Preacher Girl

Uldine Utley and the Industry of Revival

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Thomas A. Robinson
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     2016.
     332 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481303958.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Thomas A. Robinson’s Preacher Girl: Uldine Utley and the Industry of Revival offers an engaging and meticulously researched biography of the childhood career of Pentecostal revivalist Uldine Utley. An admirer and protégé of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Utley is revealed in Robinson’s text as a religious force in her own right. Preacher Girl stands out among biographical sketches of Utley in that it dwells not on her ultimate decline, but on the active years of her life as an itinerant female preacher competing for converts in a shifting American religious landscape.

Perhaps the most exciting contribution of Robinson’s work is his placement of Utley, a “holy roller farm girl” born in Oklahoma in 1912, into a marketplace of American revivalism in the 1920s and 1930s (56). Though woven throughout the text—which spans the courtship of Utley’s parents, through Utley’s surprising retirement from the pulpit at the age of twenty-four—this “industry” of revival is most closely considered in Robinson’s chapter “Utley Inc.” Robinson here reflects on the broader conditions for movements like Utley’s at that time in American religious history, while seamlessly positioning her within—and at times, outside of—those parameters.

From cults of personality to marketing, trademarking and merchandising, Utley is shown at once as an archetype and unique player in the competitive industry of saving souls. Robinson illustrates how she, like other child revivalists of the era, first gained popularity as a wunderkind; pious, virginal, angelic, and spiritually wise beyond her years. She grew along with her popularity during the subsequent decade, and Robinson uses this history to raise questions about the sexualization of adult female preachers (McPherson included), who often employed Hollywood glamour to appeal to converts. Occupying a unique space in fundamentalist circles, Robinson rightly contends that these women were expected to remain attractively relevant, while at the same time serving as “all[ies] against modernism” (60)—a tall order for the teenage Utley, who seems to have toed this line with grace, if not ease.

With the foundations for an industry of revival in place, Robinson then ponders the costs associated with the demanding and exhausting itinerant lives of revivalists like Utley. As part of a nascent Pentecostal movement, Utley lacked the denominational support that other popular nineteenth and twentieth-century revivalists (such as Dwight L . Moody, McPherson, and Billy Sunday) enjoyed. For Utley, this meant an (often self-imposed) demanding schedule in order to not only support her ministry, but her family, and a staff of musicians, secretaries, tutors, and managers that relied on her preaching for their own livelihoods. Robinson offers a detailed account of the financial and physical toll that this took on the adult Utley, who felt compelled to sustain her business and reputation for this reason, even through the Great Depression.

Beyond his study of early twentieth-century revivalism, the author also crafts a lovely and engrossing biography of Utley’s ministry. For more than twenty years the “girl preacher” traveled to the centers of American sin (for example, Chicago at the height of prohibition and gangster culture) to preach to crowds sometimes exceeding ten thousand. Leading a largely lonely and nomadic life, her “crusades” are portrayed as a constant struggle between humility and “self-promotion” (111). With messages of healing through the power of the Holy Spirit, an imminent Second Coming of Christ, and a charge by God for America to be a “city upon a hill,” Robinson acknowledges that Utley’s sermons are not unlike those of revivalists since the time of the First Great Awakening. Yet, her “simple and direct” approach to delivering these teachings made her a contender in a time when female preaching remained questionable in fundamentalist Christian circles (154).

Possibly searching for stability in mainline Protestantism, or perhaps a chance for an alternative way of serving God in her future, Utley studied to become an ordained Methodist minister—a surprising twist in her story, as itinerant American revivalists had long relied on the success of their self-training, non-denominational messages of emotionalism, and direct experiences of the divine. At the time of her ordination in 1925, Utley seems to realize the trending decline in the popularity of twentieth-century revivalism, and in her own work as one adult preacher among many, one who was no longer a girl wonder.

Robinson leaves us on a sad note in Utley’s story: the precipice of decades of mental illness following a physical and emotional breakdown that seems, after reading Preacher Girl, to have been years in the making. Though Robinson does not dwell on Utley’s rapid decline, he raises important questions about what led to Utley’s retirement from preaching, and the consequences of the itinerant life on child and adult revivalists. Like David fighting Goliath, the author shows how a “Joan of Arc of the modern world” like Utley would have to face her own demons until her halo was too heavy to bear (60).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Bailey is Assistant Professor of Christian Traditions and Religions of the Americas at Towson University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas A. Robinson is Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Lethbridge in Canada. 

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