Saturday, April 1, 2017


In June of 1970 I found myself sitting in the second row under a big top tent in an open field, sweating in the heat and humidity of an early summer evening.  But this was no circus.  Instead, I watched as dozens of animated and agitated people lined up in front of a low stage, waiting eagerly to be struck on the forehead by a man in a business suit.   But this story really began more than 15 years earlier.

[First, though, a note on labels:  In this essay I use the term “Holy Roller.”  I realize that the term is almost certainly offensive to those who participate in what are referred to as charismatic practices.  But it is the term I heard as a child at a time when, unfortunately, pejoratives and other offensive labels of many kinds were commonplace, at least among my family and friends.  It was a different time.  I do not want to cause offense to anyone and would never use such a term today other than in a historical context.  Although the term “pentecostal” is, I believe, still used by those who participate in such activities, perhaps the more modern and broader term is “charismatic Christianity.”]

My childhood home was in a working class neighborhood of Battle Creek, Michigan.  There was a storefront corner grocery a scant two blocks from our house.  It was the place where we got our fix of Bazooka bubblegum, wax lips, baseball cards, and candy cigarettes.  It was also where our parents sent us to get a loaf of bread or bottle of milk when they ran out.  The great thing about the store was that the owners knew the neighborhood kids and let us run a tab that our parents had to settle up later.  It was a place where we hung out when we didn’t have anything else going on.

Across the street from the store was a tiny church, hardly bigger than the modest homes surrounding it.  None of the neighborhood kids that I knew went to the church.  But on some nights, particularly in the summer when the church’s windows were open, we could hear things.  The music was Protestant-basic and involved a lot of clapping.  The preacher was loud and occasionally we could hear others in the congregation as well who seemed to be shouting out.  This was very different from my own church’s staid services that never involved clapping and that began and ended with Bach and Handel organ pieces.  My sisters told me that the members of the neighborhood church were “Holy Rollers.”  I didn’t know what this meant, exactly.  I just knew it was something that we snickered about.  Sometimes we would dare each other to walk up and open the door of the church during one of their services, but we never had the courage to do that.  Who knew what might be going on.   Years later I found out.

In the summer of 1970, following my first year of teaching psychology at a college in northern Minnesota, I had driven home for an overdue family visit.  It was then that I spotted a notice in the Battle Creek Enquirer & News for a series of revival meetings sponsored by a local pentecostal congregation.  A budding psychologist, I had to check it out.  I had no idea what to expect.  I only knew that the meetings were being held in a tent in an open field.  Out of an abundance of caution, I took all the cash out of my wallet and even left my watch at home.  Ridiculous, as it turned out.  No one there could have cared less who I was or why I had come, and they certainly didn’t pressure me into making a donation.

The big top was huge, the ground underneath covered with sawdust.  Folding chairs were arranged in concentric arcs around a wooden stage at one end.  There were seats for perhaps three hundred people, and maybe two-thirds were full when I got there.  I found a seat about halfway back near the center, feeling conspicuous and uncomfortable.

After some preliminary stuff—an opening prayer, a hymn sung by a woman in the entourage—the evangelist got up to preach.  Brought to town for this series, he was graying-at-the-temples middle-aged and a bit, let us say, on the rotund side.  He struck me as being obsessed with appearance.  Keep in mind this was at a time when men were beginning to wear their hair long and dress in flamboyantly colored suits with big lapels and flared pants.  Not this guy.  He wore a conservative business suit, his narrow tie clipped neatly to his white dress shirt.  When he got up to speak, it was clear that he had command over the congregation and knew it.

I still get a little creeped out by what I call the ministerial tone, one that conveys, somehow, an authoritative, positive message leavened with scriptural quotes and feel-good Christian platitudes that no one would quarrel with and that seem to roll off the speaker’s practiced tongue.  This night there was little of that.  Nor was there discussion of sin or righteousness, of heaven or hell, or of salvation.  Instead, it was all about receiving the Spirit—letting the Holy Spirit take over your body.  But even more remarkable was the evangelist’s cadence.  He seemed to be placing a heavy emphasis on each fifth or sixth syllable, regardless of context.  The result had a hypnotic quality that seemed to mesmerize his listeners.  I noticed too that whenever he spoke of receiving the Spirit, members of the audience would look to each other and smile knowingly, almost as if this were some sort of drug high or teenage sexual experience.

