The Rev. John William Flinn (1847-1907) was born in Marshall County, Mississippi, the son of Andrew Meek Flinn and Sarah Ann Flinn. He enrolled in the Confederate army shortly before his fifteenth birthday and served in the Seventeenth Regiment of Mississippi Volunteers. Wounded four times and twice taken prisoner, the young soldier returned to Mississippi after the war and enrolled in the University of Mississippi from which he graduated in 1871. Flinn came to South Carolina to attend the Columbia Theological Seminary. After graduating in 1875, he left for Scotland to study theology and Biblical literature at the University of Edinburgh. He returned to South Carolina in 1876, and in December he married Jane Ann Adger Smyth, the daughter of the late Presbyterian clergyman Thomas Smyth (1808-1873). The one thousand, four hundred forty-one manuscripts and eight volumes in this collection link three prominent nineteenth-century Presbyterian families—Smyth, Adger, and Flinn.
Fourteen lecture tickets, 1824-1829, document Thomas Smyth’s attendance at lectures in Belfast Academical Institution. Smyth emigrated from Ireland to the United States with his parents in 1830 and enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1831 he came to Charleston and began a lifelong association with the Second Presbyterian Church, first as supply pastor and from 1834 to 1870 as pastor. In 1832 Smyth married Margaret Milligan Adger, the daughter of Charleston banker, James Adger, and sister of the Rev. John Bailey Adger.
Before their marriage in July, Thomas Smyth composed a poem “To Miss M.M. Adger.” Smyth addressed his wife in rhyme on a number of occasions, among them their fourth wedding anniversary, 9 July 1836—“Lines written at the Suggestion of my wife while sick on the fourth anniversary of our wedding day”—and their seventh anniversary in 1839. He addressed her in rhyme on other occasions as well, including "Lines addressed to my dear Wife from Aiken S.C. on my return” (23 November 1837).
Members of the Adger and Smyth families traveled widely in the North and abroad and depended on letters to keep them abreast of family activities and events in Charleston. The deaths of the Smyth’s young daughters Sarah Ann and Sue are lamented in the letter (14 December 1837) to Jane Ann Adger in Paris. Family activities are the subject of Margaret Smyth’s letter (22 Aug. 1840) to Jane Adger in Worcester, Mass. She noted that brother Robert was working in his yard and planting a strawberry bed. In spite of recent rain the city and neck were healthy although there was “some sickness among the poor Swiss & Germans near the lines.” Margaret Smyth informed her sister Janey on 23 July 1849 that she was sending a bundle of newspapers telling “of the insurrection at the work house” which necessitated the military being summoned and included the involvement of family members. Mrs. Smyth witnessed “the departure of Calhoun’s remains” in April 1850 and visited the President’s home where “‘Old Zach,’ shook hands & chatted a few moments very socially, expressed great pleasure at seeing me.” Their visit to Washington also included the studio of Robert Mills, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Senate chamber. The Smyths were in Newport, R.I., in 1853 where Mr. Smyth, who suffered a stroke in 1850, was receiving treatment. William C. Preston was another visitor who was bathing in the surf.
The outbreak of the Civil War and the shelling of Charleston scattered members of the Adger and Smyth families. A letter of 29 June 1862 noted that the troops in the lot next door to the house departed for the Battery, “but they have left their horses—it is becoming very unpleasant the smell of stables and the back house is very bad.” The appearance of the city “makes me sad...if you could just step into our poor city you would hardly know it. There is nothing but tents and soldiers to be seen. There is plenty of dressed up mulattoes to be seen. I feel ashamed to walk in the street you see very few ladies.” Thomas Smyth cautioned his children on 7 October 1862 not to return to the city where they might face shortages of food and other necessities. He advised his daughter Susan that the City Council “are going to lay up provisions for a season of possible siege & the cutting off of supplies,” mentioned his work on an article “in Vindication of the War for the Review,” and approved her decision to abandon “fictitious reading you will find great good from doing so” (2 November 1862).
