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The Two Holy Ghostwriters Behind American Christi… – ChristianityToday.com

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It started with an innocent-enough question: “Have you ever heard of the expression speaking in tongues?”
For the magazine editor who asked it, it was just a story idea. But it turned into a journalistic investigation that changed a reporter’s spiritual life, brought many Christians into a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, and blew through evangelicalism with a strong charismatic wind. They Speak with Other Tongues, the compelling 1964 account of John Sherrill’s journey from skeptical reporter to ecstatic, tongues-speaking spiritual autobiographer, has had a profound impact.
As I have researched and written my new book, Age of the Spirit, I’ve thought a lot about the kinds of people who brought charismatic renewal to Anglo-world Christianity. There were preachers, teachers, and evangelists; businessmen, hippies, and housewives; professors, faith healers, frauds, and lots of everyday people who just wanted more of whatever God had to give them. The vehicle for many of these people to experience the Spirit was through the “personal witness story,” and the authors of so many of these stories in the 1960s and 1970s were John and his wife, Elizabeth “Tib” Sherrill.
It’s been almost 60 years since they wrote They Speak with Other Tongues, and both authors have now passed—Elizabeth died earlier this year. But for those of us who live in a world where people sometimes pray in a language they do not understand, where God still speaks to individuals, and where the faithful expect to see the Spirit at work in their daily lives, it’s the world the Sherrills built.
The Sherrills’ books provided a “charismatic catechesis,” preparing readers for life as Spirit-filled Christians. Their literature not only endorsed “new” experiences—such as baptism in the Spirit—but also provided a relatable script for others to have the same. As CT news editor Daniel Silliman argued in his book, stories shape and organize modern Christianity. It’s hard to think of a better charismatic example than the authors of They Speak with Other Tongues, The Cross and the Switchblade, God’s Smuggler, and The Hiding Place.
With the magazine editor’s question, the journalist John Sherrill in 1960 embarked on research into a phenomenon which—it was whispered—was gaining ground in American churches. Sherrill chased the story enthusiastically. He visited Pentecostal congregations but, more surprisingly, also found people who had known the experience outside these churches. Sherrill became fixated on understanding tongues.
The decade before the publication of Sherrill’s book was, on the face of it, a wildly successful time for American Christianity. The 1950s was a period of Christian boom: church building projects, marketed revival crusades, high ecumenical ambition, and grand contraction of religious institutions. Some critics, however, asked what had happened to what might be called “enthusiasm”: the mystical experiences, ecstatic encounters with the divine, or the kind of transcendent experiences that marked earlier eras of intense religiosity.
Missing from this thriving, flourishing Christianity seemed all talk about the Holy Spirit. As the Sherrills wrote, the Spirit was, in a sense, a ghost—“an aspect of God, the third member of the Trinity, a concept you acknowledged every Sunday in the Creed; but a ghost just the same, as if He were the featureless remnant of someone who at one time in the Church’s life had been very real indeed, but now was little more than a memory.”
There had been, a little earlier, an explosive Christian movement to revive the spiritual gifts of the early church as recounted in Acts. These people were called Pentecostal, hearkening back to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, where Christ’s followers heard the sound of a violent wind, saw fire fall, and began to “speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
That movement, however, prompted what historian Grant Wacker described as “a brawl fought without rules, in the mud.” Pentecostals separated from other Christians and built their own institutions.
Meanwhile, evangelicals became increasingly suspicious of any contemporary supernaturalism (even while, in their own minds, they took bold stands against modernist materialism, specifically Christians who rejected biblical accounts of the supernatural). Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield, for example, wrote Counterfeit Miracles, arguing that the early church received spiritual gifts for “the authentication of the Apostles” but the contemporary church did not. Warfield’s view, known as cessationism, was widely popular.
During the post–World War II church boom, however, some Christians became restless. They were not convinced that Christian life in America—even with very high church attendance and broad cultural respect for ministers like Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham—was as vibrant as it seemed. They were seeking something more.
There was growing interest in inner healing, with mainline Protestants drawn to organizations such as Camps Farthest Out and authors such as Agnes Sanford. Small prayer groups, offering a great sense of intimacy and experimentalism, were quietly growing in various Christian communities. Catholics joined Cursillo discipleship groups. And then upwardly mobile Pentecostals started to be more ecumenical and less hostile, inviting everyone they met to groups such as the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship.
It was in this flux of piety that They Speak with Other Tongues became situated. The Sherrills’ book reported the experiences of Christians who had begun to find a new supernatural dimension in their lives. The book discussed, for example, Harald Bredesen, the minister of First Reformed Church, in Mount Vernon, New York, whose “religious life had no vitality to it” before a powerful experience of the Spirit.
It described the experience of Dennis Bennett, an Episcopalian priest whose resignation following a tongues controversy in his parish in Van Nuys, California, caused enough of an uproar to get reported in Time and Newsweek. It also included veterans of encounters with the Spirit, such as the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, who was “filled” while at Asbury College, Wilmore, Kentucky. The Sherrills’ book was written on the cusp of a shift in American Christianity: Charismatic renewal was about to explode.
