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Worshiping the King? Elvis has devotees all shook up

 

Mark Almond/The Birmingham News

Gregory Reece, left, and Rob Langford pose during a combination book signing and Elvis tribute concert at Eclipse Coffee & Books in Montevallo, Ala. Reece wrote a book, Elvis Religion, about the cultlike following of Elvis. Langford is a popular Elvis impersonator.

MONTEVALLO, Ala. — Elvis impersonator Rob Langford, sweating through his white jumpsuit, got all shook up singing Elvis Presley hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Love Me Tender.”

Nearby, author Gregory L. Reece signed copies of his book, Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King, at a coffeehouse on a recent Thursday night.

People clapped and shouted for Langford’s performance. But were they worshiping a messianic figure? Are Elvis impersonators the equivalent of priests, celebrating the birth of a new religion – Elvis worship?

Not quite, argues Reece, but it’s a theory that’s been floating around since the singer’s death on Aug. 16, 1977. Alleged post-death sightings have given Presley a resurrection theme to go with his divine pop culture status as “The King,” after a rise from humble beginnings in a stable-like home in Tupelo, Miss.

“I don’t think there’s an Elvis cult,” Reece said. “But there are a lot of religious references to Elvis in popular culture.”

Reece, a former Methodist minister who has taught classes in religion and philosophy at several Alabama colleges, once taught a class at the University of Montevallo applying scientific methods of analyzing religion to Elvis Presley’s following. He did a similar presentation at the American Academy of Religion, which caught the attention of a book editor.

Some say the intense devotion to Presley constitutes not just reverence but worship, and that his life bears messianic parallels: Presley died and many think he lives on; pilgrims throng his home, Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., as if it’s the Holy Land; his image on objects turns them into icons; relics from his lifetime are treasured; a priesthood of Elvis impersonators imitate him in reverence.

Elvis has become a god and his followers may be on the verge of creating a religion, argued Ted Harrison in his 1992 book Elvis People: The Cult of the King. He wrote that the impersonators are a representation of Elvis on Earth in the way priests represent Christ at the Mass.

“When I started working on the book, I assumed he was correct, but I just couldn’t find any evidence of it,” said Reece.

“My book is kind of a response to his. I have a different take on it. I couldn’t find any evidence of any communities of people worshiping Elvis. I didn’t find the pilgrimage to Graceland being overly religious. But the religious imagery of Elvis is very prevalent in popular culture.”

Presley grew up Pentecostal, imbued with gospel music at First Assembly of God in Tupelo. But his religious curiosity later ran to yoga, New Age, numerology, astrology, the occult, astral projection, and reincarnation.

Presley sought spiritual explanations for why he rose from the obscurity of Tupelo to become a celebrity. Presley fans tell the story as if it were the story of Jesus: He was born in a house little bigger than a stable and he died betrayed by his friends.

“He’s a poor boy from Tupelo who became an international star,” Reece said. “He’s a transcendent figure. It’s the incarnation theme, divinity incarnate.”

There are also tales of Presley being seen alive after his death.

“It’s not something that many people literally believe, but it helps put Elvis in that religious context,” Reece said.

Presley’s father, Vernon, is said to have told Elvis that during the act of conception, a strange blue light hovered over him and he passed out – a mythic parallel to stories in which gods fathered children.

“The idea of Elvis as a religious figure has become an image throughout popular culture,” Reece said. “The idea of the Elvis religion has become prevalent. The idea is that Elvis is a religious figure and people are making the pilgrimage out of religious devotion. Even though that isn’t really happening. In our mass consciousness, we accept that to be true.”

Elvis devotees usually disclaim any religious intent.

“If you even mention the idea they might be worshiping Elvis, it’s an offensive idea,” Reece said. “They’re very quick to tell you that’s not what they’re doing.”