Donna Johnson’s sensitive and revelatory Holy Ghost Girl takes its readers under the big revival tent of evangelist David Terrell. Johnson’s mother played organ for Brother Terrell’s traveling circus of a ministry in the 1960s, eventually becoming one of several women to bear his children out of wedlock. On the “sawdust trail” with the last of the old-time tent preachers, Johnson witnessed miraculous healings, speaking in tongues and the casting out of demons. This was a mysterious and surreal world for the little children bundled up in quilts in the back of the tent.
For Johnson and her brother, David Terrell was both stepfather and prophet, a man who kept their mother away from them for months at a time and a preacher with a direct line to God. Johnson offers a harrowing portrait of a childhood on and off the revival road, particularly when she and her brother are left alone for months at a time with a series of unstable caretakers. Long after leaving Terrell’s ministry, Johnson now offers a clear-eyed and compassionate view of her childhood and the man now widely discredited as a cult leader (Terrell eventually served 10 years in jail for tax evasion).
An impressive achievement of perspective and maturity, Holy Ghost Girl follows Johnson out of the Pentecostal movement into the wide world of “hellavision,” books and boys without slamming the door on the mysteries of her youth. Her memoir places David Terrell’s ministry in historical context, showing for example how the tent revivals of the 1950s and ’60s were an early site of integration in the American South. Both personal and social history, Holy Ghost Girl lifts the veil on a controversial sector of American religious experience through a child’s point of view. It is a haunting and memorable book.