"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)



"History has him as this good old country boy, Elvis is about as country as Bono!"

(Jerry Schilling)






Elvis: Sightings and Faith: Making Sense of the Seemingly Absurd

by Nigel Patterson

Presented at the National Elvis Presley Convention, Canberra, Australia, 28 November 2004

(another article in EIN's series of trying to undertand the question..."Why Elvis?")
Rev. Dorian Baxter 'Christ the King, Graceland Independent Anglican Church of Canada' (another photo of Rev. Baxter appears below)

Abstract: There is a growing body of formal research and evidential observation that suggests fan worship around Elvis Aaron Presley is often of a "religious" nature involving iconic elements representative of all "faith" groups. This paper provides a construct around the concept of Elvis faith ("Elvism). It looks at the two different types of "Elvis sightings" and how they relate to the concept of an Elvis faith, and discusses primary environmental conditions underpinning and driving the growth of that faith.

Opening quotation:

Lisa Marie Presley on Larry King Live, was asked by the host what Elvis had that others didn't. She answered: '…his spirit', 'his soul' comes through in his singing.



Today I want to take you into the minds of many Elvis fans. And I mean that somewhat literally, for if one seriously considers the material I am about to present, the explanatory answers that my discourse necessarily requires, lie inside each and every one of the fans who make up what is a growing number of people who see Elvis Aaron Presley as much more than just a great entertainer.

By the end of my address I hope you will appreciate that there two distinct types of Elvis sightings and that there is a direct link between both types of Elvis sightings and what many commentators have called, "Elvis Faith".

I must stress at the outset that the paradigm for my address does not include the separate but related theme that Elvis did not die on August 16, 1977 and is in fact still alive. So if there are any "Elvis is alive" believers here today, you will probably be disappointed by my paper. Please also note that due to time limitations, it is not my intention to discuss the relative merits of:

(i) Elvis faith as 'religion', 'sect' or 'cult';

(ii) the relative numbers of "Elvis disciples" versus simply "Elvis fans"; nor

(iii) how "Elvis faith" is marketed within and inculcated throughout the Elvis community.

These issues are all papers in themselves.

My paper will however refer to "Elvism" (as coined by John Strausbaugh as religion but I note that other commentators, notably Ted Harrison, view it more as a "growing cult". The semantic distinction between "religion", "cult" and "sect" is irrelevant to this paper as it my objective to outline those "essential characteristics" that place Elvis worship within the construct of religious pluralistic study.

If you were mention in casual conversation that Elvis Presley represented some type of religion what do you think people's reaction would be? It is likely you would meet with either sceptical disbelief (the "Don't be absurd!" view) or sceptical amusement (the "You're not really serious" view). Yet, this is a very serious subject and as we'll touch on, the debate mirrors similar debates throughout religious history.

The debate is particularly interesting in the context of continually falling attendances within the institutional church environment and the growing number of smaller, "boutique" faith or religious groups.

Elvis sightings

Most people think that the sightings of Elvis began near Kalamazoo around 1988. (1) This is actually not the case. Sightings of "The King" started virtually the day he died. (2)

The sightings however only came to public consciousness after the Vicksburg, Michigan (which is located near Kalamazoo) sighting by Louise Welling (3) an incident that was picked up by the tabloid press and initiated many years of follow up stories/sightings.

As a matter of some unrelated interest, for any Elvis historians in the audience, the phenomenon of Elvis sightings extinguished the media's earlier ongoing interest in Elvis' illegitimate children, of which more than 12 came forward. An interesting element of Elvis sightings is that there are in fact two distinct types of sightings and they serve much different functions.

Both are arguably grounded in a form of "death denial" and are categorised as:

'Live Elvis' sightings; and

'Spirit Elvis' sightings.

"Live Elvis" Sightings

It is the former type or "Live Elvis" sighting that the media and public tend to focus on. John Strausbaugh in his insightful book, E Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith notes that the function of 'Live Elvis' (4) sightings is simply to "perpetuate the lore that Elvis is alive and well."

