Oliver Smith Biography, Iowa Preacher - A Man Called Oliver

A Man Called Oliver

Oliver Smith was a common, unassuming man who had a deep burden for the souls of men. Often, when working his team in the field, he would stop and weep as he thought of sinners going down to hell. The welfare of his fellow man became his overriding passion and to those who knew him, he was truly like John the Baptist, "a man sent from God." Though he had loved the farm and all that it involved, it was a blessed day indeed, when he turned his attention from the cornfield to the mission field - a field which was "white and ready to harvest." And like all good farmers, he labored diligently in his field of service, until the Lord called him home.

Although he never received a formal letter of commendation, his work commended him. It forever stands as a testimony to his unbridled zeal and the fact that God was with him.

First and foremost, he was an evangelist. Though he was used in the planting of assemblies and sought to teach the truth of God locally and in conference gatherings, it was in gospel work that he excelled. He delighted in bringing the glad tidings of the Bible to needy souls. Opportunities rarely slipped his grasp. He confronted sinners in their homes, barns, fields and automobiles. He traveled thousands of miles on rough country roads, winding down long narrow lanes delivering the news of God's great salvation. From a fellow laborer, William Warke, he obtained the nickname "All-Over" Smith in response to his abundant zeal. He labored tirelessly, from early till late, and the fire never dimmed.

Oliver Smith with William Warke

He had a unique way of approaching people. His very manner disarmed the hardest of sinners. Many angry individuals were moved to tears by the kind and sympathetic response they felt from him. Often, it wasn't so much what he had said, but the way in which he had said it, that left its mark upon them. One man at a roadside fruit stand, became angry when Oliver talked to him about his soul. "I put five dollars on the collection plate every Sunday morning," he said. But within minutes, Oliver had his arm around the man's shoulder and through tears, the man asked Oliver to pray for him.

Oliver moved along side of people, helping them in their daily tasks and opening his heart to them in their burdens. He gained their confidence with his happy demeanor and godly deportment. Seeing he was different, they desired to have what he was enjoying.

He had little, if any, fear of man. He was shameless in his testimony of the truth. He often preached from II Timothy 1: 8; "Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord."

"One time out on the farm," he said, "three to four men were putting a pump in. They were using God's name this way, that way, and crossways. Something said to me, 'You ought to speak to them.' But I thought, 'Fellows like that, what would they think of me?' I was ashamed! Then all at once I was ashamed that I was ashamed. Who was I that I should be ashamed of the Lord? I went out to one of the fellows and said, 'If you knew the Lord Jesus the way I know Him, you wouldn't use His Name that way!' Then I said, 'How much is this pump going to cost?' He told me, and I said, 'Isn't it surprising what people will pay to get water? We pay so much to get water to drink and the Lord has free water which very few want."'

There were times when he was threatened. Some said they would tar and feather him if he didn't leave town. Others threw rocks and eggs, taunting him as he stood on street corners. One giant man stood up during a meeting and told him he'd be waiting for him at the end of the lane. When several in the group feared for his welfare, he only smiled, "I'll be fine," he said, "I'll just pull the collar up a little on my coat and 41 will be well." When he approached the point of encounter, the man was nowhere to be found.

Another man, threshing oats on a farm, attempted to spear him with a pitchfork, but he was stopped by a fellow laborer. And in a farm pasture near Parkersburg, a man charged toward Oliver with a butcher knife, threatening to cut out his heart if he didn't end the baptism. "You see," said Oliver, "I was about to baptize his mother."

While traveling to a street meeting in Grundy Center, a man threw a rock at him and broke his arm. Undaunted, he stopped at the doctor's office in Grundy Center and had it attended to. Glancing out the window later, the nurse in the office was shocked to see Oliver Smith standing with others on the corner preaching the gospel.

In 1932, he convened meetings in the Copperhead School, south of Manchester. One woman who was a student at the time, remembered Oliver arriving at the school and asking for permission to use the building for Gospel meetings in the evenings. "The teacher said it would be all right with her," she recalled, "providing he would agree to leave the place clean and in order. Then Oliver invited all of the children to come and asked them to tell their parents to come. As he left, and the door closed behind him, the teacher waved her hand and said, 'Good-bye, Holy Roller."'