After about ten minutes of this, a middle aged woman behind me and to my left stood up and began speaking.  It wasn’t English, but, even though it was a bit repetitious, it wasn’t gibberish either.   It was lyrical, really.  She went on for maybe 10 or 15 seconds.  When she stopped, the evangelist immediately “translated” what she had said.  Of course her message had been all about how great God was and how great it was to receive the Spirit.  This happened two or three more times with other congregants.  Were these exclamations genuine or fake?  Were these people the evangelist’s shills or were they locals?

Toward the end of his “sermon” the evangelist announced what everyone had been waiting for, that he was going to conduct an anointing with the Spirit.  This inspired even more agitation among some of the congregants.  After a prayer in the same bizarre cadence he gave everything else, the evangelist told everyone who wanted to be anointed to form a line leading off to the left of the stage.  It seemed like half the congregation left their seats to get in line.  Suddenly there were empty seats everywhere.  I had been sitting perhaps 15 rows back, but after some hesitation, I moved up to the second row with a clear view of the stage.

One of the evangelist’s minions handed him a shallow bowl that appeared to contain olive oil.  Then, as each person in turn stood facing him, the evangelist placed his left hand on the their shoulder, dipped one finger of his right hand in the oil, touched their forehead with the oil, and then struck their forehead with the heel of his right palm.  It was this last act that served as the trigger that the person needed to “receive the Spirit.”  Many individuals began speaking in tongues, standing there for a moment before making their way back to their seats.  Many others collapsed to the ground in front of the stage.  Some just lay motionless for a few moments, but others began gently convulsing in the sawdust.

The evangelist had seen all of this before, of course.  In each case one of his assistants was positioned behind to catch the individual if he or she collapsed.  And for each woman wearing a skirt he had another assistant ready with a small blanket to drape over her legs as she fell.  So many people collapsed that the evangelist had to keep moving back and forth in front of the stage to avoid those on the ground.  At times there were as many as five or six people lying collapsed in the sawdust.

This could have been a frightening experience, watching dozens of people collapse after being struck in the forehead by a stranger, but, without exception, those who participated ultimately walked away clearly happy--and in many cases ecstatic--with their experience.  You could see it on their faces.

What was happening here?  As an atheist, of course I do not believe these individuals actually became possessed by some sort of supernatural spirit.  But I found the psychology fascinating, and nearly 50 years later I still have a host (no pun intended) of questions:

  • Was this some form of mass hypnosis or hysteria?
  • How important was the evangelist’s cadence in this?  
  • What was it about being struck on the forehead that triggered the participants’ charismatic responses?  
  • Did the participants enjoy the experience because they believed they had been in direct contact with the Holy Spirit or because it was simply some kind of physical high?  
  • Why is glossolalia—speaking in tongues—a common aspect of the charismatic experience?  
  • Did those who spoke in tongues know what they were saying or was it up to the evangelist to “translate”?
  • What is the attitude of pentecostals toward those Christians who do not participate in such behaviors?
  • Does this sort of thing still happen today?    

Eventually, matters wound down as the evangelist worked his way through all of those waiting to receive the Spirit.  But before he ended the meeting, he announced that at the next night’s service he would not be conducting an anointing with the Spirit.  Before anyone could express disappointment, however, he announced that instead he would be conducting a healing service.

I, for one, decided I simply couldn’t miss that next night’s meeting.

© 2017 John M. Phillips


  1. Having read this I recommend Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis and The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. Both excellent reflections on what you have described.

    1. Yes. I have read Elmer Gantry but not The Great Derangement. I will have to check it out. There's also a movie from many years ago, MarJoe, a documentary that addresses this. But those relate to essentially fraudulent situations. I believe this guy, as well as his congregation, were sincere. Although, who knows?

