The 1920s are known as the “Roaring Twenties,” a time of feverish prosperity and even excess as de- picted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s well-known novel The
Great Gatsby. The grim atmosphere of the First World War
was swept away by the lively sounds of jazz and the bold
lines of the Art Deco style. Notions of womanhood were
redefined by the rise of the “flapper,” a class of fashionable
young women with bobbed hair, short skirts and carefree
attitudes toward smoking, drinking and sex.
The dominant image of an era, however, rarely captures
everything that was going on.
In an interview with Faith Today, Tom Robinson, professor of religious studies at the University of Lethbridge,
explains that while researching early Pentecostalism in a
digital newspaper archive, he stumbled across thousands
of references to “girl evangelists” during a short period in
the 1920s and ’30s.
One thing led to another, and the result was a book Robinson co-authored with sociologist Lanette Ruff called Out
of the Mouths of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era
(Oxford University Press, 2012).
In their research Robinson and Ruff discovered a forgotten world in which girl evangelists, typically ranging from 9
to 17, travelled across the United States and Canada preaching to packed audiences in theatres, churches and stadiums.
Some of the more well known, such as Uldine Utley of California, preached to millions of listeners before ever reaching
adulthood. Several had promotional teams and their own
magazines, and a few became household names.
Although most of the girls were American, they crossed
the border with preaching tours to places like Toronto, Winnipeg and Saskatoon. Adding a further Canadian twist,
many of them had been inspired by the Canadian-born
celebrity preacher Aimee Semple McPherson.
In a conscious contrast to the rebellious flappers of their
era, the girl evangelists preached a gospel message of repentance, salvation and upright living. While the message was
a familiar one centring on God’s offer of salvation in Jesus
Christ, the messengers were definitely unusual. Where did
this phenomenon come from?
On the one hand Robinson says it was “theologically
driven” by the idea, especially common in Pentecostalism,
The little-Known World
of girl Evangelists
Girl evangelists are a surprising part of
Canada’s Church history.
that in the last days God was pouring out His gifts on all
people, male and female, young and old (most of the girl
evangelists were Pentecostal).
On the other hand, the rise of girl evangelists reflected
broader cultural developments. The 1920s was the era of
the “child performer,” seen especially in the case of child actors like Shirley Temple, who signed a Hollywood contract
when she was only three. Part of the reason girl evangelists
were able to get so much media attention was that they fit
into this cultural trend.
In this respect the phenomenon of girl evangelists raises
familiar questions for Evangelicals, who have always used
existing cultural forms as vehicles for the gospel – whether
radio broadcasting, celebrity televangelists or the Christian
contemporary music industry. When is it appropriate to
borrow cultural forms from the surrounding culture and
fill them with gospel content?
In his thought-provoking book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP Books, 2008), Christian author
Andy Crouch affirms that copying cultural forms is sometimes an appropriate gesture toward culture, but adds we
need to take care that it does not become our unchanging
posture. Copying needs to be tempered by careful discernment, since cultural forms are not simply neutral vessels.
The cult of celebrity, for example, is not something Christians should blindly imitate.
By the 1930s girl evangelists faced increasing criticism
from within the evangelical fold along these lines. Early
Canadian Pentecostal leader R.E. McAlister, for instance,
joined his voice to a growing concern that the practice of
“unduly shoving children to the front” was a wrongheaded
attempt to attract crowds by providing an unusual spectacle.
Without necessarily endorsing this conclusion, Robinson and Ruff say famous evangelists like Utley were “
trademarked and marketed as merchandise” and “surrounded by
a cult of personality.” At the same time they note the lasting
positive impact of some of the girls, such as Uldine Utley,
who helped inspire the famous Chinese evangelist John Sung.
Whatever our verdict on the phenomenon of girl evangelists, it can serve as a reminder that it is not only our message, but also the means and the medium we use to communicate it, that will become part of our historical legacy.
(Robinson is still collecting information about girl evangelists – if you have any, consider sending him a message
through www.girlevangelists.org.) FT
KEviN Fla TT is assistant professor of history at
redeemer University College in hamilton, ont., and author
of After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church
of Canada (McGill-Queens University Press, 2013).
historylesson n BY KEVIN fLATT