Smith, Rodney, MBE ('Gipsy Smith')

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Colourful evangelist, born in a gipsy tent near Epping Forest, on 31 March 1860, the son of Cornelius and Polly Smith. (Norton church in the North Hertfordshire Circuit, was built in 1933 in their memory.) His mother died early; his father was converted and became an evangelist. Rodney, who never went to school, was converted in a PM chapel in Cambridge in 1876 and became an evangelist, first for William Booth's Christian Mission (1877-82), then independently when Booth tried to move him from Hanley. He then became 'evangelist to the world', visiting America, Australia and South Africa. He spent 1889-91 working for Samuel F. Collier at the Manchester Mission, where he converted George H. McNeal. From 1897 he was employed by the FCFC as 'Travelling Evangelist'. His singing and emotional appeals had much success, though some saw him as an anachronism. He was a frequent visitor to Cliff College. He received an MBE for his evangelistic work. His brother and sisters were all involved in their own ministries: Emily Ball and her daughter Prudence talked to large crowds in Hanley; Lovinia Oakley spoke to crowds in Luton; Ezekiel worked as an evangelist on the railway in Cambridge; and Tilly worked alongside Rodney in the early stages of the Salvation Army and with her husband George Moysey Evens in the Liverpool Mission. Rodney had thirteen known members of his family that preached or sang the gospel by 1937. A great-nephew, Rev. Roly Bain, used clown ministry to present the gospel as a Fool for Christ.

He married Annie Pennock in 1879. Their first son. Albany Smith, also became a roving evangelist and was known as 'Gipsy Smith junior'. Their second son, Alfred Hanley Smith (5 August 1882- 11 February1949; e.m. 1906) entered the WM ministry. G.Bramwell Evens was his nephew. After his wife's death in 1937 he controversially married his secretary Mary Alice Shaw in California in July 1938, who was fifty years his junior. She provided support for him and his work in his closing years. He died on the Queen Mary on 4 August 1947 on his way to New York.


One of Gipsy Smith's memorable sayings: 'You catch more flies with treacle than you do by throwing stones at them.'

  • Methodist Recorder, 7 Aug 1947, 3 March 2017, 28 August 2020
  • Gipsy Smith, his life and work (autobiography, 1901 and later editions)
  • H. Murray, Sixty Years an Evangelist (1937)
  • D. Lazell, Gipsy from the Forest (Bridgend, 1997)
  • Douglas J. Cock, Every Other Inch a Methodist (1987) pp.109-10