Reverend James Smith in Things Fall Apart

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
In his novel ''Things Fall Apart'', Chinua Achebe introduces the reader to several well-rendered and interesting characters. In this lesson, learn about one of those characters, Reverand James Smith, and his role in the plot.

Who is Reverend James Smith?

Imagine a total stranger walks up your driveway one day and barges into your house without knocking, and announces that you have to follow the rules he's now going to set down about how to live your life. You've never heard of these rules, and you're not really too happy that this guy is making you renounce all your former beliefs and traditions. In short, you're angry and confused, but you can't really kick the guy out.

This sounds terrible, doesn't it? Well, this is the situation the characters of Chinua Achebe's Nigerian novel Things Fall Apart find themselves in when British missionaries like Reverand James Smith waltz into their town of Umuofia and shake everything up. Smith provides the reader, you, an excellent look at the negative side of Christianity in places colonized by the British in the 1800s; Smith does this by being strict, uncompromising, and forcing Christianity on the villagers.

Chapel built by missionaries like James Smith

Smith Comes to Town

The good Reverend is only introduced in a later chapter of the novel, after Umuofia loses its former missionary priest, Mr. Brown, to illness. Mr. Brown was kind, understanding, and truly cared about the native customs of the Umuofians. He made an effort to get to know the history of the town. Unfortunately, Rev. Smith is the exact opposite of his predecessor. As soon as Smith arrives in Chapter 22, things begin to change.

Smith is convinced that the Umuofians are ignorant, backwater savages, and he makes no effort to understand the rituals and traditions they practice. He's always condemning someone for performing some type of Umuofian religious or traditional act, without asking why the particular task is being done. He even suspends a woman in his congregation for performing an Umuofian ritual for the body of her dead child, which is believed to contain an evil spirit. Not a good way to make friends, is it?

Smith's Overzealous Nature

One thing that truly makes the Umuofians hate Reverand Smith is his super strict adherence to the Bible's teachings. You know what people mean when they talk about 'fire and brimstone' preachers? Preachers who talk about the wrath of God and believe everything is a black and white issue, with no wiggle room? Yep, Smith is one of those guys. Combine that with the fact that he tries absolutely zero times to understand Umuofian tradition and you have a huge problem within the village.

Smith encourages his congregation to act on their impulses and their overwrought feelings, which is not a great thing. He only fans the flames of fanatical converts, which ends in disaster, as you may have guessed. In one particular instance, Rev. Smith indirectly encourages one man to incite a conflict during a traditional ceremony, which then results in the other side burning the man's house and also the church. The Reverend's black-and-white vision, as well as his refusal to compromise on anything, bring nothing but bad feelings and conflict to Umuofia.

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