Death Before Life: The Ministry of Kathryn Kuhlman

by Megan Walker

Kathryn Kuhlman died twice. A quick internet search will show that she passed away in 1976, but in the later years of her life, she spoke of an instance from her early 30’s in which she “died to herself”. Kuhlman was a female preacher in the 20th century whose legacy is that of a miracle worker. Her life was extremely influential for the early charismatic movement and for women in ministry everywhere. This first “self-death” that she describes was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and it marked the beginning of Kuhlman’s charismatic ministry. Kathryn Kuhlman was a primary catalyst for the charismatic movement of the 20th century. Her vibrant personality and the accessibility of her healing services drew people in, while her self-denial and obedience to the Holy Spirit pointed others to Christ as the true miracle worker.

Kuhlman was born in on May 9, 1907 in Missouri. She had three siblings and came from a semi-religious, conservative family. From a young age, she communicated in a theatric way which carried into her adult preaching career and set her apart from other preachers. Her speaking style, which was slow and dramatic, was a combination of a thick southern accent and her attempt to fix a childhood stutter.[1] At fourteen years of age Kuhlman had a conversion experience in which she felt the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit at a church service. This event led her to drop out of school at sixteen years-old to participate in a revival tour led by her sister Myrtle’s husband, Everett Parrott.[2] After some time spent traveling and evangelizing, she went on to pursue an education. Despite her lack of a high school diploma, Kuhlman was accepted at Simpson Bible College in Seattle and studied there at seventeen years of age. While her studies certainly laid biblical foundation for her future preaching career, Kuhlman never credited Simpson for her education, saying, “[God] did not choose to send me to some seminary, nor to a university. I was given the greatest Teacher in the whole world- the Holy Spirit. And when He is your teacher you get your theology straight.”[3] Kuhlman left Seattle before finishing her degree, returning to Myrtle and Everett in ministry.

Kuhlman first felt a clear calling to pastoral ministry after attending a faith healing service. When she realized that not many people in the room were responding to the altar call of Dr. Charles Price, she felt compassion for those who did not yet know God. “I must preach… I’ll never be satisfied until I am doing my share,” Kuhlman told her sister in that moment.[4] With this new calling to preach, she was always prepared to step in and give a message, but Parrott, as leader of the revival group, never allowed her the opportunity. This was the first time that she felt the tension of being a woman in ministry. In July of 1928, Kuhlman parted ways from the revival ministry.

The beginning of her solo-preaching career in 1928 began in Boise and then moved her to Denver, Colorado, at the time of the depression.[5] A close friend and partner to Kuhlman, Helen Guilford, moved with her. Guilford was a talented pianist and spent several years evangelizing before the transition to Denver. Both women worked together to create a space for revival meetings. Around 1933, Kuhlman and Guilford started “the Denver Revival Tabernacle, seating 2,000 people and housing a Sunday school that served 600 children.”[6]  


Richard Roberts and Kathryn Kuhlman ministering, 15 January 1975
Source: Wikimedia Commons

During this time, Kuhlman met a preacher and evangelist named Burroughs A. Waltrip, when he came to Denver to preach. Waltrip was married with two young children when he and Kathryn met and developed interest in one another. Waltrip divorced his wife, left his two children, and married Kuhlman in 1937.[7] Both of their reputations were negatively affected by this scandal. Their preaching and ministry careers suffered because of the controversy. It was through this that Kuhlman realized that she needed to “die to herself.” She heard the voice of the Holy Spirit reminded her that she must make sacrifices in life, even at the cost of humiliation, just as Jesus did through his death on the cross. That was the motivation she needed to leave Waltrip and to move forward in ministry. One day she heard God say that she had “come to a dead end” with the seemingly unhealthy marriage.[8] She never went home to Waltrip and a long separation resulted in divorce. Kuhlman said that she was able to move on by reminding herself that if “the divorced Kathryn Kuhlman was dead, then critics had little to work with. She was no longer the disgraced divorcee, but a chastened, sanctified, and consecrated vessel for God’s Holy Spirit.”[9] This revelation made her a steward of God’s calling and marked the beginning of her role in the charismatic movement.

