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Professor John Smith (1821-1885): Theosophical Dabbler or Devotee?

John Smith (1821-1885), foundation professor of chemistry and experimental physics at the University of Sydney, was born on 12 December, 1821, at Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of Roderick Smith, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née Shier. From 1839 he studied at the Marischal College, Aberdeen (M.A., 1843; M.D., 1844). Smith arrived in Sydney on 8 September, 1852, on the Australian.[1]

Professor John Smith

There is a good deal of information available on Smith, but little work has been done on his philanthropic and religious views. An article from Sydney University, which understandably concentrates on his scientific work, briefly mentions his philanthropic interests but omits to make any mention at all of his religious commitments which were also an important feature of his life.[2]

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of his religious views that ‘In the 1860s Smith served on the committees of several religious organizations’, by which is meant Christian organisations, and that

In January 1882 he had called at Bombay and joined the Indian section of the Theosophical Society, having been influenced by his wife’s spiritualism and the lectures of the theosophist Emma Hardinge Britten in Australia in 1878-79. In Europe in 1882-83 he experimented with the occult.[3]

This article’s religious emphasis falls on the last five years of Smith’s 63-year life and has little to say about his religious commitments during the previous 58 years. This is reflective of Jill Roe’s work which is mainly concerned with Smith’s interest in Theosophy[4] and, while not said overtly, she seems to want to paint Smith as a theological progressive moving from the strictures of a doctrinal Presbyterianism to Theosophy.  For Roe, Smith’s encounter with Theosophy was about ‘religious progress’ and the ‘maintenance of true religion’.

The usual paradigm for recruits to spiritualism was one of a theological ‘progress’ which moved from a nineteenth-century disillusionment with the revelation-based approach of Christianity to the intuitive approach to religious knowledge of theosophy. The disillusionment with revelation was rooted in an uncertainty about the Bible, fed by the rise of biblical criticism, the theory of evolution and an increased moral sensitivity repulsed by various biblical events. The problem with this hinted assessment of Smith is that while there is clear evidence of his interest in theosophy there is no evidence to support a disillusionment in his Christian thought, a point which Roe concedes.[5] Roe equates Smith’s interest in theosophy with a desire for ‘religious progress’, but it could equally be a case of intellectual curiosity. For a Professor of Physics, the role and reputed powers of the masters in theosophy would raise serious questions about the nature of matter and spirit. Perhaps it is from a desire for ‘scientific progress’ rather than ‘religious progress’ that Smith’s chief motivation to understand spiritualism arose. That is not to say that Smith had no interest in what Theosophy might have to say about spiritual matters. Rather, it might be better to see Smith as, to use Malcolm Prentis’ expression, a ‘dabbler’[6] in Theosophy rather than a devotee. This article seeks to examine such a possibility.

Professor Smith and Christianity

Roe says that ‘John Smith Presbyterian is quickly portrayed’[7] and the evidence of his beliefs fragmentary,[8] but on closer examination, Smith’s Presbyterianism is not so quickly portrayed nor his religious beliefs so fragmentary. According to Rev Robert Steel, who had a strong and longstanding friendship with Smith,[9] Smith’s father was an elder of the Kirk and his mother a pious woman who ‘early taught him the holy Psalms, and led him at her knee to pray’.[10] Before coming to Australia, Smith was an active member[11] of the United Secession Church Belmont Street, Aberdeen, under the ministry of Robert Sedgwick, and he continued to financially support this church even when resident in Australia.  According to the testimony of Sedgwick, John made an early profession of faith in Christ.[12]

Rev Dr Robert Steel

From the time of his arrival in Sydney in 1852,[13] John was an active communicant member of St Stephen’s Church[14]  which, at that time and up until 1855, met in a building in Phillip Street and in time he became a Trustee of the church property.[15] Why he, as a member of the United Secession Church, would join a Free Church in Sydney is unknown. There are probably several reasons why he might do so. Firstly, there was no church of the United Presbyterian persuasion in Sydney until 1855 when Hugh Darling commenced a congregation.[16] Secondly, the Free Church had a dynamic minister, the Rev Alexander Salmon, and a growing congregation. Thirdly, it may simply have been because this congregation was within walking distance of the Smith residence. Fourthly, it should be observed that Smith seemed very comfortable with the Free Church theology of Salmon and did not leave St Stephen’s to join Hugh Darling’s United Presbyterian congregation which was formed not that long after he arrived. It would appear that the more ‘progressive’ theology of the United Presbyterian Church was not a significant factor in Smith’s Presbyterianism. As a United Presbyterian joining a Free Church, and later supporting the union of 1865, Smith was not being particularly progressive or unique as many pragmatic Presbyterians could see the irrelevance of perpetuating the divisions of the Scottish Church and that the colonial situation required Presbyterian unity.

At a meeting of the St Stephen’s congregation, Smith said of the proposed union that

he looked upon it as very satisfactory that negotiations had at length reached this point – that there was an agreement on essential matters, and that a broad and sound basis had been established. He did not agree with the opinion that no basis was necessary. It was true that the basis did not contain all the principles of our faith; but it did not profess to do this, it only indicated where the principles were to be found.[17]

The basis which Smith approved and supported and considered ‘broad and sound’ included ‘the Word of God as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament is held by this Church as the only authoritative rule of faith and practice’ and subordinate standards that included the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.[18] Smith’s approval of this basis does not give any evidence of him possessing a progressive theological outlook.

Roe says ‘It is significant that the first private ceremony of Smith’s funeral was conducted by the Rev Cameron, a Free Church minister prior to the reunion of 1865’.[19] It probably is significant, but not in the way Roe hints, having little to do with the Free Church background of Cameron or Smith. Smith’s minister, the Rev Robert Steel, was absent from the colony in Queensland at the time of Smith’s death and so was not available to officiate.[20] James Cameron filled the role that Steel would be expected to take because Cameron was a friend of Steel, having been classmates at King’s College, Aberdeen.[21] Also, it would appear that he deputised for Steel because he also was a close friend of the Smith family and, like Smith, was an Aberdeen Scot. Cameron had known Smith in Scotland ‘in college days, and at the time when he was preparing to quit his native land’ to come and take up the post at Sydney University.[22] Soon after Cameron’s arrival in 1853, he preached his first colonial sermon at St Stephen’s[23] and therefore most likely renewed his acquaintance and so began his longstanding friendship with Smith in Australia.  He was described at the public funeral, along with Mrs Smith and her sister Miss MacLeod and Maurice Black actuary for the AMP and a fellow Aberdeen Scot, as being one of the chief mourners. Tellingly, and indicative of his relationship with Smith he, along with Black and Mrs Smith, was an executor of Smith’s will.[24]

On Steel’s return to Sydney, he conducted a memorial service for Smith and spoke at length about Smith’s life. Steel said that twice Smith was elected an Elder but had declined to take office.[25] His reasons for declining to do so are unknown. He was, however, a warm supporter and regular attender of the church and the communion roll reveals that, apart from his time overseas, Smith invariably attended at the Lord’s Supper which was celebrated four times per year.[26] It is clear that Smith was not just a frequenter of the sacrament, but was deeply involved in the life of the congregation. With the Elder JS Adam, Smith was commissioned to seek a minister for the congregation on his trip to England in 1861-62. Smith chaired the meeting of the congregation to welcome Steel as minister of the congregation.[27] He also gave an address of welcome on the return of Steel from leave in 1874[28] and chaired Steel’s farewell before his going on leave to England in 1880, and gave the major speech of appreciation on that occasion.[29] Almost invariably, at any important meeting concerning St Stephen’s, Smith was on the platform[30] even though he did not always speak. That Steel was overcome with emotion in his sermon on Smith’s life demonstrates that Smith had a deep and significant friendship and relationship with his pastor.[31]

