By Lois Armstrong
December 09, 1974 12:00 PM

The promise of joy swells inside the filled-to-capacity hall. While a choir sings her theme song, He Touched Me, Kathryn Kuhlman, the country’s reigning faith healer and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Church Alliance, glides onto the stage in a white flowing gown. Blue eyes glowing, sinuous hands wafting about her head like tendrils of smoke, her smile a halo, she speaks in a throaty voice. “It’s so beautiful to see you all,” she says. “I know not one of you has come here today to see Kath-ryn Kuhl-man.” Pronouncing each syllable as though it were a separate, inspired word, she disclaims, “I have no healing virtue whatever. I am an ord-i-nary woman, an in-stru-ment of the Holy Spirit.”

So began a recent Kathryn Kuhlman “miracle service,” a four-hour spectacular in Los Angeles’s Shrine Civic Auditorium, to which had flocked the afflicted and the despondent hoping to be healed. This year in which the faith of Americans—at least in their political leaders—has been sorely strained, faith healing is in style, and Kathryn Kuhlman is its queen. In more than 125 services a year in churches and halls in the U.S. and Canada and in a weekly syndicated TV show over about 100 stations—she buys the time—Kathryn Kuhlman preaches faith and hope to legions.

Her disciples had arrived in buses or in streams of cars. Pale, twisted figures in wheelchairs waited helplessly to enter through the side door reserved for them. The rest stood talking quietly, keeping their children in check or reading the Bible. When the doors finally opened at noon, the patient horde surged into the 6,500-seat auditorium, filling it to capacity within minutes. The overflow crowd remained, content to catch Kuhlman’s words over the loudspeakers in the lobby.

While the faithful waited for the appearance of their “miracle woman” (who had arrived at 8 a.m.), she was backstage, not in meditation but deftly attending to the myriad details that make the Kathryn Kuhlman “spectacular” the smoothest production this side of Radio City Music Hall.

A little before one o’clock, the choir of volunteers raised their voices in The Lord’s Prayer, when its strains reached her, Kathryn Kuhlman’s angular body went rigid—as the energy started building. Producer Kuhlman retired to a dressing room to prepare Kuhlman the star for her entrance. When she emerged in a white “pulpit dress,” a diaphanous garment reminiscent of the 40s Ginger Rogers, she looked years younger than the “early 50s” to which she will admit. (A childhood classmate, however, says they were both born in 1907.)

Waiting in the wings for her cue, she prayed fervently. “Dear God…help…wonderful Jesusss.” Her thin arms reached into the air imploring the Holy Spirit to descend. Then—as the first bars of He Touched Me floated out on that Sunday afternoon—she was on.

As president of the Pittsburgh-based Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation, she efficiently runs a spiritual mini-empire that grosses an estimated $2 million a year—primarily from collections at her public appearances—and supports charitable causes around the world. In addition to the healing services, Kuhlman has written three best-sellers, has a weekly TV show and tapes a series of radio broadcasts in her own fully equipped studio at the foundation’s headquarters. The foundation, which began in a tiny efficiency apartment 26 years ago, now takes up almost the entire sixth floor of the Carlton House Hotel. Kuhlman estimates that in a single week, recently, she appeared personally before 120,000 people—not counting the thousands she reached via radio and TV.

Although she has dominated the evangelical circuit for a long time, Kuhlman today is more popular than ever. Psychic phenomena and those who deal in them have only recently received serious attention from both scientists and churchmen. Kathryn Kuhlman is discussed along with such psychics as Israel’s Uri Geller. In the just published Psychic Healers, David St. Clair, president of the Southern California Society for Psychical Research, says Kuhlman has and knows how to use “a phenomenal energy force.” He describes her as a kind of radio transmitter sending out energy waves which, in a receptive person who is ill, can displace the “out-of-kilter electrical force in that person and replace it with a good one.”

Kuhlman was not to the pulpit born. Her father, Joseph Kuhlman, a lukewarm German Baptist, was mayor of Concordia, Mo. while Kathryn was growing up, the second of three daughters and “the apple of Papa’s eye.” She says that “there is the same relationship between me and my Heavenly Father as there was with Papa. I am His child.” When Kathryn was 14, she remembers, she was singing the closing hymn at the Methodist church that her mother attended. “Suddenly I began to tremble,” she says, “I couldn’t even hold my hymnal. At that moment I had my first encounter with the Holy Spirit.”

After her father’s death when she was 16, Kathryn set out with a pianist friend, Helen Gulliford, on the evangelical road. Taking a bus to Twin Falls, Idaho, they found a Baptist church without a pastor and little freckle-faced Kathryn begged the elders for the chance to preach. By the end of the week she had not only filled the tiny Baptist sanctuary but was invited to appear at the larger Methodist church. She recalls being driven by “something inside me,” and she tried out her new skills across the countryside. “I was always hungry,” she says of those days, but she managed to save a dollar as a down payment on her first white “pulpit dress.” She preached to farmers and slept where she could—in a washed-down turkey house or a cheap room. Saturdays, she paid a quarter for a scrub at a public bath.

