Smith Wigglesworth (8 June 1859 – 12 March 1947), was a British evangelist who was important in the early history of Pentecostalism. Smith Wigglesworth was born on 8 June 1859 in Menston, Yorkshire, England, to an impoverished family. As a small child, he worked in the fields pulling turnips alongside his mother; he also worked in factories. During his childhood he was illiterate.
Nominally a Methodist, he became a born again Christian at the age of eight. His grandmother was a devout Methodist; his parents, John and Martha took young Smith to Methodist and Anglican churches on regular occasions. He was confirmed by a Bishop in the Church of England, baptized by immersion in the Baptist Church and had the grounding in Bible teaching in the Plymouth Brethren while learning the plumbing trade as an apprentice from a man in the Brethren movement.
Wigglesworth married Polly Featherstone on 2 May 1882. At the time of their marriage, she was a preacher with the Salvation Army and had come to the attention of General William Booth. They had one daughter, Alice, and four sons, Seth, Harold, Ernest and George. Polly died in 1913. His Grandson, Leslie Wigglesworth, after over 20 years as a missionary in the Congo served as the President of the Elim Pentecostal Church.
Smith Wigglesworth Early Life:
A former plumber who travelled the world preaching, Wigglesworth was among the key early preachers of the Pentecostalism, whose practitioners are known in some circles as “holy rollers”, so named for the behaviour of early adherents, some of whom literally rolled on the ground in spiritual ecstasy. Today, Wigglesworth remains an important inspiration for the modern Pentecostal movement, and nearly an entire cottage industry exists selling Wigglesworth writings and biographies. He helped define one of the most iconic aspects of the religion, namely, speaking in tongues.
It might surprise some to know that practice, seemingly endemic to the American South, was in part popularized by a Brit. Or that Wiggleworth’s laying-on-of-hands had a surprise element: his healings could be incredibly violent.
Smith Wigglesworth learned to read after he married Polly; she taught him to read the Bible. He often stated that it was the only book he ever read, and did not permit newspapers in his home, preferring the Bible to be their only reading material.
Smith Wigglesworth worked as a plumber, but he abandoned this trade because he was too busy for it after he started preaching. In 1907 Wigglesworth visited Alexander Boddy during the Sunderland Revival, and following a laying-on of hands from Alexander’s wife, Mary Boddy, he experienced speaking in tongues. He spoke at some of the Assemblies of God events in Great Britain. He also received ministerial credentials with the Assemblies of God in the United States, where he evangelized during the 1920s and later.
Smith Wigglesworth Healings:
According to at least one account, one of his first healings was of himself. Tired of taking salts to ease his hemorrhoid problem, he anointed himself with oil and prayed on it. The hemorrhoids disappeared.
In 1907, he said he spoke in tongues for the first time, and spent the next six years establishing a church in Yorkshire known as the Bowland Street Mission. In 1913, his wife Polly died. Wigglesworth traveled to the U.S. for the first time the following year, launching his international ministry that eventually took him across the world.
However, Smith Wigglesworth’s real calling card was something that’s all but lost in the modern Pentacostal faith: healing, which, for him, was a combination of prayer and violence. Wigglesworth believed that any sickness was actually the Devil inside of you, which meant that prayer was needed, but also, frequently, a physical assault. There are many such stories: the time Wigglesworth punched a sufferer of stomach cancer in the stomach, the times he violently shook those on their deathbeds, or, more commonly, the times in front of crowds when healing was in part dependent upon delivering a good hard slap.
“His notion of praying for the sick as an act of spiritual warfare helps account for his rough handling of people in his earlier ministry,” the Pentacostal scholar Gary B. McGee has written. “He thought of striking a person where they hurt as actually hitting the devil. Although some reported healing as a result, others thought it best to avoid identifying the location of their pain.”
Take this account from the Foursquare Crusader, an early Pentacostal periodical, which described Smith Wigglesworth at a service at the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, when he visited in July 1927.
When this man prays for the sick he gets right down to business. He rips off his coat and rolls up his sleeves. Lifting his hand to heaven he cries. “Are you ready!” If assent is given, he “lays hands upon the sick” and prays: then, with a cyclonic movement of the hands over the afflicted part or a resounding slap that can be distinctly heard) throughout the auditorium, he declares that they are “free,” and commands them to stoop and bend over or to run up and down the aisle, as the case may be. His methods are spectacular, strenuous, and often humorous, but the results seem to justify the means, for at the close of the service when he asks all those who have been healed to stand, literally hundreds leap to their feet.
