Rodney Smith (1860-1947) was born in a gipsy tent near Epping Forest in England. As was then true of gipsies, the boy received no education; he was truly illiterate. He joined the family trade by selling his father’s hand carved clothespins. In the evenings, his father, Cornelius, played a fiddle to entertain the men who hunched over their glasses of beer down at the pub. Into those murky surroundings he would bring his boy, Rodney, who danced and passed the hat. And if Cornelius became too drunk to notice, then Rodney would take a second collection, storing the proceeds in his own deep pocket. “What I collected that time I regarded as my share of the profits, for I was a member of the firm of Smith & Son, and not a sleeping partner either.”
When Cornelius’ wife, Polly, neared the birth of their sixth child, she contracted small- pox. The baby came, but there was little joy at the new arrival. Lying in that lone gipsy tent, off a muddy road, near the town of Norton, she told her husband, “Cornelius, I am dying. I don’t know what you will do with these children, but I want you to promise me you will give up drinking and swearing.” Cornelius stepped out of the tent and threw himself on the ground, sobbing. Sobbing for his wife, but also sobbing for his own inability to be the man his children needed. As he lay there, he heard a soft voice singing the chorus:
I have a Father in the Promised Land;
My God calls me, I must go
To meet Him in the Promised Land.
It was Polly, singing a song that had been buried away since childhood. As she sang it over, Cornelius considered Someone he had seldom thought of–God.
Rodney was only a child and little understood what was happening. Their mother was dying. It was not until some days later when his sister blurted out, “Rodney, you have no mother,” that he collapsed on the grass wailing, “I shall have no mother like other boys.”
For weeks, Cornelius was so despondent that the children feared that they would soon lose their father also. Then Cornelius confided in his two brothers, Bartholomew and Woodlock, “Brothers, I have a great burden that I must get removed. A hunger is gnawing at my heart. I can neither eat, drink, nor sleep. If I do not get this want satisfied, I shall die!”
They replied, “Cornelius, we feel just the same.” Together they drove their wagon to a beer shop in Cambridge, where they told the landlady how they felt.
Listening to the three big, simple men, she began to weep, “I have a book upstairs that will just suit you; it makes me cry every time I read it.”
They took the book with them, and found a young fellow who would read it to them. The book was Pilgrim’s Progress. When they heard how Pilgrim lost his burden, Bartholomew sprang up and began pacing in front of his brothers. “That is what I want–my burden removed! If God does not save me, I shall die!”
Later, the three came to Christ in a gospel meeting. Rodney was in his early teens when the Smith family passed through Bedford, and as he stood in front of the statue of John Bunyan, he also entrusted himself to the One who receives sinful men. His first prayer was, “Lord, make my heart Thy home.”
Two years later, he heard William Booth at the Christian Mission (which would become “the Salvation Army”). The Mission included 35 rescue missions in cities around England. Booth was told that Rodney was a keen believer, so in a testimonial time, Booth asked the gipsy boy to stand in front of one thousand listeners and tell how the Lord had saved him. As Rodney cleared his throat, from that sea of faces a tall man called out, “Keep your heart up, youngster!”
Under his breath, Rodney said, “My heart is in my mouth already. Where do you want it?” The ice was broken, and the gipsy plunged into gospel preaching under William Booth’s leadership.
Gipsy was never accused of being too academic in his delivery. When he began preaching, he was simultaneously learning to read. There he would stand with the Bible open, haltingly saying the sounds of the rows of letters before him. If he spied a long word coming, he would look up from the page and make a comment or two, and then he resumed reading, beginning on the other side of that unpronounceable word.
A news reporter asked Gipsy if he aspired to receive a doctorate. He responded, “My health is sound and my preaching is sound, so why should I need a doctor?”
In 1878, he married Annie E. Pennock. She had been converted while hearing him preach at Whitby. They had three children: Zillah, Albany, and Hanley. Soon after their marriage, they were assigned a place at Hull where about fifteen hundred people regularly attended his meetings. There at Hull he became known as “Gipsy Smith.” While preaching at Hanley, he ran afoul of the Salvation Army discipline. It actually was a personal clash with General Booth’s second son, Bramwell. For a supposed breach of the Army rules, he was dismissed. This was Gipsy’s first visit to the waters of Marah. Later, he saw God’s hand in that bitter experience. Expelled from the Salvation Army, he thereafter understood that he was meant to be the Lord’s free man. “I was born in the field, and you can’t cram me into a flower pot,” Gipsy would say.
