Kids of the Cloth: Child Preachers

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I’ve had a few requests for this article about Marjoe Gortner and child preachers so I’m republishing it here…

Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner had the worst stage parents ever. Instead of forcing him to model for advertisements or enter beauty contests, they made him carry a Bible and yell “Glory!” Marjoe was ordained at four years of age, and his Pentecostal parents molded him into the world’s youngest evangelist. His name is a blend of “Mary” and “Joseph” and his parents marketed him as a “Miracle Child” because he almost died at birth. They claimed that the Holy Ghost visited him at age three while he was taking a bath, and that he received sermons from the Lord in his sleep. Marjoe jokes that he was taught how to sing “Hallelujah!” before he could say “Momma” or “Poppa.”

During the 1940s, Marjoe delivered hellfire and brimstone sermons to packed churches and tents as he led crusades across the Bible Belt. With blue eyes, curly blond hair and dressed in a velvet suit like Little Lord Fauntleroy, the mini minster would say endearingly, “I’m in town to give the devil two black eyes!” Marjoe was also a faith healer, convincing thousands of people that they had been healed miraculously. He peddled holy relics that were promised to attract good luck. He gave kisses and cuddles to the old church ladies in exchange for donations to the collection plate. Behind the scenes, his mother and father coached him on how to perform his sermons. If Marjoe didn’t memorize his lines correctly they would smother him with a pillow or pretend to drown him.1 These methods of punishment wouldn’t leave any visible marks that might be spotted during his public performances. His parents exploited him for money until he was a teenager, when his father absconded with the millions that Marjoe had earned.

Marjoe-Gortner-52074773078_xlargeHe floundered for a few years before trying his hand at acting and music. However, his audiences preferred Marjoe the minister, so he retuned to the revivalist circuit as a way to make some money. Now a charismatic young man in his twenties, Marjoe turned his meetings into rock concerts with singing and dancing. He even incorporated dance routines by Mick Jagger into his stage moves. Marjoe never believed he had a gift from God, and he soon became disillusioned with the deception of the industry. At the age of 26, he decided to do a final tour, and took along a film crew to uncover what goes on behind church doors. The 1972 documentary Marjoe is an eye-opening exposé of the revivalist racket. Marjoe exposes speaking in tongues and faith healing, and reveals the carny tricks he used, such as making a blood-red cross appear on his forehead using sweat-activated ink.

Marjoe was not the first pint-sized preacher and this was a popular gimmick during the early days of Pentecostalism. The 1920s and 1930s were the heyday for child preachers. Uldine Utley was only ten years old when in 1922 she began preaching, and at age fourteen she preached before a crowd of 14,000 people at Madison Square Garden. In 1922, Richard Headrick began preaching on the radio when he was just 5-years-old. Betty Weakland began preaching at age seven in 1923 and soon founded her own church. In 1932, Edna Hammers had a gospel radio show at the tender age of seven. These are just a few examples. Former minister Ted Lavigne has researched the topic and discovered that there have been about 500 child preachers, while the earliest dates back to the 1700s.2

In these days of Toddlers & Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo and other “reality” television programs that exploit kids behaving like adults, child preachers have made a comeback. Kanon Tipton began preaching to his local congregation in Mississippi at the age of 21 months and was dubbed the “World’s Youngest Preacher”. Terry Durham started preaching when he was four years old and is known as the “Little Man of God”. 11-year-old Ezekiel Stoddard was recently ordained as a minister by his family’s independent Pentecostal church. His 13-year-old brother Hezekiah is a deacon, while 7-year-old Micah hopes to follow in his brothers’ footsteps soon.

Video performances of these kids of the cloth have gone viral online. They cast out demons, lay hands on the sick and give impassioned sermons. Some are articulate and precocious preachers, while many are still learning how to talk. Toddlers mumble into their microphones, although they are barley able to hold them. YouTube videos of Baby TD Jakes require subtitles to translate what he was saying. (Perhaps they are just speaking in tongues?) These kids present lessons about concepts they can’t possibly understand, including creationism, morals and, of course, religion. When he was just 7 years old, Samuel Boutwell used to preach, “Don’t kill your child!” outside abortion clinics in Mississippi.