After moving on from a failed marriage, Kathryn Kuhlman moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1946. Her ministry transitioned from pastoral work to divine healing.[10] “In the course of seven years she revived a career that should have been beyond resuscitation; it was no wonder she became known as The Miracle Lady.”[11] Although she was able to refresh her ministry, it took years for the talk about her divorce to subside. Many places that she traveled to during this time would overwhelm her with questions and charges about her divorce. Her first major invitation was to 1,500 people at the Franklin Gospel Tabernacle; they loved her, filling the entire stadium.[12] She stayed in Franklin, Pennsylvania and started a radio broadcast nearby. The mixture of technology and preaching was new to the world. Kathryn Kuhlman was the pioneer for “media evangelism.”[13]

Her flamboyant personality is part of her success as an important figure in the charismatic movement. She drew people in, and ministered to a diverse crowd of both believers and non-believers. Kuhlman was attractive, always in a dress and high heels, and wanted to look professional. Her personality on stage seemed genuine and natural, which increased her likability. “She spoke easily with wit, candor, and earnestness,” Wacker describes, “and she understood timing: how long to wait for a laugh, how long to pause for dramatic effect, and how long to talk.”[14] She had an excited and happy look that conveyed her love for what she did. Her words and actions toward everyone, no matter their status, made people feel welcome and wanted.[15] Kuhlman had a warm, magnetic personality and a compelling conviction for all to freely encounter God. These two factors drove her ministry and pushed the charismatic movement toward growth throughout the 20th century.

Another way that Kuhlman impacted the charismatic movement was in teaching people how to be silent. A typical service was filled with shouting, clapping, and singing, although Kuhlman brought another perspective that mirrored a practice by Roman Catholics.[16] She introduced the idea of being silent on front of the Holy Spirit in worship as an alternative to reacting in a loud manner. The significance of the practice of silence is that the focus can be more easily placed on God and his work. This silence had the effect of falling down from the presence of the Spirit, also known as “being slain in the Spirit,” which was a new reaction for many.

Kathryn always started her services with music. She led the crowd with one song in particular: “He Touched me” by Bill Gaither. “He touched me, oh, he touched me, and the joy that filled my soul! Something happened and now I know He touched me and made me whole…” She believed that the Holy Spirit was accessible to everyone because of the nature of God’s grace and the nature of humanity’s faults. Beyond her healing practices, Kuhlman displayed the gifts of the Holy Spirit in other ways as well. She communicated with the Spirit by “speaking in tongues.” However, she would only practice this in smaller gatherings, being mindful that such a matter could divide bigger groups.[17] The Pentecostal understanding of healings and miracles is that Christ’s death and physical ailment on the cross was payment for human sin, so anything that causes such illness is due to the devil or sin.[18]

However, the Charismatic tradition emphasizes the role of God’s grace in divine healing, rather than a person’s efforts to repent of sin. This remembrance of God’s grace focuses on the free gift of God’s healing and blessing. In fact, the name “charismatic” comes from the Greek word charis which means “grace” in the New Testament. Kuhlman’s theology on healing and relationship with God reflected the charismatic belief. Kuhlman explained the miracles that happened by saying it was “because the Presence of the Holy Spirit has been in such abundance that by His Presence alone, sick bodies are healed, even as people wait on the outside of the building for doors to open.”[19] Assistant Professor of Theology, Margaret English-de Alminana articulates Kuhlman’s theological individuality by saying, “Kuhlman suffered from the fact that she walked in a theological shadow world between the Pentecostal and mainline Protestant denominations.”[20]

The Holy Spirit was Kathryn’s closest companion. Many of her sermons were about knowing the Holy Spirit, talking to the Holy Spirit, and praying to God in the Holy Spirit. One of her theological convictions was about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In her earlier career she had aligned with the Pentecostal view of “the necessity of a ‘second baptism’.”[21] After the 1940’s she no longer emphasized this point of view. Having mentioned her personal experience with Spirit baptism frequently in earlier years, it became clear that she had refined this belief and was of a new conviction: the Holy Spirit dwells in a person at the moment of their salvation.

Throughout life, Kuhlman struggled with her calling to be a preacher as a woman. She said her conviction was that God wanted to appoint a man for her job, but that because no man stepped forward, making her the first to have said “yes.”[22] Because of her self-death, she was willing to pay the price of hard work and ridicule for being a female in ministry. Aimee Semple McPherson played a similar role in the history of healing revivals. McPherson’s ministry was an example and hope for Kuhlman.

Kuhlman balanced the criticism by first, remembering her “death.” When she had died to herself, she had died to discouragement and confusion about her calling as a female preacher. Second, she displayed humility. The constant acknowledgment of her humble beginnings and as a servant of the Lord were important for her to express in the midst of large crowds waiting for healing. One of the last sermons she gave, she recalled her telling God, “If you can take nothing and use it then here’s nothing. Take it.”[23] Kuhlman defended her call to preach as a woman in a similar way as Uldine Utley. Utley was also a popular female evangelist. “I was compelled to be a preacher,” she would say. Another argument that Kuhlman would make was from the Old Testament. God gave Joel a vision of women preaching the word of God. At the core of this argument is the distinction between women “preaching,” and women being “pastors.”[24] Because of her certainty of calling from God, she yet again remembered that she was dead to the flesh and could move on to the importance of talking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Her obedience to God of continuing to live a busy life of ministry in the limelight was not in vain. Kuhlman greatly influenced Benny Hinn, another powerful evangelist. In 1973, shortly after becoming a Christian, Hinn attended one of Kuhlman’s services. It was there that he had a profound experience with the Holy Spirit which propelled him into ministry at twenty-one years of age. Hinn adopted the tradition above of singing “He Touched Me” into the structure of his services. Although he never got the chance to meet Kuhlman before her death in 1976, Hinn shared the influence she had on him in his book, Kathryn Kuhlman: Her Spiritual Legacy and Its Impact on My Life. [25]

