Rodney "Gypsy" Smith, 1860-1947, Evangelist
Written by: Unknown Posted on: 03/17/2003
Rodney "Gypsy" Smith
British evangelist. Gypsy Smith was born in England. His
mother died when he was a small boy. His father led him to
Christ at the age of 15. Two years later, Smith joined Gen-
eral William Booth's mission, and began preaching to crowds
that numbered from 100 to 1,500. He conducted evangelistic
campaigns in the United States and Scotland for over 70
He came to America 30 times and preached around the
world twice. In the Paris Opera House he had 150 conversions
out of the cream of Parisian society. He was a contemporary
of Fanny Crosby and G. Campbell Morgan.
ARTIST'S NOTE: The portrait attempts to present the rugged
character of the man, especially in the gypsy background col-
ors, while at the same time presents the softness and warmth
of his personality.
Rodney (Gipsy) Smith
BORN: March 31, 1860 Died: August 4, 1947
Wanstead, England 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 gypsy 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 gypsy 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
earlier 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
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 were 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 Gypsies" 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 purse was empty. The father would no longer
play the fiddle in his accustomed saloons. Falling on his knees,
he prayed, then told the his children, "I do not know what we
will have for Christmas dinner, but we shall sing." And sing,
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 gypsies 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'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 treet. George Warner, the preacher,
gave the invitation and Rodney went forward. Somebody whispered,
"Oh, it's only a gypsy 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
gypsy boy. At seventeen, he stood on a small corner some distance
from the gypsy wagon and gave a brief testimony...his first
attempt at preaching.
One day at a convention at the Christian Mission (later
called the Salvation Army) headquarters in London, William Booth
noticed the gypsies 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
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 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 the Army. 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
Now Cambridge became Gipsy Smith's permanent home for the
rest of his life. However, the urging o 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 o 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
serve saw people leaving theatres and bars to come in. Busy as he
now was, he never grew tired of visiting gypsy 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 campground 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
Gypsy 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 Gypsy 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 met Gipsy,
suddenly reached up and 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
One of the highlights of his life was his trip to South
Africa in 1904 (age 44). He took his wife along. He daughter,
Zillah, was the soloist. They spent 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
Joannesburg 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
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. Duing World War I, he was back
in France beginning in 1914 and for three and a half years
ministered under the Y.M.C.A. auspices to the English troops
there, often visiting the front lines. The result of this? King
George VI made him a member of the Order of the British Empire.
In 1922 the Nashville, Tennessee crusade seemed to achieve
great heights of pulpit power. He had 6,000 black people out at a
Once when preaching to blacks only in Dallas, someone called
out, "What color 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. Fifteen thousand 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.
The year 1934 found him at an open air meeting near the spot
where his gypsy 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. Ten thousand 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 Dalantenary Fairgrounds 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
scretarial 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
preoccupied with recovery from the Second World 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 were the only true
scholarship is learned." And learned it was--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 would sing as well as he preached. Sometimes he would
interrupt his sermon and burst into song. Thousands wept as he
sag 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
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