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Things Are Possible
The Healing & Charismatic Revivals in Modern America
By David Edwin Harrell Jr.
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1975 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Once an object of derision, in the 1970s pentecostal religion became almost fashionable. Many judged the charismatic movement the most vital single force in American religion. The gifts of the Holy Spirit (charisms), speaking in tongues (glossolalia), and divine healing were subjects studied in nearly every American church, and cells of charismatic believers appeared in most American denominations. By 1975, perhaps 5,000,000 or more Americans were taking part in the charismatic revival.
Pentecostal, or charismatic, religion in the 1970s was a many-faceted phenomenon. Most prominent were the many small churches which had grown out of the pentecostal message in the early twentieth century; they were popularly lumped into a category called classical pentecostalism or old-line pentecostalism, although they varied vastly in size, sophistication, and doctrine. There were also many members of traditional Protestant churches who, during the 1960s, had accepted a type of pentecostal theology while remaining in their own churches. This growing movement, generally made up of the sophisticated and the well-to-do, came to be labeled neopentecostalism. A similar outbreak that erupted in the American Roman Catholic Church in 1967 was called Catholic pentecostalism to distinguish it from the earlier neopentecostal movement. Considerable differences in beliefs and behavior existed both between and within the groups, but they were united by the conviction that they had received the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit.
Finally, there was a group of revival ministries which were in a large part responsible for the unexpected growth of pentecostalism in modern America. Since World War II, hundreds of ministers, most of them in the 1950s coming from the ranks of classical pentecostalism but later from a variety of backgrounds, established independent evangelistic associations. These associations lived or died with the charisma of the evangelist, and some became multimillion dollar organizations. Taken together, they were a powerful independent force in modern American religion and won the religious loyalty and financial support of millions of Americans. Little understood by the public, the faith healing revivalists were the main actors in the postwar pentecostal drama. By the 1970s, the independent ministries had become as diverse as pentecostalism itself. Their organizations were the only bridge that spanned the entire expanse of pentecostalism and they are the chief subject of this book.
Americans have long been fascinated by the bizarre world of faith healers. The Elmer Gantry stereotype was given new life in 1972 with the release of the popular motion picture Marjoe. The movie and subsequent book about its producer, Marjoe Gortner, once again explored the themes of greed, fraud, exploitation, and hardened showmanship long associated with healing revivlaism. Marjoe's expose was the work of an acknowledged insider, and it reopened deep wounds that charismatic leaders had worked hard to heal. Marjoe demonstrated that spiritual hustlers were still around (no one knew it better than the leaders of the charismatic revival). His attack once again challenged objective observers to distinguish charlatans from true believers. In the process, Marjoe brought once again into full view the whole curious world of hullabaloo and hope found in the tents and tabernacles of American pentecostal subculture. Once again, the religious rituals of the poor and lowly had piqued the interest of better-off Americans.
More important in bringing the charismatic message into public view than the new notoriety of Marjoe Gortner was the emergence of a sophisticated and respected charismatic leadership. Once scorned by most of the nation's religious leaders and the press, by the 1970s Oral Roberts had become a man of prestige and stature. In 1974, pentecostal leader David J. duPlessis was included in a list of the eleven most influential Christians in the world, based on an informal poll conducted by seven major church magazines. Kathryn Kuhlman's ministry was both successful and respectable. The Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International took the charismatic message into the banquet halls of the best hotels of the world and boasted among its members some of the world's wealthiest, most glamorous, and most powerful. The snow white dove was still seen scribbled on ghetto walls, but it was also molded into lapel pins worn by the mighty.