The Smyth family relocated to the Pee Dee section in the later stages of the war. From his “Log Cabin Retreat,” Wright’s Bluff in Clarendon District, Thomas Smyth addressed a letter in 1865 to a fellow clergyman. Discussing the meaning of the war, Smyth concluded—“But God has ordered it otherwise and to his will we all desire to submit. What the ultimate results will be to the South, to the negroes, & to the North, is among the inscrutable mysteries of eternal Providence, whose justice is slow but righteously retributive.” M[argaret] H[all] Adger lived in Hartsville with her daughter Anna Law. In a 19 April 1865 letter to a family member, she conveyed her anxiety about the situation of her family. Union and Confederate forces were in the area, and soldiers from both armies had visited her home. She was grateful for the “fidelity of our servants, and of Col. Law’s—some on this plantation, who have proved great comforts to us.”
In addition to family correspondence and other papers, the collection includes an inventory of Thomas Smyth’s library, three unbound volumes and three manuscripts, 1854-1865, concerning Smyth’s will and disposition of his library, obituary notices (1873) of Thomas Smyth, and James Adger’s funeral sermon (1858) preached by Thomas Smyth.
John William Flinn first appears in the collection as a student at the University of Mississippi after his service in the Civil War. After graduation he enrolled in the Columbia Theological Seminary where he completed the course of study in May 1875. A month earlier, 10 April, the Rev. John L. Girardeau signed a statement that Flinn had been examined by the Charleston Presbytery and licensed “to preach the Gospel of Christ, as a probationer for the holy ministry, within the bounds of this presbytery, or wherever else he shall be orderly called.”
In June, Flinn moved to Hendersonville, N.C., to supply a charge for the summer. The move to Hendersonville initiated a frequent correspondence with Jane Ann Adger Smyth, the daughter of the late Rev. Thomas Smyth. In a letter of 4 June she urged him to consider a year at Princeton “before entering on your regular ministerial work.” At Princeton he would encounter a superior faculty and should not be deterred by the opinions of the Northern church—“I dislike so much this narrow-mindedness—this bigotry, that would hear only one side of the question, and for fear of losing some of its prejudices, would refuse all intercourse with those who differ from it.” Later that summer, Janie lamented Dr. Girardeau’s decision not to join the faculty of the Theological Seminary—“The Seminary’s now I fear, hopelessly ruined—certainly for some time. I am thankful that my Father has been spared the pain of all this” (15 July 1875).
The Education Society of Second Presbyterian Church agreed to provide funds for Flinn’s study at Princeton, but his plans changed by August when he inquired if they would consider supporting his enrollment at the University of Edinburgh (12 August 1875). They agreed to do so, and Flinn wrote Janie aboard the Caledonia in the Firth of Clyde (17 October 1875). He contrasted the mountains of Ireland and Scotland with the Appalachians and complained of foreigners who criticized America—“I am more American in my feelings than I ever was in my life.” Letters to Janie discuss his professors and studies and include complaints about “the boisterous rudeness” and “vulgar disrespectful thoughtlessness” of the British students. Another “unpleasant sensation” for this native of Mississippi and Confederate veteran was having “Negro classmates...on an equality in the lecture-rooms of the Univ.” He noted—“the Scotch are so infatuated that they actually lionize the Negro.” On 31 December 1875 Flinn witnessed the celebrations anticipating the New Year—“thousands of upturned faces glowing in the flare of lights were watching the hands of the clock as they moved toward the midnight hour....During the last moment the uproars of the multitude subsided into a hum; then as the bells & clocks thro’ the city began to strike twelve the tumult broke forth wildly upon the midnight air, shouts of ‘hurrah’ went up on every side.”
Janie was displeased with the state of religion in Charleston for she observed that “Our churches are so cold—so dead—so taken up with the mere externals of religion.” Commenting on a controversy involving Dr. Girardeau, she noted—“I do hope he will not reply to it. I wish ministers and christians could live at peace with each other, without this continual fault finding and quarrelling” (11 January 1876). Recalling Flinn’s account of the New Year celebrations in Edinburgh, Janie expressed preference for the manner in which African Americans celebrated—“Our negroes you know, have meetings to ‘pray the Old Year out and the New Year in,’ and it seems to me the more appropriate way of the two” (20 January 1876).
