Early American Methodism and the exploration of the American West share a common pioneering ancestor in Jedediah Smith. While many of the commonly held beliefs about Jedediah Smith’s religious background and affiliation would require the support of more historical documentation than is currently available, Jedediah Smith’s life and subsequently developed popular legend provide an influential look into how the early nineteenth century explorer helped forge a future for the development of Utah and as a result, the Methodist Community that reveres the formidable mountaineer, appropriately referred to as “Bible Totin’ Jed Smith.”
Jedediah Strong Smith, Jr. was born on January 6, 1799 in Jericho, New York (present-day Bainbridge) to Jedediah Smith, Sr. and Sally Strong. The Smith family had early Puritan roots in the Samuel Smith family, which immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from Hadleigh, England in 1634. Jedediah Smith, Sr. became associated with the Wesleyan movement in the 1790s, tying the Smith family to the Methodist Church. It was a new movement, having just been developed in the 1780s in America by John and Charles Wesley. Though tempted to consider a life in the ministry, Jedediah Smith, Jr. chose to pursue a career as a trapper, frontiersman, and explorer. However, due to the revivalist fervor of the Second Great Awakening, Jedediah undoubtedly was shaped by his upbringing in the Methodist faith, influencing his actions and worldview throughout his short life.
Jedediah Smith’s contributions to early nineteenth-century exploration of the American West are well known and many. He was the first Anglo-American to make his way to California directly overland as well as the first to make an overland journey through northwest California into Oregon, a remarkable feat considering the densely forested landscape. Further, he was the first American to traverse the length of the Pacific Coast, ranging from San Diego in the South to Vancouver in the North. Smith was among the first to pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the first Americans to journey across the length and width of Utah. In 1826, he trekked into the Salt Lake and Utah Valleys, being the first American explorer to step foot south or west of the Great Salt Lake. Smith met a young and untimely death in a conflict with Comanche Indians in Kansas on May 27, 1831. Many of Jedediah Smith’s biographers note that he was a pious, sober, and God-fearing man. While Smith’s explorations in the West kept him from any form of regular or intermittent church attendance, he is known to have regularly devoted himself to the reading of the Bible. In fact, at the time of his death, Jedediah Smith’s estate contained a modest collection of books, two of which likely traveled with him during his career: The Holy Bible and a book of Methodist hymns. Today the Utah Methodist community reveres the memory and legend of Jedediah Smith as a pioneer of both their home state and faith. First United Methodist in Salt Lake City proudly displays a portrait of Jedediah Smith as a part of the faith’s community in the Great Basin.