Kuhlman created a non-profit called The Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation when her healing ministry was at its peak. The Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation fielded mail and donations. Kuhlman was an advocate for global missionaries and poverty-stricken places because of her burden for the lost. Her foundation had a heavy outreach focus as well. Through the foundation, Kathryn impacted people around the world by funding missions and charities. The foundation had accumulated and saved sermons, TV episodes, and a film of one of Kuhlman’s last healing services.[26]

A group of people posing for the camera

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In the mid 50’s, Kuhlman stepped into a new way of ministry. Your Faith and Mine was her weekly show that included clips from healing services, live music, and a live message from Kuhlman.[27] This kind of center-stage attention made her stand out even more. However, that was a risk she wanted to take so that the words and miracles of God could be accessed by all through the television. This show continued for several years until she moved on to making her second show called, I Believe in Miracles. Kuhlman added her own flair to the broadcast episodes of which there were over 500. She filmed this show from 1965-1975 during the rapid growth of the charismatic movement.[28]

For the most part, Kathryn kept quiet about the first forty years of her life. Her childhood was referenced when she wanted to share stories about her dad, who she was close to, and sometimes other family. The early, formational years of her ministry and pastoral career was clearly a topic that Kuhlman wanted to keep hidden, avoiding long conversations about it with the media. As stated above, she invited others onto her show for interviews. It was in that setting that she opened up with thoughts and facts about her life that hadn’t been heard before, such as how she dealt with her divorce.

Although Kuhlman made a significant impact on the charismatic movement, her work was built on previous, foundational events. In 1906, one year before Kuhlman was born, a spiritual awakening occurred in Los Angeles, California. A group of men and women had been praying for the Spirit to bring an outpouring of its presence and blessings. Through the sudden gift of speaking in tongues, a revival broke out on Azusa street. Some argue that this Azusa Street Revival was the single catalyst of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. This revival impacted the surrounding community because of the healings that happened. This continued for nearly two years and gatherings included miracles that were similar to Pentecost in the book of Acts.[29] Edith Blumhofer with The Christian Century wrote about this revival saying, “In recent years scholars have stressed that global Pentecostalism has multiple origins, and that the Azusa Street revival was one of several impulses that birthed a distinctly Pentecostal form of Christianity.[30] The Azusa Street revival was essential to the foundation of the 20th century charismatic movement.

However, Kathryn Kuhlman continued the miracles and spiritual atmosphere of the revival during frequent gatherings, acting as a catalyst for the movement. Her ministry extended over 50 years. She travelled and opened up services to anyone which made her preaching and healings easily accessible. The wisdom and lessons that she imparted through healing services encouraged sustainable relationship with God instead of just focusing on tangible experiences with the Holy Spirit through signs, wonders, and miracles. The Azusa Street revival laid a foundation for the charismatic movement, but the consistency of Kuhlman’s ministry was able to continue the momentum of the movement from the beginning. Kuhlman’s ministry career shows the way that the charismatic movement in the 20th century progressed, but she marks a significant milestone in the journey of females’ involvement in ministry.

The legacy of Kathryn Kuhlman is a reflection God’s power, grace, and love for people. She always made sure that others knew that the healing powers were not her own. Kuhlman’s hard work and dedication to her calling was an act of obedience and a constant reminder to pick up her cross and follow Christ. Because of her compassion and drive to share the gospel message with unbelievers, she made the gospel accessible through her services. She was innovative and dynamic in the structures of her healing services so that anyone who attended had the opportunity to experience the Holy Spirit. Her lifelong ministry made an impact on the charismatic movement, helping shape its direction and impact in the twentieth century.

Bibliography

Artman, Amy Collier. “Protecting Her Image: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Manipulation of Negation”. Bulletin for the Study of Religion 43, no. 2 (April 2014): 20, https://doi.org/10.558/bsor.v43i2.19.

Artman, Amy Collier.  ““The Miracle Lady”: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Gentrification of Charismatic Christianity in Twentieth-Century America.” PhD diss., The University of Chicago, 2009), 33-69.