He also became the target of many untrue rumors. Word traveled that Oliver was only interested in people's money, and if possible, he would take their farms. Some said that he exacted a fee of $50 for each person he immersed in baptism. Writing about Oliver in a 1935 article, a reporter pressed Oliver on the truth of these accounts "I've heard that," said Oliver, "I've even heard that I have scorned offerings of $50 and torn up the checks so that I would be given more. But there is nothing to that."

He was called a "sheep-snatcher" for snatching people away from congregations. Near Rockford, Iowa, a Roman Catholic priest warned his members during morning services to beware of the 'joy-killers" who had come to town. These men, he had said, will deny you the enjoyment of a ball game, picture show, or even a glass of beer.

A Lutheran minister told members that he was a false prophet. "These men are a dime a dozen in California," he said.

He was accused of using a different Bible, and termed "The Dunker" due to the baptisms he performed. Those saved in these towns were labeled "Smithites" and many wondered what would become of them, once their leader was dead. But time proved the reality of his labors. With renewed vigor, he pressed on knowing that when God is at work the devil is working too.

Like other pioneers before him, Oliver knew the meaning of loneliness. He spent long days and nights away, often gazing out at the sunset and thinking of his family at home. While laboring near Clayton, Iowa, he wrote a brief note to his young daughter LaVelle saying:

"How are you by this time? I often think of you girls at home. I don't see anybody I know here. I will be glad when I see you again. Be a good girl. Your Papa"

In tent efforts, he endured many lonely nights. In the summer of 1924, his tent was pitched in Dike, Iowa. In his diary he wrote the following entries:

July 16: Had meeting in evening...one on the street and one in the tent. Slept in tent.
July 21: About 15 unsaved in. All night in tent - a little damp.
July 23: Fair crowd. Tent blew down. All night in tent.
July 24: All day fixed and put up tent, dry song books, etc.
Crowd not so encouraging. All night in small tent. One
anxious soul came in to talk.
Aug. 3: Big crowd at Dike. Mosquitoes so bad one could hardly listen.

The loneliness and difficulties associated with this pioneering work became common place, but to Oliver it was nothing compared to what the Saviour had passed through for him. Any hardships he encountered, he humbly accepted. In pressing forward, he continually kept his eye upon the Lord.

As a public herald of the truth, Oliver was adept at capturing the attention of a crowd. Whether the numbers were large or small, he always preached with great enthusiasm. He earnestly emphasized the holiness of God and the total depravity of the human heart. With tenderness, he entreated troubled souls to take refuge in Christ and to rest with assurance upon the unerring Word of God.

Over, and over again, he would impress these truths upon his audience. He believed there was value in repetition. "Sometimes people say that that man repeats himself," he once noted. "Well a carpenter repeats too. He'll start a spike and bang away and bang away and bang away. Why does he hit it so many times? Because he hasn't got it home yet." Regularly, as he brought his points home, he would pound his fist or stomp his foot, further emphasizing to his listeners the importance of what he was saying.
Preach the Word


Albert Ramsay with Oliver Smith

His voice was strong and clear. One summer members of a particular denomination had to alter the hour of their services because their minister could not be heard above Oliver's preaching down the street. Like Peter of old, he "lifted up his voice" desiring to be heard by all who were gathered in attendance.

He never spoke with polished oratory, but with words and illustrations readily understood by the common man. One individual, irritated by Oliver's apparent lack of eloquence, accused him of "murdering the King's English." But the Spirit of God took up the truths expressed in these simple words and lodged them deeply within the hearts of many listeners, and hundreds of souls were saved. Just as the educated throng surrounding Peter and John at Jerusalem had marveled at the teaching which proceeded from their "unlearned" mouths, likewise, many in Iowa were captivated by the preaching of Oliver, and they took knowledge of him, that "he had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:
Albert Ramsay
G. Albert Ramsay, a fellow evangelist, remembered riding with Oliver to a gospel meeting one night. Turning to Mr. Ramsay, he had remarked, "I don't have a sensible thought in my head." Later, as Oliver opened the meeting, Mr. Ramsay wondered what he would bring out of the portions he had read.

