Rodney “Gipsy” Smith was born in a gypsy tent near Epping Forest, England, on March 31, 1860. Rodney’s dad, Cornelius, made a living by playing violin in the taverns and was converted through a prison chaplain on one of his numerous imprisonments for failure to pay fines. Rodney’s mother died from smallpox when he was young and Rodney was “born again” through the encouragement of his father, in a Primitive Methodist Chapel in Cambridge on 17 November, 1876.
Rodney’s mother confessed Christ on her deathbed and all six children went into Christian service.
Having been born to a gipsy lifestyle, young Rodney had no proper education. Rodney carried a Bible and Dictionaries with him and when people mocked he reassured himself with the knowledge that one day he would be able to read them. At the age of 17 “this unschooled, unlettered gipsy became an evangelist under the auspices of William Booth’s Christian Mission of London, which became the Salvation Army” (25 June, 1877).
On December 17, 1879 he married Annie E. Pennock, one of his converts from Whitby. He had also led his younger sister to confess Christ.
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For five years he served the Salvation Army “on street corners and in mission halls”. His evangelistic gift was evident to all who heard him. But on 31 July, 1882, after he was about to move on from a successful mission in Hanley (“I preached every Sunday to crowds of 7,000 to 8,000 people and every night of the week we had the place crowded” (Autobiography, page 131), the congregation presented him with a watch inscribed: “A memento of esteem and in recognition of his valuable services …” General Bramwell Booth demanded that the watch be returned! He “did not approve of such presentations” (page 133). “So ended my connection with the Salvation Army” (page 139).
Defying his superiors, “Gipsy” Smith launched out on an itinerant evangelistic ministry, which took him to Sweden, Scotland, America, South Africa, France and Australia (in 1894 and again in 1926). Certainly thousands responded to his preaching and singing of the old-time gospel.
On 2 June, 1938, he aroused some criticism by marrying Mary Alice Shaw. After all, he was a 78-year-old widower … and it was her 27th birthday! His services were always informal … “I’ll be stiff enough when I’m in my coffin!” he once quipped.
On 4 August, 1947, at the age of 87, after 70 years of world-embracing evangelism and en route to America, three hours out of New York, “Gipsy” Smith died on the Queen Mary, stricken by a heart attack. Some say this was his 45th crossing of the Atlantic.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com