"The spiritual giants of old were men who at some time became acutely conscious of the real Presence of God and maintained that consciousness for the rest of their lives." A.W. Tozer
"I tried to serve God in the flesh...and failed; and it was hard to be a Christian; but when God snapped the fetters and set free my captive soul...and I was born of the Spirit, the ‘yoke was easy and the burden was light.'" D.L. Moody
"God wants to take natural people and work supernaturally through them to bring about a mighty surge of power." Lester Sumrall
"Christ is either Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all." J. Hudson Taylor
"Christ is a substitute for everything; but nothing is a substitute for Christ." H.M. Ironside
"It is vain to speak of approaching judgment when finding our place, our portion, and our enjoyment in the very scene which is to be judged." C.H. Mackintosh
On a cold evening in November, 1876 inside the Primitive Methodist Chapel on Fitzroy Street in Cambridge, England, the pastor, George Warner, was wrapping up his sermon with an invitation to accept the Lord Jesus as one's Lord and Savior. A young sixteen year old boy was moved to tears and with youthful exuberance jumped the pews to make his way to the front. His excitement was contagious until one of the "religious faithful" whispered, "Oh, it is only a gypsy boy." No one knows whatever became of the life of the person who mouthed such a condescending statement but we do know what God did in the life of the "gypsy boy." Over the next seventy years he would hold large evangelistic meetings in England and Scotland, travel across the ocean to America over thirty times bringing tens of thousands to repentance and preached around the world twice. In the Paris Opera House he recorded 150 solid lasting conversions out of the decadent cream of Parisian Society. His name was Rodney Smith and the entire world would be touched by this uneducated man of God:
"I did not go through your colleges and seminaries. They would not have me...But I have been to the feet of Jesus where the only true scholarship is learned."
Robert "Gypsy" Smith, destined to become the best loved evangelist of all time, was born in a gypsy tent six miles northeast of London, at Epping Forest, on March 31, 1860. He received no formal education, never attending one day in school. His family made a living selling such homemade items as baskets, tinware, and clothespins. For years, Rodney never knew how old he was or when he was actually born. Since he was born a gypsy, they had no personal records of his birth and even if they did he would not be able to read them. In his autobiography he states:
" a good aunt of mine took the trouble to get someone to examine the register of Wanstead Church(England), and there found an entry giving the date of the birth and christening of Rodney Smith. I discovered that I was a year younger than I took myself to be."
His mother, Mary (Polly) Welch, made a comfortable home for Rodney, his brother and four sisters in the gypsy wagon. His father Cornelius played violin in the surrounding pubs for extra money to support the large brood. Sometimes young Rodney would accompany his father and dance and collect money for the added entertainment. His father was constantly in and out of jail for various offenses and it was there that he first heard the Gospel from a prison chaplain. Still not totally sure of what he had a hold of, Cornelius began to share the Gospel with his family. It was about this time that Rodney's mother contracted smallpox. In the small wagon Rodney watched his father lead his mother to know Jesus just days before her death. She died singing a childhood song about Jesus she had remembered hearing when she was a child. Her last words to her husband were, "I believe. Be a good father to my children. I know God will take care of my children." The sight of his mother being buried by lantern-light at the end of a lane in Hertfordshire left a deep impression on him throughout the years. Every one of the children would eventually go into Christian service.
Rodney's father, after his wife's death, could not keep from falling back to his old ways. Even though drinking and gambling became a part of his life again, he kept a stern eye on the children. It didn't help in Rodney's case. He became very mischievous along with being a liar, a poacher, and a thief. He was constantly getting into and out of scrapes. Rodney's father knew he was being a terrible influence on his children and he did his best to reform but he could not do it in his own strength. He was in such distress over his soul that at times Rodney thought his father was going mad. Cornelius soon found that his two brothers, Woodlock and Bartholomew, also were being quickened by the Holy Spirit to repent of their ways. One night the three of them stopped at a tavern and talked to the women innkeeper about God. She got out the only book on God she had, John Bunyan's ," Pilgrims Progress," and read to them. The brothers needed to hear nothing else; they decided to go after God. They found out about a Methodist camp meeting at the other end of town and gathering up his children, Cornelius and his brothers, attended the service. As the crowd sang, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood" Cornelius fell to the floor unconscious, slain in the Spirit. Suddenly he jumped up and shouted , "I am converted! Children, God has made a new man of me. You have a new father!" Rodney, seeing his father shouting and dancing so jubilantly, ran out of the meeting as fast as he could thinking his father had gone absolutely crazy. Cornelius and his two brothers were converted that night and their lives were completely changed. Known as "The Converted Gypsies" they travelled around the countryside singing and preaching.