The Sherrills chased the story enthusiastically. Trying to make sense of glossolalia, they went so far as to make tape recordings of tongue speakers to submit them to language experts for scrutiny. John Sherrill, in particular, became fixated on understanding tongues. He learned from his interviewees that to understand tongues, he should really pursue the experience from which they (often) followed: the “baptism” or “filling” of the Holy Spirit.
Then at a prayer meeting in Atlantic City in December 1960, he decided he wanted to explore this experience of the Spirit “from the inside.” Opening himself to this possibility, Sherrill had an encounter, and something happened: “From deep inside me, deeper than I knew voice could go, came a torrent of joyful sound.”
He became part of the story. The journalistic investigation blurred with spiritual autobiographic. The remarkable account of a spiritual movement became, at the same time, a personal narrative.
The Sherrills were, as a matter of fact, experts at these kinds of personal narratives, testimonies of religious experience, and the transformation wrought by faith. They honed the craft of these stories in their years at Guideposts, the magazine launched by The Power of Positive Thinking author Norman Vincent Peale. As I argue in Age of the Spirit, authors such as the Sherrills didn’t just seek to capture the charismatic renewal with these narratives. At a deeper level, they were the charismatic renewal.
It seemed that the wind of the Spirit blew with these books across the face of American Christianity.
The year before they published They Speak with Other Tongues, the Sherrills related the personal witness story of a Pentecostal minister named David Wilkerson in The Cross and the Switchblade.
The book, cowritten with Wilkerson, was an account of a “one-man mission to the asphalt jungle” of New York City and the birth of Teen Challenge. The city described in the book is a scary place—a city of darkness, a ghetto Gotham.
“The enemy lurked in the social conditions that make up the slums of New York,” the Sherrills wrote.
The book described how Wilkerson—empowered by the Spirit—offered unconditional love to street gangs. When one gang member, Nicky Cruz, threatened to stab and kill Wilkerson, the minister replied, “You could cut me in a thousand pieces and lay them out in the street and every piece would love you.”
The line was destined to be repeated from a thousand pulpits. The book caught the imagination of so many Christians. A generation imagined themselves daring to go to the scene of the worst social problems and relay the love of Jesus. They thought about what it would be like if they too were baptized with that fire from Acts 2, started to speak in tongues, and as a result could fearlessly testify to God’s love.
The book was a bestseller, with millions of copies distributed worldwide. The Cross and the Switchblade owed its success in part to the power of the narrative and the Sherrills’ arresting storytelling. But more than this, it tapped into a changing spiritual mood in the early 1960s. Many Christians were seeking a reanimated, authentic version of the faith. And The Cross and the Switchblade told a story that readers could use as a script to achieve that Spirit-filled transformation.
As one reviewer in England said, if you read the book, you could “breathe the same atmosphere as exists in the New Testament.”
Following the publication of The Cross and the Switchblade and They Speak with Other Tongues, the Sherrills rose a charismatic wave. They wrote God’s Smuggler, the story of the ministry of a Dutch Christian, Anne van der Bijl, or Brother Andrew, who snuck Bibles into Communist countries. It was an adventure story about someone moved to do great things by his faith.
Most who read God’s Smuggler probably did not think of it as a charismatic tale. Unlike Wilkerson, Brother Andrew did not speak in tongues at a hinge point in the plot or dwell much on the “second blessing” of the Spirit accompanied by a gift of supernatural power. But a charismatic message was there nonetheless. Brother Andrew prayed for modern-day miracles. They happened. And readers were told they could do that too, with a little faith.
There’s no big argument in the book about cessationism, whether Christians today live in the same kind of universe that the early Christians did, or if the world is somehow less supernatural. The Sherrills just matter-of-factly described God intervening at a Communist checkpoint—and like that, the evangelical imagination was transformed.
A few years later, the Sherrills came out with perhaps their best book, The Hiding Place. It tells the story of Corrie ten Boom, another Dutch Christian. She and her family defied the Nazis, hiding Jews to help them survive the Holocaust, but then were caught and sent to concentration camps themselves.
The Hiding Place is also not explicitly charismatic, but it presents ten Boom as a woman so transformed by the Spirit working in her that she can love not only her neighbors (Jews) but also her enemies (Nazis). The final challenge she faces in the story is forgiving one of the guards from the prison camp where her sister, Betsie, had died. This was a vision of spiritual life radically more vibrant than the 1950s picture of a big church with full pews.
The Sherrills’ stories dominated Christian reading lists in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, and American evangelicalism was extensively “Pentecostalized.” Even those who didn’t get baptized in the Holy Spirit had their imaginations renewed by the charismatic renewal. The story of that transformation is, in a deep way, a story about imagination. And it’s a story about the impact, as my friend University of Exeter literary scholar David Parry recently put it, of the Holy Ghostwriters of the charismatic movement.
John Maiden is a senior lecturer in religious studies at The Open University and the author of Age of the Spirit: Charismatic Renewal, the Anglo-World and Global Christianity, 1945–1980.
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