Smith spoke at the St Stephen’s Young Men’s Improvement Institute and sometimes, as a Vice President, chaired its meetings.[32] At some stage he also taught a Sabbath school class, as he had done in Aberdeen before coming to Australia[33] and after his death a stained glass window, depicting Saul at the feet of Gamaliel with the inscription ‘Take fast hold of Instruction’, was erected to his memory by some of his ‘old Sabbath scholars.’[34] Though he had no children he was clearly concerned for their spiritual welfare as Steel said that ‘He wished me specifically to give the boys and girls of this congregation a message from his dying bed to store their minds in youth with psalms and hymns for they would find such a great comfort in them all their days’.[35]

In the nineteenth century, Presbyterians and other Protestants were happy to join forces in various philanthropic and religious organisations to service particular areas of need. To more fully understand Smith’s Presbyterianism, and generic protestant Christianity, an examination of Smith’s involvement in such organisations is necessary. He was involved in the governance of the AMP and also of two other organisations which were concerned with the distribution of religious literature.

His involvement in the governance of the AMP was an example of philanthropy as improvement. In such ventures individuals gave of their time to advance the cause of the society or organisation, in this case the AMP, in order to provide services to individuals which would allow them to improve their lot in life. The fact that directors were paid a small amount for attendance at meetings did not make their service any less philanthropic for the time and trouble taken in the work by people like Smith far exceeded any remuneration they received. Smith was first elected to the governance of the AMP in 1864 and was a member of the board from 1864 until 1871; 1873 to 1880, and from 1883 until 1885. He was chairman from 1873 until 1880 and again from 1883 until 1885.

At the laying of the foundation stone of the AMP building in 1877 Smith, in his role as chairman, spoke about the Society. In his view, the Society was fulfilling a religious purpose:

… our institution is pre-eminently religious and benevolent. Are we not told on the best authority that a necessary characteristic of true religion is to visit the fatherless and the widow in the affliction? And does not this society signally fulfil that indication? Again, are we not told that he that provides not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel? And is it not the case that this organization enables a man to make certain provision for those depending on him in a most easy and effectual manner? This society then enables a man to perform essential religious duties, and if not religious itself, it is the medium or instrument of religion in its members.[36]

Such a view, seasoned with allusions to Bible verses and to the Christian responsibility that they taught,[37] was totally in concert with the founding principles of the society and its nature. Blainey comments:

The religious flavour of the Society was quietly and tactfully evangelical; it was a mirror of that Protestant view that people must accept responsibility for their own wellbeing and that individual responsibility was a form of godliness.[38]

Given this nature of the AMP and Smith’s understanding of it as a religious activity, his service to the AMP must have been, at least in part, a reflection of his own religious convictions and commitment.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says that ‘In the 1860s Smith served on the committees of several religious organizations’. That statement rather undervalues the length of his involvement for Smith was involved in two such organisations from a few years after his arrival in 1852 well into the late 1870s.

Smith was a member of the governance committee of these organisations, which were examples of spiritual philanthropy, whose main aim was to seek to introduce people to a commitment to the Christian faith. The first of these organisations was the Religious Tract and Book Society (RTBS) from 1855 to 1874 and possibly longer.[39] The aim of the RTBS was to distribute literature which was evangelistic in its intent.

Every one of the society’s publications contained a distinct view of the sinner’s road to everlasting life, so that every individual into whose hands a copy might fall would find in it a full answer to the all-important question, What must I do to be saved? These publications too were adapted to all ranks, to all capacities; to the rich as well as to the poor; to the learned as well as to the ignorant.[40]

Smith commented on these publications, which he must have read, firstly acknowledging the suitability of their form in that ‘the smallness of these publications rendered them peculiarly fitted for the purpose of diffusing knowledge of any kind, especially religious and intellectual information’. Then secondly on their effect saying ‘It was highly gratifying to learn that the society had been instrumental in circulating nearly 1,000,000 tracts, besides in many other respects exerting a beneficial influence on the religious feelings of the community.’[41]

For Smith, education of the young was more than teaching reading, but also involved acquiring sound and wholesome knowledge through good religious books such as those supplied by the RTBS. He said that

In promoting and extending the education of the young and rising population of the colony and affording them the means of acquiring knowledge, teaching them to read would not be alone sufficient for if they failed to supply the young and enquiring mind with the material of sound and wholesome knowledge through the medium of good religious books they would leave the work half done, and in this age of cheap literature, if the good was not supplied in all probability the bad would be. [42]

The second Christian society with which Smith involved himself was the NSW Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BS) of which Smith was a member of the governance committee from 1856 until 1878. In 1856 and 1857, he was the joint secretary with the devout and devoted James Comrie who was also secretary of the RTBS[43] and with whom Smith developed a friendship. Smith and Comrie had the shared interests of religious literature distribution and they shared a love of the Kurrajong area where Comrie lived at his property Northfields. Together they explored the area and had ‘a pic-nic on the mountain, and had a pot of “bush tea”’[44] and Smith took photographs.[45]  The work and purpose of the BS that Smith and Comrie shared was similar to that of the RTBS. Both organisations distributed religious literature, but the BS restricted itself to making the Bible available.  The object and central purpose of the BS reflected this as it was ‘to co-operate with British and Foreign Bible Society in promoting amongst all classes the distribution of the Holy Scriptures, without note or comment.’[46]

Both organisations were similar in intent and shared premises, staff, and governance committee members. Smith’s membership of both committees was therefore unexceptional. The membership of BS by Smith for such a long period of over 20 years indicates his acceptance of the importance of the Bible and the need for its distribution. Clearly, Smith found the Bible of significant spiritual help and seems to have accepted the basic historicity of the New Testament’s gospel accounts referring to ‘Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and being the scene of Christ’s death and resurrection…’ and he implicitly expressed his own faith commitment in saying ‘where our Lord was buried.’ [emphasis added][47]

Speaking of the age of the earth, he said

that we must add a few thousand years to the generally recognised six thousand. There seemed to be no very serious difficulty in the way. It was quite admitted that the chronology that was commonly received rested upon rather vague data. The few passages in the Old Testament, from which the common chronology was taken were not sufficiently explicit; indeed, it was well known that persons taking up the subject in the most orthodox spirit had differed very much, both as to the period of the Deluge, as also to the supposed origin of the human race. It must be considered whether the Old Testament could not be so interpreted as to add a few thousand years to the popular chronology.[48]

He then went on to suggest that there had possibly been a pre-Adamic race which had been destroyed after which a new human race was created. The actual substance of what was suggested by Smith is not so important, the Rev W B Clarke a geologist and theologian for one was not convinced, but what is significant is the reason behind his explanations. In short, he was trying to reconcile the newly observed data with what he understood to be the teaching of the Bible. In his attempt he is showing his respect for both the data and the Bible and in doing so shows himself to be a man of science and a man of God. Clearly for Smith both science and God are important.

