How Kathryn Kuhlman’s Story Offers a Case Study of the Achievements and Roadblocks of Female Evangelical Leaders

Article by Grant Wacker. Wacker is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Christian History at Duke Divinity School, and author of One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham.


“You have been called ‘hypnotic, charismatic, hypnotizing,’” said Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1974. His guest resisted. With a disarming smile, she said she was “just the most ordinary person in the world.” Carson didn’t buy it. “You’re not quite ordinary.”

With this telling anecdote, Amy Artman launches her masterful biography of Kathryn Kuhlman, a charismatic healing evangelist who emerged in the post-World War II era alongside Oral Roberts. It’s hard to say whether Roberts or Kuhlman was the most prominent healing evangelist of the day, but it’s easy to say that she was the most prominent woman in the field. At the height of her ministry, many people considered Kuhlman “the best-known woman preacher in the world.” Very few female religious leaders of any theological stripe were famous enough to snare a berth on a network talk show like Carson’s.

Kuhlman’s story is a big one, yet she has won little attention from historians. Most American religious history textbooks give her a few sentences at most and some none at all. In The Miracle Lady: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity, Artman not only rescues Kuhlman from undeserved obscurity but also crafts a sweeping interpretation of the cultural origins of the modern charismatic movement. (Artman is careful to credit her secondary sources, including Edith Blumhofer, David Edwin Harrell, Wayne Warner, and, in the interest of full disclosure, me.)

Artman—who teaches religious studies at Missouri State University—offers ample biographical details, but her main interest lies in two overarching arguments. The first is that Kuhlman was one of the key figures to transform the “down-home” Pentecostal revival of the early 20th century into the “uptown” charismatic movement of the late 20th century. The second is that Kuhlman offers a revealing case study of the indisputable achievements of strong evangelical women and the equally indisputable roadblocks they often face.

We know comparatively little about the Miracle Lady’s life before her rise to fame in the late 1940s. She grew up in Concordia, Missouri, a small town in the middle of the state. In 1924, when she was 17, Kuhlman dropped out of high school and hit the preaching circuit with an older sister and a brother-in-law. Then she spent two years studying at Simpson Bible Institute, a Christian and Missionary Alliance site in Seattle. She made A’s in her four Bible training classes but flunked homiletics. The young evangelist did not graduate from Simpson, but at some point she audited classes at L.I.F.E. Bible College in Los Angeles (what today is Life Pacific University).The school had been established by Aimee Semple McPherson, Kuhlman’s famed predecessor on the healing revival circuit.

After her studies, Kuhlman once again embarked on itinerant ministry with her sister and brother-in-law. In 1933, freshly ordained by the Evangelical Church Alliance, she settled down as pastor of an independent church in Denver.Under her ministry, the fellowship prospered.

Kuhlman’s story took an abrupt turn when she met a traveling evangelist named Burroughs A. Waltrip. In 1938, Waltrip divorced his wife and abandoned his two sons in order to marry her. Burdened by (unproven) rumors of adultery, both Waltrip and Kuhlman tumbled into obscurity. The marriage, too, soon hit the rocks, and in 1944 the couple separated. Waltrip charged Kuhlman with abandonment, and in 1947 they divorced.

After Kuhlman’s reputation rebounded, she landed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she rented Carnegie Hall for her services. Although the prospering steeltown served as her main base of operations, she also crisscrossed the nation and much of the world.

April 1947 marked a major pivot point in Kuhlman’s career. Until then, she had seen herself as an old-fashioned evangelist, calling people to repent oftheir sins and turn to Christ. But that spring, says Artman, “Kuhlman received the first testimony to a miracle of divine healing at one of her services, a miracle she pointed to all her life as signifying the beginning of her healing ministry.”

By the late 1970s, Kuhlman had leveraged her 55 years of ministry into an evangelical stardom that included her best-selling books, mass meetings, a national radio program, and two syndicated television shows, Your Faith and Mine and I Believe in Miracles. Her name and face soon grew familiar in thousands, possibly millions, of households across the nation.

How did Kuhlman do it? She had no advanced education or blue ribbon social connections (even within the evangelical world), nor could she boast of institutional support from a particular denomination or a parachurch group like Youth for Christ.

Artman deftly shows how the larger culture prepared both Kuhlman and her followers for her ministry, especially healing. The trauma of World War I, the flu epidemic of 1918, and the inaccessibility of modern medicine primed people to look for cures in the church. Then, as now, the healing of the will and the mind was everywhere in the air. Norman Vincent Peale’s block-buster The Power of Positive Thinking sold millions.

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Kuhlman also profited from the mid-century boom in religious radio and television programs, including Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision and Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living. She benefited, too, from second-wave feminism, which secured a woman’s right (however unfulfilled) to enter the workplace on equal footing with men. Female television stars like Barbara Walters, Arlene Francis, and Dinah Shore leveraged the new talk show format to their great advantage.

All this set the stage for the Miracle Lady.

By a combination of genes and skills, Kuhlman seemed born for the task. Tall, willowy, and attractive, she fit the culture’s expectations for a successful female media figure. She knew how to dress the part, always modern and flamboyantly feminine. “Her flair for style and a little ‘sass,’” Artman wryly notes, appeared “in her choice of white high-heeled ankle-strap shoes that showed off her long legs to good advantage.”

Kuhlman’s stylized—critics called it affected—manner of speech won attention, too. She spoke easily with wit, candor, and earnestness. And she understood timing: how long to wait for a laugh, how long to pause for dramatic effect, and how long to talk. Beyond all that lay another aptitude that biographer Wayne Warner calls “Missouri cornbread.” Kuhlman used that phrase to describe how she communicated with her working-class audiences.

Though homiletics professors might cringe, Kuhlman’s sermons were well structured and ran close to traditional evangelical teachings. She urged a view of the end times, always just ahead, that her fundamentalist-leaning audiences had come to expect (especially an abstruse scheme theologians called “dispensational premillennialism”). Kuhlman also taught that healing for the body resided squarely in the atonement. If Christ’s work on the cross offered salvation for the soul, why not for our corporeal selves? Kuhlman often quoted an Old Testament line that her listeners knew by heart: “By his stripes we are healed.”

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Source: Christianity Today