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Out of the Mouths of BabesGirl Evangelists in the Flapper Era$

Thomas A. Robinson and Lanette D. Ruff

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199790876

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199790876.001.0001

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(p.161) Appendix A The Importance of the Newspaper Record

(p.161) Appendix A The Importance of the Newspaper Record

Out of the Mouths of Babes
Oxford University Press

The value of the newspaper record for studying girl evangelists is that newspapers not only mention girls—most of whom would have otherwise disappeared from the historical record as girl evangelists—they often provide a wealth of other material too, such as sermon titles, detailed transcripts of sermons, and comments about crowds, supporting churches, length of crusades, and so forth, that are not included in the meager records of the girls themselves.

One further matter that makes the newspaper record crucial for a study of this kind is that the newspaper industry in this period was the press. Today, as newspapers fight (often unsuccessfully) to survive in a world of an ever-multiplying competitive news business, newspapers are at best a small part of the press, and for better or worse, a less likely source by which most people access the news. Consider the 1920s. Radio was very much in its infancy, television was decades away, and the Internet, with its multitude of news sources, was not yet even in the imagination. In the 1920s, newspapers were king—and kingmakers. Every town had its paper, and even small towns might have more than one.

In a most crucial way, newspapers are our window onto the world of the 1920s.1 Whatever the limitations of the newspaper record, newspapers are particularly useful in capturing the news of the day—news significant in some way for the moment but often soon to fade from memory or to be overshadowed by events more important either in the life of the community or in the life of the individual featured in the report. We know of the existence of many girl evangelists only because the newspaper record has been preserved. Girls with short careers as evangelists would have otherwise faded from the historical record, leaving little or nothing behind that would have marked them as young preachers—as must have happened in many cases. Even in cases where a girl may have jotted down sermons and notes, or written letters mentioning her preaching, the likelihood that such materials would have been preserved is slight, and the chance that what was preserved would now be readily at hand is remote. The newspaper record, interested in only what was news for the day, captures a slice of real life and preserves that, whether the particular event recorded has lasting significance or not. That makes the newspaper record an invaluable snapshot of daily life. Add to that the conversion (p.162) of the newspaper record into searchable electronic form, and we have a powerful tool for reconstructing life as it was lived in decades past.

For many girl evangelists who faded from the scene as they reached adulthood, there seems to have been little interest in preserving materials the girls might have written. Except for Utley and Weakland, we have been unable to find record of much published by girl evangelists. For Utley, we have over fifty issues of her magazine (missing still are seven of the issues of the final year of publication). Weakland's magazine is less complete. We also have typescripts of some of Utley's sermons, and she and other girls sometimes published short booklets of sermons, a few of which have survived.

A few of the girls published autobiographies. Utley's autobiography was largely written as a serial for her magazine, Petals from the Rose of Sharon. It was published in book form when Utley was nineteen, but little information after age fourteen is provided, though there was opportunity to update the story. Only nine pages cover the five-year period after age fourteen, though seventy-seven pages are given to the earlier period.2 Other autobiographies of girl evangelists are less stories of girl evangelists than stories of women evangelists, who early in their career, had a few years on the revivalist trail as girl evangelists. So, too, for girls who had biographies or biographical sketches written of them.3 The interest in their stories is usually because they have a larger story than being a girl evangelist. When such a story is written, most of it focuses on the girl's life as a woman preacher, and often her stint as a girl evangelist is not highlighted. For example, Bebe Harrison started preaching at age fourteen, yet her biography has only one short ten-page chapter on Bebe as a girl evangelist. The book focuses on her adult career, during which, under her married name Patten, Bebe built a huge evangelistic organization in Oakland, California, creating a massive family business. One branch of Bebe's work, which started out as Oakland Bible Institute, later became Patten University, housed on a fifteen-acre campus, now with a student enrollment of over seven hundred.

Even where a woman at a later stage in life might have reflected on her early years as a child preacher, we must be careful how we treat the source. The telling of the story would be from the perspective of long years of experience as an adult. Although memories of the early years might still be fresh, there would be a filter of later experiences in the telling of the earlier story. The newspaper record, however, captures the event the instant it happens. Although that does not free the newspaper account from some layer of retelling, the report is set in an environment of immediacy simply unattainable in later memory.

A further matter that illustrates the importance of the newspaper record for an investigation of girl evangelists is that much of the archival materials related to the girl evangelists are simply newspaper clippings of press coverage of various crusades. Even when the girls collected information regarding their crusades (as some did4), it is a scrapbook largely of newspaper clippings.5 We know that in one case, newspaper clippings were used to promote future crusades, with clippings forwarded to prospective pastors.6 That may have reflected a common practice of the girls. Both Betty Weakland and Uldine Utley regularly used press clippings in their magazines.

