Rodney ‘Gypsy’ Smith
31 March 1860 – 4 August 1947
Very little is known about the Gypsy culture, as most of what has been written about them has come from ‘Gorgers’. A Gorger is the term Gypsies use for non-travellers, people who live in houses and thus, from a Gypsy perspective, over consume.
Because of this divide, much of what is said about the Gypsy community is stigmatised. Those who do not understand their intricacies produce negative and headline grabbing content focussing on the anti-social behaviour of the minority. We have a large Roma/Gypsy/Traveller community in our valley and many attend our church. We love them all dearly, they are a hard-working, trustworthy, family-centred people who are devout followers of Jesus and I am forever grateful to them for introducing me to Rodney ‘Gypsy’ Smith to whom the Christian church is indebted.
Gypsy Smith is relatively unknown today, but he preached to more people than anyone in history, prior to Billy Graham. He was born in a tent near Epping Forest in North East London and never went to school. He worked hard, helping his father Cornelius make baskets and clothes pegs. His mother, Mary, sadly died of smallpox when he was young.
In 1876, Gypsy Smith came to faith at his local Methodist church and taught himself to read and write. He felt called to preach and learnt his trade by walking the fields ‘preaching to the turnips’. He was a man of the people and believed that his Roma community was a lost tribe of Israel. Just as the Jews had their traditions of cleaning and sanitation, their unique burial customs, language, and appearance, so did the Roma community. They also both shared a history of persecution.
In 1877, Gypsy Smith met William Booth, who was drawn to his singing talent. Gypsy Smith gave his testimony and was invited to join the Salvation Army. His first assignment was in Chatham where the congregation grew from 10 to 250 in nine months under his preaching. He was then sent to Hull. Here, over a thousand people came each week to hear him preach. To show their appreciation the church presented Gypsy Smith and his wife with the gift of a gold watch. However, after accepting the watch, he was dismissed by the Salvation Army for breaching their policy.
Called to preach throughout the world
Gypsy Smith continued to receive invitations to speak all across the United Kingdom and Europe. He ran several missions in South Africa where an estimated 300,000 people heard him speak and over 23,000 people professed faith in Jesus.
In 1891, Gypsy Smith accepted his first of many invites to preach in America, where he would speak to more than 10,000 at a time. It was in Boston, in 1896 when 116,000 people attended his crusade that Gypsy Smith was given the title of ‘the Greatest Evangelist in the World.’
In 1922, Gypsy Smith was speaking in Nashville, Tennessee to a 6,000 strong and exclusively black audience when he was asked, ‘What colour are we going to be in heaven? Shall we be black or white?’ Gypsy Smith replied, ‘We are going to be just like Christ.’
A gospel storyteller
Because Gypsy Smith came from an oral tradition, he didn’t rely on manuscripts and notes, but used storytelling to preach the gospel. He could paint pictures with his words and present the gospel in a wonderfully clear way. His style of preaching reached the masses and was understood by all who heard him. He famously said, ‘The way to Jesus is not by Cambridge and Oxford, Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare or the poets. It is over an old-fashioned hill called Calvary.’
On another occasion he said, ‘You may climb to the stars and have the sun to play with, and the moon for a hoop and the stars for marbles, but if you want to heal men of broken hearts and guilt you have got to come back to the gospel.’
Gypsy Smith had a unique style that appealed to all people, but the gospel was always clear and he left his audience in no doubt of their personal responsibility to live a life that attested to the faith they proclaim. 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.’
He knew that God could change lives and work through whoever came to him regardless of their wealth, or status in life. He said, ‘St. Paul’s cathedral is nothing but a glorified quarry if Christ be out of it, and my old gypsy tent is a cathedral when Christ is in it.’
Gypsy Smith was an unsung hero of the faith. He was involved in hundreds of evangelistic campaigns across the whole world and was a part of many revivals. He preached to millions of people and pointed them to Christ. During his lifetime he also wrote several books including his autobiography and As Jesus Passed By, The Beauty of Jesus and The Lost Christ.
After an estimated 45 crossings of the Atlantic Ocean, Gypsy Smith suffered a heart attack on the Queen Mary in 1947 on his way to America. His funeral was held in New York with a plaque unveiled in Epping Forrest. It was a fitting tribute to a man who came from such humble beginnings but who had a ministry that stretched across continents.