by Bernard R. DeRemer
Historically, the Gypsies have always been a colorful people. Originating in India, they ranged over many parts of the world, especially Europe. Living mostly off the land, they eventually spread throughout North and South America. They made and sold trinkets; women told fortunes, begged, or worked as entertainers. One specialty was horse trading, in which they were almost sure to come out ahead!
Into this roving culture, Rodney (Gypsy) Smith was born, in a tent near Epping Forest, England, on March 31, 1860. He grew up without formal education-"wild as the birds...as difficult to catch as the rabbits."
When he was only 5, his mother died of smallpox, and the family struggled even harder to survive. His father had been an alcoholic, but was gloriously saved, and became a flaming witness, with his life transformed.
Rodney at 15 came to know the Lord, and immediately felt called to preach. A Bible, an English dictionary, and a Bible dictionary, which he always carried, "provided the tools for a halting progress toward literacy."
By 17 he was gathering small crowds in various villages on the Gypsy circuit.
In his autobiography, Smith revealed his struggles toward education, when reading a text during a service was a mighty challenge. "I went on reading slowly and carefully until I found a long word coming into sight. Then I stopped and made some comments." Then he would start reading again, skipping over that troublesome word! It is said that the great evangelist D. L. Moody, whose formal education was also sorely lacking, sometimes used a similar approach, at least in his early years.
To William Booth belongs much credit for developing and promoting Smith's talents. Rodney became a lieutenant in the Christian Mission (later the Salvation Army). When he arrived at the Hanley station ("the Army's base nearest hell"), he found "80 faithful huddled in a cold, dank circus arena that would seat 2,500." In six months, meetings had been forced into the open air, with attendance reaching 7,000 to 8,000! He was said to be the most successful Army official in the movement at the time.
But alas, through some technicality, he was dismissed from the organization-according to one authority "for crass political purposes." Yet Smith was not long without a place of service. The local committee in charge of the Hanley station asked him to continue as their leader and for four years he did. There he refined his speaking skills, delivering an average of nine messages a week. He also held meetings elsewhere, so that the next step was to launch into full-time itinerant evangelism. "The people were calling me, the churches were calling me, and above all, God was calling me."
In 1889 he made the first of his 70 treks to the U.S. Amazingly, he sailed for New York "without a single acquaintance, appointment, or engagement in the New World. Yet he talked his way into a Brooklyn pulpit and from then on, "the door of the continent was open to him."
Smith is remembered as one of the greatest, yet most neglected, evangelists of modern times. His preaching was characterized by an emphasis on love. Alexander Maclaren described him thus:
"He is not an orator, nor a scholar, nor a theologian. He is not a genius. But, notwithstanding these deficiencies in his equipment, he can reach men's hearts, and turn them from darkness to light in a degree which many of us ministers cannot do."
Indeed he reached the masses, traveled to five continents, and also sang the gospel message with a voice so winsome it "broke the hearts of the most hardened sinners." He used no sensational methods or messages.
It is reported that during his seven-month mission in Australia during 1926, 11,000 persons a month professed faith in Christ.
After his wife's death in 1937, he married again the following year. This union, with one 50 years his junior, created a scandal in some quarters, yet his wife lovingly cared for him and no doubt prolonged his ministry, which ended in 1947 with a heart attack aboard the Queen Mary, just as it pulled into the New York harbor.
His remains were buried in Epping Forest near his birthplace 87 years earlier. A large memorial stone reads in part:
"What Hath God Wrought"