Speaking on the Education Act of 1880 and the role of the Bible in education, Smith was convinced that ‘in the present condition of society we cannot afford to dispense with religion as a basis for moral teaching’.[49] For moral teaching he would have preferred that the actual Bible be used as a text book in the class room, but given the mixed community served by the schools the scriptural extracts proposed would have to suffice. He clearly believed that religion was the basis of morality and that required the content of the Bible to be taught. He quoted a conversation which involved Sir John Pringle, a sometime professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University who had himself endeavoured to find a basis for morality, who said that he had come to the conclusion that he was

most thoroughly assured that without an express Divine sanction attached to the laws of morality, and without positive laws, accompanied with determinate and urgent motives, men would never be convinced that they ought to submit to any such code, nor agreement among themselves concerning it. From that time I have never read any book upon morality but the Bible, and I return to that always with fresh delight.

A more surprising authority was produced by Smith when he then quoted Professor Huxley who said:

I have always been strongly in favour of secular education, in the sense of education without theology; but I must confess I have been no less seriously perplexed to know by what practical measures the religious feeling, which is the essential basis of conduct, was to be kept up in the present utterly chaotic state of opinions on these matters, without the use of the Bible … Take the Bible as a whole; make the severest deductions which fair criticism can dictate for shortcomings and positive errors; eliminate, as a sensible lay teacher would do, if left to himself, all that is not desirable for children to occupy themselves with; and there still remains in this old literature a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur.[50]

Smith clearly saw the Bible as essential to the development and maintenance of moral behaviour. One newspaper described his speech about the Bible as an ‘enthusiastic eulogium on the Bible.’[51] His support of the Bible Society, as well as religious education through the Bible in the Education Act of 1880, could be interpreted, however, as little more than acceptance, like Huxley, of the Bible as a source of morality. When, however, his membership of the RTBS is put alongside his BS support a different picture emerges. The publications of the RTBS were overtly orthodox protestant, conversionist and evangelical. Smith could not have been ignorant of this fact and as such it is difficult to believe that Smith would support this organisation for nearly 20 years if he did not embrace this perspective.

Robert Steel, a close friend and his minister, as previously indicated, gave a special sermon to celebrate Smith’s life. Interestingly, it was observed that Steel ‘was overcome with emotion, and the congregation were also visibly affected’.[52] These were hardly responses towards a man who either had a nominal or a former relationship with the Christian faith and the congregation of St Stephens.

In his address, Steel makes certain statements about Smith’s faith and understanding which, given the closeness of his relationship with Smith, need to be taken seriously.  Of him Steel said:

The scientific spirit was associated in him with Christian belief and Christian profession. All the progress of science, ever welcome to his ardent mind, did not shake but rather confirmed his faith in Revelation. He continued true to the church and worship of his youth. Honours, social felicities, and worldly success did not seduce him from the service of God and the practice of piety.[53]

Steel says that ‘During his illness and in prospect of death he rested on the only Redeemer, and cherished with lively interest the hope of the immortal life. The psalms and hymns familiar to him in youth were a great comfort to his mind as his memory recalled them.’[54]

On his deathbed, he had requested that his favourite hymn be sung at his funeral.[55] It is a hymn of piety and trust and very appropriate for Smith, the man of faith who loved to travel. Written around 1846 by Horatius Bonar (1808-1899) the words are:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

“Come unto Me and rest;

Lay down, thou weary one, lay down,

Thy head upon My breast.”

I came to Jesus as I was,

Weary and worn and sad;

I found in Him a resting-place,

And He has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

“Behold, I freely give

The living water; thirsty one,

Stoop down and drink and live.”

I came to Jesus, and I drank

Of that life-giving stream.

My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,

And now I live in Him.

 I heard the voice of Jesus say,

“I am this dark world’s Light.

Look unto Me; thy morn shall rise

And all thy day be bright.”

I looked to Jesus, and I found

In Him my Star, my Sun;

And in that Light of Life I’ll walk

Till traveling days are done.

All of Smith’s religious and philanthropic activities in Sydney seem to indicate an adherence to the Christian faith that was longstanding and unwavering. While there is no extant statement by Smith which clearly articulates his personal theology on the central doctrines of Christianity, there also is no hint of any disillusionment with the Christian faith that he professed. His words, practice and actions in Sydney are all consistent with what would be expected of a man of Christian faith. If he had any reservations about his Christianity he kept them to himself.

Professor Smith and Theosophy

So, what is to be made of Smith’s interest in Theosophy? As previously indicated, the influential Australian Dictionary of Biography says of Smith:

In January 1882 he had called at Bombay and joined the Indian section of the Theosophical Society, having been influenced by his wife’s spiritualism and the lectures of the theosophist Emma Hardinge Britten in Australia in 1878-79. In Europe in 1882-83 he experimented with the occult.[56]

This could give the impression of a full and unqualified embrace by Smith of Theosophy. What is the significance of the statement he ‘joined the Indian section of the Theosophical Society’? The issue of Smith’s interest in Theosophy is mainly recorded by devotees of Theosophy[57] and also by the academic historian Jill Roe in an article on Professor John Smith;[58] she has also written a history of Theosophy in Australia.[59] The theosophical sources, when speaking of Smith, have an apologetic interest in promoting Theosophy which, though it does not disqualify them from consideration, needs to be weighed when assessing their value as a source of information. In turn, Roe’s work on Smith is based on these sources and a few additional facts and, it must be said, a degree of conjecture and speculation.

Mary (Minnie) Smith nee Macleod

On a trip to England in 1872, Smith married Mary Macleod (1842-1930)[60] known as ‘Minnie’, who was the elder surviving daughter of Norman Macleod and Frances Macdonald of Birkenhead Park, Cheshire;[61] John was 50 and Minnie 30. She had three siblings, Norman Torquil (1840 -?), Angus (1847-1920) and Catherine (1851-1925). Bidston, where John and Minnie were married, would have been the family’s local church and while it is not known if the Macleods attended this or any other church or spiritual group, all their children were baptised in various Church of England churches.

Minnie’s immediate family background is that Minnie’s father was a mariner involved in transporting troops in the ‘Opium War’ in China and later became an examiner of Masters and Mates. The family seemed to be comfortably off in life having two female servants in their household.[62] Her grandfather, whom she had never met, was the Rev Lauchlan Macleod, minister of St Kilda, South Uist, from 1788 until 1830, [63] and a man with business interests who also owned slaves in the West Indies.[64] Some visitors to St Kilda found his love of snuff and music, and belief in the second sight, unbecoming in a Kirk minister. This adherence to Gaelic views on the dead and second sight, the perception of events and things before they take place, would have found some resonance within Theosophy, however, her grandfather died some twelve years before Minnie was born and he had no direct influence on her. Whether her father held such views is unknown, but he left home at an early age and went to sea. It is possible, however, that Minnie’s later theosophical interests arose from a sympathetic family background.

