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?



#1 Eric Eck (Guest) on Thursday June 25, 2009 at 12:22pm

At last years Atheist Alliance Convention in Long Beach, CA I ran into a gentleman who identified himself as Marjoe’s nephew. Indeed the resemblance was striking. He told me that, though much of his family remained muted on the whole controversy and continued to be involved in religious practices to some degree, he (unfortunately his name escapes me) was active in local athiest groups.
The documentary on his uncle’s life and later career was referenced in Christopher Hitchens’ hardcover “God is not Great” and can be found on dvd. It’s highly illuminating. I gathered Mr. Gortner was interested in sharing his uncle’s story and encouraged him to disseminate the film as it would be of great interest to the skeptical community.

#2 asanta on Thursday June 25, 2009 at 10:18pm

Child and toddler evangelists are rampant on the internet. I think of it as a form of child abuse.

#3 sowellfan on Friday June 26, 2009 at 3:13pm

You can find a series of videos about Marjoe on Youtube - these may be from the DVD that was spoken of

This link goes to the list of videos that user ‘zeuszor’ has posted, including the Marjoe videos.

#4 liberalartist on Monday June 29, 2009 at 7:14am

I wonder if these children fall under the laws and guidelines that govern child actors. Or does no one bother because its all about religion?

#5 asanta on Monday June 29, 2009 at 12:27pm

I think they get an out, because of ‘Religious freedom’....

#6 DoctorAtlantis (Guest) on Tuesday June 30, 2009 at 10:26pm

I too heard about Marjoe from Hitchens and enjoyed the documentary, though if it were produced today it would probably be more directed in its message.  It was a very free-flowing and melancholy expose, and I felt sad for Gortner even though he seemed teetering between ambivalence and self-loathing - and as a pro-wrestling fan I couldn’t help but be surprised by how much his church experience followed circuit-wrestling antics.  Right down to the marks and the box-office split. 

I did enjoy seeing Gortner in one of the strangest (worst?) sci-fi films ever made: Starcrash.  I recommend getting both films from Netflix and watching Starcrash second.  It’s a real palate cleanser.

#7 gray1 on Saturday July 04, 2009 at 7:27am

Child abuse, induced mental illness, take your pick.

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