It may have taken him awhile to get started, but the Rev. Noah Spencer Smith, who was 52 when he was ordained as a minister, picked up steam and never slowed. At 107, he was believed to be one of the oldest ministers in the United States — if not the oldest.
He died peacefully Sept. 24 in Minneapolis. His last words were said to have been: “Good night.”
In the past few years he had cut his sermons down to about one a month, but he maintained a vigor that would challenge a person half his age. He would not be seen without a crisp white shirt and tie, telling people he had to constantly be at the ready to minister the gospel.
The Rev. Alphonse Reff, the pastor of Wayman AME Church in Minneapolis, where Smith had served since 1998, knew him for more than 30 years and described him as a mentor to the community and fellow ministers. Although he never published a text, Smith was a theologian along the lines of Benjamin E. Mays, as well as a simple but powerful speaker in the pulpit, he said.
“His sermons had a lot of applications. After he was done in the pulpit you’d come back and say, ‘Thank you, Reverend Smith. My life is messed up, but you got it together for me,’ ” Reff said.
Born in 1908 in Marion, Ind., Smith was raised in the AME church, and his father was a leader in his hometown church.
He played the drums in bands, moving in 1930 to Minneapolis, where he also ran a business painting signs on buildings and vehicles. Smith was briefly a cartoonist before getting a job in 1941 as a waiter in a dining car for the Burlington Northern railroad, where he worked for nearly three decades.
Smith said in a 2011 interview with the Star Tribune that he never gave ministry much thought until the 1950s when he was teaching Sunday school at St. Peter’s AME Church in Minneapolis and the pastor encouraged him to become a minister.
“I said, ‘What do you mean go into ministry? I’m 49 years old.’ I said, ‘God would have called me when I was young.’ And he said, ‘He did, but you didn’t hear him.’ ”
Smith was ordained in 1960 and served at St. Peter’s through 1986. He also led an AME congregation in Duluth and served as pastor at St. James AME Church in Minneapolis. In 1998, Smith went on to Wayman, a community of about 500 members, where he had been ever since.
Charles Hallman, a parishioner at Wayman, said Smith defied the mandatory retirement age and never questioned why he had such longevity.
“He always said he didn’t deserve to retire,” Hallman said. “He was called to preach, he was called to teach, and so therefore he said he would do that until the day he died, and literally he did do that until the day he died.”
Smith graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul at age 78 and earned his master of divinity at United Theological Seminary at 81.
As age crept up on him, his wife, Hallie B. Hendrieth-Smith, drove him to church. He said he kept ministering primarily because he wanted to share Jesus’ message with young people.
“You’ll always have teenagers and young people who need to be introduced to this spiritual dimension of life,” he said in 2011. “I just want to have an opportunity to talk to them personally, not only preach to them, about their concepts and ideas about God.”
A memorial service was held last week at Wayman AME. Burial was at Lakewood Cemetery.