Forty years after death, Kathryn Kuhlman still inspires a small but steady flock
February 14, 2016 12:00 AM
Evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman at a book signing in Pittsburgh.
Followers of Kathryn Kuhlman came early to her fifth anniversary celebration Aug. 17, 1953, at the Syria Mosque in Oakland.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even now, pilgrims make their way in small but steady numbers beneath the soaring gothic vaults of the historic First Presbyterian Church in Downtown, seeking out the unlikely shrine to a one-time tent revivalist, hoping to pray where she preached.
When she died 40 years ago this week, Kathryn Kuhlman was the most famous woman evangelist in the world. Time magazine called her a “one-woman shrine of Lourdes” for the miracle cures she and her devoted followers claimed at her mass revival meetings — even as she scorned the label of “faith healer,” which stalked her through life and into the headline of her obituary.
She always said she was just an ordinary person used by God for extraordinary things. But Johnny Carson was far from alone in disagreeing with the first part. “I find you fascinating,” he told her on “The Tonight Show” in 1974, where her very appearance demonstrated her rise from the sawdust trail to the main highways of American culture.
Ms. Kuhlman died of a heart condition on Feb. 20, 1976, in an Oklahoma hospital — far from her Pittsburgh home base. A woman who guarded her turbulent past so closely that obituaries undershot her real age (69) by years, Ms. Kuhlman had come to Western Pennsylvania in midlife to rebuild her ministry after a shattering divorce out West.
By 1948, she was drawing thousands to her healing services in Pittsburgh. By the time of her death, she had reached millions through books, radio, TV and a grueling regimen of worship services from here to California and abroad.
She was known for her piercing gaze, drawn-out elocution, Shirley Temple curls and flowing gowns with billowing sleeves draped like angel’s wings.
Skeptics challenged all of the miracle claims, and even sympathizers questioned some of them.
Nevertheless, she wove a loyal following of Pentecostals, mainline Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Pope Paul VI gave her his blessing.
“She was big stuff in her day,” said Amy Artman, a religious studies professor at Missouri State University who extensively researched Ms. Kuhlman’s career while earning her doctorate at the University of Chicago. But today she’s “largely forgotten by historians of American Christianity.”
Ms. Kuhlman left no major institution behind. Her TV and radio shows had only a short afterlife of rebroadcasts.
The Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation kept her memories alive through the low-key promotion of her books and recordings, but it is now closing its doors.
Ms. Kuhlman herself said there was no need to prepare a legacy, according to Steve Strang, founder of Charisma magazine, which covers the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. In a recent article, Mr. Strang recalled interviewing Ms. Kuhlman in 1975 and asking if she had designated a successor. She replied that Jesus would return before she died. She gave no hint she was already terminally ill.
Today, although aspiring preachers still study her ministry, those who remember her impact are aging. But they say it was life-changing.
“Her legacy today would be the lives of those who made a commitment to Christ at those meetings,” said Walter Seigfried of Squirrel Hill, 79, an elder at First Presbyterian Church.
Mr. Seigfried first encountered Ms. Kuhlman as a teenager growing up in Irwin. Friends of his parents had spoken well of Ms. Kuhlman, including one who reported being cured of cancer through her ministry. Mr. Seigfried and his father began driving to her weekly Sunday services in Youngstown, Ohio.
“Due to her preaching, I really made a commitment to Jesus Christ,” said Mr. Seigfried, who walked forward at one of Ms. Kuhlman’s services to make it public.
He kept attending until he went to college and later got involved at First Presbyterian, where he met Ms. Kuhlman when she began preaching there.
Mr. Seigfried said the services were not just extended healing-and-miracle events. “There was preaching, which I found very helpful,” he said. ”Primarily she was an evangelist.”
And that’s how longtime co-worker Carol Gray, executive director of the Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation, recalls her legacy.
“She never failed to emphasize in every service that the salvation of the soul was the greatest of all miracles,” said Mrs. Gray, who also converted as a teenager at a Kuhlman service in Pittsburgh.
“The services were very holy,” she recalled. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Wayne Warner, author of the 1993 biography, “Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman Behind the Miracles,” said the evangelist had many flaws — expensive tastes, fudging her age, some dubious miracle claims.
But he believes other healings were genuine. “I have high regard for her,” said Mr. Warner, former archives director for the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. “She’s human just like the rest of us. I think she was devoted to God and the purpose God had called her to.”
