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Significant Scots
Thomas Smeton


SMETON, THOMAS, an eminent clergyman of the sixteenth century, was born at the little village of Gask, near Perth, about 1536. Nothing satisfactory seems to be known respecting his parentage: Wodrow conjectures it to have been mean, but upon no better ground than the fact of his having been born at an obscure place. It is certain, however, that he enjoyed the advantages of the best instructors that his country then afforded. He received his elementary education at the celebrated school of Perth, then taught by Mr A. Simson, and no less famous under some of its subsequent masters. Smeton is believed to have had, as his schoolfellows, James Lawson and Alexander Arbuthnot, both of whom afterwards acted a conspicuous part in the ecclesiastical transactions of their country. The thorough knowledge of the Latin language displayed by our author, leaves little room to doubt that he profited by the honourable emulation, which was doubtless excited among such scholars. At the age of seventeen, (1553,) he was incorporated a student in St Salvator’s college, St Andrews; and here he had the satisfaction of joining Arbuthuot, who had entered St Mary’s two years earlier. [Records of the University of St Andrews.]Smeton is believed to have studied philosophy under the provost of his college, Mr William Cranstoun; but how far he prosecuted his studies, none of his biographers mention. He ultimately became one of the regents in the college, and continued in that situation, till the doctrines of the Reformation began to be warmly agitated in the university. When the protestant party at length gained the ascendency, Smeton, still zealously attached to the popish system, left his native country, and resided for many years with his continental brethren. The history of his life, for about twenty years, is most fortunately preserved, as related by himself, in the Diary of Mr James Melville; a work, as we have already mentioned, (see article James Melville,) of so interesting a character, that we feel gratified by every opportunity of quoting from it. Luckily the narrative, while it is perfectly distinct, is so much condensed, as to be completely suited to our limits; and we, therefore, make no apology for its introduction.

"At the reformation of religion, Mr Smeton, being put from the auld college of S. Andros, past to France, whare in Paris he thought mikle vpon the trew way of saluation; and be dealling of diwerss of his acquentance, namlie, Mr Thomas Matteland, a young gentilman of guid literature and knawlage in the treuthe of religion, was brought to ken and be inclynde to the best way: whar also he was acqilentit with my vncle, Mr Andro and Mr Gilbert Moncreiff. Yit lothe to alter his mynd wherin he was brought vpe, and fand himself sum tyme fulhie perswadit in the mater of his fathe and saluation. He thought he wald leaue na thing vntryed and esseyit perteining therto; and, vnderstanding that the ordour of the jesuists was maist lerned, halie, and exquisit in the papistrie, he resoluit to enter in thair ordour during the yeirs of probation; at the end wharof, giff he fand himself satteled in his auld fathe, he wald continow a jesuist; and, giff he fand nocht amangs tham that might remoue all the douttes he was cast into, it was bot folie to seik fordar, he wald yeild vnto that light that God be the ernest delling of his lowing frinds and companions haid enterit him into. And sa he enterit in the Jesuists collage at Paris, whar he fand Mr Edmont Hay, a verie lowing frind, to whom he communicat all his mynd. Mr Edmont, seing him worthie to be win to tham, and giffen to lerning and light, directes him to Rome; and be the way he cam to Geneu, whar Mr Andro Meluill and Mr Gilbert Moncreiff being for the tyme, he communicat with tham his purpose, and cravit thair prayers. Of his purpose they could gie na guid warand; but thair prayers they promissit hartlie. Sa making na stey ther, he past fordwart to Rome, whar he was receavit in the Jesuist’s collage gladlie. In the quhilk collage was a father, hauldin of best lerning and prudence, wha was ordeanit to trauell with sic as wer deteinit in pressone for religion, to convert tham: of him he cravit that he might accompanie him at sic tymes when he went to deall with these presoners, quhilk was granted to him. Be the way as they cam from the presoners to the collage, quhilk was neir a myle, Mr Thomas wald tak the argument of the presoners, and mentein it against the jesuist, for reasoning’s cause, and indeid to be resoluit; and the more he ensisted, he fand the treuthe the strangar, and the jesuist’s answers never to satisfie him. This way be continowit about a yeir and a half in Rome, till at last he becam suspitius, and therfor was remitted back to Paris throw all the collages of the jesuists be the way, in all the quhilks he endeworit mair and mair to hauf his douttes resoluit, bot fand himselff ay fordar and fordar confirmed in the veritie. Coming to Paris again, he abaid ther a space verie lowingly interteined be Mr Edmont; [According to Dempster, Smeton taught humanity in the university of Paris, and afterwards in the coollege of Clermont, with great applause. (See M’Crie’s Melvill,e 2nd edition, 350 note.]till at last he could nocht bot discover himselff to Mr Edmont, to whom he says he was alunikle behauldin as to anie man in the warld; for, noctwithstanding that he turned away from thair ordour and relligion, yit he ceased nocht to counsall him frindlie and fatherlie, and suffered him to want na thing. And being a verie wyse man, he thinks to keipe Mr Thomas quyet, and to kythe an aduersar against them. Perceaving, therfor, the the young man giffen to his buik, he giffes him this counsall, to go to a quyet welthie and pleasant part in Lorain, whair he sould haiff na thing to do, but attend vpon his buiks; whair he sould haiff all the antient doctors, and sie buiks as yie (he) pleisit to reid; he sould leak na necessars; thair he sould keip him quyet, till God wrought fordar with him, vtherwayes he wald cast himselff in grait danger. Thair was na thing that could allure Mr Thomas mair nor this, and therfor he resolued to follow his counsall ; and, taking iorney, went towards Lorain, whair be the way the Lord leyes his hand vpon him, and visites him with an extream fever, casting him in vttermaist pean and perplexitie of body and mynd. Thair he fought a maist strang and ferfull battelle in his conscience: bot God at last prevealling, he determines to schaw himselff, abandone that damnable societie, and vtter, in plean proffesson, the treuthe of God, and his enemies’ falshods, hypocrisie, and craft. Sa coming bak to Paris again, he takes his leiue of Mr Edmont, who yit, nochtwithstanding, kythes na thing bot lowing frindschipe to him; and at his parting, giffes thrie counsalles:--1. To reid and studie the antient doctors of the kirk, and nocht to trow the ministers. 2. To go ham to his awin countrey. And, thridly, To marie a wyff:—he manifested himselff amangs the professours of religion, till the tyme of massacre, quhilk schortlie ensewit; at the quhilk, being narrowlie sought, he cam to the Engliss ambassator, Mr Secretarie Walsingham, in whose house, lyand at Paris for the tyme, as in a comoun girthe, he, with manie ma, war seaff. With whome also he cam to Eingland soone efter, whar he remeaned schoolmaister at Colchester, till his coming to Scotland.

