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Queer Rumors: Protestant Ministers, Unnatural Deeds, and Church Censure in the Twentieth-Century United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2021


Over the course of the twentieth century, dozens of conservative Protestant ministers were accused of sexual deviance—including instances of same-sex acts and attractions. Protestant churches, in turn, experimented with employing various tactics to undermine and challenge such accusations. From silencing and secrecy to public censure and disassociation, denominational bodies labored to undermine evidence of queerness among their ministers. This essay surveys a one-hundred-year history of religious groups’ and institutions’ attempts at dealing with the uncomfortable but persistent allegations of not-quite-straightness among their leaders. This story accounts for how conservative Protestantism has been able to maintain its claims to a particular kind of sexual morality even as religious leaders themselves have repeatedly jeopardized this project.

Research Article
Copyright © 2021 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

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1 Bob Dyer, “Falling from Grace, Part 1: Ernest Angley's Grace Cathedral Rocked by Accusations Involving Abortions and Vasectomies,” Akron Beacon Journal,, October 2014, reprinted online on January 6, 2019,

2 Bob Dyer, “The Rev. Ernest Angley Admitted Sexual Encounter,” Akron Beacon Journal,, January 19, 2019,

3 Here, and throughout the essay, the word queer operates as a broad, capacious category that encompasses not-straight and same-sex attachments, desires, intimacies, inclinations, and sometimes even rumors. Queerness, in this sense, indicates a challenge to claims of straightness, rather than a coherent category in its own right. Positively asserting the sexual identities of the Christian ministers profiled here would make for an exercise that is both impossible and misguided for two reasons. First, categories of sexual identity and self-identification have changed profoundly over time—including over the course of the twentieth century. Second, none of the ministers whose stories are featured here would openly claim any label that did not conform to whatever form heterosexuality happened to assume in their respective historical periods. Still, because they were credibly rumored to have had encounters with people of the same gender, queer is used as an all-encompassing, fluid term that allows for a variety of interpretations of these encounters as well as a multiplicity of possible identities for their protagonists.

4 Kunzel, Regina, “The Power of Queer History,” The American Historical Review 123, no. 5 (December 1, 2018): 1560–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See, for one of many examples of recent scholarship, Talvacchia, Kathleen, Larrimore, Mark, and Pettinger, Michael F., eds., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (New York: New York University Press, 2014)Google Scholar.

6 White, Heather R., Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frank, Gillian, Moreton, Bethany, and White, Heather R., eds., Devotions and Desires: Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the Twentieth-Century United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998).

8 For a brief survey of the changing ideas about sexuality in this era, see John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 222–28.

9 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

10 See a compilation of state-by-state sodomy statutes at midcentury in Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (New York: Greenberg, 1951), Appendix B.

11 White, Reforming Sodom, 6.

12 “Preacher Convicted of Revolting Acts: Rev. W. E. Golding of Placer County Found Guilty and Dismissed from the Ministry,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 1898.

13 Heather R. White convincingly argues homosexuality was not a serious concern for Protestants before the 1940s. Indeed, White calls the scriptural condemnation of homosexuality “an invention of the twentieth century” and demonstrates how religious liberals in particular “un-muddled the confused category of ‘sodomical sin’ and assigned to it a singular same-sex meaning.” See White, Reforming Sodom, 3–4.

14 Quoted in “Suicide to Hide Shame, Then Ruin: Self-Destruction of the Rev. George H. Simmons, Banker-Politician, Stirs Peoria,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 7, 1906.

15 As Mark Jordan argues, “The most effective American rhetoric for condemning civil or religious toleration of homosexuality has repeatedly warned of dangers to the young.” See Mark D. Jordan, Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), xiii. This trend, as Jordan's work demonstrates, began in the early twentieth century and intensified from the 1970s on, as public religious figures like Anita Bryant explicitly linked homosexuality with child abuse and child recruitment. Few made this connection in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The 2011 John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests concluded that, despite speculations about a correlation between same-sex attraction, acts, and identities with the sexual abuse of minors, the data “do not support a finding that homosexual identity and/or pre-ordination same-sex behavior are significant risk factors for the sexual abuse of minors.” See Karen J. Terry et al., “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950–2010” (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 64,

16 “He Flees in Disgrace: Dr. Simmons Takes His Own Life,” Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1906.

17 Jordan, Recruiting Young Love, 1.

18 “Pastor Moral Degenerate,” The [Seymore, Indiana] Tribune, December 26, 1906, 1.

