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A woman who shook the world

A woman who shook the world: Kathryn Kuhlman

One of the 20th century’s best-known and most unconventional female preachers died 45 years ago this at Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa.


Kathryn Kuhlman was a tall, willowy woman with auburn hair and a pulpit manner unlike any other, dramatically gliding across the stage in a flowing white gown, her arms and conversation often directed as much heavenward as to her audience.


She had close ties with several Tulsa people — including Oral Roberts and auto dealer D.B. “Tink” Wilkerson Jr., who, with his wife, helped with Kuhlman’s ministry for years and inherited much of her estate.


Roberts and Wilkerson, now both deceased, attended to Kuhlman after her open heart surgery in Tulsa in the weeks before she died, according to newspaper reports.


Roberts, speaking at her funeral in California, said she was “the greatest evangelist of the ministry of God’s miracle power in my lifetime,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Early life

Kathryn Johanna Kuhlman was born near Concordia, Missouri, to German-American parents, Joseph Adolph Kuhlman and Emma Walkenhorst. After a spiritual experience at age 14, several years later, she began itinerant preaching, with her elder sister and brother-in law, in Idaho. Later, she was ordained by the Evangelical Church Alliance.


Kuhlman met Burroughs Waltrip, a Texas evangelist who was eight years her senior. Shortly after his visit to Denver, Waltrip divorced his wife, left his family and moved to Mason City, Iowa, where he began a revival center called Radio Chapel. Kuhlman and her friend and pianist Helen Gulliford came into town to help him raise funds for his ministry. It was shortly after their arrival that the romance between Burroughs and Kuhlman became publicly known.


Burroughs and Kuhlman decided to wed. While discussing the matter with some friends, Kuhlman had said that she could not "find the will of God in the matter." These and other friends encouraged her not to go through with the marriage, but Kuhlman justified it to herself and others by believing that Waltrip's wife had left him, not the other way around. On October 18, 1938, she secretly married "Mister," as she liked to call Waltrip, in Mason City. The wedding did not give her new peace about their union, however.The couple had no children. Regarding her marriage, in a 1952 interview with the Denver Post, Kuhlman said, "He charged—correctly—that I refused to live with him. And I haven't seen him in eight years."She was divorced by Burroughs Waltrip in 1948. On many occasions in the years following, she expressed feelings of remorse for her part in the pain caused by the break up of Waltrip's previous marriage, citing the children's heartbreak as particularly troubling to her. She claimed it was the single greatest regret of her life, second only to the betrayal of her loving relationship with Jesus.

Miracles


Compelling reports of healings were abundant. Roberts Liardon suggests that "There were thousands upon thousands of miracles."


In one exhilarating testimonial, Kathryn writes in Nothing Is Impossible With God that a woman who was afflicted with cancer shared the following:


"Miss Kuhlman was walking back and forth across the stage. She wasn't screaming or yelling, as I had thought she would be. She wasn't even preaching, just talking. She said, 'I don't want anyone to come up here on the stage until you have been healed.' Amazing, I thought to myself. I had pictured her slapping people on the forehead, vibrating and shaking, screaming commands for the Lord to heal some poor wretch. It wasn't that way, but people started coming forward, testifying that they had been healed while they were sitting in their seats."

In the midst of the exuberant testimonies and worship, something amazing transpired. She writes:


"Something else happened. I discovered I couldn't move my arms or legs. More surprising still, it didn't bother me to sit there paralyzed. In fact, it was altogether a very wonderful feeling. Mom later told me that Miss Kuhlman said someone was being healed of cancer, but I didn't hear it. As a matter of fact, I didn't hear much of anything during this time. When the wonderful feeling passed, a new feeling, a conviction, took its place—a deep conviction that I no longer had cancer."

A short time later, she went to the doctor, and he told her that the biopsy was entirely negative. They found no malignancy whatsoever. She writes that she questioned the doctor, saying, "I thought the first biopsy showed total malignancy." He shrugged. "It did, but when you got in there, everything was fine. I don't think you're going to have any trouble at all.'"


