Saturday, March 21, 2009

Old Tent Revivals

Book Review

Title: All Things Are Possible
Author: David Edwin Harrell Jr.

David Edwin Harrell Jr. wrote a fascinating book entitled "All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revival in Modern America". It primarily covers two periods: the modern tent revivalists who had their greatest heyday in the years from 1947 to 1958, and the fainter echo which Harrell termed the "charismatic revival" from 1958 to 1974.

Harrell did an enormous amount of in-depth research, and his book ends with a lengthy bibliographical essay concerning his sources. He provides many of the historical details that Vinson Synan's broader history would not have been able to supply. Harrell mentioned some personalities whose names I recognize, the most notable being Oral Roberts. But he also covered other major tent revivalists of the early 1950s, whom I never heard of before, such as Jack Coe, A.A. Allen, and William Branham.

Now I confess that I've never seen an old time "tent revivalist" in action. Back in the 1950s, my mother, being a stout Southern Baptist at the time, with a strong adversion to anything Pentecostal, would never have set foot in a revival tent, and least of all would she have allowed any of her kids near one. Anyhow, traveling tent revivalists were not common in southern California, where I grew up. Even to this day, just mentioning the name of Oral Roberts, for example, will elicit an askanced look from my mother, even though Roberts has undergone quite a transformation since his early tent revival days. The nearest I've gotten to a tent revival was listening to Neil Diamond's song "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show", which I suppose harkens back to those tent revivalists of the 1950s and earlier.

Back then the main Pentecostal denominations had an on-and-off relationship with the independent, healing tent-revivalists. But I must point out that Harrell presents a fairly a complicated story, and one should read his book to get the complete picture. On one hand, for example, one early tent revivalist, Aimee Semple McPherson—who by the way also had a remarkable healing ministry of her own for a time in the early 1920s—would later go on to start a major Pentecostal denomination, the Foursquare Church. But on the other hand, the Pentecostal denominations often kept their distance from some of the revival tentsters of the 1950s. But it was understandable as to why. Besides having strongly individualistic, ambitious, even combative, personalities, some of the healing revivalists were flaky in their doctrine, and their methods and claims were sometimes very questionable. As to the miraculous and healing aspects of the revivals, Harrell really didn't make any effort to explore these in any depth. This was odd considering that other authors I have read who covered Aimee Semple McPherson, for example, did go into detail about various testimonies of healing, even if they tried at times to explain them away as being merely psychologically induced phenomena. I suspect that Harrell simply took it for granted that "divine healing" just does not happen, that a healing revival is simply another cultural phenomenon, more under the category of "mass hysteria", and therefore nothing needed said on this aspect of the subject. I do think the biggest deficiency in his book is that Harrell really never conveys just what it was like to attend a tent revival. Nor does he convey adequately what the revivalists actually preached. Something which Harrell never made clear is the revivalists' own viewpoint on why healing and miracles occur. Harrell seemed content to suggest that they thought of themselves as possessing the power to heal people. But I am fairly sure such is probably not the case: they would disagree vehemently with such a suggestion, and they would loudly insist that it was God who was the true source of all miracles and healing, although they would add that they were merely the instruments of His deliverance.

Harrell's book does provide, however, what I would call a "vertical" history of the revivals, since it is organized mostly around covering the individual personalities, instead of providing an over-all, horizontal picture based on chronology. Although he supplied historical information that would difficult now to find elsewhere, organizing his book in this way tended to make it a pastiche of mini-biographies, thus making it more difficult to grasp the larger historical picture of what was happening and why. For example, Harrell almost completely leaves out what was going on with the main Pentecostal denominations at the time. Thus the reader never really has a complete explanation of why those denominations held the attitudes they did about the revivalists, who mostly were independent from denominational control. In fact, a few of the tent revivalists were strongly anti-institutional, even to the point of deep hostility; one even described membership in a denomination as the "mark of the beast".

The second part of Harrell's book covers the period of 1958 to 1974. In this time frame, the picture began to change considerably. But because of Harrell's vertical focus, I don't think he coherently pulled together the reasons for the change, other than mentioning some economic factors. He does cover some of the bigger names of the period, such as Oral Roberts, T.L. Olson, W.V. Grant, and several others, again mostly in a biographical fashion. He also briefly mentioned Kathyrn Kuhlman and David Wilkerson, giving them a few paragraphs.

Now, geographically speaking, Harrell's book tends to focus mostly on what was happening in the eastern half of the United States, and it is little surprise that the southern states are the primary backdrop for the old-time tent revivalists. However, Harrell entirely missed the "Jesus People Movement", which also had its halcyon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and happened mostly on the west coast of the United States.