Thomas Robinson is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. This interview is based on his new book, Preacher Girl: Uldine Utley and the Industry of Revival (Baylor University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Preacher Girl?
TR: I had just written (with Lanette Ruff) a book on girl evangelists in the 1920s and 1930s (Out of the Mouths of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era, Oxford University Press, 2013), and I had considerable material left over related to the main star of the phenomenon, Uldine Utley. I saw that this material could serve well as a basis of a biography of a young girl who stood toe-to-toe with Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson, the adult revival greats of the early twentieth century, and that, in itself, was a story worthy of telling. But more important was a collection of unpublished poems where Utley laid out the clash between the demands of her religious calling and the attraction of a normal life. As she was sinking, at age twenty-four and keenly aware, into a world of mental confusion and breakdown, she knew she needed to tell the private side of public life, so she started to gather her poems for publication under the title Kindly Remove My Halo. That title captured precisely the struggle of the religious worker. Her collapse prevented that publication, and the poems remained forgotten until Utley’s nephew and niece made them available to me.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Preacher Girl?
TR: Based largely on Uldine Utley’s life and in particular on her unpublished poetry, I explore the inner workings of American revivalism from its earliest days in the Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield era into the twentieth century. In particular, I look at how revivalism is a “one-man show,” even when that “man” is an eleven-year-old girl, and the common failure to recognize burnout and mental strain by those caught up in the industry of revivalism.
JF: Why do we need to read Preacher Girl?
TR: There are several reasons. One is to add to the portrait of the wild and sometime bizarre world of the “roaring twenties” and of American revivalism. Another is is understand the parallel religious track of the child star phenomenon that developed in this period. A third is to bring from the shadows of history a largely forgotten girl who mastered the stage of the 1920s in a way few did, whether secular entertainers or religious leaders, and whose name was then a household word in both the secular and religious press. A fourth is simply to appreciate the compelling poetry of this star, who in a few choice words could capture the range of human emotions that we all experience but most cannot adequately articulate. Finally, there is the issue of the demands of religious work and the failure to account for and accommodate burnout and mental stress in a world where religious players have often been treated as somehow untouched by the chaos and cares of everyday life.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TR: I became an “occasional” American historian by accident when the girl evangelist phenomenon more or less fell into my lap. Most of my writings deal with Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman world (most recent: Who Were the First Christians? Dismantling the Urban Thesis, OUP, 2016). Since I teach in a small Religious Studies department, I cover a wide range of courses, including one on the history of Pentecostalism. While searching for something in that field, I discovered in newspaper databases thousands of references from the 1920s and 1930s to girl preachers. I had my question: why so many from this period? My quest to answer that question has resulted in two books on a topic that had been largely forgotten in scholarship.
JF: What is your next project?
TR: My next project is an attempt to explore how post-Holocaust scholars have tried to understand the anti-Jewish tone of much of early Christian writing, often sanitizing that past or redirecting its target.In this work, I challenge efforts to remove the grit and grime of history for the sake of easier relationships in the modern period. Other paths must be explored as a basis of dialogue. Understanding the past in all its rough and raw drama is a better option than a photoshopped portrait of the past or a certain kind of revisionist history developed for modern sensibilities and consumption.
JF: Thanks, Thomas!