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'Holy Ghost Girl' Recalls a Pentecostal Childhood

Donna Johnson's compelling, exquisitely detailed memoir

Oct. 31, 2011
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A book has to go a long way to live up to the opening, “I heard Daddy's gonna try to raise Randall from the dead. Call me.” Happily, Donna Johnson's memoir does, and in spades. Holy Ghost Girl (Gotham) is the most compelling, exquisitely detailed, well-written memoir I have read in a month of Sundays.

Make that a month of Pentecostal Sundays, for “Holy Ghost Girl” is about the world of tent revivalism that grew out of the Pentecostal, or Holiness, movement of the early 20th century. This was known as the “sawdust trail,” the largely Southern circuit that tent preachers traveled, deriving its name from the sawdust-covered aisles under the pitched tents.

When Johnson was 3, her mother stepped on that trail as organist for the relatively new revival of Brother David Terrell. By the time Terrell entered their ranks in the late 1950s, sawdust-trail preachers were disappearing; nevertheless he became one of the biggest, at one time traveling with a tent that seated up to 10,000.

To the majority of Americans, this is the outlandish way of life of the “Holy Rollers.” Worshippers speak in tongues, stand up and shout, wave their arms in ecstasy, have visions, witness the casting out of demons, and observe healings.

Does Johnson believe the healings were real? She says that as a girl she believed she saw Terrell perform miracles; now she is not sure what she saw or experienced. Those traveling with the tent, like most who sat under it in services, were largely rural or small-town in origin, poor, and rudimentarily educated. But they had one thing in common that they treasured above all else: the knowledge of being chosen by God.

When on the road, Johnson and the children of other Terrell employees avoided the unsaved, worldly kids, and even the offspring of local churchgoers, for they were assumed to be lukewarm in their faith, at best. They did once go into a public swimming pool—but, unlike the worldly youngsters, they were fully clothed.

Terrell is the book's center, not just because he determined the lives of Johnson's family and his other dogged followers, but also because he was a kind of religious genius. A fascinating combination of sincerity, capability and self-delusion, he is reminiscent in some ways of Frederick Buechner's Leo Bebb. The son of dirt-poor sharecroppers, nearly uneducated, he was “functionally illiterate” when not on his platform. But on the platform he was a mesmerizing preacher, and his followers loved him.

“In him they saw a more powerful, dazzling image of themselves,” Johnson writes. “He came from the same grim poverty that had shaped them, but it did not cling to him. … He was them without the shame. He was them without the hopelessness.”

Once he underwent a dangerously long fast. An associate said, “He's carrying the burden for a lost and dying world by himself.”

Maybe so, but he was also carrying on with several female followers, including Johnson's mother, who bore him, sans wedlock, three daughters (the author's half-sisters). He had affairs with and children by still more women, in addition to those of his lawfully wedded wife. Eventually Terrell went big-time, with radio programs and overseas revivals. He began demanding more from followers, telling them they had to “prove God” by donating—and donating big. In the end, the IRS took him to trial and he ended up with three 10-year sentences for income-tax evasion.

Long before that, Johnson, at age 17, had left the sawdust trail disillusioned and disgusted. But now, at the end of her memoir, she is not angry at Terrell for the life he caused her to lead. Greeting him years later she realized, she says, “I loved him.”

That, by the way, was the occasion upon which Randall (Terrell's son, a sufferer of lifelong hemorrhages) was to be resurrected. It didn't work.


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