Minnie Smith nee MacLeod

Little is known of Minnie’s life prior to marrying John and not a great deal is known about her after her marriage. As Smith’s wife, she was described as ‘one who differed considerably from himself, not merely in point of age, but also in respect of temperament and tastes.’ Smith was ‘not demonstrative of his feelings’ and it appears she was the more outgoing and gregarious of the two.[65] Nevertheless, their marriage was deemed ‘a very harmonious and happy one’.[66]  After her marriage, it appears that she was comfortable in assuming the social role of the wife of a professor and member of the Legislative Council, attending balls and dancing with the Governor,[67] playing lawn tennis at Government House,[68] attending the prorogation of parliament,[69] making the social pages of the newspapers even after Smith’s death,[70] and she had a fondness for engaging in amateur theatrics.[71]  It seems she had some talent as an actor for a complimentary review of her performance in the Bulletin said:

The bright star of the evening was Mrs Professor Smith – a lady who is truly so literally endowed by a bountiful Providence with charms and graces, that she really deserves a prettier name. This lady walks well, sits down gracefully, uses her hands and arms (a most important adjunct to good acting this) skilfully, and uses her eyes bewilderingly. Mrs Smith has a very musical voice and indeed she would be quite perfect in this respect only there is hardly enough of it … Altogether Mrs Smith acts very pleasantly indeed …[72]

Minnie was a founding member of the Infants Home Ashfield in 1874 and maintained a governance role from 1874 until 1881, and again from 1884 until 1886.[73] During this time she was sometime honorary secretary[74] and treasurer,[75] supporter,[76] a president[77] and also became a life governor of the Infants Home Ashfield.[78] She was a generous financial supporter giving 2 guineas per year from 1879 to 1893 after which her donations ceased.[79]

In 1889, Minnie was described somewhat enigmatically in the following words: ‘as a hostess she was unequalled. A clever woman of the world, as widely appreciated by those who could understand her, as she was admired for her many talents, and liked for her individual charm of manner’.[80]

Returning from their overseas trip in 1883,[81] the Smiths brought with them Minnie’s 5 year-old niece Mary Nora Ada Macleod known as Nora. Nora was the daughter of Minnie’s brother Norman Torquil Macleod and his wife Mary Brown Bradshaw.[82] In 1885, at the funeral of Professor Smith, Mrs Smith is reported as being accompanied by ‘her sister Miss Macleod’. If this designation is correct it refers to Catherine Hope Frances Macleod (known as ‘Hope’) who married Archibald Colquhoun Fraser in 1887 in Melbourne.[83] As Under Secretary for Justice, Fraser was an important public servant in NSW[84] and so Minnie had family in Sydney from at least 1885, though by 1891 Hope had returned to England and was living with their mother.[85]

Various articles say that Smith’s wife was a spiritualist and the inference is that her interest was influential on the professor.[86] Roe says that ‘Professor Smith married a spiritualist wife’ and that may be so, but no evidence is given for such a statement from any primary source. Further, Roe says that ‘the temptation to assume that she encouraged her husband to take an interest in spiritualism is hard to resist’.[87] This temptation must, however, be resisted in the absence of evidence for the date of Minnie Smith’s interest in spiritualism, and that the time of the commencement of John’s interest is also an open question. Minnie may have been a spiritualist at the time of her marriage, but then she may have only come to these ideas in Australia. The Smiths may have developed an interest in spiritualism independently or jointly and who may have influenced whom is unknown. Roe is correct when she says ‘very little is known about Mrs Smith’[88] and even less is known about her influence or otherwise on Smith. In the end, the issue is not significant as clearly the Smiths had an interest in the phenomena of spiritualism.

The chronology of the Smiths’ interest in spiritualism

The chronology of the Smiths’ interest in spiritualism is a little unclear and complicated, but Hugh S Murdoch gives the clearest account of it and of the phenomena Smith experienced.[89] It appears that the visit of Emma Britten to Sydney in 1879 was significant and Davidge suggests, without citing any primary sources, that Minnie was befriended by Emma Britten during her time in Sydney and provided a letter of introduction to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (often referred to as H.P.B.).[90] It is true that when Smith visited India in 1882 he possessed a letter of introduction from Britten,[91] but precisely the agency and timing of how it came into his possession is unknown. It appears that sometime in 1881 Smith himself had written to Blavatsky; the content of this letter is unknown.

Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott

Roe says that before Professor Smith, accompanied by Mrs Smith,[92] went to India ‘he was hooked’ and that he went there specifically to join the Theosophical Society.[93] It may not be significant but Minnie, who in Roe’s reconstruction is said to be the originating source of Smith’s interest in spiritualism, contrary to Roe’s statement, did not actually go to India with Smith. She had already left for England in August 1881[94] and was there while Smith was in India. Smith’s Bombay stopover on the way to England included visits to Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky and an excursion for several weeks into Northern India. His visit to Olcott and Blavatsky was planned, but the excursion to Northern India was not. Smith clearly wanted to meet Blavatsky in Bombay as he carried with him a letter of introduction which would indicate that he intended to explore theosophical matters on his way to England.

The extent of the Bombay stopover was a less deliberate plan. Smith was booked on the RMS Rome for passage to Venice via Galle, Bombay, Aden and Brindisi. It is clear from Smith’s ‘A Fortnight’s Run Through India’ that he did not originally intend to stop over at Bombay for any extended time but rather intended, if possible, to spend his time in the interior of Ceylon. He found travelling there slow and expensive so he said he

came to the conclusion that the short time at my disposal could be better spent in India, where railways afford rapid intercommunication, and where the climate at this season of the year would be more bracing. A minor reason was that the fine comfortable steamer Rome was going to Bombay, so that I could proceed there without a change.[95]

Not only that but, as Bombay did not seem to agree with him, he ‘very nearly determined to adhere to the good ship Rome and proceed to Italy’ but did not do so because of an unexpected obstacle. The

quarantine regulations in Egypt were such that the Rome could take no passengers for Brindisi or Venice and I should have had to wait a week longer for another steamer. Added to this, there were two fellow voyagers who meant to have a fortnight in India, and who were desirous that I should accompany them. The upshot was, that on the afternoon of 17th January, the three of us started on the Baroda line of railway with tickets for Jeypore, 700 miles from Bombay.[96]

Smith is said to have become a member of the Theosophical Society[97] on January 14, 1882, Roe describing him as a ‘Fellow of the Theosophical Society’.[98] All references to Smith joining the Theosophical Society in the various articles about him can be traced back to a single source, Colonel Olcott’s diary. The relevant entries in Olcott’s diary read:

13 Friday [February 1882]

I then went to Watson’s Hotel to see Prof Jn Smith, M.L.C., C.M.G. of Sydney University N.S.W. who brings introduction from Emma H Britten.

 14 Saturday [February 1882]

I brought Prof Smith to our house. We talked with him & he decided to join the TS. In the evening held meeting of the society & initiated Prof Smith, D M Bennett and a young Hindu. Good meeting & good feeling.[99]


There is nothing in Olcott’s diary entries to support Roe’s view that Smith went to India because ‘he was hooked’ and that he went there specifically to join the Theosophical Society.[100] It can certainly be inferred from the diary entries that Smith went to India and wished to meet Olcott and Blavatsky. His ‘decision to join the TS’ seems to have been contingent upon and affected by the discussions he had with them; as Olcott says ‘We talked with him & he decided to join’.