Sightings in this category are typically fleeting and poorly photographed and as such Strausbaugh draws a reasonable parallel with sightings and photos of Bigfoot and UFO's. While Elvis sightings are now not as prolific as they were throughout the 1990s, when he is seen it is at places and in situations many find incredulous, at county fairs, in cafes or restaurants, at the local supermarket, buying petrol etc.

His presence being seen in such prosaic situations and places should not be surprising though. Where else would people see him but in settings where they live their lives?

And as Strausbaugh theorises in his book, "these familiar settings serve a purpose: their banality lends acceptability and plausibility to the sightings." The sightings are consistent with the findings of a number of anthropologists, everyday settings frequently occur in stories of the supernatural and unusual.

Strausbaugh comments: "A completely ordinary setting not only makes an incredible tale seem a bit more credible, it also grounds an extraordinary event in familiar reality." There are obviously psychological forces present in 'Live Elvis' sightings. While they/we didn't realise it at the time, Elvis Presley in the 1950s and 1960s was incredibly important to youth. His importance went far beyond just his music...his was a major cultural influence.

Leonard Bernstein (5) astutely stated:

'Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the 20th century. He introduced the beat to everything and changed everything - music, language, clothes - it's a whole new social evolution. Because of him, a man like me barely knows his musical grammar anymore'.

Elvis indeed opened the door to a bourgeoning youth culture, his impact changed the way teenagers talked, the way they dressed, the way they wore their hair. Elvis paved the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

And when he died, the seminal psychological impact he had made on millions of fans had to manifest itself.

Strausbaugh comments: "The day Elvis died people were already insisting they would never let his memory die. Instinctively they knew in that instant that they had to preserve his memory and pass it on to future generations."

This is a powerful, if not fully acceptable, explanation of the world's ongoing interest in The King of Rock & Roll. It neatly, some might say conveniently, explains why he is routinely seen at corner drug stores or service stations, why the number of Elvis fan clubs (although not necessarily the number of Elvis fans) continues to climb 27 years after his death, why his 2002 album, "Elvis 30 #1 Hits" has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and why around 100 Elvis active Internet sites exist.

We cannot let him go, nor can we let go of him!

Psychological Needs of Fans - The UFO Connection

On another level, Strausbaugh comments that: "Throughout history people have believed that their deceased hero figures will someday return to them as messiahs" (6). Does this offer a clearer insight into not only the growing phenomenon of the Elvist faith, but also its future direction?

In considering a psychological needs theory, it is interesting (and instructive) to note a similar hypothesis originally put forward to explain the function of UFO's in modern society. That theory, proposed by Dr. Jacques Vallee, suggests that UFOs function to 'stabilize the relationship between our consciousness needs and the evolving complexities of the world we must understand' (7).

Could Elvis Aaron Presley function in a similar way? I will return to this theme later in my address.

Universality of Sighting "Motifs"

One of the most interesting narratives in Strausbaugh's book is his commentary on the similarity between (or borrowing of) motifs in Elvis sightings to those present in the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK and the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison.

Involvement of the CIA, a hoaxed death, possible murder, post-death sightings etc are all constants in these other deaths and the lore that has subsequently built up around them.

In this respect, only last month a semi-fictional new Elvis book was published: "The Tupelo-Memphis Murders: A Study of Self-Destruction and Murder!" (8) Using known facts from Elvis' life, borrowing conspiracy theories rampant on the quite sinister, but little known, "Elvis underground", and injecting sensational speculation, the book has split the Elvis world in two.

Many mainstream fans are dismayed by its conspiratorial nature, murder theme and incest content, while "hardcore", underground fans are actively promoting its polemic messages. But this is another story.

Spirit Elvis Sightings

I now want to turn to the second type of Elvis sighting, known as Spirit Elvis Sightings. 'Spirit Elvis' (9) sightings function very differently to "Live Elvis" sightings. These experiences "elevate Elvis to a figure of myth and miracle, and tales of such sightings generally conform to the framework of folklore."

The stories involve elements of magic, moral instruction and help, themes characteristic in the development and maintenance of other "faith" groups. In 1987, Dr Raymond A. Moody, M.D. published a remarkable book, Elvis After Life: Unusual Psychic Experiences Surrounding the Death of a Superstar (10).

