Material History of American Religion Project

Prayer cloths

In investigating the material aspects of Pentecostal devotion, project scholar R. Marie Griffith has been looking into the origin and uses of prayer handkerchiefs. She discussed her research with the project staff.

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Origins

Q. How did the use of the prayer handkerchiefs start?

A. Historians have traced these handkerchiefs back well into the early part of the nineteenth century. The early Mormons used healing handkerchiefs. Historian Michael Quinn writes that a group of people asked Joseph Smith to come heal them. Smith couldn't go but he pulled a red silk handkerchief out of his pocket and he said to one of his evangelists, "You go and take my handkerchief." And the evangelist took the handkerchief and prayed and the people were healed. This was no isolated incident-it happened frequently among Mormons. I think 1839 is the first story that emerges. Later on-towards the 1880s-Mormon leaders became embarrassed about what they saw as a folk magical practice and it began to fade out. But then holiness evangelists and later Pentecostals began traveling around and using handkerchiefs as well. So the healing handkerchiefs are there from the beginning of Pentecostal history and they are traceable long before that.

Q. How do you think the Pentecostals would feel about the fact that the Mormons did this? The Mormons are not well looked upon in most evangelical circles.

A. Grant Wacker has suggested that there are strong parallels if not continuities between Pentecostals and Mormons as well as Seventh Day Adventists, particularly in regards to healing practices. I imagine that many Pentecostals aren't aware of that or don't want to see such continuities. Or they can say, "Well, of course, it's in the Bible, so all kinds of cultists can use this as well as true Christians." I suspect that they would not be thrilled with that parallel, but I think further historical investigation such as Wacker and others are doing will begin to show some historical continuity between these groups at the end of the nineteenth century.

Q. Do we get theological justifications, particularly in terms of Biblical literature, like the touching of Jesus' garment or something related to the gifts of the spirit in Acts?

A. Yes, the main scriptural justification is from Acts 19:11-12: "And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick and diseases left him and the evil spirits came out of him." Mormons as well as Pentecostals commonly invoked this passage to show how these healing cloths were used by Paul.

Q. How pervasive is the handkerchief devotional practice over time? Does it go through periods where virtually everybody in the Pentecostal movement is doing it, or are there times when only a few groups are doing it?

A. I think that it's really been pervasive throughout the twentieth century in Pentecostal culture. You see it declining, predictably enough as in the Mormon case, when these groups began to institutionalize and formalize authority. The handkerchiefs remain important but the function changes. In the earlier years, in the teens and twenties, before Pentecostalism was institutionalized, a lot of the handkerchiefs went by mail; believers would write in to Pentecostal periodicals and ask for handkerchiefs. Sending the handkerchiefs by mail enabled the formation of a community that could transcend geographical boundaries. When the Pentecostals began settling in churches, you read less about people writing away to evangelists for handkerchiefs and more use of them within particular churches. There are exceptions to that, of course. Oral Roberts is still famous for using prayer cloths, and people to this day write letters to Oral Roberts Ministries looking for prayer cloths that he's prayed over. And other famous evangelists also use the prayer cloths-Robert Tilton, for example. But generally the function has changed somewhat as the Pentecostal churches have become institutionalized.

Theology

Q. Was there a literature that supported the use of these prayer handkerchiefs?

A. It comes up everywhere. In every Pentecostal periodical that I've looked at, these handkerchiefs come up-in the letters that people send in asking for them, letters of thanks for the evangelists who sent them, and advertisements. But there's very little discussion of them. The practice is implicit, and it gets very little attention as a separate healing practice. Divine healing receives a lot of attention, and they'll mention handkerchiefs as one means among many. But in general there's very little reflection on what the handkerchiefs in particular do, or how they might be different from laying on of hands. Incidentally, this is true for black denominations as well as white denominations.

Q. In effect the absence of direct testimony to their difference suggests just how normal they were.

A. Exactly. They were there from the beginning. While we think of Protestants as not having a rich material devotional history, these handkerchiefs were everywhere. This is a rich material practice that is so taken for granted that we hardly see it.

Q. What is the metaphysics involved here?

A. The evangelists would take a handkerchief and pray fervently over it, maybe pray so hard that they would be sweating. They'd wipe the sweat of their brows onto the handkerchief, and then send it off to someone as a sacramental object of divine grace and prayer. This handkerchief itself was thought to be a vehicle of these prayers. We think of prayer itself in the Protestant evangelical tradition as being above materiality. But these objects themselves were thought to be saturated with a kind of power through these signs of intensive prayer.