19 Daniel Silliman, “The 1st Pentecostal Scandal,” May 18, 2012, Daniel Silliman (blog),

20 See Alan F. Bearman and Jennifer L. Mills, “Charles M. Sheldon and Charles F. Parham: Adapting Christianity to the Challenges of the American West,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 32, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 116; Tony Cauchi, “Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929), The Revival Library (blog), 2004,

21 “To Keep Minister's Secret: Dr. Mortimer, It Is Said, Will Be Unfrocked and Return to England,” New York Times, December 29, 1912.

22 “Rector of Exclusive Church Resigns—Scandal?” Day Book, December 27, 1912.

23 “Sailing of Rev. Alfred Mortimer Is Hastened When an Irate Husband Hints at Intention to Interview Unfrocked Minister,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 4, 1913.

24 See, for instance, Max Carocci, “Sodomy, Ambiguity, and Feminization,” in Indigenous Bodies: Reviewing, Relocating, Reclaiming, eds. Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Rebecca Tillett (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013), 73.

25 John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives and Gay Identities—A Twentieth-Century History (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1998), 14.

26 Kathryn Lofton, “Queering Fundamentalism: John Balcom Shaw and the Sexuality of a Protestant Orthodoxy,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 17, no. 3 (September 2008): 439–68.

27 Lofton, “Queering Fundamentalism,” 439.

28 Lofton, “Queering Fundamentalism,” 464.

29 George Chauncey, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War One Era,” Journal of Social History 19, no. 2 (1985): 200.

30 Alleged Immoral Conditions at Newport (R.I.) Naval Training Station: Report of the Committee on Naval Affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-Seventh Congress, First Session Relative to Alleged Immoral Conditions and Practices at the Naval Training Station, Newport, R.I. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1921), 3.

31 Alleged Immoral Conditions at Newport, 4.

32 Alleged Immoral Conditions at Newport, 5.

33 Quoted in Lawrence Murphy, Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (New York: Routledge, 2014), 103.

34 Journal of the One Hundred and Twenty-Ninth Annual Session of the Rhode Island Episcopal Convention (Providence: The Providence Press, Snow and Farnham Company, 1919), 89.

35 Chauncey, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion,” 200.

36 Loughery, The Other Side of Silence, 13.

37 On the increasing visibility of male queer life in urban areas at the midcentury, see Jim Elledge, The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago's First Century (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2018); David K. Johnson, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019); Hugh Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2019).

38 James Polchin, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice before Stonewall (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2019), 12.

39 Polchin, Indecent Advances, 78.

40 Billy Graham, Just as I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 59.

41 Wallace Best, “Lessons from the Rev. Eddie Long Scandal: Some Historical Context,” Huffington Post, October 2, 2010,

42 Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 188.

43 “State's Attorney Probes Scandal on Rev. Cobbs,” Chicago Defender, November 25, 1939.

44 “Radio Pastor Sues Defender for $250,000: Says ‘Virtue and Integrity Were Injured,” Chicago Defender, December 9, 1939.

45 Cobbs v. Chicago Defender, Inc., 31 N.E.2nd 323 (Ill. App. Ct. 1941).

46 Quoted in St. Sukie de la Croix, Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 157.

47 See, for instance, “Bishop, Convicted on Morals Charge, Freed,” Chicago Defender, December 21, 1940.

48 White, Reforming Sodom, 11.

49 Alfred C. Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1949), 627.

50 Kinsey, Sexual Behavior, 650.

51 Kinsey, Sexual Behavior, 610.

52 Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (New York: Greenberg, 1955), 96.

53 Here, the “conservative” designation is important, as many in the mainstream and liberal Christian traditions began to develop more compassionate, therapeutic approaches to dealing with homosexuality in their congregations (if not quite yet among their pastors). As the work of Heather R. White and the many archival collections available through the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network shows, conservative denouncements of homosexuality were not the only kind of Christian response at the midcentury. See White, Reforming Sodom, 43–107; LGBTQ Religious Archives Network,

54 Edgar C. Bundy, Collectivism in the Churches: A Documented Account of the Political Activities of the Federal, National, and World Council of Churches (Wheaton: Church League of America, 1958).

55 Letter from Edgar C. Bundy to J. Edgar Hoover (October 27, 1958), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-1” file.

