The Miracle Lady

Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity

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Amy Collier Artman
Library of Religious Biography
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     2019.
     248 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802876706.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Miracle Lady: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity, Amy Collier Artman looks to breathe life into the legacy of the most famous American evangelist of whom most of her readers will not have heard. Kuhlman’s career spanned decades and crossed multiple state lines, and her evangelical television shows were broadcast into the homes of millions of people by the time of her death in 1976. Artman does an excellent job of balancing the work of introducing Kuhlman to those who may not be familiar with her while contextualizing her rise to fame and the historical moment in which she lived.

This book is full of information about Kuhlman, but Artman particularly shines when she turns attention from the mechanics of an episode of Kuhlman’s television show and instead analyses Kuhlman’s fame through the lens of her gender, advances in mass media technology in the mid-20th century, and the development and gentrification of charismatic Christianity.

In the last few pages of the book, Artman shows that the reasons for Kuhlman’s “relatively quick movement from popular celebrity to cultural insignificance” is closely related to her rise to fame—her media savvy (174). The author argues that Kuhlman was primarily seen as “broadcast media figure” as opposed to a religious leader. With no established church or successor to carry on a signature message or style, Artman shows that Kuhlman was unlike many of her contemporaries.

Kuhlman’s most notable difference from her contemporaries is explored in depth throughout the book. Kuhlman, as the only major female evangelical figure from this era, faced unique challenges as she navigated a nation that was being rapidly transformed by media technology. Artman shows that Kuhlman presented herself to her congregations and radio and television audiences in a carefully crafted image that was short of personal details. Kuhlman’s divorce following a brief marriage was largely struck from any recounting of her past. This abridged autobiography was strategically cut down; Artman shows that Kuhlman knew the role she played in the lives of her listeners and what was expected of a women in her position.

That a woman was able to achieve the fame and broad audiences that Kuhlman would build during the early to mid-20th century is notable on its own. Artman explores the implications for charismatic Christianity that are baked into Kathryn Kuhlman’s rise. In describing the “gentrification of charismatic Christianity,” (3) Artman describes the role that Kuhlman played in “gentrifying” charismatic Christianity by bringing it into the mainstream and changing common perceptions that linked charismatic Christianity to Pentecostalism. The author shows Kuhlman’s rise as both emblematic and a driving force in pushing charismatic Christianity into the homes and pulpits of a broader swath of American Christians.

Kuhlman’s rise to fame would not have been possible without the “softening” of Pentecostalism that made the emergence of charismatic Christianity possible. Artman writes that this softening, “made them [charismatic Christians] more appealing, or doctrinally impure, depending on your adherence to classic Pentecostal doctrine” (5). A female figurehead of a major religious community would almost certainly have ruffled the feathers of the more dogmatic traditionalists, but the softening that Kuhlman represented and brought to life made her ministry appealing to a broad audience in a way that more doctrinaire Pentecostal preachers likely would not have achieved.

The Miracle Lady shows that Kathryn Kuhlman’s career, and her disappearance from public consciousness soon after her death, offer fertile ground for a study of mid-20th century protestant religion, the rise of mass media communication in the U.S., and the emergence of a major female evangelist (along with the challenges she faced because of her gender). There are places in the book where the description of Kuhlman’s life feels hurried, but readers find themselves in a rewarding place immediately after. Artman does an excellent job of simultaneously highlighting the life and achievements of an important but overlooked American religious figure while casting a critical eye towards the historical moment(s) in which Kuhlman’s life and career unfolded.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Lee is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
March 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amy Collier Artman is Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Missouri State University.

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