Holy Ghost Girl: a Memoir, by Donna M. Johnson

The title of this book was enough for me to spend some time reading it.  It is a quick read.  I finished the 276 pages in less than a day.  It’s an intriguing tale of a life lived in the Holiness/Pentecostal movement of the 1960s.  From the age of three, Donna was toted by her mother as she traveled with a Pentecostal tent preacher named David Terrell.  Terrell would come into the edge of town and stay for a few weeks. Nightly revival services would last deep into the night.  Prayer cloths, prophetic utterances, healings and speaking in tongues were all commonplace.  Her riveting tales of the start of Brother Terrell’s ministry give a vivid glimpse into a world I’ve never before experienced.

As Donna grew older, she began to see the divergent worlds that came to exist within Brother Terrell. Inside the tent, he was a man of God who could expound on the word of God for hours without end. Miraculous healings were commonplace, and the author recounted too many to be easily discounted. Yet outside the tent, Brother Terrell had affairs with numerous women, including the author’s mother, used congregant’s money to fuel a jet-set lifestyle, all in the name of God. He eventually served several years in prison for tax evasion, lost most of his followers, but continues to hold revivals and prophecy the end of this world, even to this day (his website is www.davidterrell.org).

What’s unique about this memoir is that the author doesn’t try to reconcile the two David Terrells. It’s something she gave up trying to do a long time ago. The memoir is simply her recollection of her at-times horrid childhood, being abandoned by her mother as she followed the man of God around the world. And yet there’s no condemnation. For the cynics and skeptics, Johnson’s lack of reconciliation is maddening. A skeptical New York Times reviewer wrote, “the downside is that many questions go unanswered. How did Mr. Terrell pull off his tricks?  Hire actors? Use ropes and pulleys? Incredibly, Ms. Johnson doesn’t look behind the curtain.  His ability  . . . is maddeningly, unexplained.” What Donna Johnson does is simply recount her bizarre life, and leaves the reader to pass judgment.

As a born and raised Southern Baptist, the Pentecostal movement of signs and wonders was one to be looked down upon and avoided at all costs. It’s easy for me with my background to simply write off the whole experience as deceptive. It’s even easier given Brother Terrell’s ungodly lifestyle that finally came to light. And yet I’m not so sure the answer is as simplistic as that. Were any of those miracles genuine? Were people healed by faith? I can’t universally say ‘no’ just because I’m uncomfortable with the idea. While he was preaching to mixed races in the 60’s, good Southern Baptists in the South were lining up on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement. We were no angels, either.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. After reading this one perspective (I haven’t done any other research on his movement), I think Brother Terrell probably started his ministry meaning well, but quickly got off track. The Pentecostal/Holiness movement values the Word of God, but also relies heavily on visions and revelations by the Holy Spirit. If the “visions” and “revelations” don’t line up with Scripture, then Scripture is adjusted to line up with the vision. This is why it was okay to take people’s money to fuel a lavish lifestyle and have affairs with multiple women: God told him it was okay.

2. David Terrell had no accountability, no one to keep him in check. His religious framework gave him the ability to claim that any whim was from God, and no one could correct him. If “revelations” and not the Word of God becomes the standard of morality, then morality will always be a moving target. Terrell progressed to the point where he referred to himself as a prophet. Everything he uttered was from God. He was infallible. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

3. I think some genuine miracles did take place. Although the man and the ministry were flawed, I don’t doubt that people got saved and that miracles took place. Although it wasn’t in a setting or framework that I would be comfortable with, I don’t have the ego to conclude that God can only work in ways that I’m comfortable with.

QUESTION: What experiences have you had with the holiness/pentecostal movement?