When Gipsy Smith, Jr. came to Fort Smith on Oct. 10, 1943, it made local headlines. He was to conduct a two- week revival at the prestigious Immanuel Baptist Church under the auspices of pastor, Dr. Victor Coffman.
This was the second time that Gipsy had preached in Fort Smith, the first time was six years before on March 14, 1937. The crowds had grown so large that the meetings had to be moved to the Masonic Temple auditorium.
Smith, of course, was no stranger to the Natural State. He held previous meetings in Camden (September-October 1930), Little Rock (May-June 1930), Fort Smith (March 14-28, 1937) and Dermott, for his youngest son, the Reverend G. Wilbur Smith, on Feb. 25, 1941.
Originally born in England, Smith was the eldest son of the famous British Evangelist, Gipsy Rodney Smith. The elder was a true Romany born in Epping Forest, England on March 31, 1860. He was an internationally known evangelist who had preached on five continents and before thousands upon thousands of crowds.
Smith, Sr. had preached twice in Arkansas once in Jonesboro in 1918 and November 1928 when he held a massive meeting in Helena.
Even though Smith Jr., was born in England, it was through a series of events that brought him and his family to Noank, a small fishing village in Connecticut. It was during his beginning in the ministry that he worked as a soloist for the Presbyterian evangelist, Dr. J. Wilbur Chapman and by 1911 Gipsy Jr., began holding his own revivals and traveled extensively through the United States and Great Britain.
He attended the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, N.J. and graduated in 1914. He was also ordained at that time into the Northern Baptist Denomination.
Having been in the ministry for 32 years, Smith Jr. would "feel" the spiritual pulse of the people and preach "off the cuff" to the needs of those in the pews. He certainly was not a fly by night evangelist or a theologian, but was sane, rational and reasonable as he gave the Good News from the pulpit. His father once told him, "You have the most important message in the world-clothe it in the purest language," and that is what he did.
He never announced his messages ahead of time, but always had an element of surprise when he preached. His topics ranged from repentance to the new birth and many heard these messages at Immanuel Baptist Church. It was said that both father and son had the "power of natural oratory" and could reach the crowds that were in front of them.
One of the most powerful sermons that he gave when he was in Fort Smith was the sermon titled, "From Gypsy Tent to Pulpit". This message was a discourse of the history of his people, the gypsies, and the conversion of his father. As he preached this message he would bring out some pertinent facts about the race of the gypsies. Such as, "language of the gypsies is older than that of the United States language; there is as much a difference between a gypsy and a tramp as there is between a gentleman and an imitation; it is the only race under the sun that never had an accredited minister sent to them; 85 percent of them have Biblical names but do not have Bibles; gypsies are scrupulously clean; customs have been handed down through the centuries; gypsies never travel on the Sabbath (Sunday to them) nor do they work on that day.
"One of their worst faults is profanity," he declared, but hastened to add, "But you’re no better off." And jokingly he would say, "Gypsies are good finders, occasionally they find an old piece of rope-with a mule on the end."
There is a local piece of history to this meeting. It was known that W. W. Grafton, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Booneville, put emphasis on the extension and improvement of the church music program during his tenure from August 1941 to June 1952.
Gipsy, Jr., under direction of Dr. Victor Coffman , asked for Pastor Grafton to lead singing during his revival at Immanuel Baptist. Great success was seen in the people that came forward and found forgiveness and hope during these meetings and Pastor Grafton even brought this same spirit back to First Baptist seeing great results in the tenure he was here.
Charles Smith is the Corps Sergeant Major at The Salvation Army in Fort Smith, AR and is also a Church Historian. He has written numerous articles that have been published in America, Canada and England. He is married and have two children.