Born: March 31, 1860—Wanstead, England
Died: August 4, 1947—Atlantic Ocean
Life Span: 87 years, 4 months, 4 days
Gipsy Smith was, perhaps, the best loved evangelist of all time. When he would give his life story, the crowds that came to hear usually overflowed the halls and auditoriums. His trips across the Atlantic Ocean were so numerous that historians seemingly disagree on the exact number.
Born in a gipsy tent six miles northeast of London, at Epping Forest, he received no education. The family made a living selling baskets, tinware and clothespegs. His father Cornelius, and his mother, Mary (Polly) Welch, provided a home that was happy in the gipsy wagon, despite the fact that father played his violin in the pubs at this time. Young Rodney would dance and collect money for the entertainment. Yet he never drank or smoked, which may have contributed to his longevity.
Cornelius was in and out of jail for various offenses, usually because he couldn't afford to pay his fines. Here he first heard the gospel from the lips of a prison chaplain. He tried to explain to his dying wife what he heard.
Rodney was still a small lad when his mother died from smallpox. A child's song that she had heard sung twenty years previous about Jesus came back to her, comforting her as she passed on. Her dying words were, "I believe. Be a good father to my children. I know God will take care of my children." Rodney never forgot seeing his mother buried by lantern-light at the end of a lane in Hertfordshire. God did take care of the children as the four girls and two boys (Rodney was the fourth child) grew up under the stern eye of their father. They all went into Christian service.
Following his wife's death, Cornelius had no power to be good. One day he met his brothers, Woodlock and Bartholomew, and found they too hungered after God. At a tavern at the Barnwell end of town, they stopped and talked to the woman innkeeper about God. She groaned that she was troubled also and ran upstairs to find a copy of "Pilgrim's Progress." Hearing this read to them, they decided this is what they wanted. Cornelius encountered a road worker who was a Christian and inquired where a gospel meeting might be found. He was invited to the Latimer Road Mission where he eagerly attended the meeting with all his children. As the people sang the words, "I do believe, I will believe that Jesus died for me," and "There is a Fountain Filled With Blood," Cornelius fell to the floor unconscious. Soon he jumped up and said, "I am converted! Children, God has made a new man of me. You have a new father!" Rodney ran out of the church thinking his father had gone crazy. The two brothers of the father were also converted, (Bartholomew, the same night). Soon the three formed an evangelistic team and went roaming over the countryside preaching and singing the gospel. Now Cornelius would walk a mile on Saturday night for a bucket of water rather than travel on Sunday! From 1873 on, "The Converted Gipsies" were used in a wonderful way with Cornelius living until age ninety-one.
Soon after their conversion, Christmas came, and the six children asked their father, "What are we going to have tomorrow?" The father sadly replied, "I do not know, my boy," The cupboard was bare and the purse was empty. The father would no longer play the fiddle in his accustomed saloons. Falling on his knees, he prayed, then told his children, "I do not know what we will have for Christmas dinner, but we shall sing." And sing, they did...
Then we'll trust in the Lord,
And He will provide;
Yes, we'll trust in the Lord,
And He will provide.
A knock sounded on the side of the van. "It is I," said Mr. Sykes, the town missionary. "I have come to tell you that the Lord will provide. God is good, is He not?" Then he told them that three legs of mutton and other groceries awaited them and their relatives in the town. It took a wheelbarrow to bring home the load of groceries and the grateful gipsies never knew whom God used to answer their prayers. Prayer now took on a new meaning, as the teenager heard father pray, "Lord, save my Rodney."
Rodney's conversion as a sixteen-year-old came as a result of a combination of things. The witness of his father, the hearing of Ira Sankey sing, the visit to the home of John Bunyan in Bedford all contributed. Standing at the foot of the statue of Bunyan, Smith vowed he would live for God and meet his mother in heaven. A few days later in Cambridge, he attended the Primitive Methodist Chapel on Fitzroy Street. George Warner, the preacher, gave the invitation and Rodney went forward. Somebody whispered, "Oh, it's only a gipsy boy." This was November 17, 1876, and he rushed home to tell his father that he had been converted. He got a Bible, English dictionary and Bible dictionary and carried them everywhere causing people to laugh. "Never you mind," he would say, "One day I'll be able to read them," adding "and I'm going to preach too. God has called me to preach." He taught himself to read and write and began to practice preaching. One Sunday he went into a turnip field and preached to the turnips. He would sing hymns to the people he met and was known as the singing gipsy boy. At seventeen, he stood on a small corner some distance from the gipsy wagon and gave a brief testimony...his first attempt at preaching.