In it he recounted the findings of his research into spiritual Elvis sightings. The stories were to say the least incredible, but each of the people experiencing them fervently believed their experience was real.


In fact, many are hard to dismiss, like the Georgia cop whose estranged son had gone missing. Elvis came to the father in a dream and told him to go to a place in Los Angeles where he would find his son. The father travelled to the place, and yes, father and son were reunited!

Similarly, what do we make of the case of a self-centered yuppie, fresh out of a horrendous divorce, who goes hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail to 'find himself'. During his adventure he meets a stranger by the name of Jo(h)n Burrows. Under the cover of a starry night Burrows tells the man of his philosophy, a mixture of Christianity and Buddhism, tough love and New Age mysticism.

With the stranger's help the man slowly re-evaluates his wasted life and gains a greater understanding of God. When the man awakes in the morning, Jo(h)n Burrows (the mythical 'stranger ghost') has vanished. Some time later, the man sees a television program about Elvis and discovers that one of Elvis's aliases was...Jo(h)n Burrows.

Other examples of Spirit Elvis sightings or experiences are the well-documented 'poltergeist' type tales of Elvis records mysteriously melting on August 16, 1977 and Elvis figurines jumping off mantelpieces and shattering into a thousand pieces.

A further variant is the 'it's a miracle' incidents where someone is saved from death or great pain. The notion of "miracles" is of course a staple theme in religious studies. There are several documented accounts of children in a comatose state and thought beyond the reach of medical science who miraculously recover when an Elvis song comes on in their room.

In 2002, the Elvis Information Network, of which I am President, published a review of the book, Elvis Was My Speech Therapist by James Lee Bradley (11). The Bradley story is not dissimilar to the events we are describing here. As an 18 year-old, James Bradley was involved in a horrific car accident that left him unable to speak or walk. Doctors said he would never recover yet through a combination of attitude, determination and Elvis music playing continuously in his room, James made a full recovery, a recovery his doctors called a miracle!

And in 'Elvis After Life', Dr Moody includes the moving story of a 10-year-old girl suffering from Down's syndrome who just before dieing, beamed a big smile and said: "Here comes Elvis......Here comes Elvis."

An essential characteristic of stories such as these is that they are 'vague' and 'beyond empirical proof'. As Strausbaugh states: "They are a matter of faith." In this context, it is not difficult to understand how many consider the ongoing fascination, devotion to and experience of Elvis as equivalent to a faith or religion.

Elvis as Religion

Since Elvis's death in 1977 several organised churches or religions around his memory have been formed including:

  • The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine (now active on at least two continents), (12)
  • The First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis, (13)
  • Elvis Gospel Ministries, (14)
  • Christ the King, Graceland Independent Anglican Church of Canada, (15) and
  • The 24 Hour Church of Elvis. (16)

I must note that not all of these are of a serious nature, principally the parody web site, "The First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis".

In addition, at least six academic books have been published in the past decade examining the Elvis phenomenon as religion and the motivations of its followers ('Elvites').

As Strausbaugh notes, "Elvis left such a precise schematic for the Elvii and the faithful...". Structural Elements of "Elvism" Consider some of the structural, iconic 'religious' elements present in Elvism:

  • the High Priest/God (Elvis)
  • ceremonial and symbolic garb/vestments (jumpsuits) worn by the Disciples/Minister's (impersonators);
  • religious relics (memorabilia; records);
  • annual pilgrimage to the places of worship (Graceland, Tupelo, shrines and fan club arranged memorial sites); and
  • rituals (Giving of the Scarves; playing of particular Elvis songs; facing Graceland; the Candleight Vigil; culinary protocols). (17)

We should also consider what Sue Bridwell Beckham wrote in her study of Elvis shrines and souvenirs:

"If the ambivalent purpose of the meditation gardens suggests that Elvis Presley is afforded near-divinity, the Christmas cards sold at Graceland offer even more. Any who doubt that Elvis followers make some kind of confused association between Elvis and the founder of the Christian religion need only contemplate the reasons for making Christmas greetings cards out of the images of an Elvis shrine." (18)

Elvis Faith Lives in Australia!