Q. This also inverts our understanding of Protestants as having no forms of mediated grace.

A. Yes, that is exactly what these objects were. Like saints and prayer cards in the Catholic tradition, the handkerchiefs were a manifestation of mediated grace. You see that in the letters people send to the periodicals after they receive them. This is just a typical letter of gratitude: "I received the letter with the anointed handkerchief and wonderful blessings I received after I placed one to my body. I surely do feel so much better." Writers explain how they took this object, put it to the part of the body that had been ill, and felt the healing taking place in their body just from using the handkerchief. The handkerchiefs are most important, but there are other objects of mediated grace. People often used the periodicals themselves. We have a lot of accounts of people praying and putting copies of these denominational newspapers on some part of their body that was ill and feeling the healing take place. The handkerchiefs themselves are just the most ordinary of objects. We use them to wipe away tears or sweat, or blow our noses-just the most ordinary kinds of bodily stuff. But even as these are objects of divine grace, they are also objects of human kindness and generosity. You can see the power of asking someone for a handkerchief out of desperation-when you have tuberculosis or some degenerative disease-and all these handkerchiefs flood into you from this widespread community of people you may never have met before.

Practice

Q. Can you give us an example of how these handkerchiefs were used?

A. Here's a letter from an African-American woman, I think from the 1930s. She had received a handkerchief from the Whole Truth magazine, which is the Church of God in Christ periodical. "I received the letter and the anointed cloths from you, for which I thank the Lord. My heart rejoiced and the power of God came upon me as I applied the cloth to my breast. I could feel the affected part being drawn, and when I applied the second cloth it completely left. I have not felt the hurting any more. I thank the Lord for being healed." That's a pretty typical example.

Q. She wasn't very explicit about the affected part. Is that common?

A. Sometimes you get gory descriptions of things, but other times people are pretty vague. It'll be just "a hurting in the chest" or "a hurting of the leg." Q. Is there a typical handkerchief? Is it just an ordinary white handkerchief?

A. There are very few descriptions of what they actually look like, but as far as I can tell, they are the most ordinary white cotton handkerchiefs. The class status of early Pentecostals would tend to indicate that also. They're not using Joseph Smith's red silk handkerchief.

Q. So Oral Roberts does not have specially made handkerchiefs with "This was prayed over by Oral Roberts" printed on it?

A. I've never seen one, but I think that theirs are more elaborate now. As these become more institutionalized and some of these bigger evangelists are doing this over TV and radio and everything else, I would suspect that there's a very distinct design to them-maybe colored embroidery-and I would imagine that they have Oral Roberts' name on them.

Q. From the very beginning of religious mass mailing there has been a pattern of seeking support as a kind of quid pro quo for a proffered benefit. "We'll send you this Bible, this devotional tract free of charge, but please support our ministry." Does this happen with the handkerchiefs?

A. It does in some places. I mentioned the advertisements-"Write us a letter and we'll send you a cloth." Small industries emerge from this that are part of church headquarters. Here there is definitely a sense of "Please support our ministry when you write to us." However, in the earlier years when Pentecostals were in far-flung places, while there may have been money exchanged, that is never discussed. People mention sending in contributions for this and that, but not connected to the handkerchiefs.

Q. It could be that healing and other gifts of the spirit are sufficiently powerful that you don't mess around with this other form of materialism

A. That's probably true. Once a person was healed, then they might send a contribution to the ministry later. But at the time of receiving the handkerchief, when people were ill, that might not have happened.

Q. What did the handkerchiefs mean to the people who anointed them?

A. It's hard to tell. The users are sure that every single one of these has been prayed over fervently and sweated over. One can more skeptically imagine five hundred handkerchiefs still in their boxes being shuttled through some kind of assembly line at the denominational headquarters, maybe getting a quick nod of the head, but not getting the kind of fervent prayer that one might wish. It's really hard for me to know. According to the accounts I've read, the evangelists were sure that their prayers were efficacious and that they would bring healing to the afflicted. In early Pentecostalism there is a lot of optimism that these handkerchiefs should procure healing unless there was something wrong with your faith.

Q. Would every household have a handkerchief?

A. Probably not, at least not all the time. The handkerchiefs were used in times of need. It wouldn't have been something that they would just have sitting around, ready to go in case of illness.

Q. Would it be like a scapular?

A. It would have had a different function, as far as I can tell. They seem to have been used at a time of crisis-a child would have pellagra, or tuberculosis, or would be wasting away-and they desperately write in to these periodicals asking someone to send them a handkerchief. Since they're used in times of crisis, the prayer power they hold may not be active six months later if something else comes up. They are immediate objects.

Q. At the time of early Pentecostalism, everybody's using the mail, from Sears to Montgomery Ward. To what extent is the use of the mail a practical phenomenon, or do these Pentecostals have a sense of the epistolary nature of Pauline Christianity?

A. I think it is the first. The mail was so crucial to isolated people. Some evangelist would come to a rural part of South Carolina, would be there for a couple of weeks, and would convert a lot of people. But after he left, the people had very little way to sustain their faith. The mail sustains the devotion. The letters are so powerful. Women wrote in saying, "I'm completely alone out here on the farm. I've been bedridden for four years. I barely made it to that revival service, and there's no one out here who can pray for me. You all are my only community." That's a crucial function. I don't think they necessarily saw parallels to Peter, Paul, or Timothy, or at least this is not often articulated.