"There were no headings," he said, "just firstly, secondly, and thirdly. But after the first few sentences he was away, and folks were sitting on the edge of their seats as he warmed up to his 'heart message'. With a stomp of the foot and a tone that was his own, he held our attention for the half hour."

Oliver's genuine concern for people did not end once they were saved. He had the heart of a shepherd and was ever seeking to help young Christians in the things of God. Young men were often asked to open gospel meetings for him or to help in the preaching at
street meetings. He especially enjoyed hearing the testimonies of these young men. An example of this is recorded in his diary, when he had meetings on the north side of Waterloo in 1930. His entries contain the names of several who helped at that time.

July 27: Tent meetings at Mobile and Fowler. Mr. Simpson took first part.
28: Paul Elliott took first part.
29: Mr. Matthews took first part.
30: John Dahlgaard took first part.
31: Walter Eltjes took first part.
Aug. 1: Chris Uhlenhopp took first part.
3: Mr. Hoy, a missionary, took first part.
4: Paul Elliott took first part.
5: John Dahlgaard took first part.
6: George Uhlenhopp took first part.
7: Luke Southard took first part.
8: Henry Ramsey took first part.
11: Lloyd (Oliver's brother) helped at meeting.
12: Bert Street helped at meeting.
13: Harm Harms helped-close tent meetings.

Henry Wahls from Garnavillo, remembers a Saturday night street meeting at Elkport, in 1938. Oliver encouraged him to tell his testimony. "I'll prime your pump and hold your hat," he had said. Then stepping out from the group, he announced to the crowd who would speak.

"I stepped forward in fear and trembling," said Henry, "but the Lord gave help."

Oliver was also a regular guest in the homes of the Lord's people. He was at home wherever they lived and content with whatever they had. Many of these visits were short - a cup of tea, a rest on the sofa, a few songs at the piano. As he departed, the host was always impressed by some kind thought or gracious deed he left behind.

While preaching a few nights in one town, Oliver stayed in the new home of a couple there. When they showed him to his room, he commented, "I think I can rough it here."

Once, as he entered a home near Manchester, he laid his hat on a floor lamp. Soon the smell of something very hot penetrated the dwelling. In the corner of one room, a small hassock had been shoved over the edge of a floor register. "I think its that little old hay stack there," said Oliver. Leaving the home, he grabbed for his hat and placed it on his head. Off it came in a hurry! The source of the smell was quickly determined.

The wedding ceremonies and funeral services which Oliver participated in were vast in number. Tracing the names of these people through the pages of his diary is like reading a "Who's Who" of the assemblies in Iowa. He was always delighted when a couple married in the Lord and always stirred when an individual was ushered into eternity. Both situations kept him very busy. An in-law from Duluth, Minnesota suggested once that all of the people in Iowa would either have to die or get married before Oliver could come up there for meetings.
Oliver also carried a special place in his heart for those who were sick. He was a familiar figure in hospitals across Northeast Iowa. He sat with patients in their suffering and like Jonathan with David, attempted to "strengthen their hand in God." One woman,who lay hospitalized during an awful blizzard, was shocked to see Oliver enter her room. He had driven through blinding snow, over sixty miles on one lane roads, to see her.

Another man was leaving a hospital one evening after visiting his wife who was a patient there. He started his Model T and turned on the headlights. With a bang, both lights went out. "Times were hard and I didn't have a dime in my pocket," he said. Back in the hospital he considered what he should do next. While pondering the dilema a door opened and in walked Oliver Smith. Oliver had come to encourage them. Before he left, he pulled out his wallet and handed the couple a $10 bill. It was an answer to their prayers. "I went right out," said the man, "and purchased lights for the car."

Another time, someone handed fellowship to Oliver after a meeting. Turning around, he shook the hand of a woman confined to a wheel chair. Left in her hand, was the money just given to Oliver.

A prominent feature that clearly endeared Oliver to the hearts of all was his undeniable love and compassion for each of God's people. He never played favorites or moved in the circles of a select few. No believer was unimportant or insignificant. One Christian aptly defined him saying, "Oliver belonged to us all."