The tent revivals in American Southern communities during the 1960’s provide the setting for a unique rhetoric that combined the themes of religious fervor, racial integration, and conflicted moralities. In Donna M. Johnson’s memoir Holy Ghost Girl, she recounts her experiences traveling with her mother, Carolyn, who served as the organist for healing evangelist David Terrell. Johnson’s mother later became romantically involved with Terrell, making life complicated for all involved. The book weaves a rich tapestry of events involving conflicts both private and public, including confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan, marital infidelity, and the impact of religious fervency on the individual, family, and larger community.
Johnson opens her memoir with a quote from William James, “There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make individuals exceptional and eccentric.” The characters that make up the tent revivalist band certainly prove to be both eccentric and exceptional. Central to the story are the interactions of the Evangelist David Terrell and Donna’s mother, Carolyn Johnson. The memoir recounts the struggles of people who genuinely believed that they were called by God to spread the message of the gospel through the means of putting up tents and inviting communities to experience the healing power of God, and the their own personal struggles with temptation, specifically an adulterous love affair that developed between Evangelist Terrell and Carolyn. All of these stories are told from the perspective of Donna, who was a part of this cadre from the age of three to seventeen. Ever present in this memoir is the centrality of place. The revival tent serves as a reminder that the power of rhetoric is often centralized in objects, and not just in geography. Johnson personifies the tent, “The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits…She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.”
Through her memories, Johnson communicates that during a time of change, when many were endeavoring to challenge the status quo of societies treatment of marginalized peoples that the tent and the revivals it hosted across the South provided a place for those changes to incubate, embracing Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” In this case the revival tent served as a meeting place that became a refuge from the harsh realities of the world at the time. Serving as a place where rich and poor, black and white, educated and uneducated would come together in a religious utopia, seeking to bring their vision into the larger world. A noble attempt, perhaps, that like most utopian visions would end in disappointment. Because those under the tent had to deal with the ever increasing encroachments of the world, but also, and more profoundly, they were forced to come to terms with the encroaching darkness of their own inner worlds. Worlds that proved impossible to escape, no matter how fervent the revival meeting or how spectacular the healings witnessed. As Johnson herself points out, “I wondered from time to time why miracles performed under the tent were perfect and complete, while in our daily lives God left things half finished.”
Evangelist Terrell certainly sought to leverage the tent as an agent of change in the world in which he lived. He saw himself as God’s man, with a mandate to change the world, while often ignoring the changes that needed to transpire in his own heart. For instance, although Terrell sought to integrate his meetings in the tradition of early Pentecostalism, he had difficulty making the connection to the bigotry in his own life, a hypocrisy shared by many of his supporters. “The same whites who hugged the necks of black believers under the tent thought nothing of using the n-word in everyday life, and would not abide mixing with blacks under any other circumstance. Brother Terrell told racist jokes in private and most of us, with the exception of my mother, laughed at them. We saw no contradiction in using our “colored” brothers and sisters in Christ as a punch line while risking life, limb, and tent to worship with them.” This sort of hypocrisy is a major theme in Holy Ghost Girl, and is central in understanding the rhetoric of place communicated under the revival tent. As Lloyd Bitzer observes, “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. The rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged it becomes a mediator of change.” So in a very real way, despite glaring hypocrisies, Terrell was able to convince his audiences and fellow laborers that they were chosen by God to bring change into their world creating a new reality that many who attended the tent revivals would whole-heartedly embrace.
