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Whitefoord Smith: The professor with the odd name

Written By: Phillip Stone - Aug• 14•12

Whitefoord Smith has one of the most unusual first names of any of our early professors, and it lived on for a long time in the name of the college’s first library – the Whitefoord Smith Library.

Prof. Whitefoord Smith

Born in Charleston in 1812, Smith he took his name from the family name of his father’s mother.  His great-great grandfather, Sir Adam Whitefoord, had been a Scottish baronet, and his great-grandfather, Col. Charles Whitefoord, was an officer in the 5th Regiment of Foot.

He attended the city schools in Charleston before moving on to South Carolina College. He was a student in Columbia during the presidency of Thomas Cooper. While at college, he found that he could not accept all of the teachings in the “Shorter Catechism” and left the Presbyterian Church of his ancestors for the Methodist Church. Methodism was, at the time, a denomination of the common people

At the same time, while he was a student at South Carolina College, he found his passion in the debating societies. He became a master of both parliamentary rules and of rhetoric, and it was said that he was the master of any assembly. He graduated from college in the Nullification era, and his speeches and debates gave some evidence that he might have a future in politics.

He studied law in the traditional manner, in the office of an attorney, but it was there that he felt a stronger call to the ministry. And so, in 1833, he joined the South Carolina Conference, beginning a period of some twenty years in various pulpits.  He was elected as a delegate to the Louisville convention that split the Methodist Church into northern and southern branches, and three times more was elected as a General Conference delegate.  On the death of Senator John C. Calhoun in 1850, he was asked to be the principal eulogist, but declined the honor, saying that he had not known the deceased well enough to perform the task.

Prof. Smith's spectacles, from the Archives

In 1855, the trustees of Wofford College, then in its second year, elected Smith to the chair of English language and literature. Smith had declined professorships before, but his health had begun to suffer from the overwork of the pastorate. He believed that he still had a service to provide, so he accepted the position and came to Spartanburg. He remained until 1859, when he was elected as the first president of Columbia College. The burdens of the presidency were quite heavy, and he resigned just a year later and returned to Wofford, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Though his oratorical skills and preaching ability were highly regarded, Smith was described as a humorless and nervous man. One report is that he was terribly afraid of thunderstorms, and that when a student wanted to bring a quick end to one of his lectures, he would comment that it looked like a storm was coming. This would send Dr. Smith scurrying to his home to his campus home next door to Main Building. In the event that it actually did storm, Professor Smith would gather his family in a room, close the blinds, and light a lamp to obscure the flashes of lightning, and pray loudly and fervently while the rain fell.  It’s also reported that Dr. Smith had a very old horse, Old Baldy, who was so slow that when he offered Professor David Duncan a ride in his carriage, Duncan declined, saying that he was in a hurry.

All joking aside, Smith was, by all accounts, a very good teacher of rhetoric, and in an oral culture such as the 19th century South, where effective public speaking was an expected part of a student’s public life, learning the skills of giving a public address was crucial. Dr. Charles Forster Smith, one of the college’s most distinguished early alums and later a professor at the University of Wisconsin, later wrote of how much he learned from Professor Smith’s courses on rhetoric and elocution.  The mature Charles Forster Smith did note that the courses on English literature were somewhat lacking, and that the professor neglected the more modern British and American literary fields altogether. That would not have been unusual among the college’s early faculty – they were all called to be generalists, and as much as teaching subjects, they were teaching ethical and moral leadership alongside the liberal arts.

Charles F. Smith also noted that Whitefoord Smith’s prayers in chapel were exceedingly long, remembering a fellow student with tired knees exclaiming during one prayer “Lord, will he never stop!”

I am sure that none of us remember any of our professors being a little long-winded.

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