There were remarkable accounts like this transpiring every time that Kuhlman held a crusade. Individuals were getting out wheelchairs, and lives were being restored. Providing a fascinating summary, Roberts Liardon writes:


"On one occasion, a five-year-old boy, crippled from birth, walked to Kathryn's platform without assistance. On another, a woman, who had been crippled and confined to a wheelchair for twelve years walked to the platform without aid from her husband. A man from Philadelphia, who had received a pacemaker eight months earlier, felt intense pain in his chest after Kathryn laid hands upon him. Returning home, he found the scar gone from his chest where the pacemaker had been implanted, and he couldn't tell if the pacemaker was functioning. Later, when the doctor took x-rays, he discovered the pacemaker was gone, and the man's heart healed. It was common for tumors to dissolve, cancers to fall off, the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Migraine headaches were healed instantly. Even teeth were divinely filled. It would be impossible to list the miracles that the ministry of Kathryn Kuhlman witnessed! God alone knows."

Kathryn Kuhlman, arguably became the most influential figure of the charismatic renewal, transforming a whole generation's understanding of healing and crusade evangelism.


Revivals

Kuhlman and Roberts were part of a healing revival that swept the nation in the 1940s and beyond, drawing huge crowds to stadiums and tent meetings.


But she disliked the term faith healer, always saying she was a “handmaiden of the Lord” who just directed people to Jesus.


An estimated 2 million people reported they were healed in her meetings over the years.


Tulsa newspapers ran stories on three big meetings Kuhlman held here, all of them to packed houses with people turned away.



In October 1971, about 12,000 attended her service at what was then the Assembly Center in downtown Tulsa.


In September 1973, she held a “miracle service” at the Mabee Center on the Oral Roberts University campus that drew 17,000 people, at that time the largest crowd in the history of the facility. Some people arrived in wheelchairs eight hours before the service, which was organized by a group of Tulsa pastors chaired by the Rev. L.D. Thomas, pastor of First United Methodist Church.


The Holy Spirit

About 100 people at that meeting reported they had received a healing.


Her last big meeting in Tulsa, in September 1974, drew 15,000 people to the Mabee Center. Newspapers at that time reported that they came in 50 buses from more than six states.


She also held a two-day seminar on prayer and the Holy Spirit in early 1972 for 250 pastors and their wives at First United Methodist Church downtown. The late Rev. Wishard Lemons, who wrote a history of that church, said she spoke at First Methodist at a time when the church was going through a renewal inspired by the charismatic movement that was sweeping the nation.

She brought “a new and deeper understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit to bless and heal,” Lemons wrote.


A few days after that conference, just a few blocks away in downtown Tulsa, the Rev. Warren Hultgren, pastor of First Baptist Church, apparently in response to questions arising from the Kuhlman meetings, delivered a message giving his perspective on healing and speaking in tongues, two aspects of the Kuhlman ministry that raised eyebrows in the Baptist world.


‘The Radio Chapel Years’

Kuhlman’s global ministry has been well-documented, but details of her early ministry, including her controversial marriage to a fellow evangelist and co-minister, Burroughs A. Waltrip, are now detailed in a new book, “Kathryn Kuhlman, The Radio Chapel Years,” written by the Rev. Shane Philpott, a graduate of what is now Rhema Bible College in Broken Arrow and a frequent speaker in Tulsa.

Philpott was in Tulsa this week, speaking at Rhema and at Victory Bible College about the book and Kuhlman’s early ministry.


He is the founding pastor of Christian Fellowship Church in Mason City, Iowa, the city where Kuhlman and Waltrip founded Radio Chapel in the 1930s.


Philpott said in a Monday interview that when he learned Kuhlman had a church in his town in the 1930s, he spent a lot of time in the library digging through old clippings and records from that era.


A local historian asked him if he had ever talked to Keith and Mary Williams, co-pastors with Kuhlman and Waltrip at Radio Chapel.


He was amazed to learn they were still alive, in their 90s, and living in Watertown, South Dakota. Philpott called them, and later visited them, spending hours learning about the two-year period that Kuhlman was in Mason City. The couple turned over to Philpott hundreds of pages of Radio Chapel sermon notes from that era.

A local historian asked him if he had ever talked to Keith and Mary Williams, co-pastors with Kuhlman and Waltrip at Radio Chapel.