Even Australia has its own Elvis church. The First Presleyterian Church Australia was founded in 1998, a chapter of the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine.

A short digress. So far in my address I've been somewhat vague about the relationship between 'Elvis sightings' and 'Elvis faith'. This has been intentional but now is the time to make that link more visible, using two examples.

Underpinning the doctrines and philosophy of Elvis religions are several fundamental beliefs.

Consider this statement:

"Elvis was always my protector…I knew he would come back to be with me".

This comment was made by a fan attending a seminar on Elvis sightings held in Nevada. She received a standing ovation from the audience of nearly 100.

Consider another statement:

"Elvis sightings are proof of the King's divinity." This statement was made by one of the founders of The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine, Dr. Edwards. (19)

Dr. Edwards went on to say: "The resurrection of Elvis is the fundamental belief of Presleyterian faith". (20)

I hope you can now more clearly see the link between Elvis sightings and Elvis faith.

The worrying thing (it worries me anyway) is that the founders of The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine apparently spent five years developing church doctrine and sacred rituals before going public with their new religion.

Unfortunately, much of their doctrines and rituals are what I'll term classic "humor fodder for the mass media" - they serve only to attract ridicule, scorn, or at best, offer good natured amusement.

Followers of the religion are required to:

  • face Las Vegas daily (as opposed to the practice adopted by other Elvis religions of "facing Graceland")
  • make a pilgrimage to Graceland at least once during their lives
  • overindulge in worldly pleasures
  • have their children praise Elvis daily
  • follow strict dietary laws - the 31 "Holy Items" Elvis stocked in his kitchen pantry at all times (21)

You are probably listening to this thinking I'm either taking the mickey, or The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine is just a bit of fun by some extreme Elvis fans.

Well, extreme they might be, but engage in correspondence with Minister Anna and you'll soon discover this is no laughing matter. We (not only) live in interesting times, to quote the Chinese proverb, but we also live in a strange world!

Some religious history. While it is easy to dismiss the Elvis as religion, sect or cult concept, it is mindful to note that many other faiths and religions arose from 'pagan' origins and were also derided in their formative period. Christianity was once regarded as a "cult menace" while the Mormans endured much before emerging as a powerful religious movement. (22)

And at any one time in history there have always been numerous 'grass roots' movements operating outside mainstream religion. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church today continues to have to deal with its own long running, grass-roots bugbear, the 'Cult of the Virgin' (Mary). (23)

In any case, as Strausbaugh and Enders have both stated, "popular religion is a lot more about feeling than thinking anyway". (24)

But does "Elvism" fit within contemporary religious theory?

"Religious pluralis" (or "religious pluralism)" (25) is a common term used to describe two things:

(i) the growth and diversity of new religious movements; and

(ii) that differences between different religions can be overcome by respecting "core principles" rather than "marginal issues".

It is my contention that in this environment, "faith groups" based around "Elvis Presley" sit comfortably within discussions about religious theory and can be analytically considered.

But why Elvis?

Earlier I touched upon Elvis' incredible cultural influence as perceptively encapsulated by the great Leonard Bernstein and skillfully reinforced by John Strausbaugh's observation that the day he died "people were already insisting they would never let his memory die".

Let me add additional arguments to the theory that help explain why "Elvism" has developed and continues to develop as a modern day religion.

Rapid technological and social change has contributed to the increasingly impersonal and unsatisfying nature of many people's daily lives, and increasing anxieties about meaning, roots and the future.

Corresponding to these forces there has been a weakening of traditional faith and its structures, a weakening of belonging to the faith community, and in order to resolve resultant tensions, an attempt by many people to harmonize their faith environment by inserting into their own creed, elements that clash with the Christian message. (26)

On this level it is not hard to understand how many Elvis fans are successfully integrating their basic Christian beliefs with their "worship" of a man who continues to bring them immense internal joy and equilibrium. As Enders and Patterson noted in "Elvis as Religion: key psychological drivers and marketing of the Elvis Faith": "In our contemporary world, harmony comes by remaining true to the basic tenets of Christianity while at the same time internally embracing other, psychologically reassuring drivers". (27)

So far I have concentrated on theoretical arguments about "Elvism", arguments general in nature and removed from the "personality" of actual people.

