Anderson Blanton

Anderson Blanton

Anderson Blanton is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of the American South (UNC, Chapel Hill). Through ethnographic and archival research, his work explores the relationship between experiences of divine presence and the material objects and media technologies employed during the performance of both individual and communal prayer. His dissertation,Until the Stones Cry Out: Materiality, Technology and Faith in the Pentecostal Tradition, was recently awarded the mark of distinction in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, and will soon be published with the University of North Carolina Press (2014). In addition to his work on the materiality of religious presence, he also enjoys gardening and woodworking with traditional hand tools.

Posts by Anderson Blanton

January 29, 2014

Prayers of a Phonographic Doll

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Dolls and phonographs share an intimacy with prayer. One of the first commercially available cylinders from the Edison phonograph company, for example, was a component in the “Edison Talking Doll” (1888). Hidden within the sawdust-filled  recesses of this “Dollphone,” one of the interchangeable cylinders played upon the automatic phonograph was the ubiquitous bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” While Edison was busy manufacturing toy prayers, Emil Berliner, the pioneer of the flat “Gramophone” disc, was inscribing the first copies of “The Lord’s Prayer” in an old German doll factory (1889). Since the early days of phonography, praying dolls have been produced on a mass scale as a playful means to imprint pious attitudes upon the developing child.

December 18, 2013

Prayers to Santa

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]


Playful phenomena often reveal hidden or unacknowledged elements in the practice of prayer. Postcard images of praying children were widely circulated throughout the early twentieth century, and these representations of childhood piety helped to solidify particular understandings of prayer within the popular imaginary. These illustrations, moreover, provide a colorful testament to the “apparatus of belief,” or the ways in which the performative and experiential dimensions of prayer are inextricably related to physical objects that open communicative relays between the everyday and the sacred.

November 12, 2013

Prayer Card

One of the most important biblical references in the history of charismatic faith healing, the story of the woman with an “issue of blood” (Mark 5: 25-34) is often recounted to help explain the communication of curative efficacy from patient to healer. In this classic account of contagion, a woman with a seemingly incurable discharge of blood boldly makes her way through the dense throng following Jesus, reaching out her expectant hand to touch the healer. Immediately upon contact with the “hem of his garment,” a healing virtue, or power, is communicated into the woman’s body. Both patient and healer simultaneously register this tactile contact:  as the woman experiences a newfound sensation of somatic well-being, Jesus feels power leaving his body (see the first illustration from Oral Roberts famous treatise, If You Need Healing Do These Things [1950]). Given the significant place that this account holds in the theology and technique of charismatic faith healing, I would like to briefly explore this question:  If the woman with an “issue” were to seek healing in the late-modern context, how would she negotiate her way through the crowd to make contact with the healer?

October 23, 2013

Views on "Ritual Efficacy"

In their recent essay, “Connective Implications of the Material Holy,” Sarah A. Riccardi and Aaron Sokoll critique Sonja Luehrmann’s prayer portal, “Praying with the Senses,” for being overly invested in the question of efficacy and its relation to practices of Eastern Orthodox prayer.

I find this critique extremely productive, not because Luehrmann’s portal actually neglects the question of materiality, but because it identifies the current re-conceptualization of the term “ritual efficacy” by scholars in the fields of anthropology and religious studies. Albeit implicitly, the Riccardi and Sokoll’s “Material Holy” piece issues a call for scholars of religion to clearly articulate a new definition of “efficacy” in relation to prayer.

September 13, 2013


This is an excerpt from a recent recording of The Jackson Memorial Hour, a live gospel radio program broadcast each Sunday from a station in Virginia (thanks to Sister Dorothy and Brother Aldie Allen for providing me with recordings of their broadcast).This station’s transmission reaches into portions of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Although it may come to some as a surprise, small AM/FM radio stations such as this broadcast live Pentecostal and charismatic Christian worship services to millions of listeners throughout the United States.

August 2, 2013

The Apparatus of Belief

The divinely attuned capacities of the body, however, are not the only media for the detection of the unseen presence of the spirit. Artificial devices and material objects have also played a crucial role in the discernment of sacred presence, and reveal striking homologies with the specifically somatic gift previously described. Take for example the sensitive capacities of the camera’s mechanical eye, simultaneously revealing sacred structures and organizing particular experiences of “belief” for the viewer.

July 12, 2013

Holy Ghost Amplification

Emphasizing their capacity to hear and respond to prayer, representations of the gods in the ancient world often depicted deities with disproportionately large ears. The popular Pentecostal paraphrase from the book of Isaiah (59:1) gives a more contemporary resonance to this ancient motif, “His ears are not too heavy to hear the cries of his people.” Among many Pentecostal communities in the United States and elsewhere, performances of communal prayer that produce an excess of sonic intensity are believed to be more effective in opening communicative relays between the sacred and the everyday. This production of “numinous noise” emerges not only from techniques of the body such as breath, posture, rhythmic schemas, and other modulations of the voice, but a body-in-prayer that is amplified and extended by technologies of sound reproduction such as the microphone and the loudspeaker.

