, SC high
school for a term.  He joined the South
Carolina Conference in December 1872 and was appointed to the church in
Cheraw.  The next year, he was sent to
Washington Street Church in Columbia, where he served for three years.  This was quite a leap for someone who was so
new in the ministry, for Washington Street was (and remains) a large and
influential congregation.  At the end of
1876, he was sent to Greenville, where he served Buncombe Street Church for
four years.  He then went to Trinity in
Charleston, serving for three years, and at that point, he was made the
presiding elder for the Columbia District. 
Before he had passed his 32nd birthday, he had been appointed
to large churches in three of the state’s largest cities, and had met with
success in each appointment. 

In 1884, he was named to fill a vacancy on Wofford’s board
of trustees, and in 1886, when Wofford professor William Wallace Duncan was
elected a bishop, Smith was elected to fill his chair on the Wofford
faculty.  At the same time, the trustees
voted to relieve Smith of the teaching obligations that came with being
Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, the chair to which he had just been
named, so that he might work on behalf of the college in the churches around
the state.  By the 1880s, it had become
common for one of the faculty members to act as financial agent of the college,
serving essentially as the college’s development officer.  W. W. Duncan did this, as did Coke Smith, and
later, John C. Kilgo.  All three were
effective in raising funds and promoting the college to Methodists in the
state, and each man used his position to launch himself to an even higher
position in the church hierarchy.  Smith
also served as the college’s treasurer, handling much of the institution’s
business. 

After four years at Wofford, Smith was elected one of the
Methodist Episcopal Church, South’s missionary secretaries by the General
Conference.  He left that position
quickly to take a professorship  of
practical theology at Vanderbilt’s divinity school.  After two years, he moved back into the local
church, but this time, in Virginia.  He
served in the Old Dominion until his election as a bishop in 1902.  He actually came close to being elected in 1898, and in 1891 and 1901, he had attended the great ecumenical conferences.  It's unfortunate that his time in the episcopacy was actually quite
short, for he died in Asheville, NC in December 1906.  

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