"At his coming to Scotland, he was gladlie content to be in companie with my vncle, Mr Andro, (Melville) and sa agreit to be minister at Pasley, in place of Mr Andro Pulwart, who enterit to the subdeanrie of Glasgw, when Mr David Cuninghame was bischopit in Aberdein. A litle efter his placing, Mr Andro, principall of the collage, put in his hand Mr Archibald Hamiltone’s apostata buik, ‘De Confusione Caluinianae Sectae apud Scotos;’ and efter conference theranent, movit him to mak answer to the sam, quhilk was published in print the yeir following, to the grit contentment of all the godlie and lernit. Mr Thomas was verie wacryff’ and peanfull, and skarslie tuk tyme to refreche nature. I haiff sein him oft find fault with lang denners and suppers at general assemblies; and when vthers wer therat, he wald abstein, and be about the penning of things, (wherin he excellit, bathe in langage and form of letter,) and yit was nocht rustic nor auster, bot sweit and affable in comnpanie, with a modest and naiue grauitie; verie frugall in fude and reyment; and walked maist on fut, whom I was verie glad to accompanie, whylis to Sterling, and now and then to his kirk, for my instruction and comfort. He louit me exceiding weill, and wald at parting thrust my head into his bosom, and kis me.

"He being weill acquented with the practizes of papists, namlie, jesuists, and their deuyces for subuerting the kirk of Scotland, bathe publiclie and privatlie, ceasit nocht to cry and warn ministers and schollars to be diligent vpon ther charges and buiks, to studie the controuersies, and to tak head they neglected nocht the tyme, for ther wald be a strang vnseatt of papists. Also, he was carefull to know the religion and affection of noble men, insinuating him in thair companie, in a wyse and graue manor, and warning tham to be war of euill companie, and nocht to send thair berns to dangerus partes. And, finalie, Mr Andro and he marvelouslie conspyring in purposes and judgments, war the first motioners of an anti-seminarie to be erected in St Andros to the jesuist seminaries, for the course of theologie, and cessit never at assemblies and court, till that wark was begun and sett fordwart."

There perhaps never was a period more calculated to bring forth the talents of our countrymen, than that of the Reformation. Accordingly, Mr Smeton was soon required by his brethren to take an active part in the more public transactions of the church. In October, 1578, he was nominated one of the assessors to the moderator of the General Assembly; an appointment conferred at that time upon the most learned and judicious of the members. But his talents were considered as fitting him for the performance of functions still more important. He was chosen moderator of the next Assembly, which met in July, 1579, and which was called to the consideration of many important questions. Among these may be mentioned, the finishing of the first Scottish edition of the Bible. In 1580, he became the opponent of Nicol Burn, a professor of philosophy in the university of St Andrews, who had turned papist. [Mackenzie’s Lives of Scots Writers, iii.]Of this controversy, Dr Mackenzie promised an account in his Life of Burn, but his biographical work never reached that point.