Janie’s letters in February and March chronicle events in Charleston and refer to a controversy surrounding the celebration of Washington’s birthday. She urged him to pray for her students, especially those who “are poor and ignorant, and some of them entirely without religious home influences” (3 March 1876). She lamented “the extreme poverty of many [girls], and the impossibility of relieving it by charity or of finding them work. I can not see what is to become of the poor if things do not improve” (30 March 1876). She also regretted declining attendance at the memorial day services at Magnolia cemetery—“The services were very simple this year—no address at all. I do not want to see this custom given up, but I am afraid it will die out” (11 May 1876).
When Flinn completed his studies in the spring of 1876, he left with friends to tour the continent. Letters to Janie and a journal detail his travels through Italy and Switzerland.
When he returned to Charleston, he and Janie made plans for their marriage; and he resumed his pastoral duties serving three churches in the area of Hendersonville, N.C. There was turmoil and excitement in Charleston in advance of the national and statewide election in November. Flinn assured Janie that the family with whom they would be living “are True Democrats—friends of the South—[who] were persecuted in Pennsylvania for their politics during & since the war” (20 October 1876). Letters after the November election convey the mood in Hendersonville and Charleston.
Flinn stayed abreast of the returns relayed by telegraph from Greenville and observed—“The thought of better times for our poor country thro’ the triumph of good men & sound principles makes me fairly tremble with joy & excitement” (9 November 1876). The outcome was uncertain in South Carolina, and there were disturbances in Charleston and a riot between Charleston and Savannah in which two whites were killed. Janie’s brother “Ellison came home with three bullet holes through his hat and Brother’s life was threatened at one time” (10 November 1876).
J. William Flinn and Jane Ann Adger Smyth married in Charleston on 20 December 1876. They lived in Hendersonville until the fall of 1877 when Flinn accepted a call from Memorial Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Janie was pregnant with the couple’s first child and remained in Charleston when her husband moved to New Orleans. By July 1878 Janie and daughter Margaret were in New Orleans. Janie corresponded regularly with her mother and sisters, and in the spring of 1879 Mrs. Smyth visited them in New Orleans. In September 1879 the Smyth family suffered a serious financial setback with the failure of James E. Adger & Co. A letter (25 September 1879) from her sister Sue attributed the failure to the sudden decline of the market for phosphates.
Flinn remained pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church until 1888, but during his tenure he unsuccessfully sought a position on the faculty of Louisiana State University in 1881. He also received inquiries from a number of other Presbyterian churches, and in a letter of 21 April 1884 he stated that Dr. Benjamin M. Palmer was using his influence “to have me called to some of the largest churches in our Assembly.” Flinn also became a participant in a controversy that tore at the fabric of the Southern Presbyterian church in the 1880s.
In 1884 Dr. James Woodrow delivered an address entitled “Evolution” before the Alumni Association of the Columbia Theological Seminary. In his address Woodrow asserted that there was no essential conflict between the Bible and science and that the teaching of evolution would promote reverence for God’s plan of creation. The controversy sparked by Woodrow’s address continued for several years, and two scrapbooks, 1884 and 1888-1889, contain clippings about the debate that followed publication of the address and subsequent attempts to remove Woodrow from the faculty of the Columbia Theological Seminary. Woodrow was charged with attacking the accuracy and authority of Holy Scripture.
The Rev. J. William Flinn remained a staunch supporter of Dr. Woodrow throughout the controversy; and in 1907, the year that both men died, he wrote a biographical sketch of Woodrow. Flinn received a detailed account (30 November 1885) of the debate at the Synod meeting from Thomas Law, of Spartanburg. Although the vote at this meeting was favorable to Woodrow, Law remarked—“True, the matter of Evolution was not up & the question before the Synod was one purely of administration.” Flinn replied in a letter of 7 December, “outlin[ing] what I think is the best course for the Bd & Dr W[oodrow] to pursue.”
