The Miracle Lady (Amy Collier Artman) - A Review

THE MIRACLE LADY: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity (Library of Religious Biography). By Amy Collier Artman. Foreword by Kate Bowler. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. Xii + 282 pages.

                I seem to remember catching a glimpse or two of Kathryn Kuhlman, "the miracle lady," on TV during my early teen years. It was during this period that I was drawn to a charismatic form of faith.  Although I've focused my attention on the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlman is a name I’ve known for many years. She died during my senior year in high school, while I was a member of a congregation affiliated with the denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson. The two women are different in some ways but similar in others. While Kathryn Kuhlman shied away from rooting her own ministry in that of Sister Aimee, it seems to me that Sister Aimee Semple McPherson paved a path for people like Kuhlman, though she clearly created her own sense of identity along the way. While Kuhlman may have faded from our memories, she left a legacy that for good or ill has continued to this day. Thus, she is worthy of a serious and scholarly biography.

When I saw that Eerdmans was publishing a biography of Kuhlman in its Library of Religious Biography series (a series that includes Edith Blumhofer's excellent biography of Sister Aimee), I decided I needed to read it. Thanks to Eerdmans generosity, I was provided with a review copy and commenced reading. In this biography, I discovered the true story of a woman whose image was implanted in my mind man years ago, but whose story remained largely unpacked. Now, that has changed. 

The Miracle Lady was written by Amy Collier Artman, a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University. She devoted her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago to exploring Kuhlman's life, along with her impact on the development of Charismatic Christianity. Though Kuhlman began her faith journey within traditional Pentecostalism, she forged a pathway that led to the emergence of a gentrified Charismatic movement that took root not only in traditional Pentecostal circles but Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism as well. This, in many ways, is why her story is so important.

Although at the peak of her popularity from the mid-1950s into the mid-1970s, her fame and media presence rivaled that of Billy Graham. While Graham was known for his evangelistic work, Kuhlman was known for her healing work (though she consistently rejected the title of faith healer). While healing was at the center of her ministry, she largely attributed healings that occurred or were reported to occur at her meetings to the Holy Spirit, not her own actions. Though she pioneered television ministry, she sought to project an image of decorum that contrasted with stereotypical healing ministries.  Despite her impact on the emerging Charismatic Movement that has continued to thrive in the twenty-first century, in large part she has faded into obscurity. One reason for this is that she didn't institutionalize her ministry the way Sister Aimee did. McPherson built a church and a denomination; she launched a college and provided for a succession plan, leaving the leadership of her ministry first to her son and then to his successors. Kuhlman's legacy, however, was co-opted by others, including Oral Roberts. Some of the healing evangelists that sought to claim her mantle have damaged her legacy (Benny Hinn). Having a serious biography might restore her name and legacy.

Artman takes us from Kuhlman’s early life in Concordia, Missouri through her decision to follow her sister Myrtle and Myrtle's husband on the revival trail and the beyond to prominence. It was Myrtle who introduced the young Kuhlman to Pentecostalism and to the ministry of healing. This was in the 1920s, at about the time that Sister Aimee was gaining fame. After spending several years following her sister, she went off on her own, having gained a sense of calling to her own ministry of preaching. She started off emphasizing evangelism, with healing ministry emerging only later.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but keep Sister Aimee in mind. Both women lived flawed lives, and yet they persisted in a work that was largely closed to women. They forged their way forward in ways that were similar. Both women were strong leaders, who kept tight control over their ministries and yet sought to project an aura of femininity. They didn’t root their call in their rights as women, but in a call from God that couldn’t be set aside. They would rather be housewives, but they could do no other. In other words, they knew how to navigate an age that resisted giving women leading roles within the religious world. Kuhlman was almost two decades younger than McPherson, and her emergence as a leading religious figure came after McPherson's death. What is interesting is that despite evidence to the contrary, Kuhlman tried to distance herself from McPherson, not because she disagreed with her older contemporary, but because she had this sense that her own calling was unique. To identify with McPherson would undercut that vision of herself.