Kathryn Kuhlman was born in Concordia, Mo., on May 9, 1907 — a date that biographers unearthed only after her death. (When asked her age by the Pittsburgh Press in 1974, she said: “Put down ‘in the 50s.’ ”)
Ms. Kuhlman claimed a powerful conversion experience as a teenager in her hometown Methodist church. She followed her older sister and the latter’s evangelist husband on the revival circuit.
Ms. Kuhlman soon found her way into the pulpit and drew ever-bigger congregations in Idaho, Colorado and Iowa.
Many of her followers shunned her, however, after her 1938 marriage to evangelist Burroughs Waltrip, who had left his wife and children for her. Ms. Kuhlman later recalled that as her own marriage foundered, she surrendered her remaining life to God. “I can take you to the street ... where Kathryn Kuhlman died!” she would say.
Few if anyone knew of the scandal when she began rebuilding her ministry in Western Pennsylvania, and by the time they did, most devoted followers were willing to look past it.
She arrived in Franklin, Pa., in 1946, first as a guest revivalist and then as a regular preacher to a growing congregation in a renovated skating rink. She began radio broadcasts, and it wasn’t long before she drew invitations to Pittsburgh.
“The Lame, Sick and Weary Flock to Woman Evangelist,” a Pittsburgh Press headline announced, on Aug. 1, 1948. The article was accompanied by a drawing showing Ms. Kuhlman onstage at the Carnegie Music Hall on the North Side (now New Hazlett Theater), facing a large audience and backed by a large choir, all with hands raised in worship.
Night after night, it reported, a “blond evangelist from Missouri named Kathryn Kuhlman ... has jammed the North Side Carnegie Music Hall to overflowing.”
People started arriving at noon for evening services. “Eyes glazed in anticipation, they jam the hot little hall hours before the services start,” it said.
A boy “about five, said to have been crippled since birth, tottered down the aisle on his own legs,” and a woman with a wheelchair walked to the stage.
Yet most of those who arrived in wheelchairs also departed in them, the article noted.
Virtually all the themes of that early newspaper article would be repeated in the coverage across the world in the coming decades.
Rather than laying hands on the sick, Ms. Kuhlman would proclaim specific revelations at her services, such as that someone in the balcony was receiving healing from cancer or deafness.
She eventually began regular trips to California to record some 500 television episodes and to conduct monthly healing services.
She showed a genius for television, said Ms. Artman. Mainstream audiences had been put off by broadcasts of Pentecostal tent services featuring sweaty preachers laying hands on the sick.
Ms. Kuhlman, in contrast, used a talk-show format in which people calmly told of being healed at her services.
“These are just normal people talking about very supernatural things,” said Ms. Artman.
Ms. Kuhlman’s appeal to mainstream Christians received its biggest ratification when the North Side theater closed for renovations and the pastor of stately First Presbyterian Church invited her to hold services there. The services were thronged despite their Friday morning time slot.
A 1974 Pittsburgh Press article described her flowing gowns and elongated speech (”Issssnn’t God wonnnderful?”). It included the case of a man who claimed healing from a heart condition, and an interview with his doctor, who confirmed that the pacemaker he had installed had disappeared along with the surgical scar.
But a respected doctor and author, William Nolen, wrote a magazine article in the 1970s that tracked 23 people who testified publicly of their healing at a Kuhlman service, and finding no miraculous cures.
“The credibility of the whole organization became very questionable in my mind,” the doctor wrote.
Ms. Kuhlman said the doctor committed ”the biggest mistake ... to attack the supernatural power of God.”
But Ms. Kuhlman herself said she always wrestled with why many weren’t healed.
Her reputation also suffered from a lawsuit from two former ministry insiders, which included allegations of extravagant spending before it was settled.
She rewrote her will shortly before her death, leaving bequests to individuals rather than her own foundation. She left nearly half her estate, valued at $732,543, to a Tulsa, Okla., auto dealer and his wife who had gained her confidence. The auto dealer, D.B. “Tink” Wilkerson, was later convicted of fraud related to his business and has since died.
Those who honor Ms. Kuhlman’s legacy, however, look less to those yellowing headlines than to the multitudes of believers she reached.
The Rev. Tom Hall, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, recalled one visitor who went by the title “prophetess” and spent days praying on the floor at the pulpit Ms. Kuhlman used. She had asked Rev. Hall to take her picture there.
“Before I could get to the sanctuary, someone had dropped by to visit the church and they took the picture for her,” he recalled. “It was someone else coming in to pray where Kathryn Kuhlman had preached.”
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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