Hero photograph
Rodney "Gipsy" Smith with Mr and Mrs Young

Gipsy Smith’s Evangelistic Campaign 1926

Looking Back —

Forgotten now, Gipsy Smith was a world-famous evangelist who toured New Zealand in 1926.

Say the name “Billy Graham” and many people will tell you of their experiences attending one of Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades. We have a souvenir of Smith's tour belonging to H G Hill in the form of a decision card within the Methodist Archives’ Personal Papers and Historical Records Collection.

A decision card was sometimes called a pledge card. H G Hill’s read, “I humbly and penitently confess my unfaithfulness as a Church member, and desire to re-dedicate myself to my God and my Church, and this I do just now for Jesus’ sake.” H G Hill was a member of the Otahuhu Methodist Church and lived in Otahuhu. He signed his decision card on 3 October 1926.

Gipsy Smith claimed 5036 decision cards were signed by those who attended his New Zealand mission meetings. In Auckland he attracted crowds of two to three thousand people a night. Auckland was the beginning of his New Zealand campaign and over the next four months from September to 21 December, he worked his way around New Zealand by train visiting different towns and cities.

He also held mid-day meetings where local ministers teamed up with him to speak, giving them the opportunity to be involved with a magnetic and persuasive evangelist.

At night he shared the stage with his accompanist and secretary Mr E Edwin Young. Reference is made in articles on how Mr Young’s nightly solos and accompaniments created the “necessary atmosphere”. “He makes the piano speak”. Mrs Young was in charge of the Young People’s Department of the tour and she gave talks to business women, girls and young children.

Rodney “Gipsy” Smith was born to Romani parents in England in 1860. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Romani people were commonly called gypsies. After teaching himself to read and write, he joined the Salvation Army but left to become a touring evangelist. Although commonly referred to as Methodist, he preached with many denominations. He constantly travelled around the world, mostly in Britain and the United States of America. He published books he had written and recordings of hymns.

Rodney Smith was a celebrity of the time and New Zealand newspapers regularly reported on his tours and where he was in the world. He was invited to the Methodist Church Centenary Celebration in 1922, but did not get to New Zealand until 1926 after crusading around Australia.

The adulatory and uncritical articles in the New Zealand Methodist Times about him do not tell the whole story of his 1926 tour. 

Police were called to the Auckland Town Hall as a small number of people interrupted the meeting by shouting out questions, some relating to the money he had collected. Later another article in the newspaper suggests he was not paying enough tax on the money he received.

Methodist minister Rev A J Seamer leapt to Gipsy Smith’s defence, saying there had been a “campaign of calumny against the Gipsy” and that the cost of the mission and the receipts of money given (or raised by sale of hymn books) was almost the same.Gipsy carried on to tour New Zealand, his meetings were regularly broadcast on local radio frequencies. He left for Britain on 21 December 1926 and never returned to New Zealand.

by Jo Smith, Archivist MCNZ