[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.”]
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