Women’s History Month: March
“These have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
“If we’ve got what they got [the early church], then we can do what they did.”
Mary Jane (“Polly”) Featherstone Wigglesworth* (1860-1913) was born into a good Methodist home. Her father was a temperance lecturer, and heir to a large inheritance acquired through the liquor industry; but convinced that the filthy lucre secured through the damnation of souls would do him no good, he refused to touch a penny of this tainted money. His daughter Polly was heir to her father’s principles of righteousness and holiness.
Still a teenager, Polly was employed as a milliner, but finding the art of trimming bonnets too petty, she left after a month and went to Bradford, where she took service in a large home. In those days the Salvation Army was new, and she was attracted by the trumpets and drums, the open-air meetings, and the victory marches. On one occasion she followed the marchers to a theater; and though she had been taught that such a place was evil, she darted inside, to the gallery, to watch. Evangelist Gipsy Tillie Smith (sister of Rodney Gipsy Smith) preached the sermon, and Polly responded to the invitation and was saved. She jumped to her feet, threw her gloves in the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah, it is done!”
Smith Wigglesworth (1859-1947) saw her pray through and shout Hallelujah. “It seemed as if the inspiration of God was on her from the first.” She was a beautiful girl, even in her simple garments. From the first time she gave her testimony, he felt she belonged to him.
Polly came to know Rodney, Tillie, and Lawley Smith and to join the Salvation Army. General William Booth gave her a commission without even requiring her to go through training. Smith Wigglesworth attended the meetings to hear Polly preach, but he never joined the Salvation Army. He was reared Wesleyan Methodist; had a dad who was nominally Episcopalian; and was acquainted with Plymouth Brethren friends.
After her conversion, Polly left service, almost as quickly as she had left millinery, and went to Leith, Scotland, to preach. In those days the public was generous in its contribution of rotten eggs and vegetables so Salvation Army lassies had to be alert to dodge these missiles. One day Polly got a black eye from an orange donated suddenly. But she had a lovely voice and would sing and testify in meetings. Neighbors would open the windows of their houses to hear her sing.
On one occasion Polly took an interest in a recent convert who lived on the sixth floor of a tenement house. The convert’s husband was a brute and opposed his wife going to meeting. One day he happened on Polly praying with his wife in their apartment, and he threatened if she didn’t stop, he’d forcibly eject her. Polly continued to pray, so he picked her up bodily and was carrying her down five flights of stairs. Every step she was praying, “Lord, save this man. Save his soul, Lord.” The man swore and fumed, but by the time he got to the last flight of steps, he was crying for mercy. Together they knelt and made an altar of the bottom step, where Polly pointed him to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
After a time Polly quit the Army, returned to Bradford, took up with another Christian group, and began holding evangelistic meetings in Methodist churches. The Spirit of God moved mightily on her ministry, and many souls were won for Christ. At age twenty-two (1882) she married Smith Wigglesworth. He encouraged her in her ministry, and he continued in his business of plumbing. Together they rented a building and opened a mission.
As the children came (Seth, Harold, Ernest, George, Alice), they prayed for them before they were born that they would belong to God. Smith would carry the children to church and look after them while Polly preached. Smith was no preacher himself, but he was a soulwinner and he helped in the altar services. He felt it was Polly’s work to put down the net and his to land the fish.
Some years into their ministry, when his plumbing business was doing well and he was working day and night, his attendance at religious services declined and his heart grew cold toward God. The colder Smith grew, the hotter Polly became. Neither her evangelistic zeal nor her prayer life relaxed. Her quiet, consistent Christian life and witness made him look bad, and it irritated him. One night when she was later than usual coming in from service, he remarked, “I am the master of this house, and I am not going to put up with you coming home at so late an hour!”
Polly replied, “You may be my husband, Smith, but Christ is my Master.”
This so annoyed Smith that he pushed her out the back door. But he had forgotten to lock the front door. She went around the house and came in laughing. She laughed so hard, he laughed with her.
When some husbands backslide, the wife gets sour and nags. That was not the way with Polly. She had a cheerful heart. While she was on fire for the Lord, she made every mealtime a season of fun. She wooed her husband back to the Lord.
Polly’s reputation preceded her, and she was sometimes asked to come to a failing work and restore it. She was popular with women’s services and men’s Bible classes. She was energetic; and while preaching steadily, she still maintained the care of a large house. She and Smith were given to hospitality. She never complained whom he brought home unexpectedly for a meal or invited to stay for a few days. At convention time they entertained people in their home.
Routinely Smith had to go to Leeds one day a week for plumbing supplies, and once he happened on a divine healing service. When he returned home, he brought divine healing with him. After that, he was on the lookout for sick people so he could heal them.
He and Polly became ardent in this new ministry. After the work in Bradford grew, they relocated to a large building on Bowland Street. They put up a large sign in the back of the church: I am the Lord that healeth thee. After the Lord healed Smith of piles (hemorrhoids), he and Polly decided they “could not go half-measures with God. If we believed in divine healing we would have to [do it] wholeheartedly …. so we pledged ourselves to God and then to each other …. From henceforth no medicine, no doctors, no drugs of any kind.”
One Sunday during the service Smith was attacked with violent pain and carried home. The couple prayed all night with no relief. Smith was confident he was dying. And so, to spare them the embarrassment of an inquest, after he’d passed, they called for a physician, who confirmed that Smith was dying of appendicitis and there was no hope.
Meanwhile a woman of faith came in, a prayer warrior, possessed with the notion that everything that was not of health was of the devil. A young man who accompanied her knelt on Smith’s bed, laid hands on him, and rebuked the devil. Instantaneously Smith was released from pain and illness.
