Seven-year-old Samuel Boutwell is an outgoing and well-spoken second grader. He loves to play with his dogs and play soccer, but he loves something else even more.
Samuel is a Baptist preacher at a church in his home town of Brookhaven, a small town in southwestern Mississippi. He also preaches outside in front of the local Wal-Mart, and has preached on the road in Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Washington D.C., and the streets of New York City.
Like many, Samuel said he became a preacher after he was "saved" by Jesus -- he just happened to be 3 years old at the time. "After I got saved, I knew I could try to reach more people to try to get saved," Samuel said. His sin against God? Disobeying his mom. And so the boy turned to Jesus.
When asked to describe God, Samuel said, "Can you show me a building that didn't have a builder, could you show me a painting that didn't have a painter? Because nobody made God. He just exists." Samuel is home-schooled and fed a steady diet of Scripture, but his father, Kendall Boutwell, a born-again lay preacher himself, said the idea of preaching was all Samuel's.
Soon after he was saved, Samuel said God spoke to him by helping him come up with things to preach about. "When I asked to preach, right when I think I can preach, God gives me something right there," he said.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and preacher and a professor of religion at Barnard College, wondered if Samuel's words truly come from divine inspiration. "Is he merely parroting some line…that he gets from a parent, or from a minister, or is it something that comes from the wellspring of the soul?" Balmer asked.
Balmer is the author of a dozen books on religion (his next book, "God in the White House: A History -- 1960-2004," will be published in spring 2008). He said that kids simply don't have the life experience to preach. "I believe that one's calling as a minister arises out of the crucible of one's experience…and there's a certain maturity that comes with that, a certain understanding of the faith that comes with that."
But Samuel's father believes his son gets his understanding from God. "I know he's divinely inspired…if you listen to the messages, the different ones on the different subjects, yes, he's definitely divinely inspired," said TK. He also believes that his son is not too young to preach.
Another child minister, 9-year-old Terry Durham bills himself as the "little man of God." He's a travel-worn veteran compared to Samuel Boutwell. Terry has preached in cities around the country since he was only 4 years old. But he doesn't stop at just preaching. His grandmother, Pastor Sharone Monroe, said that "ever since he was a baby he was layin' hands and praying for people."
Monroe raised Terry and taught him much of what he knows about preaching and touching people to take away their pain. "When I touch the people, I feel God's hands come into my hands," said Terry, "and it's so exciting to see God move in the midst of their problems."
Terry calls himself a prophet, not a healer, and adults seem to flock to him. He disagrees with the idea that he might be too young for preaching, saying "people say Jesus started at the age of 12. And they say that my grandmother is pushing me, but it's not my grandmother, it's the power of God that's pushing me."
Samuel Boutwell has been taught to take the Bible at its word. When it comes to the after-life, he takes a hard line. He believes that anyone who is not saved by Jesus Christ will go to hell -- no exceptions. "I wish he had taken his Bible and read Matthew 7:1, where Jesus calls on his followers not to judge, lest they be judged," Balmer said.
Balmer objects to such a young boy preaching and finds it "offensive to the faith."
"This Christian faith is for me, and for millions of other people, a source of meaning, a source of truth, and to have it reduced to a kind of circus sideshow, I find deeply offensive."
Samuel often preaches outside abortion clinics. He said he knows what an abortion is and that he's seen pictures of abortions. "Women going in and they kill their child. I'll tell you the same thing I told my daddy one time: If they don't want to have their child they can give it to someone else," he said.
When asked if he knows how babies are made, Samuel said that he doesn't.
Balmer believes that no matter what ones view of abortion, it's wrong to have a child preaching about a topic he couldn't possibly understand fully. "It seems to me that the child is being used as a kind of political prop, for a particular political ideology." But Samuel's father argues that the boy is simply preaching the law of the Bible.
Samuel is clearly articulate and mature beyond his years. Which is why it's surprising when, in a candid moment, the fact that he is just a child becomes obvious.
When asked what makes him want to preach, Samuel replied, "You're gonna have to ask my daddy that, I don't know."