Thursday, June 14, 2012
The Preacher’s Corner
The Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches...
Last week a young researcher from Arkansas visited Holly Springs to follow up on earlier conversations I had had with him 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.
Here is an answer to my young 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 too. 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, Bitzer had a remarkable ability to bring fellow ministers and neighbor congregations together for projects.
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 of the 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 each. A large meeting for men was held in the movie theater. Businesses closed early so employees could attend. (Closing early on Saturday night must have been a sacrifice for merchants on the square then.)
The effort was continued for three weeks. Of course, 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, with the result that many whites in the South did not 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 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 worship ers was reverent and the preacher’s demeanor without “ranting or hysterical appeal.” Near the end of the campaign, a special train brought a 1,000 people from Water Valley to hear Gipsy Smith. He was paid with a freewill offering. The crowds looked forward to Smith’s traditional closing sermon, “From Gipsy 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 gipsy 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 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 support his efforts. To me this stands in contrast to the “culture wars” preaching of modern evangelists.
More than this, Dr. Bitzer was a progressive in his day—his writings gained national attention. He and his colleagues in the other Holly Springs Churches real ized they had much in common, and so they worked together.
There is so much in Jesus Christ that is inviting. What the church today needs is leaders who can focus on this, and I believe that if we could, some of our relig ious disagreements would sort themselves out.
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