One night the three were thrown into jail for innocently hitching their horses in a town that wanted no gypsies, let alone "saved" gypsies. Remembering the story of Paul and Silas, while in jail, they sang and prayed into the night, converting the jailer's wife by their testimonies. All of Rodney's older brothers and sisters were also saved but Rodney held out. Even though he saw the transformation in his family he was not ready to give his life over to God. It began to wear on him that his brothers and sisters all received Christ in the order of their births and that he was, to an extent , holding up his younger sister's conversion. During an evangelistic tour of D. L. Moody throughout England, Rodney heard the singing of Ira Sankey and also a visit to the home of John Bunyan in Bedford both contributed to Rodney coming to himself. As he stood before the statue of John Bunyan, he meditated on how God worked in that young tinker's life. Soon a desire to know the real Jesus began to fill his heart. He would later write:
"I remember one evening sitting on the trunk of a old tree not far from my father's tent and wagon. Around the fallen trunk grass had grown about as tall as myself. I had gone there to think, because I was under the deepest conviction and had an earnest longing to love the Savior and to be a good lad. I thought of my mother in heaven, and I thought of the beautiful life my father, brother, and sisters were living, and I said to myself, ‘Rodney, are you going to wander about as a gypsy boy and a gypsy man without hope, or will you be a Christian and have some definite object to live for? Everything was still, and I could almost hear the beating of my heart. For answer to my question, I found myself startling myself by my own voice ‘By the grace of God, I will be a Christian and I will meet my mother in heaven!"
Rushing home he told his father that he had been converted. When his father asked him how he knew he was converted, Rodney replied, "because I feel so warm in my heart.'
A few days later at the Methodist Chapel in Cambridge Rodney answered the call of Pastor Warner to come forward for the altar call. From that day forward the "only a gypsy boy" never turned back. He found a Bible and together with an English dictionary and Bible dictionary carried them wherever he went causing many people to laugh and revile him. "Never you mind," he would tell them, "one day I'll be able to read them because I'm going to preach, God has called me to preach." With those three books as his only library, Rodney taught himself to read. He would sing hymns to people he met becoming known as the "Singing gypsy boy." One day he even went into a turnip patch and preached to the turnips. His first attempt at preaching in public came one day when he stood on a street corner, not far from the wagon, and gave his first testimony. He was seventeen at the time.
Because of his conversion, Cornelius, Rodney's father would no longer play the fiddle in the saloons, losing a substantial amount of their income. Times were tough, often living from hand to mouth. With their faith in the provision and protection of God there was never any worry for their welfare. One year, as Christmas neared, the children asked their father what they were going to have on Christmas day. Cornelius didn't know where their next meal would come from because the cupboard was bare and his purse was empty. He then gathered the six children around him in the wagon and said, "I do not know what we will have for Christmas dinner, but we will sing and trust in the Lord. Yes, we will trust in the Lord and He will provide" and sing they did. Rodney remembered every song they sung that night and how the presence of the Lord filled their little wagon home.
Prayer and Praise took on a whole new meaning to Rodney that night and he relates what happened next:
"A knock sounded on the side of the van. It was Mr. Sykes, the town missionary and with a joyful sound in his voice he said, ‘I have come to tell you that the Lord will provide. God is good, is He not? There are three legs of mutton and other groceries awaiting you and your family in the town.'"
It took a wheelbarrow to bring home all the groceries and the grateful gypsies never did find out who God used to answer their prayer.
Shortly thereafter, Rodney publicly confessed his faith at a revival meeting, saying:
"I cannot trust myself for I am nothing. I cannot trust in what I have for I have nothing; and I cannot trust in what I know for I know nothing. It will not be hard for me to trust Jesus."
During a Christian Mission (later called the Salvation Army) convention, William Booth noticed the gypsies and he asked Rodney to preach on the spot. Rodney first sang a song and then gave a good personal testimony and the place was quite stirred. Booth then invited young Rodney to be part of the travelling ministry as an evangelist. Rodney agreed and started preaching at the various mission locations and his youngest sister was converted in one of his meetings. He preached on street corners and inside missions throughout England pulling large crowds wherever he preached. He married one of his converts, Annie E. Pennock and their first assignment was to the town of Chatham. This marriage would produce three children, two boys and a girl. All would follow in their father's footsteps as a minister, evangelist, and soloist.
In Chatham, his first mission started with thirteen believers growing to 250 in a short time. A year later he was sent to Hull, England where his ministry took off. It was here that the name "gypsy" Smith first began to circulate. In Hull, he would hold his meetings in the Ice House and over 1,500 would attend the early Sunday prayer meeting before services. A meeting for just converts would draw over 1,000. He then moved to Hanley where the crowds were overwhelming. The people of Hanley were so overjoyed with the preaching of Rodney and to show their appreciation they gave him a gold watch and presented his wife with $20.00. This did not sit well with the hierarchy within the Salvation Army. Acceptance of these gifts was a breach of the rules and regulations , and for this, he was dismissed from the organization. All in all he was given eight assignments from the Salvation Army producing over 23,000 converts and crowds of over 1,500 wherever he went to preach. The night he delivered his last sermon as a "Salvationist" he was carried through the streets on the shoulders of supporters while two brass bands marched and played behind them. Rodney remarked, "The band does not seem to be playing a retreat."