Roe writes that ‘since entry into the active fellowship of the Theosophical Society at that time involved referees, ritual initiation and an oath of secrecy, it could hardly have been a snap decision.’[101] This statement appears to be an overly grand description of the process for entry into the Theosophical Society and not supported by the admission of D M Bennett who was initiated on the same evening with Smith. Unlike Smith, Bennett was a controversial figure. His association with the Theosophical Society before his initiation into it was in receipt of significant criticism by the Rev Joseph Cook, an American minister who was visiting Bombay at the time and who was a critic of the Theosophical Society. Such was the controversy surrounding Bennett that Olcott was hesitant to admit him into membership, but after consultation and intervention by a Master it was decided to go ahead. Olcott says ‘I returned to Mr Bennett, gave him the Application blank to sign, and H. P. B. and I became his sponsors.’[102] No such comments are made about Smith’s initiation which was apparently uncontroversial; filling in an application blank and being sponsored by Olcott and H. P. B. were all that would have been required. None of this requires that Smith’s admission to the Theosophical Society was premeditated and his primary intention in stopping off at Bombay as is argued by Roe.

According to Olcott, Smith decided to join the Society, but what did such a ‘joining’ mean in terms of commitment and belief? It at least signified an interest in the activities of the Theosophical Society. Before this there had been no indication at all of Smith being dissatisfied with Christianity nor had he uttered any criticism of it. This is in stark contrast to his fellow initiate DM Bennett whose views on the relationship of Christianity and Science and the value of the Christian Faith and the Bible would not have been acceptable to Smith and were the very antithesis of the views held by the professor.[103]

What Smith was committing himself to when he was ‘initiated’ into the Theosophical Society is shown by the objects of the Theosophical Society which were current in 1883. In a letter dated September 1883, from Olcott to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Madras,[104] Olcott clearly outlines the objects of the Society. Olcott says they are:

(a) To promote the feeling of mutual tolerance and kindness between people of different races and religions;

(b) To encourage the study of the philosophies, religions, and science of the ancients, particularly of the Aryans;

(c) To aid scientific research into the higher nature and powers of man.

The generality of these objects explains how two persons with such divergent and incompatible views as were held by Bennett and Smith could be initiated into the Theosophical Society on the same evening. To embrace the objects of the Theosophical Society would be not very difficult for a man of science, interested in expanding his knowledge of the relationship of matter and spirit. Nor would a devout and active Christian commitment, for such a man, make such an embrace improbable.

That Smith had some spiritualist experience at Bombay on his return from his trip to Northern India is not disputed. Smith reported this experience and later reported a further but different experience of ‘precipitation’, the ability of the Masters to ‘precipitate’ a handwritten message into a letter without opening it, in the Melbourne based Harbinger of Light, a newspaper with Theosophical sympathies. Both times that he reported he did not use his own name but used the nom de plume “Viator”.  Perhaps significantly, in his Australian publication report of the January 1882 occult phenomena, Smith omitted that the Masters had said in the message to him to ‘work for us in Australia’. He simply reported that ‘a sentence followed personal to myself’. The editor of the newspaper added to his anonymous report: ‘Were we at liberty to publish the name of our correspondent, our readers would have confidence in his statements on account of his scientific status and known acumen’.[105] That Smith did not use his own name in his correspondence may or may not be significant as this was a common practice among newspaper correspondents. It can be said, however, that the effect of using such a device meant that Smith, for whatever reason, was not associated publically with the Theosophical Society in Australia.

Smith proceeded to England from Bombay but his mind was still seeking further understanding of the spiritualist phenomenon while he was there. For though he was convinced concerning some aspects of it he could still say ‘The whole thing seems to me so astonishing and perplexing that I wish to understand exactly what happens.’[106] Ever the empiricist, John set a test for the Masters while he was in England. This test was a single event and not a sustained activity of which the Australian Dictionary of Biography misleadingly says ‘In Europe in 1882-83 he experimented with the occult.’[107] He had his wife sew the edges of a letter with coloured silks and sent it to Blavatsky. When she returned it, Smith examined it and declared it had never been opened. He then opened it, by slitting a side with a knife, and there inside was a ‘precipitated’ message. This communication with the Theosophists Masters via a ‘precipitated’ message in an unopened letter was the experience he reported in the Harbinger of Light in August, 1883. He regarded this event, together with that in Bombay in January, 1883, as convincing for he said of his experience in Bombay that ‘A fair review of the circumstances excludes, in my opinion, any theory of fraud,’[108] a view which he also held in connection with this further experience with the Masters. This view, however, was to change.

In May, 1884, the Council of the Society for Psychical Research appointed a Committee for the purpose of ‘taking such evidence as to the alleged phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society’.[109] As part of their investigation, the matter of the letter sent by Smith from England to Blavatsky which was returned with a ‘precipitated’ message was examined. A dismissed employee of the Theosophical Society, Madame Coulomb, alleged that she and her husband had been involved with Blavatsky in a wide-ranging deception in order to persuade others of the powers of the Mahatmas. In Smith’s case, she said that she had unpicked the silk thread of the letter sent by Smith to allow the insertion of a message and she then resewed the letter with a hair.

When Richard Hodgson, the primary investigator for the Psychical Society report communicated this allegation to Smith, Roe, quoting the Theosophical Society historian Neff, says Smith could not credit it: ‘I could believe that Madam Coulomb unpicked the silk and restored it again, only if I saw her do it’.[110] Neff and hence Roe, however, selectively quote Hodgson’s report and what is omitted is critical. None of the secondary theosophical works or Roe refers to the omitted material. The omission concerns what Hodgson did next. Upon receiving this rebuff from Smith, Hodgson set about having repeated the feat that Coulomb said she had done.

Smith had sent the original letter sewn with silk to Hodgson for examination. Mrs Sidgwick, a member of the Psychical Society, unpicked the note, wrote her initials inside the note, and resewed it using the technique that Coulomb claimed she had used.[111] Hodgson then sent the note back to Smith explaining what had been done. Hodgson reported that

I returned the letter afterwards to Professor Smith, with statements by Mrs Sidgwick and myself, and have received a reply from Mrs. Smith on behalf of her husband (who was too ill to be able to write himself), from which it appears that Professor and Mrs Smith were quite satisfied, in consequence of the operation performed by Mrs Sidgwick, that the supposed evidence of “occult” agency was worthless.[112]

It is not known precisely what impact this had on Smith’s attitude to Theosophy nor what his reaction was to Hodgson’s full report, presented in June, 1885, which branded Blavatsky as an imposter. Originally from Melbourne, Hodgson also published an article in the Melbourne Age, dated September, 1885, summarising the salient points of the report.[113] Smith probably read neither. It is too much to say as Roe does, however, that ‘he remained convinced by Madame Blavatsky’s Masters’ and that he ‘preferred his own observation to that of Hodgson.’[114] Smith had accepted Hodgson’s view over his own observation and this can only have raised further questions for him about Theosophy.