One day at a convention at the Christian Mission (later the Salvation Army) headquarters in London, William Booth noticed the gipsies and realized that young Rodney had a promising future. He asked the young lad to preach on the spot. Smith sang a solo and gave a good testimony. Though he didn't try to be funny, there was a touch of sunshine in his ministry. On June 25, 1877, he accepted the invitation of Booth to be an evangelist with and for the Mission. His youngest sister was converted in one of his early meetings. For six years (1877-1882), he served on street corners and mission halls in such areas as Whitby, Sheffield, Bolton, Chatham, Hull, Derby and Hanley.
He was married on December 17, 1879 to Annie E. Pennock, one of his converts from Whitby, and their first assignment together was at Chatham. Here the crowd grew from 13 to 250 in nine months. Their first child, Albany, was born December 31, 1880. Then it was six months in Hull in 1881. Here the name "Gipsy" Smith first began to circulate. Meetings at the Ice House grew rapidly and soon 1,500 would attend an early Sunday prayer meeting. A meeting for converts drew 1,000. Then came Derby with defeats and discouragements. However, the Moody 1881 visit in London was a big encouragement. Their last move was to Hanley, in December 1881. He considered this his second home for the rest of his life. By June 1882, great crowds were coming and the work was growing. On July 31st a gold watch was given him and about $20.00 was presented to his wife by the warm-hearted folks there. Acceptance of these gifts was a breach of the rules and regulations of the Salvation Army, and for this, he was dismissed from them. The love in Hanley was returned by Smith, for when his second son was born on August 5th, he named him Alfred Hanley. His eight assignments with the Salvation Army had produced 23,000 decisions and his crowds were anywhere up to 1,500.
Now Cambridge became Gipsy Smith's permanent home for the rest of his life. However, the urging of the people at Hanley to return as an independent preacher was strong. So he returned—ministering there for four years. Crowds reached 4,000 at the Imperial Circus building which was used for three months during this time. These were the largest crowds in the country outside of London. At one pre-service prayer meeting in 1882, the crowd of 300, including Smith, toppled to the room below as the floor collapsed under them injuring seventy people!
In 1883 came his first trip abroad with a visit to Sweden and on February 1, 1884, his third child was born...a girl named Rhoda Zillah. His brief appearance on the program of the Congregational Union of England and Wales Convention swamped him with several offers. Because of this, he traveled extensively from 1886 to 1888, hampered for nine months during 1886 with a throat ailment.
On January 18, 1889, Gipsy Smith left Liverpool for his first trip to America arriving later in the month on a wet Sunday morning. He didn't know a soul in America. He had nothing but credentials from friends back home which he used to introduce himself to some church leaders. Similar to Moody's experience some years earlier in England, the ones who had originally invited him had either died or become indifferent. Dr. Prince of the Nostrand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn opened up his pulpit for a three week crusade with him. The 1,500 seat auditorium was jammed and between 300 and 400 people found the Lord. Following this, he traveled from Boston to San Francisco thrilling large audiences with his story and message. When he returned to England later in the year, he became assistant to F. S. Collier, of the Manchester Wesleyan Mission. Meetings were greatly used of God in a ten day campaign there. The midnight service saw people leaving theaters and bars to come in. Busy as he now was, he never grew tired of visiting gipsy encampments whenever he could on both sides of the Atlantic.
His second trip to America was in August 1891. The old James Street Methodist Church of New York, with Pastor Stephen Merrit, hosted his first meeting in September. There was a great revival. He went to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a Methodist camp ground with a 10,000 seat auditorium. After a couple sermons here where he made many new friends, he returned to the Brooklyn church mentioned previously for a repeat crusade. Then a month long crusade was held at the Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church of New York with Pastor James Roscoe Day. Many were saved. A good series followed back in Edinburg, Scotland in 1892. From this series came the Gipsy Gospel Wagon Mission, devoted to evangelistic work amongst his own people.
