Being raised by a woman who staunchly kept her evangelical faith no matter what the world threw at her has undoubtedly left a deep impression on me. Over the past few years I’ve found myself reading the memoirs of girls raised in evangelical settings who’ve discovered truths often hidden from males in similar circumstances. Clearly one of those truths is that male privilege is the substrate for any kind of biblical literalism. I’ve just finished reading Donna M. Johnson’s Holy Ghost Girl and once again I’ve seen the light. Before I read this book I’d never heard of tent revivalist David Terrell, but I had attended a revival or two with my mother in my younger years and I knew, at least in theory, the evangelist is less important than the message. So they would have us believe. What Johnson accomplishes, however, is no less than astonishing. She presents a portrait that neither condemns nor condones her erstwhile stepfather, although her childhood was frequently undermined by the perils that accompany being raised by a revivalist groupie, and particularly being a girl in that situation.
Plaintive and reflective, Holy Ghost Girl raises questions that evangelicals often leave hanging in the air, such as when Brother Terrell’s son asks why he has to go to school when the rapture will come any day. Why indeed? When a court order had been issued, Johnson describes the puzzlement of the evangelistic team as they tried to decipher the letter: “Dreams, visions, prophecy, and scripture, our primary tools for making sense of the world, offered no insight on how to deal with legal issues.” This sentence suddenly explained so much of my own youth that I felt as if I’d missed out on the class that informed evangelicals of what was expected of them. The rules of this world do not apply here. Men are superior to women and girls who question that do so at their eternal peril. This becomes clear as Johnson reveals while the story unfolds that Terrell kept at least two secret families hidden from his wife, and, more importantly, from his followers. When Johnson’s mother found herself pregnant by Terrell and her daughter asked what she would tell the kids when they grew up the answer was pat: Jesus will return before then.
The idea of being excited for one’s belief is admirable. Evangelicalism has made an industry of it, conflating emotion with spirituality. Biblical literalism will always exact a heavy cost on girls. Those of us who study the Bible professionally learn early on that the Bible reflects the social conventions that gave rise to it and that world was unapologetically patriarchal. That stain will necessarily accompany any form of literalism—the sexes cannot be equal when the Bible says it ain’t so. Herein is the dilemma of the girl raised in an evangelical world: to question authority is to risk hellfire, and authority rests with men. Those who insist on women’s equality are of the devil. Johnson, obviously, took that great risk of making a deal with the devil and became a normal person. All of us raised evangelical have to come to grips with such issues if we want to make a lunge for normalcy, but the cost will always be far higher for girls.