Q. Has that letter-writing community been replaced by newer technology-radio, TV, or maybe even the Internet?

A. It's very possible. We use whatever technical means we have. I certainly think that TV and radio have replaced these earlier kinds of letter-writing communities. For some segments of the population the Internet has that function as well. But today television is probably most crucial.

Gender

Q. Is there a gender dimension to who uses these?

A. Well, I have certainly found a lot more women then men writing in for these handkerchiefs, and writing into these periodicals for healing. Men write in, but their letters tend to be shorter and less detailed. It's probably about a two to one ratio. It's unclear as to whether that is the numerical predominance of women, or whether women are more drawn to healing aspects of Pentecostalism, or if the woman of the family is writing in for handkerchiefs but the whole family is using them.

Q. What do we know about gender ratios in early twentieth century Pentecostalism?

A. It's contested. The standard line is that there were more women who were actively involved than there were men. There are so many letters coming into these periodicals from women whose husbands were not Christians, who drink too much, who desert them-but the letters writers may be a special case. A lot of men were there, perhaps on the fringes of things, not quite as actively involved, but still coming to all the meetings.

Q. In mainstream publications, the writers are almost exclusively men even though the sex ratios in the pews were roughly sixty percent women, forty percent men.

A. When I've done research on Pentecostalism in the 1950s and 1960s, you have a much higher percentage of men writing in, and a much higher percentage of men writing all the articles. The Assemblies of God magazine is a model of how that changed. There used to be so many women writing in, to other women.

Q. Where do the handkerchiefs fit into the larger scheme of Pentecostal devotionalism?

A. I talked with the archivist at Oral Roberts University at length about them. He sees them as so crucial, particularly in his grandmother's era-the twenties, thirties, and forties. It was one of the means by which Pentecostalism could spread. The mail was an important way of spreading Pentecostal devotion and theology, and these handkerchiefs and the magazines were crucial for spreading these ideas across the country.

Methodological issues

Q. How does your study of the handkerchiefs and other kinds of material devotional objects change or improve our understanding of Pentecostalism in particular and American religious life in general?

A. As I mentioned, Grant Wacker is uncovering these connections between early Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals-these groups that focused on healing at the end of the nineteenth century. Pentecostal historiography usually remains in an isolated category; it's been falsely seen as a movement unto itself. But attention to the handkerchiefs and to the various healing practices in which they were embedded show us how porous those boundaries are. With this study we can begin to understand the continuities of practice and belief between these groups. It also shows us that Pentecostalism, which claims to be an iconoclastic tradition, is saturated in sacramental objects. It helps us see that the Protestant tradition is not as devoid of material history as we tend to think. That's not a new insight on my part, but it is an additional piece of crucial evidence for that. This also helps us see these groups' connection to popular culture more generally. We still separate religion and popular culture too much, despite all the good studies of American popular religion. There's also an economy of Pentecostal emotion that historians haven't analyzed much. This seems like another crucial lens for looking at American religion. And finally, this kind of practice helps us see once again the enduring significance of healing in American religion, for believers and devotees everywhere. Pentecostalism is all about healing. You might almost call it self-help. It's a really therapeutic tradition, and I don't mean that to slight it. Seeing the ways in which therapy and healing are so embedded is crucial for understanding American religious history.

Q. What can other historians learn from your study, either methodologically or theoretically?

A. The entire Material History of American Religion Project is showing how you can take the most ordinary objects, like a handkerchief or an offering envelope, and see the meanings that are embedded in it: all the meanings that people bestow on it and around it. As Colleen McDannell and other pioneers have shown us, this attention to material culture reveals the richness and complexity of American religious life in new and challenging ways.

Q. What do interpreters miss if they ignore this kind of evidence?

A. Scholars tend to interpret Pentecostalism as its own isolated entity. People look at it for theology and the history of its ideas, focusing on the leaders. I'm looking at the same denominational periodicals that other historians of Pentecostalism have read, but I've been looking at the letters they've ignored. This gets us much more into the popular piety of Pentecostalism-how people take those beliefs and practices and use them in their daily lives.

Q. A lot of historians eschew this kind of evidence because it's hard to know when you're finished. Working with texts, you know when you've read all there is to read about a particular theologian or movement. Do you have any helpful guides to other historians who would want to use this more hard to classify material?

A. It is hard, which is why people tend to shy away from it. Even a great book like Colleen's is almost overwhelming in its detail; you see all these objects in a new way, but you can't even begin to analyze all the meanings embedded in them. Suddenly all this stuff we take for granted is subject to endless analysis. It can seem overwhelming. But you can take one object, like handkerchiefs, and see how this object-which was so crucial to early Pentecostals and remains so-holds a world of meanings for people. For my own sanity, it's been easier to look at one object and see the meanings embedded in that, and then letting that spread out into other objects. When you have something as rich as these prayer handkerchiefs, that's a workable solution.

R. Marie Griffith is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Northwestern University, where she teaches in the Department of Religion. She was interviewed by Project Director James Hudnut-Beumler and Associate Director Daniel Sack.

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