In 1892, he took his third trip to America, this time with his wife. He was invited to hold special "drawing room meetings" for some of the elite in one of the largest mansions on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It was not a public meeting, but personal letters were sent to various aristocratic ladies of New York, inviting them to be present. There were to be six meetings and at the first there were 175 ladies present. Facing Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, and such, he simply preached on "Repentance". He said, "I only remembered that they were sinners needing a Savior." He visited Ocean Grove, Lynn, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia in meetings sponsored by the Methodists. The newspaper coverage was good to Gipsy in a united campaign in Yonkers, New York. Denver, Colorado was exceedingly generous to them. From September, 1893 to January, 1894, he returned to Glasgow, Scotland for a seven week crusade in seven different churches over a five month period. The whole city was stirred.
On May 22, 1894, Gipsy Smith arrived in Australia and began a six week campaign in Adelaide. Then on to Melbourne and Sydney where he received a cable that his wife was very sick. This aborted his visit here after only three months, but 2,000 people came to his sendoff. Stopping in New York, the news was that his wife was some better so he spent time at Ocean Grove and in an Indianapolis crusade. It was here that an old man felt Gipsy's head saying, "I am trying to find your bumps, so that I can find the secret of your success." Smith replied, "You must come down here," and placed the man's hand upon his heart.
Home, in November, he found his wife regaining her health. In 1895 he went to London for three months and then on to Alexander MacLaren's church in Manchester. Thorough preparation here produced 600 converts in an eight-day meeting. Then it was on to other towns: Swansee, Wales and back to Edinburgh, Scotland.
On January 1, 1896 he made his fifth trip to America and held a great campaign in the Peoples Temple in Boston. This was the city's largest Protestant Church, with Pastor James Body Brady. Gipsy saw a sign outside the church, "Gipsy Smith, the Greatest Evangelist in the World." He made them take it down. The four week crusade went seven weeks with 800 being received into the church. He then had a good campaign with Pastor Hugh Johnstone at the Metropolitan Episcopal Church of Washington, D.C. There he met President Grover Cleveland, one of the two presidents he was to meet, and also had blind 70 year old Fanny Crosby on his platform one night, singing one of her hymns. Upon his return home, he was made a special missionary of the National Free Church Council from 1897 to 1912. Staying in England for a while, his 1899 crusade at Luton had 1,100 converts and his 1900 crusade at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London had 1,200 converts. A Birmingham, England crusade resulted in 1,500 converts.
One of the highlights of his life was his trip to South Africa in 1904 (age 44). He took his wife along. His daughter, Zillah, was the soloist. They spend six months there. He closed out in Cape Town on May 10th seeing some 3,000 come to the inquiry rooms during his crusade there. A tent meeting in Johannesburg started on June 9th in a 3,000 seat tent. He finally left in September, and it was estimated that 300,000 attended his meetings with 18,000 decisions for Christ during the whole African tour.
The 1906 crusade in Boston, Massachusetts was one of his most renown. Under the auspices of the Boston Evangelical Alliance and personal sponsorship of A. Z. Conrad, Smith conducted 50 meetings at Tremont Temple attended by 116,500 people. Decision cards totaled 2,290.
In 1908 and 1909 France was his burden. Speaking to the cream of society at the Paris Opera House, he saw 150 decisions made. In 1911 and 1912 he was back in America working with the Men and Religion Forward Movement. During World War I, he was back in France beginning in 1914 and for three and one-half years ministered under the YMCA auspices to the English troops there, often visiting the front lines, resulting in receiving the Order of the British Empire which George VI made him a member of.
In 1922, the Nashville, Tennessee crusade seemed to achieve great heights of pulpit power. He had 6,000 Blacks out at a special service. Once when preaching to Blacks only in Dallas, someone called out, "What colour are we going to be in heaven? Shall we be black or white?" Gipsy replied, "My dear sister, we are going to be just like Christ." An "amen" rang out all over the hall.
In 1924, his crusade at the Royal Albert Hall in London had 10,000 attending nightly for the eight day meeting.
In 1926 he made his second trip around the world. In Australia and New Zealand, radio greatly enlarged his ministry. In seven months he accumulated 80,000 decision cards from the large cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, etc., as well as in areas of Tasmania. His twenty- fifth trip to the U.S.A. was in 1928 with his son, Albany, who was also a preacher. They visited many churches. In Long Beach, California, he preached in a tent seating over 5,000. He also visited Toronto for the first time since 1909.
