Out of the Mouths of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era

Synopsis

The 1920s saw one of the most striking revolutions in manners and morals to have marked North American society, affecting almost every aspect of life, from dress and drink to sex and salvation. Protestant Christianity was being torn apart by a heated controversy between traditionalists and the modernists, as they sought to determine how much their beliefs and practices should be altered by scientific study and more secular attitudes. Out of the controversy arose the Fundamentalist movement, which has become a powerful force in twentieth-century America.

During this decade, hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of young girl preachers, some not even school age, joined the conservative Christian cause, proclaiming traditional values and condemning modern experiments with the new morality. Some of the girls drew crowds into the thousands. But the stage these girls gained went far beyond the revivalist platform. The girl evangelist phenomenon was recognized in the wider society as well, and the contrast to the flapper worked well for the press and the public. Girl evangelists stood out as the counter-type of the flapper, who had come to define the modern girl. The striking contrast these girls offered to the racy flapper and to modern culture generally made girl evangelists a convenient and effective tool for conservative and revivalist Christianity, a tool which was used by their adherents in the clash of cultures that marked the 1920s.

Excerpt

Sometimes a story simply falls into one’s lap. That is the case with the story of the girl evangelist phenomenon that boomed in the 1920s. While searching a newspaper database for material for an unrelated matter, one of us just happened to notice a comment about a girl evangelist. Somewhat curious, we did a search of the database and found references to hundreds of girl evangelists in the newspaper record. Further, we noticed that the 1920s and 1930s had markedly more references to girl evangelists than did any other period. That stirred our curiosity even more. We attempted to determine what had been written about this phenomenon. Much to our surprise, we found the phenomenon unexplored—indeed, it was a phenomenon not even recognized. One girl evangelist did receive passing notice, but no one seemed to notice the hundreds of other girl evangelists or the explosion of the phenomenon in the 1920s, where girl evangelists stood as a striking contrast to the flapper image that had come to define the age. Thus began our exploration.

This book is offered as a first step into the unusual world of the golden age of girl evangelists, and we encourage others to follow and go beyond our effort. The girl evangelist phenomenon has relevance to a wide variety of fields: (1) religious history, touching on the rise of American Fundamentalism, the decline of revivalism, and the development of Pentecostalism; (2) women studies, with the sexual revolution of the 1920s, the increased opportunities for women (even in religious leadership roles), and the competing ideals of the feminine; (3) childhood studies, with reformers of the 1920s trying to define and protect childhood, arguing for child labor laws and compulsory and universal education; and (4) studies of American culture generally, with our period—the roaring twenties— offering what many have described as a “revolution in manners and morals.”

We owe a considerable debt to T. J. (Ted) Lavigne, a retired minister, whom we met some time into our research. Ted has amassed a considerable collection of memorabilia on child preachers, and has written on the subject. His willingness to share with us material in his collection that related to girl evangelists has aided our research considerably.

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