The pair left. Then Smith got dressed and went to work. After he left the house, the doctor returned. When Polly told him Smith had gone to work, he replied, “They will bring him back a corpse!” As it turned out, the “corpse” was to travel the world preaching the gospel many years.
In his plumbing work Smith obtained profitable business from saloonkeepers, who sent for him to repair the pumps that took up beer from the cellars. Liquor was an abomination to Polly. And she knew that Smith’s own workers would get free drinks as they worked. She protested. So Smith refused to work in saloons. This meant heavy financial losses, but he gave it up as a matter of principle.
Polly was the preacher, and Smith encouraged her. For twenty years they held open-air services in Bradford. Polly believed in scriptural Holiness. Entire Sanctification. A second definite work of grace subsequent to the New Birth. In those days Holiness groups counted Sanctification as the baptism in the Spirit. So at the Bowland Street mission the Wiggleworths stood for holiness and healing.
Someone came by the house (1907) and said that over in Sunderland people were receiving the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. The following Saturday night Smith went to investigate. He was disappointed when he found the meeting less spiritually charged than the meetings in Bradford, where people were healed and slain in the Spirit as Polly preached. Early Sunday morning he went to a Salvation Army meeting where he was slain in the Spirit three times in the first service. The Salvation Army fellow said that tongues-speaking was of the devil and tried to discourage him from associating with those Pentecostals. But Smith was hungry for more of God if there was more to be had. He tarried before the Lord till midnight, then through the night till Monday, when he went to the Episcopal church where the Pentecostals were meeting. He tarried with them all night Tuesday. At 2:30 am Wednesday morning they closed the meeting with nothing much happening. But Smith did not go to bed. He and a missionary from India spent the night in prayer and were blessed.
For four days Smith had wanted nothing but God, and now disappointed he would have to go home without receiving “the tongues” he’d come for. He dropped by the Episcopal vicarage to say good-bye. Standing in the kitchen, he lamented to the vicar’s wife, Mary Boddy, “I’ve not received the tongues yet.”
“It’s not the tongues you need, but the Baptism. If you will allow God to baptize you, the other will be all right.”
Smith knew his theology. “Oh, I have received the Baptism, Sister,” meaning Sanctification. “But I’d like you to lay hands on me before I leave.”
When she laid hands on him, the fire fell. God bathed him in power, and he began to speak in other tongues. He may have received anointings before, but not like this. This was the baptism of the Holy Spirit as they had received on the Day of Pentecost.
That very day Smith went up to All Saints Church, where a meeting was going on, led by the Episcopal vicar Alexander A Boddy, who himself had not yet received the Baptism. Smith interrupted the meeting and began to preach, which was most strange since Polly was the preacher and in twenty years of ministry Smith himself had never been able to speak in public. The Spirit moved mightily and fifty persons received the Baptism.
When Smith came home to Bradford, the fight was on. Because Polly knew her theology too. She had received the Baptism at Sanctification and she didn’t need a new enduement. “I’ve been preaching twenty years, but Sunday you will sit beside me on the platform, and you will preach. Then we’ll see if there’s anything to it.”
Sunday Smith mounted the platform and preached from Isaiah 61:1-3, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” He preached so boldly that Polly was fidgeting, until she finally said so loud everyone could hear her, “That’s not my Smith. Lord, that’s not my Smith!”
After that, they all wanted what Smith had received. In a short while, there were eleven people lying on the floor slain in the Spirit. That was the beginning of a great outpouring where hundreds received the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, including Polly.
Smith and Polly began receiving calls to come and preach. Wherever they went, the fire fell, and the Lord baptized people with the Holy Spirit. Smith gave up his plumbing business, for full-time ministry, living by faith. Though they were sometimes absent, they continued the Bowland Street mission and did house-to-house visitation. Unashamed of the gospel, they purchased the largest flag pole they could find, placed it outside the mission, and raised a flag measuring 108 inches by 54 inches. One side was red, the other was blue. With white letters. One side read I AM the Lord that healeth thee; the other, Christ died for our sins.
Inspired by Jesus who said, “When you make a feast, call the poor, maimed, lame, blind” (Luke 14:13), Smith sent out “advance men,” to find the needy, sick, and afflicted and to give them tickets to the banquet. They brought in epileptics, people bent over, twisted, dragging their feet, people in wheelchairs and on crutches, leading the blind by the hand. The first thing the mission did was feed them. Then they “entertained” them with testimonies of how God had worked in the lives of others. Then they invited them back to an encore banquet next Saturday when God would heal them.
The following Saturday night Smith called out, “Who wants to be healed?”
One by one they came through the healing line and were dramatically changed. One boy was encased in iron. When Smith anointed him and laid hands on him, the boy cried, “Papa, Papa, Papa. It’s going all over me! It’s going all over me! It’s going all over me!” And he was loosed.
Smith and Polly were model spiritual parents, not only getting persons saved, but nursing and feeding them on the Word, laboring with them in prayer, and inspiring them to Christian service. Their practical Christianity, their principles, their holiness and godliness were a springboard for new converts.
Only six years after receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Polly unexpectedly died (1913), which was a real blow to Smith. He prayed for her and commanded that death release her. She resuscitated for a moment, long enough to say, “The Lord wants me.”
“If the Lord wants you, I will not hold you.” And he let her go.
And so ended the life of one of the most faithful and godly Pentecostal women preachers. Smith never remarried, but entered into a worldwide ministry of his own.
“Be filled to overflowing with the Spirit. We are no good if we have only a full cup; we need to have an overflowing cup!” ~Smith Wigglesworth
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Leith (Edinburgh) Scotland
* Adapted from Stanley Howard Frodsham, Smith Wigglesworth: Apostle of Faith (Springfield: Gospel, 1948), passim.