There were other forces at work in American society which allowed the revival to expand from the shabby tabernacles of the poor to the temples of the comfortable — all of them, to the faithful, evidence of the powerful work of God. The affluence of the time allowed many independent revivalists to build far stronger financial organizations than ever had been possible before. Ecstatic religion, with its emphasis on divine healing and the physical presence of the Holy Spirit, had long filled an important place in the barren emotional lives of the poor. Increasingly in the 1950s and 1960s sophisticated Americans awoke to the emotional insecurity of their own cultural anonymity. The youth revolt of the 1960s quickly established contact with the fundamentalist religious tradition — including the charismatic movement. At the same time, many middle-class Americans, beset by their own frustrations, were romantically attracted to the occult, psychic phenomena, and divine healing. The charismatic movement became a vital but amorphous phenomenon, ranging from tent healers and old-time pentecostals to sophisticated Episcopalians and Roman Catholics who discovered anew the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The charismatic revival was born in the small pentecostal churches in the aftermath of World War II and nurtured by the generation of charismatic evangelists who established independent ministries in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The most successful of the revivalists quickly freed themselves from the domination of the small pentecostal churches and became autonomous powers in the pentecostal world. By the mid-1950s most of the pentecostal denominations, for a variety of reasons, had withdrawn their endorsements of the traveling evangelists. Some of the smaller revivalists were crushed by this development and forced to stop campaigning; the most successful had to reassess their plans and change their methods to build new bases of support.
The great revival that launched the careers of the independent ministers lasted roughly from 1947 to 1958 and was preeminently a healing revival. In some ways the charismatic evangelists looked much like other revivalists in American history. They studied the techniques of figures such as Billy Sunday and Dwight L. Moody. They admired the success of Billy Graham. But they were not a part of the same revivalistic stream — theirs was a signs-gifts-healing, a salvation-deliverance, a Holy Ghost-miracle revival. Salvation from sin was preached, but, whatever the intention of the evangelists, it was never the central theme of their meetings. All the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including speaking in tongues and prophesying, and all the expressions of joy so common in pentecostal worship were present in the early revivals, but they were not the central theme. The common heartbeat of every service was the miracle — the hypnotic moment when the Spirit moved to heal the sick and raise the dead.
As will become apparent to the reader of this book, the variety of the thousands of services held under the big tents and in auditoriums throughout the country was as broad as the genius of the magnetic men who led the revival. All the evangelists preached in their own styles, all relying heavily on rehearsals of the miracles of Jesus, on stories of miracles in their own lives, and on tales of fantastic healings which they had witnessed. Some depended upon professional musicians to set the mood. They used a wide variety of high and low pressure tactics to raise the funds so quickly guzzled by their growing organizations. Most used lively associate ministers to prepare the audiences for the dramatic appearance of the anointed evangelist. Frequently, the services lasted four or five hours. But, whatever else happened, finally came the climactic moment, the moment for which the thousands had assembled, when silent expectation filled the air, when all the audience bowed their heads, raised their arms, and in the hushed silence whispered, "God, do it now"— the moment of the man and the miracle.
The healing techniques of the evangelists were disparate. Unanimously, however, those who succeeded had a powerful control over their audiences and an unwavering confidence in their own charisma. Most were dedicated to backbreaking work and spent long grueling hours in the centers of the platforms of the big tents praying, clapping, shouting, pleading with the crippled to walk, commanding the blind to see, and bowing dramatically amidst shouts of "Praise the Lord" and "Hallelujah." It was an exhausting, grinding, draining way of life. William Branham was a broken man after little more than a year; Jack Coe was physically exhausted at the time of his death; A. A. Allen, an incredibly tough campaigner, tottered constantly on the brink of psychological collapse; the resilience of Oral Roberts became a legend among his peers.
Part 2 of this book tells the story of these men and their healing revival. It is an account first of men — imposing, flamboyant, compelling preachers. Each independent minister has his own story; each deserves to be told. Chapters 3 and 4 trace the careers of the major leaders of the revival to 1958 and glance at some of the minor figures. But there is also a common scenario shared by all the actors. The revival had a life of its own, composed of the common doctrines, claims, successes, and failures of the revivalists. Chapter 5 analyzes the principal themes of the revival. The revivalists' teachings on healing, prophecy, ecumenism, evangelism, and a number of other subjects had a lasting impact on American religion. Chapter 5 also considers the apparent weaknesses of the revival. Internal tensions existed from the beginning, and, as the revival boomed in the early 1950s, pressures built. Misunderstood and caricatured by the press, disparaged by the medical profession, repudiated by most other Christian groups, and finally ostracized by the major pentecostal churches, the independent evangelists came to face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. By 1958, nearly all recognized that what had begun in 1947 was over. To survive, the independent revivalists looked for new paths to follow.
Part 3 of this book traces the development of independent charismatic ministries in America after 1958. Since that time, the old healing revival has been replaced by a much broader charismatic revival, whose ministries, some old and some new, have been varied. Some of the evangelists were learned; others were earthy prophets of the poor. They all owed a historical debt to the healing revival of the previous decade, but the variegated charismatic revival they have helped forge has had a distinctive life of its own.