  2. Hmmmmmm......Yea, I also believe they are sincere. I believe experience is highly pleasureable. Still going least it was 15 years ago in my Seattle suburb, Kirkland. I think if u see a church with red flame accents around name they participate. Come to think about it, at my neighbors open house 2 years ago when they moved in......a sister told me that they all talked in tongues......Im a bit chagrined to admit I have given them a fairly wide berth ever since......didnt remember why since then...."fear of the other" is my only explanation fir my behavior. I have no idea what is going on with the "talking in tongues"......I do know the SDAs taught ms it was the devil causing it. In the 80s I had a thoroughly unpleasant experience with some of these folks.......but it was the people.....not the experience. May be time to reinvestigate. Thx for ur essay.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, especially regarding the "tell" of red flame accents on church signs. I will look for that. I have always wondered if the reference to speaking in tongues in the NT is the same phenomenon practiced by modern day charismatics. There is certainly some sort of psychological event going on, similar in some ways to psychoactive drugs.

  3. From Dennise H. I never really thought too much about Pentecostals until I had a boyfriend [in the late 1970's] who belonged to a charismatic church. They seemed to be sincere and genuine Christians, and when meeting in a small group setting with my friends Bible group, most were speaking in tongues during our prayer time. I went to their church once and don't even remember what went on there so it must have been fairly tame.
    My thought on tongues is very similar to this 5 minute presentation on FB because it mirrors , NT teaching and is of common sense.
    Most people I know who speak in tongues [and I don't know that many] do so during individual prayer time altho I have noticed a few people will do so very quietly under their breath even in church. I have not spent much time in Pentecostal churches, so am speaking only from experience in my local non-denominational, evangelical church. From a few of my friends who experience prayer tongues, they describe it as a means of greater intimacy with God, but they don't really know what they words mean, except they think it is praising God. I have spoken in tongues a few times in private, but haven't really noticed it made me "feel" any closer to God. My conclusion after Biblical study of tongues is this: the gift of the Spirit I need most and desire to have is LOVE [as Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 13]; the original use of tongues was so foreign people, who came into Jerusalem around the time of Pentecost, could hear and understand the story of Jesus [ And presumably take this story back with them to their own community]. I have heard a couple of stories that this does still happen today just as in the early apostolic type gifting. And then there are Churches who believe in cessationism and that none of those early apostolic gifts still exist.
    As far as physical manifestations on the person supposedly touched by the Holy Spirit, I'm sure what you saw in 1970 still happens today and I have seen it on some TV shows. ie falling, twitching, etc. Those manifestations were never really mentioned in the Bible, [unless falling on ones face in fear and trembling before angels - as in the story of Gideon or Daniel is the same] so tend to be skeptical. I have watched documentaries about "the Brownsville revival" which exhibited some rather bizarre phenomenon [mid-90's] Some people who were part of this movement were genuinely converted and still follow Christ still but it as a whole it faded away. Saw a man who was debunking that movement on video with interesting footage of the similar physical manifestations in a particular Indian religion - a Hindu Kundalini spirit. This is a real eye opener! Watch it for your self - it is a 28 min video. However this begs one to have to decide: if it isn't a holy spirit then of what spirit is it? Unholy? But if you are atheist then you have to conclude this phenomenon is strictly psychological leading to a physical manifestation. If I was to meet an individual who had experienced what you saw in 1970, I probably would not say anything to them...believing that even if this phenom is bunk that they would continue studying the word of God and let Him do the teaching.

    1. Dennise, I did take a look at the Hindu Kundalini video. The behavior of those in the video seemed to be more animated than what I witnessed in 1970. But the difference seemed to be along a continuum. I'm not sure how to distinguish them qualitatively as opposed to quantitatively. It appears that religious experience can be highly varied.

  4. Dennise, thank you for your comments. I do not know if you will check back to see if I responded, but I hope you do, because I have a few followup questions to ask. (You can also respond in a private message on FB if you would prefer.) When you spoke in tongues was it voluntary or involuntary? When speaking in a "tongue" which you didn't understand the meaning of, were you comfortable? Personally, if that happened to me, i might be frightened by a lack of personal control. Do you feel a presence or is it something you just do?

    I can understand how the NT writers could have described early apostolic speaking in actual foreign tongues as a means of missionary witnessing. But years ago I did a bit of reading on this, including research by multi-linguists who listened to recordings of those speaking in tongues to see if they could identify the language being spoken. In general, they couldn't match up what the speakers were saying with any known language, so they concluded either that the glossolalia was not real language or that the speakers were channeling "dead" languages.

    Yes, as an atheist, I have always considered glossolalia to be a purely psychological experience.