Girl  Evangelists

Uldine Utley, who would soon become the most famous girl evangelist in America, met the most famous American fundamentalist preacher at a Bible conference in Florida in February 1926. Uldine was just thirteen years old. Because of a train delay, Uldine was asked to replace the most famous Canadian fundamentalist preacher, T. T. Shields, as the preacher of the evening. Straton was so impressed, he became her mentor and most devoted promoter, bringing her to his Baptist church in New York City and organizing city-wide revival crusades to feature Uldine’s preaching. Straton called Uldine “The Joan of Arc of the Modern Religious World,” and many repeated that phrase.

Straton got into trouble from several sides because of his promotion of the young girl, but Straton took controversy like most people take their coffee—hot and strong, and as early in the day as one could get it. The modernist (liberal) churches were generally repulsed by revivalism and fundamentalism, which Straton espoused, and they accused him of taking advantage of a child. The New York atheists had been in very public conflict with Straton for some time, so they threatened court action to prevent Straton from using child labour. Even Straton’s fundamentalist colleagues criticized him, for most fundamentalists had fairly traditional views about the role of women, especially in religious roles. And they didn’t like the fact that Uldine was Pentecostal, either.

Straton defended his position in court, in letters to to the press, and in an extended essay titled “Does the Bible Forbid Women to Pray and Preach in Public?” The subtitle of the booklet was: “with an estimate of Uldine Utley, the wonderful fourteen-year-old girl evangelist—the Joan of Arc of the Modern Religious World.”

In 1928, Straton took on what he considered a more pressing cause. Al Smith, the long-serving and popular mayor of New York City was the Democratic nominee for the American Presidency. But Smith was a Catholic. No fundamentalist worth their salt wanted a Catholic in the White House (and booze, too, one might guess), so Straton devoted his energies to defeating Smith, which he helped to do. But he died from exhaustion and a heart condition in 1929.

Straton contributed material to Uldine’s magazine Petals from the Rose of Sharon. Much of the volume 2 (September 1926) issue is written by Straton and describes Uldine and her first services at the Calvary Baptist Church in New York and of the coming crusade beginning in September of that year.

for further reading:

John Roach Straton, “Does the Bible Forbid Women to Pray and Preach in Public?” (New York: Literature Department of the Calvary Baptist Church, 1926).

Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

Lee Canipe, “The unlikely argument of a Baptist fundamentalist: John Roach Straton's defense of women in the pulpit,” Baptist History and Heritage (Spring, 2005).

Samuel Walker, "The Fundamentalist Pope," American Mercury, 8 (July 1926): 257-265.

John Roach Straton