Woodrow was removed from the Seminary faculty in 1886; but he remained on the faculty of South Carolina College, and in a letter of 8 March 1888 he informed Flinn’s brother-in-law Augustine T. Smythe that there would be a vacancy in the chair of Moral Philosophy and the Chaplaincy. “I need hardly say,” Woodrow commented, “how happy I will be to have Mr. Flinn as a colleague.” Two days later, Smythe recommended Flinn to President J.M. McBryde. There are numerous letters recommending Flinn, including one (11 April 1888) from former Cornell University president Andrew D. White who stated—“I have omitted any reference to Mr. Flinn’s views on evolution, though to my mind they constitute a very great addition to his qualifications for the position. It will not be much longer possible for any man to sustain himself in such a position, who does not yield to the vast current of enlightened opinion on this subject.”
The Board of Trustees elected Flinn to the faculty of South Carolina College and he served until 1905. In 1893 Flinn represented Miss Sadie Means, an operative in the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Exchange in Columbia, who “was suspended from the communion of the Second Presbyterian Church...for working (about three hours) on Sunday in the Telephone office.” J. Adger Smyth expressed admiration for “your stand in Presbytery in the Sadie Means affair” and remarked—“I have never known a community so stirred up, as this one is by the action of the intolerant & Girardeau-ridden Presbytery” (7 April 1893). A year later, 26 May 1894, Thomas J. McMillan applauded Flinn’s defense of Sadie Means “for I suspect that but for you her case would never have been appealed to Presbytery. It was also a victory for common sense, truth, justice, and freedom of conscience from the shackles of a narrow Puritanism that does not fit this day or age.”
Although he was a very scholarly man, Flinn did not enjoy a reputation as an effective teacher. In 1901 members of the graduating class petitioned the Board of Trustees to ask for Flinn’s resignation. He informed his wife in a letter of 28 August that he sought the advice of professors Colcock, Joynes, and Davis who “agree in thinking that the Board will probably make short shrift of the matter by either laying the paper on the table or declining to consider it.” In this instance, he was correct; but in 1905, the year that Flinn delivered the college’s centennial sermon, another student petition was successful. W.P. Herbert, then at the University of Virginia, thanked Flinn for sending a copy of his sermon and expressed his fondness for the “dear old college.” He regretted Flinn’s leaving the college “for I know just how much of your life—the best of it—has been given to the College and to have one’s...efforts not appreciated is the hardest and saddest thing that can come to us in this life” (29 March 1905). President Benjamin Sloan considered Flinn’s resignation “a personal bereavement” (15 June 1905). And 1905 graduate J. Rion McKissick requested that Flinn return his final thesis entitled “The Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul as influenced by Modern Science”—“I should like to keep it as a reminder of the very pleasant and profitable hours I spent under you in that memorable classroom in old DeSaussure.” Although some students questioned Flinn’s ability as a teacher, McKissick advised “that from no other member of the faculty did I receive more beneficial and profitable instruction than I did under you” (3 July 1905).
After leaving South Carolina College in 1905, Flinn continued teaching at the Presbyterian College for Women and preaching at churches in the Charleston Presbytery. He died suddenly in December 1907. Tributes to his life and work are in a scrapbook containing clippings and memorials.
Flinn’s daughter Nell Flinn Gilland prepared a biography entitled “My Father,” but she was unsuccessful in finding a publisher. In addition to the typescript of the biography, other writings of Mrs. Gilland include “Life Begins in New Orleans” and “A Dixie Dominie or One Who Marched.” Mrs. Gilland did genealogical research on the Adger, Smyth, and related families and corresponded with Dr. A.L. Blanding on the Blanding and McFaddin families. Dr. Blanding contributed autobiographical information and a paper entitled “Going to School in Sumter Sixty Years Ago.” Other writings include “Address of Thos. M. Gilland before the Winyah Indigo Society on its 146th anniversary” (1903) and several addresses delivered by J. William Flinn—“Love the Motive Power in Evangelizing the World” (3 May 1875), “The Women of the South” (21 January 1882), and “Historic Proofs of the South’s Moral Greatness and Guarantees of Her Trustworthiness” (undated).