So what of the human aspect? What do fans who exhibit characteristic elements of religious faith think and feel about what they're doing? Let's look at several specific case studies.

Some fans, like Elizabeth Bedsall from Liverpool in England, are very clear that their worship is just that, religious worship. Mrs Bedsall was interviewed for a TV documentary and commented: "Elvis brings me internal peace. When times are hard I only have to put an Elvis record on and my energy is recharged and I know there will be light at the end of the tunnel. (28)

Similarly, Ruth Jones from Ohio in the US said: "My husband didn't understand my devotion to Elvis, at least initially during our marriage. Slowly he came to understand how good Elvis made me feel inside and now he shares my devotion. Each Sunday we pay tribute to Elvis as we do to God at our local church. (29)

The theme of Elvis bringing his fans "internal peace" has been recorded countless times. Even Paul McCartney once said that if he was ever down all he had to do was put on an Elvis record and it would lift his spirits. (30) I could offer further examples but I think the three cited sufficiently demonstrate the point about the feelings experienced by "Elvites".

Other fans, who I will call "non-Elvites", however see their admiration of Elvis as simply that, admiration, and appreciation of a fine talent. They do not consciously make the behavioural connection between "how" they admire their hero and its similarities to how members of accepted religious groups "worship" their gods. (31)


Before closing I need to mention another quotation and make some observations about it. "Down South, there's a saying that in every poor black home there are two pictures on the wall - Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. Poor white homes also have two: Jesus and Elvis." (32)


Setting aside the element of "wealth", or lack thereof, implicit in this observation, it serves as a potent statement of what is happening on a broader than imagined scale in homes not only in the US but in many countries around the world.

The statement is accentuated when we also consider the concept of "Elvis shrines", a widespread phenomenon that has been well reported by the media. Both the notion of an Elvis picture hanging on the wall and of countless Elvis shrines in homes around the world are highly potent symbols of key psychological drivers that produce a "religious" reality for many, many Elvis fans, even if some don't consciously realise the outcome.

Add to these notions others like:

  • "informal" membership of the Elvis community (just being a fan and listening to Elvis' music);
  • "formal" membership of the Elvis community (joining a fan club); and
  • the "pilgrimage" thousands of devoted fans from around the world make to Graceland during "Elvis Week" each August; and the "religious reality" becomes much stronger, internally and externally. (33)

A similar dynamic, structural design and patterns of behaviour are observed in mainstream religion. Increasingly, affiliation with the church is weakening with congregation numbers falling, and direct participation with one's faith changing from a daily mandatory observance to a non-mandatory ad-hoc one. No longer does religious affiliation dominate life for most religious followers. While individuals may retain a religious affinity, its importance in each person's life now varies, unlike historically when it assumed high importance broadly across the community. (34)

Closing remarks

I leave the penultimate words to John Stausbaugh: "Who knows what will become of the Elvis faith? ...it is a religion based on love of Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll. Outsiders don't fear it, they just laugh at it. The fact that outsiders can't take it seriously may turn out to be its strength and its shield. Maybe by the time Elvism is taken seriously it will have quietly grown too large and well established to be crushed like the Branch Davidians." (35)

In contrast to Strausbaugh, and borrowing from Enders and Patterson, another possible question centres around negative forces in "Elvism"….restrictive forces that may prevent it from moving beyond what currently is essentially small gatherings of members, or individual worship, to a broader movement with potential to become a recognised "institution" in the religious community with broad based appeal................

..................(Or) will "Elvisoid like" (36), 'mirror Elvis' ego-centrism and the self-defeating nature of many fans see "the structurally fragmented existence of their worship continually relegate their set of beliefs to the marginal fringes of contemporary society and prevent greater numbers of Elvites joining organised church services based around The King's being?" (37)

Only time will tell.


