“The Apostle of Faith”*
I saw that God wants us so badly that He has made the condition as simple as He possibly could—“Only Believe.”
It is arguable that there is no more significant patriarch of the Pentecostal Movement than Smith Wigglesworth. While he was not the catalyst for breakthrough revivals such as the one in Wales led by Evan Roberts in 1904 or that of the Azusa Street Mission in 1906 that was led by William Seymour, it was Smith Wigglesworth’s steady faith and staying power that made the Pentecostal revival the most significant Christian movement of the twentieth century.
Where other Pentecostal ministers would emerge overnight and then disappear from the public scene almost as quickly, Smith Wigglesworth traveled widely from after the death of his wife in 1913 until not long before his death in 1947. During these decades his ministry of faith and miracles changed the face of Christianity and set the stage for the Charismatic Renewal that would restore the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the modern church.
An Early Call To Evangelism
Smith was born in a small village near Menston, Yorkshire in England on June 8, 1859. Smith’s younger years were marked by a hunger for God, even though his parents were not Christians at the time. His grandmother was an old-time Wesleyan, and she always made sure that Smith attended meetings with her when she could. When he was eight, he joined in with the singing at one of these meetings, and as he began, “a clear knowledge of the new birth” came to him. He realized in that moment just what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant for him, and he embraced it with his whole heart. From that day forth, he never doubted that he was saved.
Soon he began operating as the evangelist, which would be most of his life’s focus. His first convert was his own mother. When his father realized what was happening, he started taking the family to an Episcopal church. Although his father was never born again, he enjoyed the parson, who just happened to frequent the same pub as he did, and remained a faithful church-goer through Smith’s youth.
When he was thirteen, his family moved from Menston to Bradford, where Smith became deeply involved with the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Even though he couldn’t read, it was at this time that Smith began the habit of always having a copy of the New Testament with him wherever he went. Then in 1875 when Smith was about sixteen, the Salvation Army opened a mission in Bradford, and Smith found a powerful ally in his desire to see people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. In the meetings he attended with the Salvationists, he soon learned there was great power behind prayer and fasting.
At seventeen, Smith met a Godly man at a mill who took him in as an apprentice and taught him the plumbing trade. He also told Smith about what the Bible taught on water baptism, and soon afterwards Smith gladly obeyed and was baptized in water. During this time, he also learned more about the second coming of Christ and strongly believed that Jesus would come at the turn of the century. This made him ever more vigilant to “change the course” of everyone he met.
The Favor of God
In 1877 at the age of nearly eighteen, Smith decided it was time to set out on his own. He went to the home of a plumber and asked for a job. When the plumber told him he had no need for any help, Smith thanked him, apologized for using his time, and turned to walk away. Immediately, the man called him back. He said, “There is something about you that is different. I just cannot let you go.”† At that, the man hired him on the spot.
By the time Smith was about twenty, the man he worked for could not keep him busy anymore—he just worked too efficiently! So Smith moved to Liverpool to find more work. There he began to minister to the children of the city. Ragged and hungry children came to the dock shed, where he preached the Gospel to them and did his best to feed and clothe them from what he made as a plumber in the area. He also visited the hospitals and ships, praying and fasting all day on Sunday, asking God for converts. As a result, he never saw fewer than fifty people saved each time he ministered. He was also frequently invited by the Salvation Army to speak at their meetings, but though he saw great results, he was never eloquent. He often broke down and cried before the people because of his burden for souls, and it was this brokenness that brought people to the altar by the hundreds.
Smith Meets Polly
It was also around this time that Smith watched with great interest as a young, socially affluent woman came forward in one of the Salvation Army meetings and fell to her knees. She refused to pray with any of the workers until the speaker known as “Gypsy” Tillie Smith came and prayed with her. When they were done, the young woman jumped to her feet, threw her gloves in the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah! It is done!”
The next night as she gave her testimony, Smith felt as if she belonged to him. As Smith later said, “It seemed as if the inspiration of God was upon her from the very first.”‡ The young woman’s name was Mary Jane Featherstone, but everyone called her “Polly.” She eventually received a commission as an officer in the Salvation Army from General William Booth. Smith did what he could to work near her, and in the coming years a romance bloomed between them.
As Smith and Polly grew closer, Polly eventually faced the difficult decision of choosing either to continue with the Salvation Army or her love for Smith. Even though Smith never officially joined the Salvation Army, he was considered a private in their ranks, and Polly was an officer. There were strict regulations against officers and lower ranks having romantic relationships, so even though they always remained true friends of the Salvationists, Polly retired from their ranks and took up mission work with the Blue Ribbon Army. Those in her Methodist church also recognized her calling and asked her to help evangelize their churches. Hundreds were converted as a result.
