Rodney “Gipsy” Smith
March 31, 1860 was a day that years later became a happy day for thousands of people who would hear the voice of Rodney Smith. He was born in a gypsy wagon outside the village of Effing Forest, England. The unique life style of a gypsy often gave them a bad reputation because of the often misconduct where they encamped their wagons outside of villages. Often they cheated people and stole.
Rodney’s mother died while he was yet a child. The family made and sold baskets. Since he was a lively boy he often sold a majority of the family wares. Sometimes he would offer to sing for people and they gave him coins for the entertainment. In some places, he was known as the “little singing Gypsy boy.”
Rodney’s father came to know Christ along with his two brothers when they wandered into a Methodist camp meeting. Later when they were mistakenly arrested for tying their horses where a sign that read, “No Gypsies” because they could not read, they were put in jail. Their rousing singing and testimonies in that jail influenced the jailer’s wife and she came to Christ!
Rodney was a hold out in the family when it came to following Christ. One night he went apart from the rest of the people and surprised himself when he heard his own voice telling him to trust the grace of God for salvation! He was 17. Immediately he had a hunger to be able to read. One day he stood in front of a billboard wondering what it said. A lady passing by asked “Son, is there something I can help you with.”
“Yes, he replied, “tell me what that sign says.”
“Ma’am I really want to know how to read, how can I do that?” She patted his arm and told him that with such a deep desire, he could teach himself.”
Soon after that, Rodney purchased a Bible, and a Dictionary. Like his father, what Rodney heard, he remembered. It was a struggle to learn the letters and figure out the words, but little by little, he did teach himself to read. Although he never attended one day of school, he was honored later in life to speak to the students at Harvard University! Someone suggested to Cornelius Smith that he try to send his son to Spurgon’s school to learn more about the Bible, but it never came to a reality. Once Rodney learned to read, he committed large portions of Scripture to memory.
The bold testimonies of Cornelius and his brothers left a big impact on Rodney. He tells many stories about his father’s violin, and crowds gathered just to hear him play his “hallelujah fiddle.” He tells a story of a time when he was selling wares and a sudden rain hit. He dashed to the closest shelter of a shed and to pass the
time away, he took off his cap, kneeled on the ground, and prayed. Not knowing that he was being heard, and not knowing how long he was in prayer, he suddenly heard a “sniff, sniff” sound. There he was between his basket of wares, his cap, and being heard by the occupants of the house. He was embarrassed and hurried off and regretted later that he had not taken the opportunity to tell them of the Jesus to Whom he was talking.
A year after his conversion experience, Rodney met William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Booth liked the singing voice and eager testimony. Booth gave him a part in the ministry. While he struggled to learn to read so that he could read Scripture, he also sang and preached throughout England and some countries in Europe. He became well known for singing the song, “There is a Fountain.”
Eventually, he launched out on his own. By then he had met and married a wife. She was a great help and encouragement to him, but when he made his first trip or nearly 50 trips to America, he came alone. He had two letters of recommendation with him, and knew of only one name to contact. Smith found his way to the church to introduce himself to the pastor and found them in prayer. For three weeks they had been praying nightly for revival.
After introduction he was welcomed and scheduled to speak in a three-week campaign. Smith, in the book he wrote Gipsy Smith, His life and Work, by Himself said of that first meeting: The prayer meetings had started before I left England, and by supplication and consecration the people had been getting ready for my coming. They did not know it, and I did not know it. But God who brought us together did. From that meeting to many others, Smith sang and preached his way across America. Perhaps it comes from a question asked him regarding revival that he described revival in the best of terms:
He said, “Find a piece of chalk, and find an empty room. Go into that room and shut the door. Draw a circle on the floor with that chalk, kneel down in that circle, and ask God to start revival right there.”
For seventy years Rodney “Gipsy” Smith carried the Gospel across Europe and across America. On that first meeting he met Ira Sankey, that great song leader. He had met Sankey before but wondered if Sankey remembered it. On a drive on the evening before his first meeting he asked Sankey, “Do you remember when Mr. Moody and you were in London you came out to a Gypsy camp at Effing Forest?
“Yes, I remember it very well, and I remember meeting the converted gipsy brothers who were doing a good evangelistic work up and down your country.”
“One of these brothers, Cornelius Smith, is my father, and he is still doing the same work.”
Mr. Sankey was pleased to hear this.
I further asked him: “Do you remember that some little gipsy boys stood by the wheel of the trap in which you were driving, and that, leaning over, you put your hand on the head of one of them and said, “The Lord make a preacher of you, my boy”?
“Yes, I remember that too.”
“I am that boy.”
Mr. Sankey’s joy knew no bounds.
That little gipsy boy became fondly known as “Gipsy Smith” and is well-known today for his driving desire to see folks come to Christ. Thousands, tens of thousands of people came to Christ in his ministry. His illustration of the chalk circle is as appropriate today as it was in the latter 19th century and well into the 20th century as the recipe for revival. It is said that he did not know the exact date of his birth until after he knew the date of his New Birth in Christ. A family member kindly researched it for him and found it to be March 31, 1860. He left this earth in 1947 but somewhere in Heaven, he may well be singing, “There is a Fountain” with Lester Roloff and Curtis Hudson! May his life continue to be an inspiration.