He stayed for four years in Hanley ministering on his own. He would hold services at the Imperial Circus building. Word soon spread about the presence of the Holy Spirit in his meetings that the crowds reached more than 4,000 in a couple of months. One report said these were the largest crowds ever reported in the country outside of London. Seventy people were injured one night during a prayer service when the floor collapsed under the weight of 300 people. His popularity as a sincere man of God got him a invitation to preach at the Congregational Union of England and Wales convention. From there his ministry took off world-wide.
In 1886, Rodney made the first of thirty evangelistic trips to the United States where his meetings were attended by thousands. Although it didn't start off that way. Just as happened with D. L. Moody when he was first invited to preach in England, those who were backing Rodney either died or became indifferent by the time he crossed the ocean. On arriving in America no one was there to greet him nor did he know anyone. He used the credentials he had from back in England to introduce himself to some church leaders. Dr. Prince of the Nostrand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn opened his pulpit to Rodney for a three week crusade. Over 400 people found the Lord and joined the church as members. He was soon invited to preach in Boston and San Francisco to standing room only crowds all broken and weeping under the Spirit.
Returning to England, he became assistant to F. S. Collier at the Manchester Wesleyan Mission. He would hold midnight services that would have people leaving the theatres and bars to come in to his meetings. By the time he arrived in America the second time, he was preaching to campgrounds crowded with over 10,000 souls all thirsting for the river that was flowing from him. A third trip to America found him in the midst of the aristocracy holding "drawing room meetings." These meetings were held in the largest mansions on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Personal letters were sent to various high society ladies of New York, inviting them to be present. In all, there were six of these meetings. The first had 175 ladies present, many hearing the true Gospel for the first time. The most influential woman in the group was Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, from one of the richest families in the world, and when asked how he approached them he answered, "I only remembered that they were sinners needing a Savior." Needless to say the text of his message was "Repentance." The newspapers across the nation ran front page stories about his crowded meetings and by the time he returned to England and visited Glasgow, Scotland the entire town turned out for a seven day crusade.
In 1896, he made his fifth trip to the United States and held tremendous meetings at the largest Protestant church in Boston, Peoples Temple. Outside the church was a sign that read, "Gypsy Smith, the Greatest Evangelist in the World." He made them take it down. What started out to be a four week crusade ended up being seven weeks with 800 new souls being added to the church. Wherever he went to preach the list of converts was enormous. During fifty meetings at the Tremont Temple in Boston over 116,500 people attended. In France, speaking to the cream of society at the Paris Opera House 150 pledged their fortunes for the Kingdom of God and joined local churches. In Joannesburg, Africa a tent meeting was begun in June of 1904 in a 3,000 seat tent. When he finally left in September it was estimated that over 300,000 attended the meetings with 18,000 decisions for Christ.
Once when preaching to blacks in Dallas, someone called out, "What color are we going to be in heaven? Shall we be black or white?" Rodney replied, "My dear sister, we are going to be just like Christ." An "Amen" rang out all over the hall and the entire room came forward at the time of repentance.
In 1924, ten thousand attended nightly for an eight night crusade at the Royal Albert Hall in England. One of the greatest crusades was held in a tobacco warehouse in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The warehouse would seat 6,000 souls. Fifteen thousand attended his last meeting there with over 27,500 converts for the whole series of meetings.
In 1937, Rodney's wife, Anne died at the age of 79. In 1938, Rodney, then 78, married Mary Alice Shaw on her 27th birthday. This brought some criticism but the marriage was a good one and lasted until he died in 1947.
Rodney is also known for the many books he wrote. One of his sermons became world famous, titled "The Lost Christ." This sermon was a pouring out of his heart against the condition of the Church at that time. Pews and pews were filled with Christians who, like our Savior's mother, had "lost Christ." They long forgot the joy of their first love and instead, under deception, fill that emptiness with pomp, tradition and rituals. Thinking all the time the Lord is with them but in reality they "lost Christ." Mary and Joseph, Jesus's earthly parents, in Luke 2:44,45, discovered they had lost Christ and had to go back to where they last were with Him to find Him again. He would ask the question where did you lose Christ; at work, at home, on vacation or maybe, like Mary, you lost Him in church:
"She lost Him at the service in the Temple, among holy things, in a holy atmosphere, amid holy surroundings. Oh God, save us from mockery! Someone will have to rise, some twentieth-century John the Baptist, some Martin Luther, some firebrand who does not care for anything that may be done to him, and he will have to be prepared to lose his head in calling to Church of God to a halt. Somebody will do it, and God knows that I would be willing to lose my head if I could call men successfully back to the Christ from whom they have wandered. A Church without Christ is a Mockery."
Excerpt from "The Lost Christ"
In 1947, at 86 years of age, Rodney was again on the Queen Mary steaming for America once again. Three hours out of New York he was stricken by a heart attack and died. His funeral was held on August 8. 1947, at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York. So ended the life of the evangelist of whom it was said, "He never had a meeting without conversions." However, Rodney "Gypsy" Smith would say of his life, "For such success as I have been permitted to see in my work I want no credit."
2 Corinthians 10:17,18 "But ‘he who glories, let him glory in the Lord.' For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends."
J.J. (Dark) Di Pietro
Cane Creek Church