The revivalist band led by David Terrell would face down the Ku Klux Klan along with other hardships through the years, but in the end, they could not escape the inevitability of the inner hardships that served to forge the rhetorical dramas of their lives. As Johnson observes, “The events I witnessed and the stories about these events have intertwined to form a single thread of memory. Sifted and shaped over time by the adults around me, my recollections have distilled into a mythology of faith, hard to believe, harder still to deny.” Holy Ghost Girl is illustrative of what communication theorist Ernest Bormann describes as “Rhetoric of Knowing”. Bormann, famous for his development of Symbolic Convergence Theory, puts “Fantasy Themes” at the center of his understanding of how rhetoric functions in a small group as an agent of cohesiveness and change. “He defines a fantasy theme as a “recollection of something that happened to the group in the past or a dream of what the group might do in the future.” As these themes chain out through a process of progressive steps-small groups to public speeches to media presentations to broader publics-a rhetorical vision develops consisting of “composite dramas” which form a “symbolic reality.”” Under Terrell’s tent there was a developing drama, which served as the basis of the symbolic reality of the evangelistic team. This would shine through in Terrell’s preaching style. How with words, if not always with deeds, he confronted the racism of his day.
For example in 1961 the team pitched the tent in Bossier City, Louisiana, where immediately the Ku Klux Klan confronted them.
When told by the Klan that they should pack up and leave town, and cease in their continuing defiance of the discriminatory practices. Johnson remembers Terrell’s response in his sermon. “Not one for half measures, Brother Terrell said others could compromise with the devil, but bless God, he wasn’t afraid to face Satan head-on. “Red, yellow, black, or polka-dotted, we’re all God’s children, and we all sit together under my tent.” Throughout the South, the evangelistic team would continue to confront the culture of racism. It is interesting that the members of the team described this in terms of “demonic resistance”. The ongoing conflicts caused Johnson, a small girl at the time, some trepidation. “Notes left under the windshield wipers of our cars threatened to cut down the tent and whup our cracker asses. It was clear someone or something was after us, but the adults would not say who or what. When I asked my mother, she hemmed and hawed and said something like, “Oh, honey, the old devil is after us, that’s all.” That’s all? Judging from the fear in her face, I figured the horned one must be close enough to spear our backsides with his pitchfork.” The framing of these obstacles to their mission is consistent with Bormann’s hypothesis that what emerges from cohesive communities is a “rhetorical movement that takes on the appearance of a drama with “heroes and villains” acting out their parts.”
But the heroes and villains were not confined to supernatural or white supremacists sort. Within the evangelistic team described by Johnson in Holy Ghost Girl, there was a more complex drama involving the sexual and moral proclivities of Terrell and Johnson’s mother, Carolyn. “Mama said she avoided Brother Terrell as best she could, a difficult feat considering we all occupied the same house during revivals…She said Brother Terrell pursued her constantly and that she resisted, reminding him he had a wife.” Eventually Carolyn would surrender to Terrell’s pursuits. Donna Johnson writes of the moment she would discover the truth of her mother’s relationship with the Evangelist. “I walked in just as Brother Smith pounded the table to make his point. “The Assemblies of God is the only church today that stands by the truth. Everybody knows they only kicked David Terrell out because he had two wives.” My face grew hot, and I felt as if the floor had given way, as if I was standing there with nothing to support me, nothing to save me…I knew that my mother was one of those two wives and that it was an awful, shameful thing and that her shame was my shame.”
From this point forward the rhetorical drama would intensify for Donna, the questions would continue throughout her adolescence until she would finally walk away from Terrell’s tent revivals for good at the age of seventeen. She would return periodically, and briefly become a follower once again, but her prodigal return would be short lived. Donna Johnson writes of her dissonance, “Everyone around me stood and applauded, including my husband, who knew everything I knew. To ponder whether the content of Brother Terrell’s sermon matched the reality of his life was the equivalent of grabbing a spiritual fire extinguisher. My brain said, wait a minute, and my instincts compelled me to step into the flame of belief and burn, burn, burn.”
Donna Johnson’s experiences under the revival tent communicate the power of rhetoric in every aspect of life, but most profoundly it does so in the arena of religion. If religion is a true expression of a relationship with God, or simply a holdover from our evolutionary past, isn’t of contention here. But rather, people who experience religion are profoundly shaped by those experiences in every way, so what should be the ethical considerations when engaging others with acts of persuasion in the context of religion? So the discussion of the rhetoric of place becomes of great importance as it applied in the arena of religion.