56 See, for one of many examples, a memo from William C. Sullivan to A. H. Belmont (March 14, 1961), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-1” file.

57 Memo from R. W. Smith to William C. Sullivan (May 6, 1963), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

58 Markku Ruotsila, “Carl McIntire and the Fundamentalist Origins of the Christian Right,” Church History 81, no. 2 (June 2012): 378–407.

59 Letter from [Redacted] at Evangelical Covenant Church to [Redacted] in San Diego, California (no date), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

60 Letter from Edgar Bundy to [Redacted] (June 21, 1954), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

61 Linda Gordon, “The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Notes from American History,” Feminist Review 28, no. 1 (January 1, 1988): 56–64; Diederik F. Janssen, “Egalitarian: From Homophile to Helicophile in Post–World War II America,” Journal of Homosexuality 65, no. 12 (October 15, 2018): 1656–82.

62 Letter from Edgar C. Bundy to George A. Smathers (May 18, 1964), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

63 Note to a letter from J. Edgar Hoover to [Redacted] (September 1, 1964), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

64 For more on the FBI's much less gentle methods of dealing with Martin Luther King, see Lerone Martin, “Bureau Clergyman: How the FBI Colluded with an African American Televangelist to Destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Religion and American Culture 28, no. 1 (2018): 1–51.

65 Historian R. Laurence Moore has argued that self-proclaimed religious outsiders have been a constant force in American history. “Those who play the role of outsiders,” Moore writes, “can wield enormous public influence that the alleged insiders are powerless to block. They can also determine in crucial ways the outlook and behavior of the insiders.” See R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), xiii.

66 Billy James Hargis, My Great Mistake (Berryville, AR: New Leaf Press, 1985), 41.

67 For more on Hargis's crusade against sex education, see R. Marie Griffith, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (New York: Basic, 2017), 155–200.

68 For more on fundamentalist higher education in the twentieth century, see Adam Laats, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

69 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 80.

70 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 88.

71 “The Sins of Billy James,” Time 107, no. 7 (February 16, 1976): 68.

72 Billy James Hargis, quoted in “The Sins of Billy James,” 68.

73 “The Sins of Billy James,” 68.

74 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 89, emphasis original.

75 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 108–109.

76 Tomorrow Coast to Coast, “Billy James Hargis,” National Broadcasting Company, December 27, 1977.

77 Mason, Carol, Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 84Google Scholar.

78 The most recent and comprehensive account of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers’ careers and scandals is Wigger's, John PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Evangelical Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)Google Scholar.

79 See Wigger, PTL, 121–24.

80 Tim Funk, “Jessica Hahn, Woman at Center of Televangelist's Fall 30 Years Ago, Confronts Her Past,” Charlotte Observer, December 16, 2017.

81 “Preacher Claims Plot on Ministry,” Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1987.

82 Wigger, PTL, 261.

83 Susan Wise Bauer, The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 7.

84 Wigger, PTL, 261.

85 Quoted in Wayne King, “Bakker, Evangelist, Resigns His Ministry over Sexual Incident,” New York Times, March 21, 1987.

86 Emily Johnson, “A Theme Park, a Scandal, and the Faded Ruins of a Televangelism Empire,” Religion and Politics, October 28, 2014,

87 Wigger, PTL, 274.

88 Quoted in William E. Schmidt, “For Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Excess Wiped Out a Rapid Climb to Success,” New York Times, May 16, 1987.

89 Art Harris and Michael Isikoff, “The Good Life at PTL: A Litany of Excess,” Washington Post, May 22, 1987.

90 Minutes of the Forty-third General Assembly of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN: Church of God Publishing House, 1950), 231.

91 Jerry Falwell, “Letter from Jerry Falwell on Keeping Old Time Gospel Hour on Air” (August 13, 1981), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library,

92 “Tapes Cite 3 Homosexual Acts by Bakker: Falwell Says Church Leaders Received Testimony on Encounters,” Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1987.

93 Wigger, PTL, 284.

94 Gary L. Wright, “Ex-PTL Employee Testifies He Had Sex with Bakker,” Washington Post, September 22, 1988.

95 “Jim Bakker's Startling Sentence,” New York Times, October 29, 1989.

96 Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 344.

97 Bakker, I Was Wrong, 345.

98 Bakker, I Was Wrong, 461.

99 For more on white evangelical investment in patriarchal hypermasculinity, see Du Mez, Kristin Kobes, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright, 2020)Google Scholar.