In 1886, he made the first of thirty trips to the United States. In 1892, Gipsy conducted an evangelistic series in Edinburgh, from which he began a work among his own people–the gipsies. Queen Mary took an interest in Gipsy’s work, and often invited him to garden parties at Buckingham Palace. “Perhaps I’ll get a title one day,” he said, “Lord Clothespegs!”
In one arduous tour of the U.S., Gipsy spoke 350 times, visiting 54 cities and travelling 50,000 miles. President Theodore Roosevelt congratulated him for his work and said, “The gospel of Christ, though old, is ever new in the appeal it makes to the hearts and minds of men and in its power to sustain them in all trial and tribulation. No greater thing can come to our land than a revival…I doubt if there is any problem, social, political or economic, that would not melt away before the fire of such a spiritual awakening.”
But Gipsy was not always congratulated. One paper reported that he was a fraud, calling him the King of Bunkum. These remarks he ignored. But one comment pleased him. It was written in chalk near the door of his apartment: “Keep away from this man–he is dangerous.”
Gipsy dreaded the shallowness of contemporary evangelism. This is reflected in his two messages, “Repent Ye” and “Slay Utterly,” both found in Gipsy’s book, As Jesus Passed By. Commenting on Fanny Crosby’s line, “Only a step to Jesus, then why not take it now?” Gipsy voiced concern that evangelicals were not emphasizing the greatness of coming to Christ. He would intone, “It is only a step? Who told you so? Only a step to Jesus? Then it is a very big step.”
Gipsy often preached about making restitution, using the illustration of the Philippian jailer who proved the reality of his salvation by caring for the man he had earlier tortured. Restitution was called “stripe washing.” In South Africa, a murderer confessed his crime to Gipsy and purposed to return to England to turn himself in. Smith had one embezzler come to his office with a briefcase that bulged with money, ready to deliver to his previous victims. Adulterers and drunkards confessed their sins, and took definite steps to rectify past offenses.
And where did the energy, stamina and wisdom come from to continue such a ministry? Perhaps the secret goes back to an experience in Gipsy’s childhood.
During Moody and Sankey’s first crusade in the British Isles, they rode out to the gipsy encampment in Epping Forest. Moody preached and Sankey sang. There the three converted gipsies, Cornelius, Woodlock, and Bartholomew, introduced them to a promising young boy, “This is Rodney, who sings the gospel.”
Ready to leave, Ira Sankey gazed down from their horse-drawn buggy at the young children crowding them. Sankey quickly leaned out of the buggy and put his hand over the curly hair of that boy with big brown eyes. “The Lord make a preacher out of you, my boy!” And as quick as an “Amen” could be said, the horse tugged and the buggy rolled away.
Years later, the British preacher visited Sankey in Brooklyn, New York. He asked if he remembered a barefoot boy in Epping Forest, just outside London, that he laid his hand on.
Sankey replied, “Yes, I remember that.”
“Well,” the gipsy beamed, “I was that boy, and you know, Mr. Sankey, I never get into the pulpit to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ but that I still feel the pressure of your hand on my head.”
We might think that Sankey’s mantle had fallen on the Gipsy. His preaching had a musical quality to it. The freshness and thrill of knowing God was in it. Often, when he visited a place, they requested that he tell his testimony, which he could not tell without tears. He did not seem at all artificial, or put on. It was the most natural thing for the Gipsy to move from quoting the words of a song to singing them. A common theme of his is summed up in the lines,
What can the lost know of Jesus,
If they cannot see Jesus in me?
He asked, “In my private life, do I make those nearest to me think of Jesus?” So he taught thousands to sing,
Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me,
All His wonderful passion and purity.
Vance Havner related how, “it was my privilege to hear the Gipsy preach at meetings which proved to be the last time he came to America. He was in his 80’s. My, how he preached that night! I have never heard him any better. At the end of the meeting, I decided that this might be the last time I would see him this side of Heaven and I just had to go up and shake his hand and thank him. As I came near the Gipsy, an older man came up to him and I heard him say, ‘Gipsy, I heard you preach when you first came to America over 50 years ago–my how you blessed my heart then. I have never forgotten it–but again tonight, how my heart was warmed and thrilled! Gipsy, tell me–what’s the secret?’ Gipsy replied, ‘I have never lost the wonder of it all.'”
Much of the material for this article was taken from:
Gipsy Smith: His Life and Work: an Autobiography
Gipsy Smith: From the Forest I Came: D. Lazell
Sixty Years an Evangelist: An Intimate Study of Gipsy
Smith: H. Murray
The Beauty of Jesus: Gipsy Smith
As Jesus Passed By: Gipsy Smith
Treasury of Hymn Histories: Alfred B. Smith