The immediate reason that the old ministries changed after 1958 was the loss of financial support. Chiefly responsible for the decline was the opposition of the pentecostal churches. But there were many other reasons. Miracles became too commonplace, claims too unbelievable, prophets too available. Honest participants in the revival were disturbed by the popularity of frauds and extremists. The old revival died a slow and introspective death.
Fortunately for them, new opportunities were clearly visible to the evangelists by the late 1950s. Thousands of people in the traditional churches had become interested in the charismatic message; hundreds of thousands of religious Americans were dissatisfied with their own lethargic denominations and were searching for a more dynamic experience. Chapter 6 discusses the death pangs of the old healing revival and the sources of new spiritual strength upon which the charismatic revival was built.
As the charismatic movement took shape in the 1960s, most of the evangelistic ministries began to change in response. Frequently they turned into missionary or benevolent societies, while continuing the healing campaigns when feasible. Many still depended on loyal old-line pentecostals for support, but others, consciously or unconsciously, adapted to meet the blossoming interest in the charismatic message in the traditional churches. Most evangelists became teachers more than healers and recast their revival teams into teaching organizations.
Not all of the old-time Holy Ghost revivalists made the demanding transition successfully, and their places in the revival were taken by new and accomplished teachers. Some of these, most notably Kathryn Kuhlman, had long been active in a healing ministry, but the charismatic revival carried them to new heights. Scores of bright and forceful young men, most of them abandoning ministerial careers in the traditional denominations, established independent ministries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bursting into the movement with a great surge of energy. Chapter 7 gives a sampling of how the old ministries changed and how the new ministries emerged.
Chapter 8 is a discussion of the persistence of healing campaigning since 1958. Some of the revivalists refused to fold their tents when hard times came. Some well understood the limitations of their gifts, some already had concluded bitterly that they would have to live or die without the support of pentecostal denominational leaders, and some were trapped by their own radical characters. A few survived and grew. They generally appealed to the abjectly poor — to blacks, Indians, Puerto Ricans, and poor whites. A. A. Allen was their leader, but scores of small evangelists travelled the sawdust trail to them. By the 1970s, the nation's fairgrounds and civic auditoriums once again were filled not only with disciples of Allen, but also with new young campaigners who had powerful revival ministries of their own.
Thus, the healing revival of the postwar period mushroomed into a complex charismatic movement. The later revival was vastly different from the original outbreak and some of its differences are discussed in Chapter 9. Healing was no longer the dominant theme, although it remained an important doctrinal — and promotional — plank. The new movement was much more genuinely charismatic — interested in all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In many ministries, financial prosperity replaced divine healing as the most advertised miracle. In general, the doctrinal interests of the independent ministers came to span a much wider range.
The revival also became much more diverse in style. Even the recent tent campaigners could not recapture the uniform and spontaneous milieu of the early meetings. In general, the campaigns became more stereotyped, more staged, and more professional. Among the sophisticated, the revival moved into Hilton Hotels and ornate churches; and revival services were replaced by charismatic conferences and seminars. If the same Spirit provoked the testimonies of corporate executives and four-star generals and the ecstatic shouts and dances of spirit-filled Navaho, it chose to do so in quite different locales under the ministries of quite different servants.
This book does not set out to study all independent charismatic revivalists. That would be an impossible task for one volume. Rather, I intend to explore the overall dimensions of the revival and to omit no one who had an important impact on the course of the movement. Generally, only the most prominent leaders of such people's religious movements reach the view of the wider public, and then too often only in polemical tracts or sensational exposes. They deserve better. These men are persistent types of prophets in the Christian tradition — enigmatic and illusive characters in their own day and little more than fuzzy myths when subsequent generations return to study them. Few learned observers recognized the significance of the huge healing campaigns of the 1950s; not many of those enthralled by the charismatic movement today understand its origins. This book does not answer all of the questions raised by the postwar miracle revivals, but it does place the charismatic movement in a historical perspective that allows some useful generalizations and gives coherence to a confusing patchwork of independent religious associations.
Excerpted from Things Are Possible by David Edwin Harrell Jr.. Copyright © 1975 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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