Here’s another account, which happened in December 1934 in Washington, D.C., published in Redemption Tidings:
Just before the meeting began, we had noticed that a young girl, with crutches, was coming in. She was assisted by a man and woman. Her legs absolutely dangled, with the feet hanging vertically from them. From her waist she seemed to be limp and powerless. Room was made for her in the front row. When the invitation to be saved was given, she attempted to go forward aided by her assistants. Brother Wigglesworth, on seeing her start, said, “You stay right where you are. You are going to be a different girl when you leave this place.” When the rest had been dealt with Brother Wigglesworth turned to the girl and, having been told her trouble, said to the people, “This girl has no muscles in her legs; she has never walked before.” He laid his hands on her head and prayed and cried, “In the name of Jesus Christ, walk!” Looking at her, he said, “You are afraid, aren’t you?” “Yes,” she replied. “There is no need to be. You are healed!” he shouted. “Walk! walk!” And praise God she did – like a baby just learning! Twice she walked, in that characteristic way, the length of the platform! Glory to God! When we left the room, her crutches were lying on the seat, and on reaching the sidewalk we saw her standing, as others do, talking with two girl friends.
Often, the healings were too common to go into that level of detail. Take this description in the Pentecostal Evangel, from 1935.
A man with cancer on his face and hands was healed almost instantly. A woman with hernia of 17 years’ standing was completely delivered. A man with asthma of 8 years’ standing was saved and healed instantly. A lady was healed of deafness and afterwards heard clearly.
What’s going on here? A complicated placebo effect in many cases, to be sure, but also old-fashioned marketing. Most all of the early publications that tracked Wigglesworth’s exploits (and the three quoted from above) were written to attract new believers to the then-emerging Pentacostal movement, which would became more familiar to Americans decades later in the form of televangelists like Jim Bakker, Paul Crouch, and Jimmy Swaggart. (The Jonas Brothers also grew up in the faith.)
And in the days before cell phone cameras, the plausibility of faith healing was only limited by your imagination. Was Smith Wigglesworth a specially-anointed agent of God? It was hard to say, exactly, but there wasn’t any evidence proving that he wasn’t.
Faith healing could also be a powerful draw. Smith Wigglesworth eventually took his act to Australia, India, Switzerland and Finland, among a rash of other places, often greeting crowds of hundreds. His legend followed him, too, though his gatherings were mostly ignored by the mainstream press, which meant few objective observers were along for the ride. The best accounts of Wigglesworth’s life are his own and that of Stanley Frodsham, a friend and eventual biographer, whose Smith Wigglesworth: Apostle of Faith, published in 1948, is the foundational text for the Wigglesworth legend.
Since then, there have been numerous accounts, though many have engaged, as one scholar put it, in “blatant and unashamed acts of embalmment.”
Smith Wigglesworth was not able to heal all of those around him. In the early years, swaths of Pentacostals rejected modern medicine, instead entrusting their health to God, and Wigglesworth was no different. Perhaps as a result, there were several maladies in his life that no amount of prayer seemed to be enough for, like his daughter’s deafness and his own battle with kidney stones.
He also, of course, couldn’t prevent his own death, at the age 87, passing on March 12, 1947, in England, while attending the funeral of a close friend.
Smith Wigglesworth Ministry:
Smith Wigglesworth believed that healing came through faith, and he was flexible in his approach. When he was forbidden to lay hands on audience members by the authorities in Sweden, he preached for a “corporate healing”, by which people laid hands on themselves. He also practiced anointing with oil, and the distribution of “prayer handkerchiefs” (one of which was sent to King George V). Wigglesworth sometimes attributed ill-health to demons.
Ministering at many churches throughout Yorkshire, often at Bethesda Church on the outskirts of Sheffield, Wigglesworth claimed to have had many prophecies. He also had an international ministry: as well as Sweden, he ministered in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Pacific Islands, India, Ceylon, and several countries in Europe. Some of his sermons were transcribed for Pentecostal magazines, and these were collected into two books: Ever Increasing Faith and Faith that Prevails.