July 3, 2013

Prayer Cards and Prayer Line

In terms of mass crowd phenomena and the spatial organization of bodies during the performance of prayer, the prayer line was one of the most significant twentieth century manifestations of communal prayer. During the charismatic tent revivals of the 1940’s and 50’s, the prayer lines became so massive that certain techniques were adopted to organize the multitudes in need of healing prayer. Structuring the throngs within the space of the giant canvas tent, “prayer card” systems helped organize the potentially excessive revival crowds into single-file lines that followed the inner perimeter of the revival tent and ended in a serialized passage across the elevated platform of the healer.

June 13, 2013

Faith on Film

Underneath the massive cloth architecture of Oral Roberts’ canvas cathedral, the “world’s first healing film” was screened for a crusade audience of over 10,000 on September 29th, 1952. Venture Into Faith is a compilation of actual archival footage shot earlier that year during a healing crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, woven seamlessly into highly produced scenes recorded in a Hollywood studio.

May 20, 2013

There is No Distance in Prayer

Pentecostals often invoke the saying “there is no distance in prayer” to describe the collapsing of physical distance through the performance of prayer. Oral Roberts popularized this phrase on a mass scale during the 1950’s to explain the way that patients could be cured through his performances of healing prayer despite the fact that his actual physical presence remained unavailable to the dispersed magazine, radio, and television audience. On the one hand, this key descriptive phrase is based on the idea that “God is everywhere; therefore, there is no distance in prayer.” This overt theological claim, however, elides the specific circumstances of technological mediation from which this descriptive phrase emerged.

May 2, 2013

Sensing the Unseen

Early in the recording, the crunching sound of pea-gravel can be heard as cars pull out of the church parking lot after the Sunday service. Because this popular Pentecostal song foregrounds the question of spiritual presence in relation to the perceptual capacities of the religious subject, it announces crucial themes for the Materiality of Prayer collection.

April 10, 2013

TV Prayer

A pivotal moment in the technological history of prayer occurred when Oral Roberts introduced the motion picture camera into the charismatic atmosphere of his massive “tent cathedral.” Through the medium of television, millions of Americans experienced performances of Pentecostal healing prayer for the first time. More than this, however, the motion picture film significantly altered the enthusiastic environment of the healing tent while organizing new sensorial and performative possibilities within the practice of prayer itself.

February 26, 2013

Prayer Cloths, or, the Materiality of Divine Communication

Small remnants of sacred fabric known as prayer cloths are among the most important devotional objects in the Pentecostal tradition. Despite the widespread use of these healing and apotropaic objects, however, there is a remarkable lack of published scholarship on this phenomenon within the fields of religious studies, folklore, and anthropology.

February 25, 2013

The Radio as Prosthesis of Prayer

The new definition of prayer laid forth in this portal could be used to articulate key techniques of Pentecostal and charismatic Christian healing prayer such as the “point of contact.” Now a ubiquitous term in the performance of Pentecostal prayer, Oral Roberts developed this technique specifically in relation to the radio apparatus.


February 24, 2013

Clapping as Prayer

During performances of charismatic Christian communal prayer, the din of tangled voices is often punctuated by the percussive sound of disjointed clapping. This explosive manual gesture is neither rhythmic nor gentle, but a frenzied technique of clapping that unleashes Holy Ghost power into the worship milieu.

February 23, 2013

Prayer Cloths: Remnants of the Holy Ghost and the Texture of Faith

Prayer cloths are the most significant devotional objects among small Holiness and Pentecostal church congregations throughout the United States. Techniques of manual imposition and communal prayer transform these textile fragments from mere remnants or pieces of detritus into sacred conduits for the healing and apotropaic power of the Holy Ghost.

February 22, 2013

Prayer Shawls

Prayer Shawl Instructional Image | From Leisure Arts, "The Prayer Shawl Ministry: Reaching Those in Need" (2005)

Over the last few years, “prayer shawl ministries” have rapidly gained momentum among mainstream Christian denominations throughout the United States. The prayer shawl is a long rug-shaped textile that can be draped across the shoulders or knees to facilitate in the wearer an actual physical sensation of prayer and communal support.

February 21, 2013

Electric Votive

Patent illustration from 1936

The introduction of the electric votive machine into Catholic churches during the early twentieth century organized a new devotional environment within the space of the side altar. The steady glow of the electric bulb chased away the chiaroscuro play of shadow upon the forms of the saints.

February 20, 2013

The Materiality of Prayer: A Curatorial Introduction

Citing literary references from the fourteenth century, a folklorist lecturing on the history of the Rosary provocatively stated, “the word ‘bead’ (Anglo-Saxon beade or bede) meant originally ‘a prayer.’” Despite such early etymological gestures toward an inextricable relation between prayer and the material object, however, formative debates within anthropology and religious studies can be seen as precisely an attempt to isolate the practice of prayer from its material conduits.