Smith on his return to Australia

Despite the occult experiences, and despite the specific request of the Masters for him to ‘Work for us in Australia’, Smith’s lack of public association with the Theosophical Society continued upon his return to Australia. Was this lack of public acknowledgement of the Theosophical Society because of its lack of respectability, which would impinge on his scientific reputation, or due to his health, or because there was no branch of the Theosophical Society in Sydney, or for some other reason?[115] The issue of respectability and a lack of a branch of the Theosophical Society in Sydney are possible reasons, but there is no evidence to support (or reject) these suggestions as a source of Smith’s non-involvement and thus remain an open question. Though it should be noted that a Psychological Society, that met regularly, had been formed with Britten’s support while she was in Sydney in 1879[116] and many of those involved, such as J Bowie Wilson, E C Haviland, Alfred De Lissa and Edward Greville, had interests in Spiritism similar to those who became involved in the Theosophical Society.[117] That Smith did not publically support the Theosophical Society on his return to Australia is more often attributed to the belief that ‘on his return to Australia his health failed steadily, he gave up his University work and presumably was not able to work for Theosophy’.[118]

It was said that Smith took his last journey not for recreational travel as with his other trips but for the benefit of his health.[119] His lengthy and strenuous two-week Indian train excursion on the way to England would seem to suggest that his health was not in such a poor state. It is true, however, that Smith was severely ill on his way home from Europe on board the steamer Natal.[120]

Upon his death it was commented:

On his return to the colony it soon became apparent that the journey had not accomplished its object. The vigour of the old days was lacking, and there were other indications which convinced friends of Professor Smith that his life duties were practically finished.[121]

Smith returned to Australia on May 25, 1883,[122]  but it appears that he recovered or else did not view his state of vigour as described by others. It was not until March, 1885, nearly twenty-two months later, that he was confined to bed with a severe illness[123] and granted leave from the university in April 1885, [124] eventually dying in October, 1885. In the period from his return in 1883 until the end of 1884, Smith showed no signs of reducing his workload or reducing his engagements. During that time he regularly and diligently attended to his work in the University, on the Legislative Council, for the University Senate, the Royal Society, as Chairman of the AMP and as a member of the Board of Technical Education, as well as numerous other public social engagements.[125] He was even able, in January, 1885, to undertake a trip to the New Zealand ‘Hot Lakes’ upon which he commented after returning to Sydney via visits to Hobart and Melbourne.[126] This period is one of significant activity but of no known theosophical activity which might invite the view that if he did not work for the Theosophical Society in this time it was not so much because of a decline in his health and activity but rather because he chose not to do so.

It would seem certain that his wife Minnie, at least by January, 1883, as a result of Smith’s interactions with Blavatsky, ‘believed the facts included under the term Spiritualism’ but prior to that had been unconvinced.[127] Roe makes much of Smith’s grave with its theosophic symbolism.[128] On Smith’s instruction, Minnie chose the burial site for him and when she described the beauty of the spot she had chosen he remarked ‘It seems hard that I cannot go and see the only allotment of land I ever purchased in the colony.’[129] In December, 1887, a 12 foot red granite Celtic cross, adorned with theosophical symbolism, was erected on the grave which bore the inscription:

To the dear memory of John Smith, C.M.G., L.L.D., M.D., a member of the Legislative Council, and for thirty-three years Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Sydney. Born in Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, December 12, 1821; died in Sydney, October 12, 1885. ‘Leal and true.’ Erected by his widow.[130]

While this probably says something about Minnie who arranged for its placement, it does not necessarily say anything too definitive about what Smith himself believed. Indeed, Minnie was not present on the occasion of the installation of the cross as she had taken Nora and gone to Europe via America in April of 1886,[131] some 20 months beforehand.  Minnie did not return to Sydney until November, 1888, more than 12 months after the installation.[132]  It would seem that she left or sent instructions concerning the monument, but was not present to check on its progress or give approval to the finished work.

What was Smith’s degree of commitment to Theosophy?

Was Smith a committed Theosophist? Roe makes two points with regard to Smith’s psychical research in comparison to other such men of science that need to be considered carefully.  These points, taken with the extra information about Smith’s Christianity provided by this paper, provide an equally valid and perhaps better understanding of what Smith was doing by engaging with Theosophy. Firstly, Roe points out that Smith was most interested in ‘natural science. He sought facts, and the multiplication thereof, which he tried to test for the sake of understanding ‘the laws of nature.’’[133] Smith deliberately sought to test the Masters and while he was convinced concerning some aspects of their activity, he could still say ‘The whole thing seems to me so astonishing and perplexing that I wish to understand exactly what happens.’[134] Smith was as an empirical scientist seeking to investigate psychical phenomena and seeking to understand it.

Secondly, Roe says of Smith that none of the fragmentary evidence ‘suggests that he experienced a crisis of faith that was so common to his class and time, and among psychical researchers.’[135]  The additional evidence of faith given in this paper, and added to Roe’s ‘fragmentary evidence’, confirm that there is no indication of any crisis of Christian faith in Smith. Indeed, all the evidence points to a fulsome engagement by Smith with the Christian faith and with the Church and there is absolutely no evidence in this additional material to suggest Smith was particularly theologically ‘progressive’.

What is clearly true is that there was some interest on the part of Smith in spiritualism. The source of this interest, be it his wife or intellectual curiosity or both, is not known and the degree of his commitment to theosophical views is unknown. What is known is that, as a result of some empirical evidence, Smith was convinced by some of the events he experienced that the spiritualist masters possessed some powers over matter. His acceptance of the existence of these powers does not appear to have involved a rejection of his Christian commitment. There is no evidence that he responded to the recruitment invitation of the spiritualism masters to ‘Work for us in Australia and we will not prove ungrateful, but will prove to you our actual existence, and thank you.’[136]

Rev James Cameron

Smith’s close friend James Cameron said of him that ‘He took a deep interest in questions lying on the border land between matter and spirit, and believed that in this region much interesting truth may yet be discovered’.[137] So it would appear that Smith’s interest in the phenomena of spiritualism and theosophy would have been no surprise to Cameron, his lifelong friend and a clergyman. Yet, while affirming his interest in ‘the border land’, Cameron also at the same time said of Smith, in a statement that could not be more clear regarding Smith’s Christian orthodoxy, that

In a sceptical age and amid abounding unbelief in scientific and literary circles, he held firmly to the higher revelation God had given us in and through his Son. He recognised the divine authority of the Word of God, and adhered to all the fundamentals of the Christian faith. In this case we have exhibited a pleasing example of the harmony between science and Christianity.[138]

One cannot know for certain what is in a person’s unspoken mind and Smith said nothing on how his interest in Theosophy impacted on his Christian faith. Perhaps Smith, reflecting the movement of many towards Spiritism, was privately reassessing his own views or perhaps he was simply curious. The ‘border land’ was possibly a dangerous area in which to wander for anyone wanting to retain or reinforce their orthodox Christian faith. Smith’s death in 1885 meant that he did not have much opportunity to fully embrace or reject Theosophy, and he does not fit the paradigm of those who moved from Christian faith towards Spiritism and the Theosophical Society as there is no hint of doctrinal disillusionment with his Presbyterian Christianity. It seems, however, that based on all the available evidence, the most appropriate understanding of Smith is to see him not as a devotee of Theosophy but, as Prentis describes him, a ‘dabbler’.[139] It appears that, as a scientist, Smith sought to understand some aspects of psychic phenomena and the powers of the Masters. He was not seeking so much ‘the promise of religious progress’ for he was, it would appear, content with his Christian faith, but was more likely seeking an understanding of the relationship of the power of the Masters, that he had experienced, to the then known laws of science. The available evidence would suggest that rather than being a convinced member of the Theosophical Society, Smith was convinced of some powers of the Masters, was curious to know more, and was never a committed Theosophist.


Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow

Christ College, Sydney

A version of this article has been previously published in Church Heritage Volume 20 Number 4, September 2018, 230-263

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Professor John Smith (1821-1885): Theosophical Dabbler or Devotee? Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, October 22, 2018. Available at https://

Photo Credits

Professor John Smith; Graham W Hardy Living Stones – The Story of St Stephen’s, Sydney (Homebush, West NSW: Anzea, 1985), 30. Rev Robert Steel; Bulletin, April 2, 1881, 1. Minnie Smith nee Macleod; Illustrated Sydney News (Sydney, NSW), November 28, 1889, 15. Blavatsky and Olcott; Public Domain Rev James Cameron; James Cameron Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in NSW (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1905) xxv.

[1] Michael Hoare and Joan T. Radford, ‘Smith, John (1821–1885)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 9 October 2017.

[2] Mellor, Lise (2008) Smith, The Hon. John. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney. [Accessed 1/12/2017]

[3] Michael Hoare and Joan T. Radford, ‘Smith, John (1821–1885)’

[4] Jill Roe,  “‘Viator’ John Smith and Theosophy” in University and Community in Nineteenth Century Sydney Professor John Smith 1821-1885 edited by Roy Macleod Sydney University Monographs Number Three (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1988), 85-95.

[5] Roe, ‘Viator’, 94.

[6] Malcolm Prentis, The Scots in Australia (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2008), 195.

[7] Roe, ‘Viator’, 87.

[8] Roe, ‘Viator’, 94.

[9] One report of the memorial service said of Steel that ‘Dr Steel, who was evidently on terms of the closest friendship with the deceased, was overcome with emotion, and the congregation were also visibly affected’. Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), October 26, 1885, 7.

[10] Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), October 26, 1885, 6.

[11] He was a Sabbath School teacher. Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), October 26, 1885, 7.

[12] Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), October 26, 1885, 7.

[13] Smith arrived on 8 September 1852.

[14] Smith was a significant contributor to the funds of the church for the minister’s stipend. In 1865 he was contributing £6 per annum and in the period 1875-1880, £10 per annum. This level of giving made Smith one of the most significant donors. St Stephens Presbyterian Church Phillip Street Annual Report, 1865, 1875-1880. He also donated to Missions and the Building Fund. He left £50 as a bequest for the Church.

[15] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 31, 1885, VIII, 44, 1.

[16] Hugh Darling arrived in NSW in June 1855. SMH, June 2, 1855, 4.

[17] St Stephen’s congregational meeting on the proposed Union. SMH, September 29, 1863, 5.

[18] For a fuller statement of the Basis see James Cameron, A Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales, (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1903), 71.

[19] Roe, ‘Viator’, 88.

[20] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), October 16, 1885, 7.

[21] Their families were frequent visitors of one another. Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), October 28, 1905, 9.

[22] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 24, 1885, VIII, 43, 1.

[23] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), July 29, 1899, 11.

[24] SMH, October 16, 1885, 9. New South Wales Will Books 1800-1952, No 12393 Last Will and Testament, John Smith.

[25] Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), October 26, 1885, 7. This was not quite correct as Smith was elected a Deacon in 1856 (Free Church Macquarie Street Session Minutes 4 February 1856) and an Elder in 1863 (Free Church Macquarie Street Session Minutes 13 June 1863). The procedure was that the congregation voted on individuals who were not consulted beforehand and then those who got the highest number of votes were asked if they wished to serve.

[26] Roe, ‘Viator’, 88.

[27] SMH, July 19, 1862, 4.

[28] SMH, August 26, 1874, 5.

[29] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), March 23, 1880, 3.

[30] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), December 21, 1872, 784.

[31] Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), October 26, 1885, 7.

[32] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), November 6, 1869, 5.

[33] SMH, October 26, 1885, 6.

[34] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), February 20, 1889, 3.  The window today is in St. Stephen’s Uniting Church, Macquarie Street, Ferguson Hall. The inscription is from Proverbs 4:13.

[35] SMH, October 26, 1885, 6.

[36] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), January 27, 1877, 121.

[37] The allusion is to James 1:27 and 1 Timothy 5:8.

[38] Geoffrey Blainey, A History of the AMP 1848-1998, (St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 33.

[39] No information of the membership of the RTBS is available after 1874.

[40] Sydney Herald (Sydney, NSW), November 26, 1841, 2.

[41] SMH, May 29, 1855, 5.

[42] SMH, May 29, 1855, 5.

[43] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 29, 1856, 5.

[44] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), June 14, 1871, 3.

[45] Catherine Snowden, ‘The Strayfaring Professor: John Smith and ‘Learned Leisure’’ in University and Community in Nineteenth Century Sydney Professor John Smith 1821-1885 edited by Roy Macleod Sydney University Monographs Number Three (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1988), 18.

[46] SMH, February 2, 1857, 2.

[47] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), October 17, 1863, 2.

[48] SMH, November 12, 1863, 8.

[49] Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), March 16, 1880, 6.

[50] Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), March 16, 1880, 6.

[51] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), March 13, 1880, 12.

[52] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), October 26, 1885, 7.

[53] SMH, October 26, 1885, 6.

[54] SMH, October 26, 1885, 6.

[55] SMH, October 26, 1885, 6.

[56] Michael Hoare and Joan T. Radford, ‘Smith, John (1821–1885)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[57] A significant figure and author of a number of articles on Smith and Theosophy is James L Davidge, a journalist, who in 1934, became a full time Assistant Editor of The Theosophist. [accessed 15/12/2017] He was General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Australia 1947-1957. [accessed 15/12/2017]

[58]  Roe, ‘Viator’, 85-95.

[59] Jill Roe, Beyond belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939, (Kensington, N.S.W.: New South Wales University Press, 1986).

[60] SMH, February 28, 1931, 2. In 1889 Minnie decided to add MacLeod to her name and be known as Minnie MacLeod-Smith. SMH, February 16, 1889, 5.

[61] 11 June 1872 at Bidston Church. The Age (Melbourne, Vic.), July 29, 1872, 2.

[62] Rev. Dr. Donald MacKinnon and Alick Morrison, The Macleods: The Genealogy Of A Clan, Section III, “Cadet Families”, Edinburgh, The Clan MacLeod Society, 1970, 278. [accessed 17/12/2017]

[63] Lauchlan succeeded his father Angus “MacDhonil Oig” MacLeod as minister of St. Kilda, South Uist in 1788. He relinquished his charge in 1830 and settled at Bernera where he died in 1832.  Fasti ecclesiae scoticanae: the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the reformation, Vol. VII, 194.

[64] Kevin James Grant, ‘Mo Rùn am Fearann’ – ‘My Love is the Land’: Gaelic landscapes of the 18th and 19th centuries. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2016, 171-2.

[65] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 31, 1885, VIII, 44, 1.

[66] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 24, 1885, VIII, 43, 1.

[67] SMH, October 3, 1879, 6.

[68] Lawn Tennis at Government House; Evening News (Sydney, NSW), December 3, 1880, 2.

