When Elvis Presley was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Gospel Music Association on Nov. 27, 2001, not all Baptists (or other Christians) were pleased. “Elvis Presley stood for everything rock ‘n’ roll stands for: sexual license; rebellion against authority; self-fulfillment; if it feels good do it and don’t worry about tomorrow; and moral debauchery glossed over with a thin veneer of shallow, humanistic spirituality.”
The Fundamentalist Baptist Information Service concluded “for Southern gospel and contemporary Christian music people to honor Elvis Presley in such a manner is evidence of the great worldliness that permeates commercial Christian music today.”
Independent Baptists have not been alone in criticizing Elvis Presley, the “undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Presley was constantly “hounded and dogged” by attacks from Christians who attempted to resist the cultural shockwaves that appeared to accompany rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s.
Initially, there was much about the young pioneering rock singer to concern Baptists. Born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1935, Presley was raised in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal group then on the margins of American religion, and a group Baptists often called “holy rollers.” Presley testified to a religious conversion—an experience that could transcend denominational boundaries—but he also could claim the baptism of the Spirit (at age nine), a second experience Baptists considered bogus.
In the expressive Pentecostal setting, however, Presley was exposed to the influences of (Southern) gospel music. In his later years, he recalled that he knew gospel music since he was two years old: “that was music to me.”
The Presley family moved to Memphis in 1948. As a teen-ager Elvis began attending all-night “gospel sings.” He was also influenced by country music and black rhythm and blues. His family scolded him for listening to the blues—it was sinful music—but Presley’s own music bore the imprint of gospel, country and especially R & B.
Presley’s career began in 1954, and two years later he was an international sensation. An official Elvis Presley Web site asserts that Presley “ushered in a whole new era of American music and popular culture.” Or in the words of Alice Cooper, “there will never be anybody cooler than Elvis Presley.”
Southern historian Charles R. Wilson says that the 1950s was the decade of anti-heroes: “Marlon Brando in a leather jacket, James Dean as a misunderstood teenage rebel, and Elvis as a punk singer. His look is insolent, sullen, and sneering. … the mysterious, somewhat menacing young man awakening sexuality in young girls.”
Baptists in the 1950s definitely agreed. In 1957, a Baptist minister from Jacksonville, Fla., made national headlines with his accusation that Presley gave a “dirty” show. Elvis responded, “I don’t do no dirty body movements,” but Life gave two pages to the minister’s continuing tirade against Presley for “reaching a new low in spiritual degeneracy.”
If many Christians thought the young rebellious Presley of the 1950s revealed the lascivious agenda of rock ‘n’ roll, there were at least mixed emotions when the 1960s image began to highlight the all-American boy who could sing cherished Southern gospel songs. Of Elvis’ 14 Grammy nominations, his three awards were for gospel recordings.
Evangelical Christians have publicly wondered about Elvis’ final destiny. At the 15th anniversary of his death in 1992, an article in Christianity Today queried, “Is the King in the Kingdom?” Presley’s lifestyle at the end of his career left many to wonder if the young rebel was eternally rebellious.
During the last decade, Elvis’ half-brother, Southern Baptist evangelist Rick Stanley, has attempted to rehabilitate Presley’s Christian identity. While lamenting that Elvis was lured into “Eastern philosophy” in 1964, Stanley exhorted that Elvis actually had a role in his own conversion. The “King” also read the Bible regularly and sang gospel music as his form of preaching.
While some Baptists still loathe Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll, some Baptist churches now have Elvis impersonators do entertainment for church fellowships. Elvis, in the words of Charles R. Wilson, has become an American icon.
One thing is still uncertain, however. According to a 1996 poll, 10 percent of Americans believed Elvis still lives. No figures were available for how many Baptists said yes.
Doug Weaver is professor of Christianity and chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga.
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