Big Top

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.

6 thoughts on “Big Top

  1. Brent Snavely

    “In the beginning was the Word…”, and that sign/symbol/signifier, reduced to writing, has bound many to it under what might be perceived to be a system of subtly applied violence.


  2. Sounds like am interesting book, but I can’t buy your rant. Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about women submitting to men, but none of it would lead a rational person to allow a male evangelist to impregnate them outside wedlock. There’s a little piece about sex being exclusive to marriage that sort of squashes that. The Bible is very specific about exactly which men to submit to and under what circumstances. People have been bending the Bible to suit their situation for as long as there’s been a Bible. That doesn’t make the Bible bad. Jim Jones used Kool-aid to kill people, but that didn’t mean there was anything wrong with the sweet stuff in the envelope in the store.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Sorry Jane, you’re wrong on this one. The Bible is very clear that men are superior to women, and I have generations of biblical scholars to back me up on that. Our society has (to some extent) come up with ways to rationalize this patriarchy, but we can’t erase what is clearly there. I would in no way presume to comment on someone’s–anyone’s rationality when they are in love. I’ve been there and I know what it is capable of doing. Nowhere do I say the Bible is bad. It is patriarchal, however, otherwise it is pretty hard to explain Jesus.


      • Is the Bible patriarchal or is it just written about a culture that was patriarchal? And generations of male Bible scholars agreeing that the Bible says men are superior? Is that wishful thinking or merely self-serving?

        I’m very sorry for women who allow men to subjugate them, whether because of the Bible or the Koran or any other ancient wisdome writing. I have not read this particular book, but your post seems to suggest that this woman got pregnant because the Bible told her to sleep with the evangelist and promised it would be OK, because Jesus was returning soon. My point is not to argue whether the Bible is patriarchal or not, but to say that the Bible is not to blame when people misuse it as an argument for their personal agendas.


        • Steve Wiggins

          Hi Jane,

          The Bible is clearly a patriarchal document. I’ve spent decades reading about it at a “professional” level and no one has ever come up with a convincing argument that it is otherwise. This includes both women and men who are biblical scholars.

          I don’t believe I blamed the Bible anywhere in my post. There are those who interpret the polygamy approval as still valid (as some sects of Mormonism continue to), and there are those who believe the Bible forgives marital infidelity on that basis. If you decide to read Johnson’s book, you’ll see that her mother uses exactly that reasoning: the Bible nowhere declares polygamy against God’s will (it was a patriarchal culture) and if God was instructing the evangelist to “marry” her as well as his wife, there’s nothing in the Bible that declares that wrong, in principle.

          This is precisely the problem with ancient texts in modern times. They need to be interpreted intelligently and few have the capacity to study the languages and cultures that enable such capacity. Such is clearly the case with David Terrell.


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