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A Prophet and a Liar

by Published on

“Holy Ghost Girl”, a new memoir by Donna M. Johnson, tells the remarkable story of the author’s childhood among the followers of Brother David Terrell, the last of the great tent-revival preachers of the fabled Sawdust Trail, an evangelical circuit in the South named for the sawdust on the floors of its temporary tabernacles. Johnson’s mother, Carolyn, was the Depression-era daughter of an itinerant Assemblies of God minister. Born into the kind of white Southern poverty photographed by Dorothea Lange, Carolyn possessed a longing for the wider world, and uncanny musical ability. When Brother Terrell brought the gospel to her Alabama town in the late 1950s, Carolyn discovered both her soul mate and her calling. Within a week, she’d sold or given away most of her earthly goods, and joined his circus.

With her two children (the author and her little brother Gary) in tow, Carolyn became Brother Terrell’s organist, ghostwriter, Girl Friday, and considerably more. Though he was a married man, and his interpretation of the Scriptures was peppered with hellfire and brimstone, Brother Terrell also had quite an eye for the ladies. As the years would reveal, it wasn’t just the Holy Spirit that Terrell was sowing on the Sawdust Trail. In addition to the children he had with Betty Ann, his wan, long-suffering wife, and the three daughters he would eventually father with Carolyn, he begot many progeny by an assortment of worshipful followers, mistresses, fellow preachers and wives. By 2001, when Johnson’s sort-of step-brother Randall—a mischievous, pitiful, Southern Gothic figure who suffered from an obscure chronic ailment—mercifully passed away, Terrell’s family “numbered around seventy.” Emphasis on the “around,” because, like so much in “Holy Ghost Girl”, there’s really no way to rightly know “the truth.”

There’s much to admire about Johnson’s memoir, including its wry humor and sprightly, elegant prose, but one of the things I, as a fellow memoirist, most admire is her willingness to acknowledge the “unknowableness” of her experience; to suspend judgment and shrug her shoulders at the strangeness of her early life and the odd crop of adults who peopled it. The incidents of Johnson’s childhood were peculiar even by the somewhat compromised standards of the rural South. She now lives in Austin. She’s married to a poet. And I imagine she voted for Obama.

The reason that I emphasize this is because it makes the extraordinary open-mindedness she exhibits toward Terrell and his followers more extraordinary still. Is Terrell, she asks herself, “a con man? A prophet? A performer?” Though he was her step-father, he remains a figure of LBJ-caliber complexity. She witnessed him perform extremely convincing miracles, healings, even an exorcism. Prospero to her Miranda, he possessed undeniable power, and a knowledge of the private sufferings of others that beggars rational explanation. Johnson provides a startling description of the time he “laid hands” on her: “It was as though a curtain fell over my senses. … The I that was me, separate and distinct, released its hold, and I experienced myself as a vast and bliss-filled darkness. … [That night] the sores, fevers, and lethargy that had plagued me for months disappeared.”

In so many ways, Holy Ghost Girl depicts Brother Terrell as a scoundrel. Besides his shabby behavior toward his children, wives, and lovers, and his cavalier treatment of sycophants, he amassed a personal fortune of many millions from the frightened and desperate people who flocked under his tents. Eventually, in the 1980s, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to three concurrent 10-year prison sentences for income tax evasion, but only after making preparations to flee the country, and allowing Johnson’s spurned mother to languish for weeks in the Wichita County jail for refusing to testify against him.

And yet, Johnson still struggles to reconcile the disparate aspects of Terrell’s character, in such a way that reveals the “irreconcilableness” of belief and rationality. “I believed,” she writes, “[he] was a prophet and a healer. I knew he was a liar and an adulterer,” a flawed messenger in a world of such “messy glory.” Meeting him again after many years, she finds herself relating to him in terms with which we can all probably identify, if not quite understand: “It wasn’t belief or unbelief,” she writes. “It was love.”

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.

  • Don Bast

    I was a dedicated follower of David Terrell for several years in the 70’s and attended many tent revival meetings. Fortunately, I escaped a little wiser and still in love with my Lord.

