Gypsy Smith (1860-1947)
His Life and Work
|Chapter 9. Learning To Read And Write - Preaching To The Turnip-Field - Singing The Gospel In Tile Cottages|
I believe that with my conversion
came the awakening of my intellect, for I saw things and understood them as
I had not done before. Everything had a new meaning to me. I had already begun
to spell out a little, but now my desire for reading was tremendously intensified.
I now had something to learn for, and I seemed to have, I did not know how,
a settled assurance that I should one day preach the Gospel. At the time of
my conversion I could only spell and understand words of one syllable. I used
to get my Bible down and begin to read it, alas! sometimes the wrong way up,
in my father's tent or in the corner of a field, away from everybody. Many a
time have I wept and prayed over that Bible. I wanted my heart filled with the
spirit of it.
One day I was passing a huge signboard with a red ground and gilt letters. As a matter of fact I believe now, if my memory serves me right, that it was a brewer's sign-board. I stared at it in wonder and distress. I was so anxious to know what it said. A lady passed, going to market, and I asked her if she would read the sign-board for me. "Why do you want to read that?" she said. "Oh," I answered, "I really am anxious to know what it says." Then she read the words, and I thanked her. She asked me if I knew my letters, and I said, "Yes, I can go over them both backwards and forwards." She patted my black head and said, "You will get on some day." Her kind words were deeply stamped on my memory.
My first books were the Bible, an English Dictionary, and Professor Eadie's Biblical Dictionary. That last volume was given to me by a lady. I expect my father had told her that I desired to preach. These three mighty volumes - for they were mighty to me - I used to carry about under my arm. My sisters and brothers laughed at me, but I did not mind. "I am going to read them some day," I said, "and to preach too." I lost no opportunity of self-improvement and was always asking questions. I still believe in continually asking questions. If I came across anything I did not understand, I asked what it meant - I did not mind. If I heard a new word I used to flee to my dictionary. I always kept it beside me when I read or tried to read. Then I began to practice preaching. One Sunday I entered a turnip-field and preached most eloquently to the turnips. I had a very large and most attentive congregation. Not one of them made an attempt to move away, While walking along the road with my basket under my arm I used to go on preaching. I knew a great many passages of Scripture and hymns, and my discourses consisted of these all woven together. My father too began to see that this was no mere boyish ambition, and encouraged it. A Mr. Goodman, in Brandon, Norfolk, advised my father to send me to Mr. Spurgeon's Pastors' College, and I was greatly excited over the idea. But events so shaped themselves that this project was never carried out.
At this time too I did my first bit of real Christian work. One day I was hawking my wares, and as usual ever anxious to get a chance of telling people about Jesus. I went to a large house, and two maids came to the door to see me. I began to preach to them about the Saviour, and I discovered that they were both of them Christian girls. They took me into the kitchen, and we had a nice little conversation together. On the table was a collecting-box, which they told me was one of the British and Foreign Bible Society's boxes. I asked them for a box. Their master was the secretary of the Bible Society for Cambridge, and when they told him, he gave me a box. I carried this in my basket for many weeks, collecting halfpennies and pennies for the Society. When I took the box back to the man who gave it me I had collected from 15s. to £1. I never felt so proud in my life.
I was on very good terms with the women in the villages. After I had done my best to get them to buy my goods I would say to them, "Would you like me to sing for you?" And they usually said, "Yes." Sometimes quite a number of them would gather in a neighbour's kitchen to hear me, and I would sing to them hymn after hymn, and then perhaps tell them about myself, how I had no mother, how I loved Jesus, and how I meant to be His boy all my life. Sometimes the poor souls would weep at my simple story. I came to be known as "the singing gipsy boy." One day one of these women was speaking to my eldest sister about her brother, and my sister said, "Which brother?" "Oh," she answered, "the one who sings and stretches out his neck like a young gosling." I could sing then with great force, though I was very small in those days and very thin. My favourite hymn was
"There is a fountain filled with bloodThere is an old lady still living in West Wratting who bought a reel of cotton from me when I was a boy, and allowed me to conduct a service in her kitchen. She will not part with that reel of cotton for love or money. I believe that these little singing sermons were made a great blessing. I was sought after particularly by the young folks in the houses. As my ability to read grew, I learnt off by heart the fifty-third and fifty-fifth chapters of Isaiah, and the fifteenth of St. Luke. I occasionally went through one of these chapters for the lesson in father's meetings. My father and his two brothers were of course always engaged in evangelistic work, and I used to sing with them. My father says he still frequently meets old people who talk about those clays.
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins,
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains."
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