Blumhofer, Edith. “Azusa Street Revival.” The Christian Century 153, no. 5 (March 2006): 20-22.

English-de Alminana, Margaret. “Reconnecting with the Mystics: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Reshaping of Early Pentecostalism,” Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 33, no.1 (2013): 59, https://doi.org/10.1179/jep.2013.33.1.006.

Leisering, Katherine Jane. “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Kathryn Kuhlman.” PhD diss., Ohio University, 1981.

“Moment of Worship with Kathryn Kuhlman.” YouTube video, 6:18. Posted by “Williams Odigie Ozemoya,” August 26, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7gmwZzExjc.

Nickell, Joe. “Benny Hinn: Healer Or Hypnotist?” The Skeptical Inquirer 26, no. 3 (May 2002): 14-17.

Pullum, Stepher J. “Sisters of the Spirit: The Rhetorical Methods of the Female Faith Healers Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlman, and Gloria Copeland,” Journal of Communication and Religion 16, no.2 (September 1993): 114.

Stolz, Jörg. “”all Things are Possible”: Towards a Sociological Explanation of Pentecostal

Miracles and Healings.” Sociology of Religion 72, no. 4 (2011): 456-482,387. doi:http://librarysftp.whitworth.edu:2112/10.1093/socrel/srr019.

Wacker, Grant. “The Forgotten Female Preacher.” Christianity Today 63, no.8 (2019): 46-50.

Zikmund, Barbara Brown. “A Gift of Healing — Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman Behind the Miracles by Wayne E. Warner.” The Christian Century, 1995. 748.

NOTES

[1] Katherine Jane Leisering, “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Katheryn Kuhlman,” (PhD diss., Ohio University, 1981), 19-21.

[2] Leisering, “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Katheryn Kuhlman,”23.

[3] Amy Collier Artman, “‘The Miracle Lady’: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Gentrification of Charismatic Christianity in Twentieth-Century America,” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2009), 33-34.

[4] Leisering, “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Katheryn Kuhlman,” 26.

[5] Leisering, “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Katheryn Kuhlman,” 28.

[6] Barbara Brown Zikmund, review of A Gift of Healing — Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman Behind the Miracles by Wayne E. Warner, The Christian Century 112, no. 23 (August 1995): 749.

[7] Ibid

[8] Stephen J. Pullum, “Sisters of the Spirit: The Rhetorical Methods of the Female Faith Healers Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlman, and Gloria Copeland,” Journal of Communication and Religion 16, no.2 (September 1993): 114.

[9] Amy Collier Artman, “Protecting Her Image: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Manipulation of Negation,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 43, no. 2 (April 2014): 20, doi.org/10.558/bsor.v43i2.19.

[10] Artman, “‘The Miracle Lady’,” 65.

[11] Artman, “‘The Miracle Lady’,” 66.

[12] Artman, “‘The Miracle Lady’,” 66.

[13] Leisering, “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Kathryn Kuhlman,” 34.

[14] Grant Wacker, “The Forgotten Female Preacher,” Christianity Today 63, no.8 (2019): 48.

[15] Leisering, “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Katheryn Kuhlman,”109.

[16] Margaret English-de Alminana, “Reconnecting with the Mystics: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Reshaping of Early Pentecostalism,” Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 33, no.1 (2013): 59, doi.org/10.1179/jep.2013.33.1.006.

[17] Zikmund, A Gift of Healing, 749.

[18] Jörg Stolz, “‘All Things are Possible’: Towards a Sociological Explanation of Pentecostal Miracles and Healings,” (Oxford University Press, 2011), 457-458.

[19] Artman, “‘The Miracle Lady,’ 69.

[20] English-de Alminana, “Reconnecting with the Mystics: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Reshaping of Early Pentecostalism,” 58.

[21] Ibid

[22] Artman, “Protecting Her Image: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Manipulation of Negation,” 21.

[23] Pullum, “Sisters of the Spirit: The Rhetorical Methods of the Female Faith Healers Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlman, and Gloria Copeland,” 117.

[24] Artman. “‘The Miracle Lady’: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Gentrification of Charismatic Christianity in Twentieth-Century America,” 45.

[25] Joe Nickell, “Benny Hinn: Healer Or Hypnotist?” The Skeptical Inquirer 26, no.3 (May/June 2002): 14.

[26] Leisering, “An Historical and Critical Study of the Pittsburgh Preaching Career of Katheryn Kuhlman,” 8.

[27] Artman, “Protecting Her Image: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Manipulation of Negation,” 21.

[28] ibid

[29] Edith Blumhofer, “Azusa Street Revival,” The Christian Century 153, no. 5 (March 2006): 20.

[30] Blumhofer, “Azusa Street Revival,” 21.