Thursday, October 12, 2006
Gipsy Smith revival meetings in 1926
Yesterday I had one of those spooky experiences that some people call “mental telepathy.” About 2:30 in the afternoon, a young researcher from Arkansas called to ask what I knew about Gipsy Smith, the famous evangelist of the 1920s.
Well, I know a good bit, and told him about his famous revival service here in 1926. I also told him he needed to contact a historian in Leland, who has written a wonderful account of his revival meeting there near the same time.
Instantly as I was placing the telephone on its cradle after this first conversation, the lady from Leland (whom I have never talked to on the telephone before) called me on an unrelated matter! It sort of makes you believe in ESP doesn’t it?
Well, I thought I would answer my young Arkansas friend’s questions about Gipsy Smith and his Holly Springs revival by means of this column, and if you are interested you can read along. It is quite a tale.
Gipsy Smith, the colorful revivalist, preached in Holly Springs in June 1926. Dr. George L. Bitzer, pastor of the Presbyterian Church had persuaded Smith to come. A strong believer in interchurch cooperation (he founded the Holly Springs Ministerial Association in 1929), Bitzer had a remarkable ability to bring his fellow ministers and neighbor congregations together for joint projects. Several of the various church officers were appointed to plan the city wide evangelistic meeting.
The Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches agreed to consolidate their Sunday morning and evening services in favor of the evangelistic campaign. It was the first time in the history of Holly Springs that all four principal white Protestant churches had joined together for a preaching mission.
Services were held twice on Sundays and each weeknight in a large tent on the Holly Springs High School grounds. The city was divided into eight districts, with cottage prayer meetings in the homes of each district. A large meeting for men was held in the movie theater. Businesses closed early so that employees could attend the services. (Closing early on Saturday night must have been quite a sacrifice for merchants on the square then.)
The effort was continued for three weeks. Of course, the seating was segregated, but Gipsy Smith broke new ground when he insisted that black worshipers be invited and welcomed, even if they had to sit in their own sections. (It remained for Billy Graham in the 1950s to insist on open seating at his meetings, with the result that many white ministers and congregations in the South refused to support his work.)
The Gipsy Smith meetings, while not integrated, represented one of the first occasions since the Civil War when black and white worshiped together across the South in any significant way.
Smith also spoke out against the abuse of liquor and opposed corruption in public officials.
In the second week of the meeting The South Reporter declared “Sunday night’s crowd the largest assembled since the opening of the revival.” The congregation in the tent was augmented by many out-of-town visitors. The deportment of the worshipers was reverent and the preacher’s demeanor without “ranting or hysterical appeal.”
Near the end of the campaign, a special train was brought from Water Valley with 1,000 aboard to hear Gipsy Smith.
The evangelist was paid with a freewill offering. The crowds looked forward to Smith’s traditional closing sermon, “From Gypsy Camp to Pulpit,” in which he gave the story of his life and conversion.
Rodney “Gipsy” Smith owed his popularity to at least two facts besides his dramatic talent. He was a converted gypsy and he was an Englishman. His father and two uncles were active evangelists in the British Isles. He had been converted at the age of 16, and from 1877 to 1882, had worked with William Booth, preaching on street corners and mission halls for the Salvation Army. By 1936 he had conducted 33 revival tours in the United States.
Smith was part of that evangelistic movement which followed upon the work of the highly successful D.L. Moody. Among their number were G. Campbell Morgan, Billy Sunday, and later, Billy Graham.
One may be surprised that at least two denominations supported such an effort — the Episcopal and Presbyterian — both churches that today are thought of as decidedly “un-revivalistic.”
The explanation is not that these denominations were once more “conservative.” Rather, it is that evangelists such as Gipsy Smith were so thoroughly positive in their appeal that all could join to support his efforts.
To me this stands in contrast to the “culture wars” preaching of so many modern evangelists today. One observer said of Smith, “He has such a nice way of flaying his victims.” In his turn he could be winsome, sentimental, eloquent, or manly.
More than this, Dr. Bitzer was a liberal in his day — and is still recognized as such by scholars of American theology. But Dr. Bitzer and his colleagues in the Holly Springs Ministerial Association realized that they had much more in common in what they could accept than over the things about which they might have disagreed.
There is so much in Jesus Christ that is inviting. What the church today needs is preachers who can focus on that, and I believe that if we could, some of these other things would sort themselves out.
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