The book takes us through her early efforts at ministry, which included a disastrous marriage to a fellow evangelist, and a divorce that corresponded with her emergence on a broader scene. The key to her broadening popularity came as she moved into television. While Aimee Semple McPherson pioneered radio, Kuhlman was able to find an audience on TV, while ministering in the Pittsburgh area. What made her unique was the way in which she sought to distance herself from what Artman notes were the "'ranting' Pentecostals and the more extravagant independent healers" (p. 59). While she was criticized by the religious establishment, she largely overcame the criticism by tightly controlling her ministry and her image. One thing we learn here is how she and others made their way onto TV at a time when network space was given free to Mainline Protestants through the National Council of Churches, but unavailable to those who were not connected with the NCC. Thus, she was forced to purchase time for her broadcasts. She and others like her built media empires that continue to this day, long after that free coverage disappeared for Mainline churches, which largely have no TV presence. Necessity created an entrepreneurial spirit that others picked up from her.

The use of media is an important component of Kuhlman's rise to popularity. While Kuhlman began using TV during the 1950s, she developed her own sense of how it could be used effectively. She understood that there was a difference between what could be broadcast and what could be experienced in person. So, with few exceptions, Kuhlman didn't broadcast the healings. Instead, she invited those who claimed to be healed to offer testimony on her shows. Thus, we hear but we do not see. This allowed her to maintain a more controlled presentation that proved to be attractive to an audience not predisposed to a more exuberant Pentecostalism. While she began using TV in the 1950s, it was in the 1960s, when she adopted the newly emerging talk show platform, that she gained her largest audience. She launched in the 1960s a syndicated program I Believe in Miracles. This show looked and felt a lot like a Dinah Shore program. She did celebrity interviews and shared testimonies, all of which was accompanied by music. She had a choir (all men) and a favorite pianist and soloist, and for ten years she utilized this vehicle to expand her ministry. 

It is through this vehicle that she was able to influence the direction of the newly emerging charismatic movement. She highlighted the stories of people like Dennis Bennett, a charismatic Episcopal priest, and Catholic charismatics as well. Hers was something of an ecumenical, post-Pentecostal message, that was well crafted, as was her image.  Though powerful in her own way, she projected a traditionalist image. She opposed the rising feminism of the 1960s, and though not married or having children herself, she supported traditional visions of life for women. This helped her overcome criticism. It made her appear as if she wasn't stepping into roles she shouldn't take up, even though she was taking up roles generally limited to men.

It's an intriguing story of a woman who crafted an image of herself as depending on solely on God's Spirit. She tried to separate herself from those who influenced her life, including and perhaps most especially Aimee Semple McPherson. We see in this story, like that of Sister Aimee, the attempts by a woman to navigate a religious world that was largely hostile to women in ministry. Like McPherson, she claimed she could do no other than preach. Unlike McPherson, she didn't institutionalize her legacy, and thus her image faded with time. The ending of the story is sad. She fell under the influence of unscrupulous figures, who deprived her ministry of resources that could have extended its life. After her death, scandals arose that marked many of the ministries that tried to take hold of her legacy. Artman points out that many of those who followed after her moved in theological directions that Kuhlman always rejected, including the prosperity message that emerged largely after her death.

As I noted at the beginning, I read this biography with the story of Aimee Semple McPherson in mind, because I could see the similarities, even in the way they chose to dress (generally white flowing gowns). In addition, I noted that both women lived largely lonely lives and died younger than one might expect, though the causes of death were very different. On the other hand, Kuhlman’s unwillingness to venture out in support of women in ministry, something that McPherson was more willing to do, proved disappointing to me. Nevertheless, we learn in the course of the story, why she made these choices. It wasn’t time yet, or so it seems.

The story itself is well-told. Artman’s biography is both accessible and scholarly. It will help readers of our day, who know not her story, to learn something about the emergence of the Charismatic Movement. It is also a moving story in its own right. If there is anything that I wish was different about this book, is the lack of images. Artman describes in detail the way that Kuhlman presented herself, with her flowing pulpit dresses and bright red hair carefully coiffed. We read about her dramatic style, but we don't see it. I realize that photos make publishing more expensive, but a few images would have been helpful to gain a better sense of her life and ministry. That is especially important here, for the image was important to the ministry. That being said, I hope this book gets a wide readership. I think it will help us better understand the nature of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements of our day. Thus, Artman has given us a gift in The Miracle Lady.


Unknown said…
When Kathryn came to Oakland CA I sang in her choir;I also listened regularly to her broadcasts. She was a dignified representative of the Charismatic sweep of the day. She and Rev.Dennis Bennet shed needed light on areas of Scripture that were heretofore unnecessarily buried, giving them new life and new dignity.

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