(1) Enders, Dr. Gary & Patterson, Nigel, Elvis as Religion: key psychological drivers and marketing of the Elvis Faith, unpublished draft paper, 2003

(2) Denisoff, R. Serge & Plasketes, George, True Disbelievers The Elvis Contagion, Transaction Publishers, USA, 1995, ISBN: 1560001860, p. 4

(3) Denisoff, R. Serge & Plasketes, George, op. cit., p.4

(4) Strausbaugh, John, John. E Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith, Blast Books, USA, 1995, ISBN: 0922233152, p. 126

(5) Strausbaugh, John, ibid, p. 117

(6) Bernstein, Leonard, in Artist of the Century (liner notes), BMG, 1999, 07863677322

(7) Vallee, Dr. Jacques, The Invisible College, E.P. Dutton & Co., USA, 1975, ASIN: 0525134700

(8) No author, The Tupelo-Memphis Murders: A Psychological Study of Self-Destruction and Murder!, Unquiet Grave Productions, 2004

(9) Strausbaugh, John, op. cit, p. 132

(10) Moody, Dr. Raymond A., Elvis After Life: Unusual Psychic Experiences Surrounding the Death of a Superstar, Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., USA, 1987, ISBN: 0934601402

(11) Bradley, James Lee, Elvis Was My Speech Therapist, Trafford, Canada, 2002, ISBN: 1553950461

(12) The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis, http://www.geocities.com/presleyterian_church/

(13) The First Church of Jesus, Elvis, http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/sacred_heart_elvis.html

(14) Elvis Gospel Ministries, http://netministries.org/see/charmin/CM00784

(15) First anniversary for 'Elvis Priestly' church, CBS News Online, 11 January 2004

(16) The 24 Hour Church of Elvis, http://www.frankwu.com/elvis1.html

(17) Enders, Dr. Gary & Patterson, Nigel, op. cit. Strausbaugh, John, op. cit.

(18) Beckham, Sue Bridwell, quoted in Elvis People The Cult of the King, Harrison, Ted, HarperCoillinsReligious, 1992, ISBN: 0-00-627620-2, p. 96

(19) The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine, www.geocities.com/presleyterian_church/history.html

(20) ibid

(21) ibid, www.geocities.com/presleyterian_church/charter.html

(22) Warner, Marina, Alone of All Her Sex: Myth and Cult of Virgin Mary, Random House Trade Paperbacks, USA, 1983, ISBN: 0394711556

(23) Strausbaugh, John, op. cit., p. 37

(24) (edited by the) Working Group on New Religious Movements in the Vatican, Spiritual and Theological Discernment regarding the New Religious Movements, An Anthology of Texts of the Catholic Church 1986-1994,

(25) Samples, Kenneth Richard, Responding to Religious Pluralis, Augustine Fellowship Study Center/Facts and Faith, First Quarter 1998

(26) Working Group on New Religious Movements in the Vatican, op. cit.

(27) Enders, Dr. Gary & Patterson, Nigel, op. cit.

(28) ibid.

(29) ibid.

(30) ibid.

(31) ibid.

(32) Strausbaugh, John, op. cit., p. 220

(33) Enders, Dr. Gary & Patterson, Nigel, op. cit.

(34) Enders, Dr. Gary, Elvis: Coming Back from the Dark Age, in Culture & Politics, 2000

(35) Strausbaugh, op. cit., p. 19

(36) Patterson, Nigel, "Almost Elvis"…..The Unusual and Bewildering World of Elvis Impersonators!, Elvis Information Network, 2002 (http://www.elvisinfonet.com/impersonators.html)

(37) Enders, Dr. Gary & Patterson, Nigel, op. cit.

This is the second edition of this paper. A shorter paper was published as part of The First Online Symposium on Elvis Aron Presley in 2003.

The Symposium papers can be found at: www.geocities.com/elvissymposium

Click to read Elvis: The Following

© 2004




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Ed Bonja (Part 2)
Ed Bonja
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Phil Aitcheson (Presley Commission)
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