A Divine Partnership
Polly had from the beginning the eloquence Smith longed for but couldn’t learn. When in 1882, Smith returned to Bradford, he and Polly wed. Polly was twenty-two years old and Smith was twenty-three. In their thirty years of marriage, the Wigglesworths had five children: Alice, Seth, Harold, Ernest, and George. Before each child was born, Smith and Polly prayed over them that they would faithfully serve God throughout their lives.
Smith and Polly had a burden for a part of Bradford that had no church, so they soon opened the Bradford Street Mission and began ministering together. Polly did most of the speaking, because she was the stronger and more accomplished of the two as an orator, and Smith oversaw the needs of the rest of the work. While she preached, he was at the altar praying for more to come to Christ. Of this relationship, Smith later said, “Her work was to put down the net; mine was to land the fish. This latter is just as important as the former.”§
A Cold Winter
The winter of 1884 was very severe in Bradford, and plumbers were in high demand. As a result, a time of intense work began for Smith that would last for the next two years, and he became literally consumed by his natural occupation. His church attendance declined and slowly but surely his fire for God began to grow cold. In the light of Polly’s increasing faithfulness, Smith’s backsliding seemed all the more pronounced to the point that her diligence began to wear on him.
Then one night, this came to a head when she came home from church a little later than usual. Smith confronted her: “I am master of this house, and I am not going to have you coming home at so late an hour as this!” Polly quietly replied, “I know that you are my husband, but Christ is my Master.”** At this, Smith forced her out the back door, then closed and locked it. However, in his annoyance, he had forgotten to lock the front door, so Polly simply walked around the house and came in through the main entrance, laughing.
When Smith finally saw what he had done, he caught her laughter and realized how silly he had been. Together they laughed about the matter, but to Smith it was also a revelation of how cold he had grown in the things of God. Shortly afterward, he spent ten days praying and fasting in repentance, and God gloriously restored him.
Smith Meets “The Lord that Healeth Thee”
On a trip to Leeds for plumbing supplies, Smith heard of a meeting where divine healing was to be ministered. He attended and was amazed at what he saw. What others saw as fanaticism, Smith recognized as sincere and of God. On his return to Bradford, he would search out the sick and pay for their way to attend the Leeds healing meetings. When his wife grew ill once, he told her about the meetings, somewhat afraid that she would think he had finally gone off the deep end. Instead, she accepted it and agreed to go to the meetings with him. When the prayer of faith was offered for her in Leeds, she received an instant manifestation of healing.
They both became passionate about the message of divine healing and their meetings began to grow, causing them to need a larger mission space. Soon they obtained a building on Bowland Street and opened the Bowland Street Mission. Across the wall behind the pulpit they hung a large scroll which read: “I Am the Lord That Healeth Thee.”†† Not many years after this, in the first years of the 1900s, Smith received prayer for healing a hemorrhoid condition he had battled since childhood. He was soon fully healed and never had a problem with this condition for the rest of his life.
Embracing Divine Healing
Over the years that followed, the healing available through God increasingly became a part of Smith’s sermons and ministry, though healings were not frequent nor truly spectacular at first. Then those in the Leeds Healing Home recognized Smith’s faith and asked him to speak while they were away at a convention. Smith accepted only because he felt he could get someone else to do it once he was in charge of the meeting, but all others refused, insisting they felt God wanted him to speak. Smith ministered his sermon hesitantly, but at the close of the service fifteen people came forward for prayer, and all of them were healed! One of them had hobbled forward on crutches and began dancing around the room without them after Smith prayed for him. He had been instantly healed! No one was more surprised by the results of his prayers than Smith himself.
Desiring More of the Spirit
In 1907, Pentecost had reached Sunderland, and Smith heard that people there were being baptized in the Holy Spirit and speaking in other tongues. Smith felt he had to see this for himself. Smith was among those who believed that sanctification and the baptism in the Holy Spirit were the same, so he felt he already had this baptism. Others warned him that these people in Sunderland were not receiving the Holy Spirit, but demons instead. Other friends with whom he prayed urged him to follow his own leadings.
When he arrived at the meeting in Sunderland, which was being led by Vicar Alexander Boddy (who had attended some of Evan Roberts’ meetings in Wales during the Welsh Revival), he was surprised at the dryness of it in contrast to the moves of the Spirit he had experienced elsewhere, especially among the Salvationists. In fact, he grew so frustrated at this, he interrupted the meeting, saying, “I have come from Bradford, and I want this experience of speaking in tongues like they had on the day of Pentecost. But I do not understand why our meetings seem to be on fire, but yours do not seem to be so.”‡‡ Smith was so disruptive that they disciplined him outside of the building.
Smith Receives the Baptism
He soon decided he needed to return to Bradford, but before doing so decided to go to Vicar’s home and say, “Goodbye.” There he met Mrs. Boddy and told her he was returning home without speaking in tongues. She told him, “It is not tongues you need, but the baptism.”§§ Smith asked her to lay hands on him before he left. She agreed, praying a simple but powerful prayer, and walked out of the room. It was then that the fire fell, and Smith had a vision of the empty cross with Jesus exalted at the right hand of the Father. Smith opened his mouth to praise God and began instantly speaking in tongues. He knew immediately that what he had received of God now was much fuller than what he had received when praying and fasting and asking God to sanctify him.
