Gypsy Boy

Rodney “Gypsy” Smith (1860-1947) was the Billy Graham of his time. Hundreds of thousands on several continents were won to Christ through his mesmerizing preaching style and his winning personality. His trips across the Atlantic Ocean were so numerous that historians seemingly disagree on the exact number.

Photograph Courtesy of The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre, London.

Smith capitalized on his family culture. His parents and five siblings lived and traveled in wagons and tents, typical of the nomadic stereotype of gypsies. Before his father was converted to Christianity, dad would play his violin at barrooms and pub houses while little Rodney danced to the music. Dad (Cornelius) was the first to be gloriously saved, then mom (on her deathbed), and one-by-one his brother and sisters, beginning with the oldest and so on down the line.

For 16 year-old Rodney’s conversion, it took the witness of his father, the singing of Ira Sankey, a visit to the home of John Bunyan—and one more very important reason. And that’s where our iRony can be found.

Once Cornelius became gloriously saved, there was no more panhandling at the public houses. Instead, Cornelius took his family on revival appearances throughout England, billed as “The Converted Gypsies.” Crowds especially loved Rodney, quickly known as “the little gypsy boy.” People flocked to see them, if only for the oddity of seeing real gypsies.

One day, William Booth (then general-superintendent of The Christian Mission) took note of the singing gypsies; and in particular, young Rodney. He invited Rodney (at one his Booth’s appearances) to preach on the spot. Rodney sang a song and gave his testimony.

Although Rodney didn’t try to be funny, he connected immediately with the audience and on June 25, 1877, Booth invited him to be an evangelist with and for the Mission.

With The Christian Mission’s metamorphosis into The Salvation Army the following year, Rodney was made an Officer with the rank of Lieutenant. He worked under the mentorships of such Army pioneers as Ballington Booth and Elijah Cadman. Rodney served as a single corps officer in Whitby, Sheffield, West Hartlepool, Plymouth, and Bolton. While in Whitby, one of his converts was Annie E. Pennock, whom he later married.

Capt. Rodney Smith —
The Converted Gypsy.
War Cry, October 23, 1880
Photograph Courtesy of
The Salvation Army
International Heritage Centre, London.

Rodney and Annie went on to serve as corps officers in Chatham, Hull, Derby, and Hanley. Most everywhere they went, the Army’s numbers grew mightily. In Chatham, for example, the crowd grew from 13 to 250 within nine months. Derby was the only post where the Captains Smith encountered discouragements and defeats.

It was during their post in Hull that the name “Gypsy” Smith began to circulate.

Later in life, Gypsy Smith pointed to their time in Hanley as the most productive and memorable during his five-year career as a Salvation Army Officer. For the rest of his life, he referred to Hanley as “my greatest battlefield.”

In December 1881, General Booth asked Gypsy, “Where do you want to go next?” Captain Smith replied, “Send me to the nearest place to the bottomless pit!”

The little couple and their babies arrived by train in Hanley on New Years Eve. As the train approached town, the many factory pit fires came into sight. They could smell the sulfur of the iron foundries, and saw smoke rising from seemingly everywhere.

“I began to wonder if I had not got to the actual place (hell) whither I had asked to be sent!” he later mused. Nevertheless the work in Hanley greatly increased in success and fruitfulness.

“From 6:30 pm on Saturdays to 9:30 pm on Sundays, we held nine services, indoors and out of doors,” he recalled.

The Smiths and their growing band of soldiers sold up to 10,000 copies of The War Cry every week. “No other station in The Salvation Army has ever managed to do this, as far as I know.”

Unfortunately, Gypsy Smith and The Salvation Army parted ways in 1882—but his ministry as an Officer in his eight corps produced an estimated 23,000 decisions for Christ, with crowds numbering on occasion anywhere up to 1,500!

Gypsy Smith went on to become a world-renown evangelist. His influence for God’s Kingdom is inestimable.

But none of that would have been possible except for the real reason Rodney decided to accept Christ as a teen.

It seems back then, in his family at least, there was a natural progression in their little circle—a pecking order, of sorts. As Rodney’s father, then mother, then older brother and sister accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, Rodney reasoned secretly that in order for his two remaining younger sisters to be saved—he first had to take the plunge!

All six Smith children entered the ministry.

“I must say that my love for (my dear sister) led me to (my own) decision for Christ, and God repaid me more than abundantly by making me a blessing to her!”

—Major Frank Duracher, Assistant Editor