Other resources are less rewarding in our search for girl evangelists. We have examined various archives. The archive most dedicated to early Pentecostal materials is the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, the archives of the Assemblies of God. Their collection on girl evangelists is small, though no other archive we have searched is remotely close to theirs in resources in this field. The best collection of memorabilia on child preachers is owned by (p.163) T. J. Lavigne, a retired minister with whom we have communicated extensively. His collection of materials on child evangelists generally, and our own growing collection, focused on girl evangelists rather than child evangelists, is comparable with or exceeds what is to be found in established archives and libraries.

Other useful sources of information are postcards, posters, hymnbooks, and so forth, of the girls; and a fair amount of such material has survived. We have started our own collection of these kinds of materials for girl evangelists, and the retired minister mentioned above has the most extensive collection of such memorabilia for child evangelists generally, among which are various items featuring girl evangelists.

Some denominational magazines mention the girls, but generally with nothing more detailed than an announcement of a coming crusade. And in every case where a girl evangelist is mentioned in a denominational magazine, we have found that the secular newspaper record provides considerably more detail about the girl. This again highlights the importance of the newspaper record.

The Missing Material

The newspaper record has one glaring defect, it seems. Given only the newspaper record itself, one would conclude that most of the girl evangelists were white. But this is unlikely, given that the revivalist tradition was alive and well in African American churches in the early 1900s, and that Pentecostalism, in which revivalism and girl evangelists were most at home, had a large component of African Americans. In fact, the main revival that brought Pentecostalism to wide public notice was led by an African American preacher in a Los Angeles mission,7 and the largest denomination of Pentecostals in the early period, the Church of God in Christ, was African American.

One would, then, expect a considerable number of the girl evangelists from our period to have been African American. Yet in the newspaper record, African American girl evangelists are not simply in the minority, they are quite rare. Of the nearly two hundred girl evangelists from the 1920s and 1930s identifiable by name from the newspaper record, only a handful are described as “colored,” to which we might add a few more who appear to be connected to the African Methodist Episcopal Church or a Church of God.8 There could have been others in the list, but there is no evidence of that from available photos or little evidence of that from denominational affiliation, which might provide some clue, since few churches were integrated at this time and denominational labels often would have indicated race as well as religion.

We are here confronted by the possibility that many of the newspapers were biased in favor of white girls in their coverage, though there is little way to determine to what degree that was the case from the available evidence, since it is largely through the newspaper record that we learn anything of the girl evangelist phenomenon. There is some racial segregation reflected in some newspapers of the period. For example, the report on girl evangelist Agnes Alston is in a section titled “Among Our Colored Citizens.”9 Although the report is detailed, the section is one small part of just one page of the newspaper. To what extent newspapers of the period gave the bulk of their coverage to only one segment of their society is a subject for another study. Our sense is that nonwhite girl evangelists likely have been shortchanged in the newspaper record of the 1920s and 1930s.


(1.) Nathan Miller, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America (New York: Scribner, 2003; reprint, Da Capo Press, 2004), 329–330, points out that many smaller papers were folding, as major press barons built huge newspaper empires and as tabloids became popular.

(2.) Uldine Utley, Why I Am a Preacher (New York: Revell, 1931).

(3.) Celia (Bradshaw) Winkle, The Girl Preacher: A Thrilling Story (St. Petersburg, FL: Old Paths Tract Society, 1967), http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyctr/books/0601-0700/HDM0601.PDF.

(4.) Regarding Mary Agnes Vitchestain: “Saving Souls. Child Evangelist Still Preaching 75 Years Later,” Post-Standard, September 4, 1987, B1. Regarding Bebe Harrison: Glenn E. Kunkel, Winning the Race. Dr. Bebe Patten. Her Life and Ministry (Cleveland, TN: Pathway Press, 2000); Abraham Ruelas, Women and the Landscape of American Higher Education: Wesleyan Holiness and Pentecostal Founders (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 128–132. Uldine Utley's Petals from the Rose of Sharon frequently reprinted newspaper reports and comments.

(p.208) (5.) A story about Mary Agnes (Vitchestain) Wagner at age seventy-nine features a large photo of Mary Agnes holding a scrapbook of her collection of material from her girl evangelist days. The photo shows newspaper clipping and posters that Mary Agnes had saved. “Saving Souls. Child Evangelist Still Preaching 75 Years Later.”

(6.) “Clearfield Circuit,” Clearfield Progress, February 4, 1938, 6.

(7.) The story is told by Frank Bartleman in a book that has appeared in many editions and under different titles, the most common being simply Azusa Street.

(8.) There are various groups (Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal) that identify themselves as Church of God. One of the largest of these groups, the Church of God in Christ, is African American.

(9.) “Among Our Colored Citizens,” Chester Times, April 27, 1940, 5.