James Melville has alluded in the passage we have quoted from his Diary, to the anxiety of his uncle and Smeton that the young noblemen and gentlemen of Scotland should be educated at home, and to the measures which they proposed for the attainment of that object. They had at length the satisfaction of seeing their new constitution of the university of St Andrews approved by the church, and ratified by parliament. Melville was chosen principal of St Mary’s, or the New college, and, after much opposition, arising, however, from no other motive than a conviction of his usefulness as minister of Paisley, Smeton was appointed his successor by letters under the Privy Seal, dated the 3rd of January, 1580. Most unfortunately the records of the university of Glasgow are almost wholly lost for the period during which this excellent man presided over it. His duties, however, are known to have been of no light description; he was the sole professor of divinity, and had also the charge of the religious instruction of the parish of Govan. Besides the mere literary department, as it may be termed, of his duties, he had the general superintendence of the university, in which was included the by no means pleasant office of inflicting corporal punishment on unruly boys. Almost equally little has been preserved respecting Smeton’s share in the ecclesiastical transactions during the remainder of his life. He was chosen moderator of the General Assembly held in April, 1583. We have already alluded in the life of Mr Robert Pont to the removal of that learned man for a short period to St Andrews, and to the reasons which obliged him to relinquish that charge. Andrew Melville was anxious that his place should be supplied by Smeton, and, it is not improbable, intended to adopt some measures for bringing the state of that town under the notice of this Assembly. But it was the policy of the Prior and his dependants to frustrate the settlement, whatever might be the merits of the intended minister, that they might spend in extravagance or debauchery the funds which were destined for his support. The king, therefore, probably instigated by that ecclesiastic (the earl of March) but under the specious pretext of a fatherly care over the university of Glasgow, forbade the Assembly to "meddle with the removing of any of the members thereof, and especially of the principal." Smeton’s old schoolfellow, Arbuthnot, now principal of King’s college, Aberdeen, was soon afterwards chosen by the Kirk Session of St Andrews; but this election produced no more favourable result.

Principal Smeton attended the following General Assembly (October 1583) and was again employed in some of its most important business. But the course of honour and usefulness on which he had now entered was destined to be of very short duration. Soon after his return to Glasgow, he was seized with a high fever, and died, after only eight days’ illness, on the 13th of December, 1583. About six weeks earlier, his friend Arbuthnot, with whom he had been so long and intimately connected, had been cut off in his 46th year, and thus was the country at once bereaved of two of its greatest lights at a period of no common difficulty. That was indeed "a dark and heavie wintar to the kirk of Scotland."

The habits and acquirements of Smeton must have peculiarly adapted him for the charge of a literary, and, more particularly, of a theological seminary. While the latter were unquestionably inferior to those of his predecessors in the principalship of Glasgow college, his manners were of a milder and more conciliatory character. Yet even his learning was greatly beyond that of the mass of his brethren. He wrote Latin with elegance and facility, and was a Greek and Hebrew scholar. Nor had he, like many of our travelled countrymen, neglected the study of his native tongue, in which he wrote with great propriety. His knowledge of controversial divinity, derived most probably from the circumstances attending his conversion to the Protestant faith, is represented as superior to that of almost any of his contemporaries. Of the works which he has left behind him the best known is his reply to Hamilton, which was publisbed at Edinburgh in 1579, with the following title: "Ad Virulentum Archibaldi Hamiltonii Apostate Dialogum de Confusione Calvinianae Sectae apud Scotos impie conscriptum Orthodoxa Responsio, Thoma Smetonio Scoto auctore, in qua celebris lila quaestio de Ecclesia, de Vniversalitate, Successione, et Romani Episcopi Primatu breviter, dilucide, et accurate, tractatur: adjecta est vera Historia extremae vitae et obitus eximii viri Joan: Knoxii Ecciesiae Scoticanae instauratoris fidelissimi," 8vo. The General Assembly held in April, 1581, ordered the method of preaching and prophecying by . . . "to be put in Scotish be their brother Mr Thomas Smetone;". but if this supposed translation of Hyperius De formandis Concionibus was ever printed, it has escaped the researches of all our bibliographers. The Dictates of principal Smeton,—that is, the notes which he dictated to his students,—were preserved in archbishop Spotswood’s time, and are said by that author to have been highly esteemed. Dempster also ascribes to Smeton "Epitaphium Metallani, lib. i."

Principal Smeton adopted the advice of his excellent friend, Edmond Hay, and "married a wyff," but at what time is uncertain. We are equally uncertain whether he left any children behind him. The name of Smeton, and in one or two instances that of Thomas Smeton, occur in the records of the university of Glasgow in the early part of the seventeenth century, and, as the name was by no means common, these persons were not improbably his descendants. [Abridged from Wodrow’s Life of Smeton, apud MSS. in Bibl. Acad. Glasg. vol. i. See also James Melville’s Diary, pp. 56-8, and M’Crie’s Life of Melville, second edition, i. 156, ii. 379-383.]


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