Instead of going home, Smith went to the church where Vicar Boddy was conducting the service and asked to speak. Vicar Boddy agreed. Smith then spoke as he never had before, and at the end of his “sermon” fifty people were baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues. Even the local paper, the Sunderland Daily Echo, picked up the story and headlined the meeting and what Smith had experienced. Smith telegraphed home about what had happened.
“That’s Not My Smith!”
Upon arriving home in Bradford, Smith found a new challenge to what he had experienced. Polly met him at the door and firmly stated, “I want you to know that I am just as baptized in the Holy Spirit as you are and I don’t speak in tongues. . . . Sunday, you will preach for yourself, and I will see what there is in it.”*** When Sunday came, Polly did see what there was in it, as Smith preached with a power and assurance she had never heard in him before. She squirmed in her seat thinking, “That’s not my Smith, Lord. That’s not my Smith!” At the end of the sermon a worker stood to say he wanted the same experience Smith had received, and when he sat back down, he missed his chair and fell to the floor!
Smith’s eldest son had the same experience. In a very short while there were eleven people on the floor, laughing in the Spirit. Then the entire congregation was absorbed in holy laughter, as God poured even more of His Spirit out upon them. In the coming weeks, hundreds in Bradford would receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit and speak with other tongues—one of whom was Polly. The couple soon began traveling throughout the country, answering calls to speak and minister.
This experience also caused Smith to pursue God more than ever through prayer and fasting. He answered every request he could of those asking for divine healing. Sometimes he took a train to the nearest city and then borrowed a bicycle to ride another ten miles to reach the person. Soon he had no more time for his plumbing work, so he vowed before the Lord that if he were ever in severe need again in his life, he would return to plumbing; otherwise, he would serve as a minister for the rest of his days. The Lord made sure Smith never returned to plumbing.
Polly Goes Home to Be with the Lord
Not long after this, while waiting at a train station to leave for Scotland, Smith received word that his beloved wife, Polly, had collapsed at the Bowland Street Mission from a heart attack. He rushed to her bedside only to discover her spirit had already departed. But Smith rebuked death, and she came back. Smith had just a short time to visit with his wife again, and then he was impressed that it was time for her to go home to be with her Lord and Savior, so he released her again. Polly passed away on January 1, 1913, and it was as if her dedication and spiritual power went with her husband after that and multiplied the effects of his ministry.
Immediately, Smith started to minister again throughout the country, traveling with his daughter, Alice, and her husband, James “Jimmy” Salter. Smith continued to preach a simple Gospel of “only believe.” In a time when other ministers seemed frail and failing despite the enormous revivals that had come through their ministries, Smith soon rose to prominence in Pentecostal circles because of the undeniable power in his ministry and the uncompromising stability with which he operated. His convictions would never change in the next four decades, and Smith remained a growing force for God and Pentecostalism right up until his death in 1947.
The Apostle of Faith and His Worldwide Ministry
In the months following Polly’s passing, Smith’s fame in England grew, and in 1914 he began traveling abroad to minister. By the 1920s and 1930s there was no more sought-after speaker in Pentecostalism. Although he never accepted the cloak, his acknowledgement as the “Apostle of Faith” made the Pentecostal world look to him as one of its greatest patriarchs, even though he had never been involved in any of the revivals that started the movement. Miracles, healings, the dead being raised, and other signs and wonders followed his ministry as he continued in the uncompromising and blunt style that no one could ever emulate.
Truth be told, Smith just never seemed to feel the need to be polite when chasing out sickness, disease, and other works of the devil. His sentiment was also that if the Spirit were not moving, then he would move the Spirit. This was not arrogance, but confidence in the work God wanted done on the earth. Smith would create an atmosphere of uncompromising faith in the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit would never fail to show up.
In 1922 Smith traveled to New Zealand and Australia, among other places, and in a few short months saw thousands saved and several Pentecostal churches birthed in the greatest spiritual renewals either nation had ever seen. In 1936 he traveled to South Africa and delivered to David du Plessis a profound prophecy of the upcoming revival of the Charismatic Renewal that would not even start until after Wigglesworth’s death. By this time Smith was in his seventies and probably the most well-known Pentecostal in the world.
Then on March 12, 1947, while attending the funeral of a fellow minister, Smith bowed his head in the midst of a conversation and went home to be with the Lord without any pain or struggle at the age of 87.
While Smith would never form his own denomination or write a book, let alone a systematic set of doctrines and theology, his simple faith still impacts believers today. His relationship with God produced power that had not been seen on the earth for many centuries. For this reason, God also showed him things that others only dreamed of seeing. He never wanted to be put on a pedestal and worshipped, but be instead, an example of what every Christian can experience if they would “only believe.”