He was amazed to learn they were still alive, in their 90s, and living in Watertown, South Dakota. Philpott called them, and later visited them, spending hours learning about the two-year period that Kuhlman was in Mason City. The couple turned over to Philpott hundreds of pages of Radio Chapel sermon notes from that era.


Keith Williams later spoke at Philpott’s church in Mason City.


Philpott said Radio Chapel was light years ahead of its time, with cushioned opera seating imported from New York instead of pews, air conditioning in a time when almost no churches were air conditioned, and lyrics of worship songs projected on the wall instead of hymnals, all amenities that are common in churches today.


Radio Chapel started with revival meetings in an armory. It grew rapidly, eventually building the Art Deco church building that today houses a television station. The building was dedicated in the summer of 1938.


Close to 1,000 people attended services held six days a week. Kuhlman and Waltrip also preached three times a day on the radio, hence the name of the church.


Trouble ahead

In October 1938, Kuhlman married Waltrip, the divorced father of two children. Members of a church she had earlier founded in Denver were upset about the marriage, and she and that church parted ways, Philpott reported.

trouble came to Radio Chapel. Just as the church had grown quickly, it began to collapse just as quickly under the burden of debt, legal problems, suspicious or jealous pastors in town, and declining attendance, Philpott said.


The family of one major donor to the church sued, saying the donor was mentally incompetent. The family won the lawsuit. Media coverage of the trial fueled suspicion and hostility in town.


On May 16, 1939, just 23 months after the church started, the local sheriff nailed a notice of receivership to the front door, and a locksmith changed the locks.


Kuhlman and Waltrip left town.


A few months later, a judge reversed the earlier decision and ruled that the man who made the major donation to the church was, in fact, competent.


Eventually, their ministries took them in different directions. They were divorced in the mid-1940s, and Waltrip disappeared into obscurity. According to Philpott, no one, not even his sons, knows what happened to him, or where and how he died.


Keeping the faith

Kuhlman went on to global recognition. She wrote best-selling books. She met the pope. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for her to preach to packed stadiums of 30,000 to 40,000 people.


“It’s a bigger story than just Kathryn,” Philpott said. “What they went through back then that brings down ministries and brings down churches are the same things we’re dealing with today: debt, competition with other ministries, handling celebrity status.


“It’s a timeless lesson. I’ve had the privilege to pull back the curtain and look into this,” he said.


“And the greatest story is this, what Paul said to the Roman church: that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.


“Kathryn went through a divorce, the loss of two churches, almost the loss of her ministry, and look how she came roaring back to become a spiritual faith icon known around the globe.


“What an amazing story. ... It really speaks to people today. And it brings them faith and hope for tomorrow, that whatever they’ve been through, they can come out of it.

Death

1955, in her late 40s, Kuhlman was diagnosed with a heart problem. She kept a very busy schedule, often traveling across the United States and around the world, holding two- to six-hour long meetings which ended late.


"The television ministry itself required more than $30,000 a week... To stop, to even cut back, would mean she was beginning to fail. The same was true with the miracle services. As the pain in her chest grew almost unbearable, instead of holding fewer services, she increased the number."


In July 1975 her doctor diagnosed her with a minor heart flare-up; in November she had a relapse. As a result, Kuhlman had open-heart surgery in Tulsa, Oklahoma from which she died on February 20, 1976.It was reported in her biography that at the time of her passing at hospital as she took her last breath and at her last heartbeat a bright light was witnessed by all, doctors and nurses to momentarily hover over her lifeless body and then before their eyes vanished away. This event is detailed in the biography.


Kathryn Kuhlman was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. A plaque in her honor is in the main city park in Concordia, Missouri, a town in central Missouri on Interstate Highway 70.


After she died, her will led to controversy. She left $267,500, the bulk of her estate, to three family members and twenty employees. Smaller bequests were given to 19 other employees. According to the Independent Press-Telegram, her employees were disappointed that "she did not leave most of her estate to the foundation as she had done under a previous 1974 will." The Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation had continued, but due to lack of funding, in 1982 terminated its nationwide radio broadcasting. Ultimately, the Foundation shut its doors in April 2016.

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