By his own admission, Australian preacher John Smith, who died last week in the Victorian coastal town of Ocean Grove at the age of 76, lived a “extraordinary” life during which he wore many different hats: preacher, author, public speaker, motorcycle club founder, human rights campaigner, husband, father, grandfather – the list goes on.

But it hasn’t been a life without its share of pain – what he calls “mad experiences of illness and accidents” – including his final, almost 20 year-long battle with cancer.

In a hitherto unpublished interview with Sight conducted in mid-2018, Rev Dr Smith - best known to many simply as "Smithy" and to others as "Bullfrog" - recalled not just some of the battles he’s been through – including suffering St Vitus’s Dance as a child and the cancer diagnosis he received while in the US 19 years ago – but also how these battles impacted his faith.

 “I do believe there is a God in the universe and I’ve had enough reasons in my life and enough, even what I might call quite remarkable recoveries on several occasions in different crises, to believe that divine intervention is a real possibility and I think I’ve experienced moments of that,” he said, speaking in the loungeroom of his home. 

John Smith2 

John Smith in a 2015 picture. PICTURE: David Adams

Smith added that while his illness hadn’t damaged his faith, “it’s tested it, it’s tried it and it’s caused me to ask questions I wouldn’t have asked otherwise”.

 “It’s a very, very painful world to enter in[to] – the serious, permanent illness, terminal illness – it opens up huge questions about life and about the meaning of life, and about fighting to survive and all of those things…” he said.

“It’s a very, very painful world to enter in[to] – the serious, permanent illness, terminal illness – it opens up huge questions about life and about the meaning of life, and about fighting to survive and all of those things…”

- John Smith

Yet, while he said his illness had been a “blessing and an insight into life”, he added that he wasn’t “taking lightly how nasty this journey has been” and recounted some of the hardships his illness had forced him to endure.

“It’s been very nasty. And you know what, I love going fishing, I love nature and I used to climb mountains, [go up] mountain streams and tickle trout – my grandfather taught me how to catch them by hand – and all of that, and now I can’t do that...Everything’s hard work now, it’s hard.…It’s not nice but it has been a door to perception on many, many issues about the human condition and it certainly, obviously, if you just don’t be ego-centric, it makes you care for people that have disabilities…my heart is moved. So it’s been a gift.

The son and grandson of preachers, Smith’s passion for Christ has been the “driving force" of most his life but there was a time, when he was training as a teacher at a college in Queensland, that he’d lost his faith.

He recalled one night in particular when he had what he calls an “unconversion” experience while looking at the stars and having an “overwhelming sense of the magnitude of the cosmos” and thinking that “there’s no God, there’s nothing”.

“I never lost my respect for dad or grand-dad but I just couldn’t hold it together any more…I had to find my own faith, I could no longer live on the basis of daddy’s faith. “

Despite his unbelief at that time, he remained a key figure in the college’s Christian fellowship.  

“Not too long after that I arranged for this fiery preacher to come and preach on the campus,” Smith recalled. “And I got 'netted' by the guy I got to come on the campus. And he said in the middle of this address, ‘Most people with intellectual doubts about religion and faith, their doubts do not come out of a simple intellectual argument, they come out of moral failure and their own identity crisis and their struggle with their own wrong living’. And he looked at me – he probably didn’t, but I thought he did – and I was gone. God just pole-axed me – it was like He took a sledgehammer and hit an ox in the middle of his head.”

Smith said he met Jesus at that “crossroad”.

“And I’ve never, since that hour – I’ve doubted churches, I’ve doubted theologians, I’ve doubted me mates, I’ve doubted Christian institutions, I’ve doubted even leadership of the various institutions I’ve founded myself – but I’ve never since that night doubted the centrality of Jesus Christ of Nazareth at the centre of the possible salvation and restoration of our broken world.”

Of course, Smith, much of whose story was captured in his autobiography On The Side Of The Angels as well as the recent documentary Smithy, went on to found the God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club as an outreach to so-called "outlaw" bikie gangs. He also founded mission and welfare organisation Concern Australia and alternative Christian communities in Melbourne including Truth & Liberation Concern and St Martin’s Community Church.

A prolific writer and public speaker, he addressed, in the latter role, everyone from Christian groups and corporate gatherings to school students - including sharing the stage with the likes of former US President Jimmy Carter and speaking numerous times at the Greenbelt Christian arts, faith and justice festival in Europe - and he was a sought-after commentator for the media on social issues.

The words "apostle" and "prophet" are often used to describe Smith and many high profile Australian Christians - World Vision chief advocate Tim Costello, Centre for Public Christianity co-founder John Dickson, futurist and social commentator Mal Fletcher, and writer and pastor Mark Sayers among them - have spoken of the role he played in the development of their own faith.

Speaking about his personal faith journey, Smith told Sight that he had no trouble with a faith that has aspects of “mystery” to it. 

John Smith On the Side of the Angels

 

“My legacy will be in the lives of thousands of people who will never be the same…That’s what matters to me.”

“Because any human being that is intelligent knows there’s stuff we don’t know,” he said. “So mystery isn’t a problem but absurdity is. And my problem with the secular society is [that] it actually lives on the mountaintop of tenuous absurdity. It tells me I must live my life with meaning, I must contribute to my society, blah, blah, blah blah, and then it tells me that I’m nothing but a piece of absolutely accidental cosmic dust. Now I think my non-believing friends live in absurdity. I can make sense of meaning and sense of love.”

Having long been an advocate on social issues - on matters ranging from the treatment of Australia's Indigenous peoples to youth suicide and depression (Smith had told people when asked how the world should be interpreted from a Christian point-of-view that it should be with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other), he expressed his heartache at the direction in which Western societies are headed, describing the current era as “post-rational, post-moral, post-communal”.

 “I mean a last gasp stand of us hippies in the Sixties came unstuck big-time but I think it was sort-of a last intuitive gasp to recover a sense of community. And you know how many books have been written like Bowling for Columbine by sociologists that are pointing out the awful consequences of the loss of the sense of real community?”

When asked what he thought of Donald Trump, Smith said the US President troubled him “enormously”. He was impressed, on the other hand, by what he’d seen of Pope Francis and said he loved the fact he appeared to be centred in Jesus Christ.  On the #MeToo movement, Smith said he was “totally outraged” in the way men of power had abused women, as well as some men, but that he believed the way forward was for men and women to work together. 

As for what legacy he wanted to leave?

“My legacy will be in the lives of thousands of people who will never be the same…” Smith said. “That’s what matters to me.”

He recounted some of the stories of the many people who had contacted him over the years to tell him about how their life had been changed after hearing him speak. They included one of a man who told of how his life had “been turned upside down” when he “found faith” after Smith had spent some time at his highschool, and another of a man who, another who had heard Smith speak at his school, ended up going on to serve the poor in the developing world and even received an OBE for his efforts (which he said he would have sent to Smith but knew he would have declined it).

Smith said he hoped he’s remembered as someone who, despite being told he would never make anything out of his life and thanks to the love and care of a couple of teachers and his wife Glena – who’s “given over 50 years of her life being my partner through lots of storms", has made a difference.

“At the end of the day, [my legacy] is in the lives that have been changed, and, I think, in some areas where I have impacted the Australian culture and beyond.”

A memorial service for John Smith will be held at The Wave Church (corner of Lake Ave and Wallington Road) in Ocean Grove, Victoria, at 2pm on 23rd March.