England was not responding to union crusades which Smith deemed necessary, so he was back in America in 1929. Now almost seventy, he traveled from Atlanta to Los Angeles with great power. He spoke to 10,000 people at Ocean Grove. San Antonio, Texas had 10,000 decision cards signed in three weeks. One of his greatest Crusades was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in a tobacco warehouse seating 6,000. 15,000 attended his last meeting with the total of decision cards for the whole crusade being 27,500.
A large youth crusade was conducted in London in 1931.
1934 found him at an open air meeting near the spot where his gipsy mother died. Some 3,500 heard him. A church was started there as a result, called the North Methodist Mission. In June, 1935, he had a rally at Epping Forest near the spot where he was born. 10,000 showed up to hear him talk about his life. His 1936 tour of America featured a great crusade in Elizabeth, New Jersey with 5,000 attending the last night which was the 60th anniversary of his conversion! Hundreds were saved. His favorite song, "He is Mine," was sung. Another great Texas crusade held at Dallas in the Dalentenary Fair Grounds resulted in 10,000 decisions.
Gipsy Smith's wife, Annie, died in 1937 at the age of 79 while he was in America. All of their children turned out well: a minister, an evangelist, and a soloist.
Harold Murray was his constant friend and biographer for thirty years and was pianist for him starting with the first World War.
Front page headlines on June 2, 1938 carried the news of the 78 year old widower marrying Mary Alice Shaw on her 27th birthday. This, of course, brought some criticism. But it was a good marriage, for she helped him in his meetings, sang, did secretarial work, and later nursed him when his health failed. He toured the United States and Canada from 1939 to 1945. In 1945 they went back to England. He preached a bit, but the country was pre-occupied with recovery from the war.
Gipsy was now very tired, and thinking the sunshine of Florida might be good for his health, they embarked again for America. Three hours out of New York, he died on the Queen Mary, stricken by a heart attack. Some say this was his 45th crossing of the Atlantic. His funeral was held August 8, 1947 in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York. A memorial with a plaque was unveiled on July 2, 1949 at Mill Plain, Epping Forest, England, his birthplace. So ends the life of one who once said, "I didn't go through your colleges and seminaries. They wouldn't have me...but I have been to the feet of Jesus where the only true scholarship is learned." And learned it well,—to even compel Queen Victoria of England to write him a letter.
Gipsy never wrote a sermon out for preaching purposes. Only once did he use notes when he needed some Prohibition facts.
Smith wrote several books: "As Jesus Passed By" (1905), "Gipsy Smith: His Work and Life" (1906), "Evangelistic Talks" (1922), "Real Religion" (1929), "The Beauty of Jesus" (1932) and "The Lost Christ."
He could sing as well as he preached. Sometimes he would interrupt his sermon and burst into song. Thousands wept as he sang such songs as, "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" with tears running down his cheeks, or such as "This Wonderful Saviour of Mine" and "Jesus Revealed in Me," a song that he wrote:
Christ the Transforming Light,
Touches this heart of mine,
Piercing the darkest night,
Making His glory shine.
Oh, to reflect His grace,
Causing the world to see,
Love that will glow
Til others shall know
Jesus revealed in me.
Another song that he wrote was "Not Dreaming." This was written while he was resting in a corner of a railway compartment. He was reflecting on all the wonderful events of a recent campaign and some teenagers said, "Oh, he's only dreaming." He soon had a song to give the world...
The world says I'm dreaming, but I know 'tis Jesus
Who saves me from bondage and sin's guilty stain;
He is my Lover, my Saviour, my Master,
'Tis He who has freed me from guilt and its pain.
Let me dream on if I am dreaming;
Let me dream on, My sins are gone;
Night turns to dawn, Love's light is beaming,
So if I'm dreaming, Let me dream on.
Other hymns written were, "Thank God for You," and "Mother of Mine." C. Austin Miles wrote "But This I Know," and dedicated it to Smith. B. D. Ackley composed the music for "Let the Beauty of Jesus Be Seen in Me," and dedicated it to Smith.
Although he was a Methodist, ministers of all denominations loved him. It is said that he never had a meeting without conversions.
From one of 49 booklets by Ed Reese in the Christian Hall of Fame series. Reese Publications, 7801 Ember Crest Trail, Knoxville, TN 37938.
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