Much of Wigglesworth’s ministry was focused on faith healing. He said God had healed him of appendicitis. Despite suffering from kidney stones which passed naturally in his later years, Wigglesworth refused any medical treatment, stating that no knife would ever touch his body either in life or death.
Supporters of Smith said they were miraculously healed with accounts being described in the popular press and in Pentecostal magazines. There were reports that people were raised from the dead, including his wife Polly.
Many people said they were cured of cancer by him. Smith Wigglesworth, whose only training was as a plumber, described cancer as ‘a living evil spirit’, and insisted that many diseases were ‘satanic in origin’. His methods often involved hitting, slapping or punching the afflicted part of the body. On a number of occasions his approach to persons suffering from stomach complaints was to punch them in the stomach, sometimes with such force that it propelled them across the room.
When challenged on this, his response was “I don’t hit them, I hit the devil”. Responding to criticism over his method of praying for the sick, Wigglesworth stated: “You might think by the way I went about praying for the sick that I was sometimes unloving and rough, but oh, friends, you have no idea what I see behind the sickness and the one who is afflicted. I am not dealing with the person; I am dealing with the satanic forces that are binding the afflicted”. On one occasion Smith Wigglesworth declared to the sick “I’ll only pray for you once, to pray twice is unbelief.” The second night, a man approached the altar to receive prayer again and Wigglesworth, recognizing him, said “Didn’t I pray for you last night? You are full of unbelief, get off this platform!”
Smith Wigglesworth Quotes:
“There is nothing impossible with God. All the impossibility is with us when we measure God by the limitations of our unbelief.”
ON THE HOLY SPIRIT
“The Spirit reveals, unfolds, takes of the things of Christ and shows them to us, and prepares us to be more than a match for Satanic forces.”
ON DIFFICULT TIMES
“Great faith is the product of great fights. Great testimonies are the outcome of great tests. Great triumphs can only come out of great trials.”
“The blood of Jesus Christ and His mighty name are an antidote to all the subtle seeds of unbelief that Satan would sow in your minds.”
ON THE BIGNESS OF GOD
“There is nothing small about our God, and when we understand God, we will find out that there ought not to be anything small about us. We must have an enlargement of our conception of God, then we will know that we have come to a place where all things are possible, for our God is an omnipotent God for impossible positions.”
ON THE RENEWING OF OUR MINDS
“God wants to purify our minds until we can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. God dwells in you, but you cannot have this divine power until you live and walk in the Holy Ghost, until the power of the new life is greater than the old life.”
ON AN ETERNAL PERSPECTIVE
“Never listen to human plans. God can work mightily when you persist in believing Him in spite of discouragement from the human standpoint … I am moved by what I believe. I know this: no man looks at the circumstances if he believes.”
ON SPIRITUAL HUNGER
“The secret of spiritual success is a hunger that persists … It is an awful condition to be satisfied with one’s spiritual attainments … God was and is looking for hungry, thirsty people.”
ON READING SCRIPTURE
“It is as we feed on the Word and meditate on the message it contains that the Spirit of God can vitalize that which we have received, and bring forth through us the word of knowledge that will be as full of power and life as when He, the Spirit of God, moved upon holy men of old and gave them these inspired Scriptures.”
ON WAITING ON GOD
“These times of waiting on God for the fullness of the Spirit are times when He searches the heart and tests the mind.”
It is better to live ready than to get ready!”
“One half of the trouble in the assemblies is the people’s murmuring over the conditions they are in. The Bible teaches us not to murmur. If you reach that standard, you will never murmur anymore. You will be above murmuring. You will be in the place where God is absolutely the exchanger of thought, the exchanger of actions and the exchanger of your inward purity. He will be purifying you all the time and lifting you higher, and you will know you are not of this world.”
ON GOD’S STRENGTH
“You must come to see how wonderful you are in God and how helpless you are in yourself.”
Smith Wigglesworth Books:
- Ever Increasing Faith
- Faith That Prevails
- Smith Wigglesworth On Healing
- Smith Wigglesworth On the Holy Spirit
- Smith Wigglesworth On Spiritual Gifts
- Smith Wigglesworth On Faith
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