Review: Preacher Girl

Christopher R. Schlect

Christopher R. Schlect is Professor of History at New Saint Andrew’s College.

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Christopher R. Schlect, "Review: Preacher Girl," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Thomas A. Robinson. Preacher Girl: Uldine Utley and the Industry of Revival. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016. 332pp. ISBN 978-1-4813-0395-8.

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Students of American Religion in the 1920s and 1930s are familiar with the so-called “fundamentalist-modernist controversy,” and others who study women and gender are well acquainted with flappers, women’s suffrage, and debates over women’s ordination. Thomas A. Robinson’s study of a prominent girl evangelist in this era points to fruitful ways these topics intersect. Uldine Utley launched her career as a gospel preacher when she was only eleven years old. This young girl was remarkable not only for her age, but also for taking up a religious calling that convention reserved for men. Utley’s public ministry shows that the old-time religion capably adapted itself to the Jazz Age.

Robinson’s opening two chapters narrate Utley’s early life and public career, and the remaining chapters highlight particular aspects of her career. She was born into poverty, to a family largely indifferent to religion. After coming under the influence of Aimee Semple McPherson’s ministry in 1922, young Uldine spent six weeks at McPherson’s Bible School. She soon discovered that she had a talent for soul-winning, like Sister Aimee. Before long she committed herself full-time to preaching, and her parents and siblings provided organizational support. In 1923 she launched her ministry with a preaching tour through California. She staged revival meetings in large cities up and down the eastern seaboard and then in the Midwest, until a mental collapse brought her career to a sad end in 1936. She withdrew from the public eye, married, and soon thereafter was overtaken by a mental illness that consigned her to care facilities until her death in 1995. The novelty of this little girl preacher surely contributed to her initial appeal, but Robinson notes that she reached adulthood midway through her career and continued drawing large crowds. He insists that Utley was as a genuine prodigy and no mere product of handlers; she was as talented as she was committed to her gospel message.

Robinson introduced Uldine Utley in an earlier work, Out of the Mouth of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era, co-authored with Lanette D. Ruff (Oxford, 2012). Because Utley was the best known of many girl evangelists who hit the sawdust trail in these years, she appears many times in Out of the Mouth of Babes to illustrate the cultural and religious dynamics of the interwar era. Preacher Girl, by contrast, is framed entirely around Utley. Readers interested in analyzing the girl evangelist phenomenon within its wider cultural context will prefer Out of the Mouth of Babes, whereas Preacher Girl is compelling for its human interest. In Preacher Girl, Robinson details the drudgeries of itineracy while making liberal use of Utley’s poetry to show how ministry took a toll on her private life. She endured the stress of trying to live up to her public image of purity, and she lacked both the privacy and the social opportunities that are prerequisite to finding romance. Robinson argues from Utley’s poetry that she was the genuine article: she was a gifted communicator, she believed in what she preached, and she sacrificed her private desires and her health to serve a higher calling. Her poems may be as close as we can get to Utley’s personal thoughts, but since she planned to publish them, they may still fall short of unveiling her most intimate feelings and struggles.

Out of the Mouth of Babes surpasses Preacher Girl in its analysis of celebrity culture and the debates over masculinity and femininity in the 1920s and 1930s, both keys to understanding Utley’s career. Robinson mentions these themes in Preacher Girl, and he concedes that Utley gained sex appeal as she matured, but he is too reluctant to weigh this as a factor in her success. Publicity photos featured close-ups of her pretty face, magazines ran images of her in swimwear, and writers regularly noted her attractive appearance. When a reporter compared Utley to Gretta Garbo, Robinson treats it as evidence of her oratorical prowess. Perhaps the author downplays Utley’s sex appeal because he does not want to deflect attention from her public speaking talent. Indeed, Robinson’s primary historiographical aim is to situate Utley within a longer history of revivalism. He places her within a tradition that includes Whitefield, Finney, Moody, Sunday, and Graham. No doubt this tradition influenced Utley’s preaching style, yet a deep study of her historical moment offers greater promise to explain why she drew large crowds. Utley occupied a cultural ferment that included Clara Bow, Alice Paul, Amelia Earhart, Shirley Temple, and Aimee Semple McPherson, and she exhibited elements of each one.

Thomas A. Robinson’s biography of Uldine Utley recovers the story of a girl whom historians have largely overlooked, though hers was once a household name. Robinson offers an interesting, sympathetic treatment of a tragic figure in the history of American revivalism. She was also a product of her time.