    • Mr. Smith

      Shut up dude.

    • Mr. Smith

      Forgive me Sir, but who are you to judge another man’s servant?

    • Kaye

      Me too Mr. Bast…a survivor I am…wiser and still with the love of God in my heart. Get me once its on you get me again its all on me.

  • Dave

    David Terrell is still out there spreading his message. He has a half-page ad in Sunday’s Stephenville (TX) Empire Tribune for his Holy Ghost Revival promising “Salvation, Healing & Deliverance” in Bangs, Texas on July 9 – 13, 2013.

  • spectral_ev

    I’m an ex-Pentecostal and a born-again Pagan. Yes, these guys might have powers, but are they good to other people? Are they fair, are they honest, are they kind? The New Testament says many times over to judge people by their actions, not their status or their words.

  • 4HisGlory

    I too am an ex-Terrellite (co-pastored one of his NTH churches) and can attest to the fact that David Terrell is a proud, egotistical, sociopathic, self-promoting individual who has done more to hurt people and has brought reproach upon the church (the body of believers throughout the world). I pray for David Terrell’s soul, that he will humble his heart and publicly confess his sins (as did King David) before he dies and meets his maker!

  • jason

    im a terrell also he kind to me some how on my dads side

  • jason

    i went to a meetin in 1999 or 2000 it was very good meetin theres is a lot i did not understand about him we all have flaws we strive to be more like jesus everyday

  • jason

    all we can do is pray for one another

  • Canada South

    I would suggest people back off from criticizing David Terrell. Criticize the Benny Hinns and Jimmy Swaggarts all you want but God himself will smite you if you mess with his Endtime Messenger.

  • don owens

    Does anyone know if there is a “David Terrell support group”…a “recovery” group,…or “survivor” group? Many groups like this have similar forums for former members to share with and help each other deal with their hurts. My wife’s family was involved with this group several decades ago, and I know that survivors of other mind control groups have such…like on facebook or other ways to make connections.

    • Stephanie

      My family were members of David Terrell tent rivals for many years. I was 7 years old when I met him for the first time I am now 39 years old it was David Terrell and Sister Bonnie. These people destroyed my childhood with their brainwashing techniques . Don if you know of a group that helps let the survivors voices be heard please send me a message. Thanks

      • Kaye

        I’m a survivor…I was about 11 years old when my mom began following him. I’m now 52 years old…Its hard getting over the fear and teachings, I still struggle



  • c.g.

    I just finished reading Johnson book and it expresses some very mixed emotions about him. I don;t know any about this man other than this book, but he appears to have fallen into the same ways of so many before him…….started out with good intentions to save/help people and ended up becoming larger than life, taking advantage of his followers, and justifiying his affairs, lifestyle, tax evasion due to his calling. Human beings can justify anything….and he does a good job of it. Whether people chose to follow him and support him… least he has been exposed for the person that he is.

    • Brother

      I suggest to come to a meeting and see for yourself whether he’s a true man of God or not. His schedule is on his website

      • c.g.

        Thanks for the offer, but I will pass. I don’t believe in any organized religion or any prophet, minister, priest, etc……My faith is a personal one. Live the way Jesus taught….that is all you need. As usual, actions speak louder than words….especially words from those who “think” they know the answer.

  • DinIndy

    Religion makes you stupid, or evil and rich.

  • Twila Moody

    I pray that God has mercy on the people who talk and judge this man.I have seen only good from this man.He is a true man of God.If you read your Bible you would read where it says do not Judge one another .

  • Brother

    Say what you want. You can’t argue with the healings that Jesus works through him. Matthew 13:57. Even the “Holy Ghost girl” admitted in a nytimes article that she never understood how the miracles were done or how the only thing he could read was a bible. The people who comment about him are no better or less than brother Terrell. The bible says we will be judged by the books. Plural. And those speaking out against fellow brothers, sisters, preachers, evangelist, or prophets will be brought forward in the day of judgment.