Kathryn says she first recognized her healing powers in 1946 when a woman in her congregation stood up and claimed that she had been cured of a tumor during Kathryn’s sermon the night before. But scaling the heights of contemporary American evangelism has not been accomplished without overcoming handicaps and suffering reverses. As a young preacher, Kathryn stuttered in a thick Southern accent which, she says, caused radio audiences to think she was “colored.” She began a self-improvement program. “That’s why I speak so slowly now,” she explains. “A lot of people think my speech is affected, but it’s just my way of overcoming my problem.”

Behind Kathryn, like the stutter, is a brief marriage with evangelist Burroughs Waltrip. It ended in divorce and is one part of her past which she refuses to discuss. The ebullient faith healer guards her privacies today with equal zeal. “It’s a life of total ded-i-cay-shun,” she explains. “I have no private life at all.” Although her salary is a relatively modest $25,000, Kuhlman lives well if not lavishly. Travel is always first class, and in the rare periods when she is not on the road she lives alone and comfortably in a four-bedroom ranch house in Pittsburgh’s nobby suburb of Fox Chapel. At home she chauffeurs herself in a 1970 Cadillac Eldorado. Much of her salary goes to buying antiques for the house, particularly bronze and china, and rather ostentatious clothes—usually designer models which she buys only after they’ve been marked down.

The easy progress of Kathryn Kuhlman’s miracle service at Los Angeles’s Shrine Civic Auditorium belies her insistence that nothing is planned; it is as organized as the Queen’s opening of Parliament. After Miss Kuhlman’s initial greeting, she excitedly introduces her pianist Dino—a dark-haired, youthful Liberace without the candelabra—then looks on while he plays a few religious numbers. Dino’s solos and the choir’s contributions are interspersed with the healer’s cheerful dialogue with people who have reported being “cured” during previous miracle services.

Then a burst of organ music introduces the main event. Kathryn starts her dramatic oration. “I have given Jesus my life, my body,” she says, running her palms along her galvanic thighs. “I’m putting the last stitches in my wedding gown. One of these days the Bridegroom will be standing on the threshold, and I will see Him and talk to Him.” To a nearly mesmerized audience she talks of healed bodies and spiritual rebirths. “There is a cancer in the balcony, and the pain is entirely gone,” she intones, pointing toward the balcony. “Someone in the center of the auditorium has an asthmatic condition…Breathe deeply…In the wheelchair section there is a healing going on…Come and claim your cure.” And hundreds come up. Those who believe they are healed line up at either side of the stage while ushers announce their “cures” into microphones. “Miss Kuhlman, here we have a cancer of the liver, and the pain is gone.” Kuhlman turns from side to side. “What have we here?” she asks, as a new “cure” comes forward. Then, no matter how serious the illness had been, she instructs the person to go through some mild calisthenics there on the stage.

While most doctors take an exceedingly skeptical view of Kuhlman’s on-the-spot “cures,” some willingly admit there is no rational explanation for some that have apparently taken place. Kuhlman herself admits that many who present themselves at her services are not as sick as they fear, some are hysterical, others already in remission, while still others will die. “That’s why I give them something spiritual,” she says. “If a person leaves here and is so sick he’ll die an hour later, at least he will have something to hold on to.”

One of her critics, Dr. William A. Nolen—who attended a miracle service and followed up a number of the “cured”—is less generous. “The problem is one of ignorance,” says Dr. Nolen in his new book, Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle. “Miss Kuhlman doesn’t know the difference between psychogenic and organic diseases. Though she uses hypnotic techniques, she doesn’t know anything about hypnotism and the power of suggestion.” The real danger, Dr. Nolen indicates, citing cases he followed up, is that someone “cured” by Kuhlman might throw off a brace and further damage a bad leg, neck or back, or another might give up vital therapy or medication when only an ailment’s superficial symptoms have been temporarily improved. But Dr. Nolen, like other Kuhlman critics, does not question her sincerity.

Following a recent Los Angeles miracle service, Kathryn Kuhlman took off for Las Vegas, glittering in a splashy frock, her favorite hoop earrings and sunglasses. She was accompanied by Dino. The trip was not to gamble, but to make final arrangements for a Kuhlman miracle service at the 8,000-seat convention center. “Can’t you see it?” Dino asked excitedly, holding up his hands to form a marquee. “Kathryn Kuhlman in Las Vegas. A knockout!” Then he added, somberly, “That’s where her work is needed most.”