For Donna Johnson the place was a revival tent in the 1960’s and 70’s. For many others it is a church building, a synagogue, and a mosque. But whatever the particular place of worship, the way that particular religion is communicated, the rhetoric employed, the pictures displayed, the rituals observed all point the adherents to a greater purpose of convergence. Where that journey leads believers has the potential of serving positive or negative purposes. This is the power of rhetoric, a weapon that must be wielded ethically. A favorite scripture of Christian rhetors is Hebrews 4:12 “For the Word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword…”; (King James Version) this weapon of persuasion should then be applied like a surgical scalpel not a butcher knife.
It may be helpful while working through the ethical considerations of Johnson’s experiences under David Terrell’s revival tent, to superimpose over this setting the Burkean Pentad. Kenneth Burke posited that all of life is a drama, and the specifics of this drama may be explored through five distinct thematic elements that are, Act, Agents, Agency, Scene and Purpose. (Grammar of Motives) Why is this helpful to discerning ethical considerations in religious rhetoric? By applying the pentad patterns of rhetoric emerge providing a rubric of healthy and unhealthy outcomes. For example, in the Donna Johnson’s memoir Holy Ghost Girl, the act would be David Terrell’s tent revival with hundreds, and at its height of popularity thousands attending. The Agents would be Evangelist David Terrell and other members of the revival band. And on this point true believers would argue that the Holy Spirit would also be an agent in this dramatic rendering of the tent revival. The Agency would include the rhetorical methods employed to reach a desired outcome. In this case the music played by Carolyn Johnson and others and the evangelistic messaged proclaimed by David Terrell. The Agency would also include prayer lines for healing, giving and worship rituals, and extended periods of prayer and fasting. The Scene would be the revival tent and the particular community in which it was pitched. But the setting also included the particular moral and religious culture of the time and place. And finally the Purpose, which in the case of David Terrell’s tent revivals helps in discerning ethical implications.
What was the purpose of David Terrell’s tent revivals? After one extended fast, Johnson writes of David Terrell’s fervency of preaching, “Evangelist employed a shake’em-up, wake’em-up strategy in dealing with organized religion. It was part of their role and everyone expected it. “Jesus told me he’s sending a revival the likes of which the earth has never seen.”” From Terrell’s words it must be assumed that he wanted people to believe that his purpose was to help those to whom he was preaching, and perhaps at times it was a motivating factor. But Donna Johnson’s memoir reveals that at times Terrell’s purposes were clouded by his duplicity. She writes, “Doubt is a lot like faith; a mustard seed’s worth changes everything. Away from the tent, the questions kept coming.” It is interesting that Johnson contrast life under the tent, with life away from the tent. For her, life away from the tent became clouded by the dissonance she experienced giving her a welcomed clarity through which to judge how Terrell’s teachings and practices had impacted her life. She observes, “No matter what Brother Terrell did, God loved him. We loved him. I, on the other hand, failed the holiness dress code, and that was something neither the Lord nor his people could forgive.” It is evident that dramatic purpose of the rhetoric of the revival tent resulted in different outcomes for all involved, ramifications that are still be sorted through to this day.
“I had spent a lifetime deciding, and each time I thought I knew, the answer proved too small to encompass my experience…Maybe it wasn’t about Brother Terrell, but two worlds: one under the tent and the other outside. Each time I turned toward one, I turned away from some part of myself…There was nothing to do but move on. As I made my way back to my seat, I saw the old man and woman framed in the doorway of the church; beyond them stretched the beginning of the West Texas sky, and the world, the big, wide world.”
The rhetoric of our religious places challenges us from time to time to look beyond the tent, indeed only when life is experienced beyond the tent, can our experiences under the tent be fully appreciated and understood.