[69] The Sydney Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), July 14, 1880, 3.

[70] The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.), December 22, 1888, 10.

[71] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), July 24, 1880, 28; SMH, June 25, 1885, 8; Melbourne Punch (Melbourne, Vic.), February 7, 1889, 4.

[72] The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), May 29, 1880, 3.

[73] Susan Lorne-Johnson, Betrayed and Forsaken: The Official History of the Infants’ Home, Ashfield, Founded in 1874 as the Sydney Foundling Institution. Ashfield, N.S.W.: Infants’ Home, 2001, 167.

[74] SMH, July 25, 1877, 7.

[75] Sixth Annual Report of the Infants’ Home, Ashfield, 1880, 6.

[76] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), May 1, 1880, 843.

[77] She was elected President in 1885. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), September 5, 1885, 526.

[78] SMH, April 14, 1899, 3.

[79] Data from Annual Reports of the Infants’ Home, Ashfield, 1879-1898.

[80] Illustrated Sydney News (Sydney, NSW), November 28, 1889, 15.

[81] They arrived in Sydney on 25/5/1883 on the Natal from Marseilles. SMH, May 26, 1883, 8.

[82] She was baptised on 7 March 1878 Christ Church, Bootle, Lancaster.

[83] SMH, May 18, 1887, 1.

[84] Bruce Mitchell, ‘Fraser, Archibald Colquhoun (1832–1896)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 December 2017. Illustrated Sydney News (Sydney, NSW), November 18, 1893, 4.

[85] Details of 1891 English Census.

[86] Hugh S Murdoch, ‘The First Member of the T.S. in Sydney: Professor John Smith, MD Hon LLD, MLC, CMG’, Theosophical History, January 1990, Volume III, Part I, 7. It may be relevant that Minnie never became a member of St Stephen’s Church but it is unknown if she, though not a member, attended Church with her husband.

[87] Roe, ‘Viator’, 93.

[88] Roe, ‘Viator’, 93

[89] Hugh S Murdoch, ‘The First Member of the T.S. in Sydney: Professor John Smith, MD Hon LLD, MLC, CMG’, Theosophical History, January 1990, Volume III, Part I, 5-11.

[90] Roe reference of J L Davidge, ‘Work for us in Australia’ Theosophy in Australia (August 1954), note 24, 9.

[91] The letter of Emma Britten introducing Professor J Smyth (sic) of Sydney to HPB is mentioned in Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical Society, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1895), 193.

[92] Roe, ‘Viator’, 88.

[93] Roe, ‘Viator’, 91-92.

[94] Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), August 24, 1881, 2. She was booked on RMS Kaisar-i-Hind for Southampton. Professor Smith disembarked in Melbourne possibly in order to visit family.

[95] SMH, April 22, 1882, 11.

[96] SMH, April 22, 1882, 11.

[97] Mary K Neff, How Theosophy came to Australia and New Zealand (Sydney: Australian Section, Theosophical Society, 1943), 98.

[98] Roe, ‘Viator’, 87.

[99] Diary of Colonel Olcott (courtesy of the Archives of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, Chennai, India.)

[100] Roe, ‘Viator’, 91-92.

[101] Roe, ‘Viator’, 92.

[102] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 330.

[103] Bennett ridiculed Cook’s attempts to “harmonize” Christianity and science. He found it “absurd and untruthful . . . to pretend that science has any connection with either the Bible or Christianity.” Roderick Bradford, D.M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker, 297-322.

[104]Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Third Series (1883-87), 4-7. Letter from Colonel Henry S. Olcott, President of The Theosophical Society. To The Honorable E. F. Webster, Chief Secretary to the Government of Madras. 7th September, 1883.

[105] Neff, How Theosophy Came to Australia and New Zealand, 15. The article from Harbinger of Light is reproduced in full.

[106] John Smith to HP Blavatsky dated 31 January 1883, The Theosophist, March 1919, 639-641.

[107] Michael Hoare and Joan T. Radford, ‘Smith, John (1821–1885)’

[108] John Smith to Colonel Olcott dated 2 February 1882, Hints on Esoteric Theosophy no 1 (Calcutta, 1882), 97-98.

[109] ‘Report Of The Committee Appointed To Investigate Phenomena Connected With The Theosophical Society’ in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 3, May-June, 1885, 201-400.

[110] Roe, “Viator”, 91.

[111] For a full report of what was done see ‘Report of the Committee Appointed’, 377-378.

[112] ‘Report of the Committee Appointed’, 378.

[113] The Age (Melbourne, Vic), September 12, 1885, 13.

[114] Roe, “Viator”, 91.

[115] Roe, “Viator”, 94.

[116] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), February 18, 1879, 3.

[117] Britten, E. (1884). Nineteenth century miracles : Or, Spirits and their work in every country of the earth : A complete historical compendium of the great movement known as “Modern spiritualism”. New York: William Britten; Lovell &.Britten, 1884, 230.

[118] J. L. Davidge, ‘Work for us in Australia’, Theosophy in Australia, August 1954, 12; ‘Professor John Smith and Theosophy’, Theosophy in Australia, December 59, 8. J. L. Davidge, ‘Professor John Smith and Theosophy’, Proceedings of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, August 1959, 359. ‘Smith’s health had not improved as a result of his overseas trip; in fact, it gradually deteriorated. He was, therefore, not particularly active on his return…’ Hugh S Murdoch, ‘The First Member of the T.S. in Sydney: Professor John Smith’, 10.

[119] SMH, October 13, 1885, 6.

[120] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 31, 1885, VIII, 44, 1.

[121] SMH, October 13, 1885, 6.

[122] SMH, May 26, 1883, 8.

[123] SMH, March 19, 1885, 9.

[124] SMH, April 9, 1885, 4.

[125] Some 78 meetings and engagements which he attended are recorded in the newspapers during the period of his return in 1883 until the end of 1884. Given the newspapers would not record all his attendances this shows him to be busy during this period. A survey of the newspapers of 1880 a few years before he went to India and the year 1884, the year prior to his death, reveals an almost identical degree of engagement in various meetings.

[126] New Zealand Herald, Volume XXII, 7229, January 19, 1885, 5; Bendigo Advertiser (Bendigo Vic), February 20, 1885, 2; Southland Times, 7045, February 14, 1885, 2.

[127] John Smith to HP Blavatsky, The Theosophist, March 1919, 639-641. http:// [accessed 4/1/2018]

[128] Roe, ‘Viator’, 85-87, 95.

[129] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 24, 1885, VIII, 43, 1.

[130] SMH, December 28, 1887, 7.

[131] SMH, April 23, 1886, 6.

[132] SMH, December 1, 1888, 12.

[133] Roe, ‘Viator’, 94.

[134] John Smith to HP Blavatsky, dated 31 January 1883, The Theosophist, March 1919, 639-641.

[135] Roe, ‘Viator’, 94

[136] Letter John Smith to Colonel Olcott, 2 February 1882, Hints on Esoteric Theosophy no 1 (Calcutta, 1882), 97-98.

[137] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 24, 1885, VIII, 43, 1.

[138] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness, October 24, 1885, VIII, 43, 1.

[139] Malcolm Prentis, The Scots in Australia (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2008), 195.

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