Alani-dos-SantosThese kids are not only an American phenomenon and several early child preachers were English. They are big business in Brazil, where they command thousands of dollars for a sermon, and raise even more in donations and sales of books and DVDs. Such as 8-year-old Alani dos Santos, who is better known as Missionarinha (“Little Missionary”). Like a mini Benny Hinn, dozens of worshippers arrive in wheelchairs and crutches, desperate to be healed by the little girl. Her father, Pastor Adauto Santos, a former hairstylist and car thief, claims that Alani has cured faithful followers of cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS and many other diseases.3

Several religions elevate children to the status of deity. Some Hindu and Buddhist countries have the tradition of the Kumari. A virginal girl is chosen as a living goddess and worshipped until she reaches puberty, at which point she reverts back to being a mere mortal. In Tibetan Buddhism a young boy is identified as the Dalai Lama, and is believed to be the reincarnation of his successor. Child preachers only go back hundreds of years, but the Gospel of Luke (2:39-52) tells the tale of the boy Jesus at the temple. His family made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, but they left him behind in the temple afterwards. When Joseph and Mary return to find him, 12-year-old Jesus was already preaching to the people there and showing signs of possessing great wisdom.

47606Child preachers are not only a Christian phenomenon. The Indonesian television show Pildacil, short for Pemilihan Da’i Cilik, (“Competition for Little Preachers”) debuted in 2004 and became one of the most popular in the country. Kiddie clerics aged 7-12 evangelize on various religious topics as they compete for prize money or the grand prize: a pilgrimage to Mecca. During their performances they urge people to fast during Ramadan and warn against committing adultery; their sermons peppered with Koranic verses and Hadith quotations. The conservative Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body, voted the show as “best children’s television program” for 2005.4 This show is not the only one of this kind. On Keluagra Dacil (“Family Little Preacher”) contestants up the age of ten spend two weeks in a camp where they learn to preach. Producers of the show say that they were inspired by American Idol.5

Child preachers are touted as “chosen ones” with a miraculous backstory. For example, 14-year-old preacher Ana Carolina Lucena Dias was three-years-old when her heart stopped beating for a few minutes. Then God sent down an angel to save her. “A few weeks after that I did my first sermon to share this miracle with other people because I wanted to help them find God too.”6 When he was eleven, Matheus Moraes said, “God sent a prophet to Earth who told my mom that she would get pregnant very soon and that the baby she was going to give birth to would have a very special gift”.7 Marjoe Gortner later admitted that his parents made up the story about him having a revelation in the bath at age three.

Typically, these people lose their appeal to the religious community when they grow older, and they often struggle to find their identity as adults. Uldine Utley disappeared from public view when she married in 1938. Soon thereafter her husband committed her to a mental hospital and divorced her. She spent her remaining 57 years living in mental institutions.

Child preaching is a form of child abuse and these children are robbed of their childhood. They are exploited by their parents for fame and fortune, as demonstrated by Marjoe’s experiences. It comes as no surprise that prodigy preachers are often the children of preachers. They are trained to parrot scripts and mimic the language and gestures of adult preachers. These kids are not compelled to preach by the Holy Spirit. They are groomed for God.

 

References

 

  1. Kernochan, Sarah, and Smith, Howard. 1972. Marjoe. Mauser productions.
  1. Hebblethwaite, Cordelia. 2012. The curious allure of child preachers. BBC News. August 28. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19377143

3. Kix, Martina. 2009. Bible Babies. Inside the Weird World of Brazil’s Child Preachers. Vice. http://www.vice.com/read/bible-babies-853-v16n5

  1. Jakarta Globe. 2012. Indonesia has a thing for TV preachers. August 22. http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/archive/indonesia-has-a-thing-for-tv-preachers/
  1. Mandari, Presi. 2007. Child preachers claim Indonesian airwaves. October 4. http://wwrn.org/articles/26462/
  1. Phillips, Tom. 2010. Brazil’s evangelical revolution sees miracle healers take centre stage. The Guardian. October 29. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/29/brazil-evangelical-revolution-miracle-healers
  1. ibid.

 

First published in Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 18, No.3.

 

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

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