The Child Preachers

June 25, 2009

ABC’s   Nightline (May 18, 2009) featured the story of a kid preacher, 11-year-old Terry Durham, who speaks in “tongues” supposedly bestowed by the Holy Spirit. He also claims to effect miraculous healings (although ABC News reported it “was not able to independently verify his ability to heal”). The African-American boy is only one of many “child preachers” featured at various sites on the Internet.

Among the most famous was “Marjoe the Miracle Child” who once preached for a week near my hometown in Morgan County, Kentucky, when he was about five years old. Born January 14, 1944, Marjoe Gortner was, like most other pint-sized preachers, the child of an evangelist.

Traveling by trailer, the Gortner family toured the country, with little Marjoe telling reporters in each town: “I’m here to give the devil two black eyes. We need more Christian mothers and fathers who don’t drink horrible cocktails and suck filthy cigarettes. They’re giving their souls to booze when they should be giving their souls to Jesus!” At each service Marjoe seemed to perform healings and other miracles.

Alas, in the 1972 film   Marjoe , a documentary exposé of bogus evangelism, the now-grown “Miracle Child” explained that he had lived a life of pious—and not-so-pious—fraud. (More revelations of deception came the following year with the publication of Steven S. Gaines’ book,   Marjoe: The Life of Marjoe Gortner .) The film included one scene that showed several older women surrounding a younger one and attempting to teach her to speak in tongues. They repeatedly blurted brief utterances that she was to try to mimic. Marjoe followed with his own rendition of some chanted gibberish and a cynical, shrugging explanation of how easy the phenomenon was to reproduce.

Marjoe demonstrated how he got to “go under the power”—that is, to fall down, supposedly struck by the Holy Spirit. Actually, he took advantage of suggestible, emotional people who expected to fall down; placing a hand on the person’s forehead, he simply gave a push! A special Marjoe trick was to paint a cross on his forehead with an invisible preparation that turned blood red when the evangelist perspired.

Marjoe admitted that he engaged in evangelism for a buck. Will the other child preachers grow up and follow suit?