Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist

Overview

This is the first biography of Jimmy Swaggart to date. But it's not just Jimmy's story; it's the tale of the rise of two intimately linked colossi of the American century: Pentecostalism, the fastest growing religious movement in the world, and its "evil twin," Rock and Roll. A major theme of the book is how the religious ecstasy of Pentecostalism - the rousing music, the speaking in tongues, the reception of the Spirit - combined with its severe sexual repression leads to the kind of furtive acting out that ...
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Overview

This is the first biography of Jimmy Swaggart to date. But it's not just Jimmy's story; it's the tale of the rise of two intimately linked colossi of the American century: Pentecostalism, the fastest growing religious movement in the world, and its "evil twin," Rock and Roll. A major theme of the book is how the religious ecstasy of Pentecostalism - the rousing music, the speaking in tongues, the reception of the Spirit - combined with its severe sexual repression leads to the kind of furtive acting out that brought down not only Jimmy Swaggart but also numerous other evangelists. It's the story, too, of the rapid rise of the Religious Right, with its competing personalities and ideologies. In the end, the author sees Jimmy as a victim - like many others - of a primitive faith colliding with the forces of late twentieth-century fame.
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Editorial Reviews

Virginia Vitzthum

There's a particular type of overachieving Southern white boy raised by a mama who's an angel and a daddy who whupped his ass. Spoiled yet cowed, he becomes a man who keeps sneaking behind God's back. When he gets caught, he repents as wetly as he sins, with the cleansing tears of dipped-in-the-water glory hallelujahs. He can't see how alike the passions of Saturday night and Sunday morning are, though -- the firewall between the flesh and the spirit is too imposing.

To live on both sides of that wall without psychic miscegenation, this Southern man puts some spin on his sin to keep from technical fornication. Bill Clinton withheld his seed and denied the temptress her pleasure. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis addressed their desire for little girls by marrying them. And Jerry Lee's cousin Jimmy Swaggart had a wonderfully theatrical hedge: He paid prostitutes he didn't touch to re-create pornographic tableaux for him -- devilish, motel-room versions of a living crèche.

Jimmy and Jerry Lee, both born in 1935, grew up poor together in Ferriday, La. Swaggart, Anne Rowe Seaman's biography of the evangelist, argues that both boys ended up in the same line of ecstasy production, that the shaking going on in honky-tonks was a lot like the rapture in revival tents. Swaggart, she contends, was undone in part because he could never acknowledge how fully eroticism powered his preaching.

Seaman offers a fascinating history of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. The Catholic Church condemned this inspired babbling as satanic 900 years ago, though many considered it evidence of blessing by the Holy Ghost. Around 1900, two Pentecostal fundamentalists, one white and one black, revived the practice, and it spread quickly around the United States. "The crossing of racial lines," Seaman writes, "was only one of the qualities that marked Pentecostalism as an outlaw movement. Te same crossover, in the same religious milieu, would produce rock and roll." A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop a-lop-bam-boom, amen.

The Swaggart-Lewis-Gilley family (country music star Mickey Gilley is another cousin) belonged to a Pentecostal faction known as the Assemblies of God. The future evangelist's parents, Sun and Minnie Bell Swaggart, initially considered "Holy Rollers" gauche, but in 1943 Minnie Bell and a handful of relatives got the Ghost, and then religion became an inter-family competition. Instead of bragging about whose son got into which university, mamas would recount their boys' gibbering and twitching on the church floor. Eight-year-old Jimmy did his mother proud soon after her conversion: He not only spoke in tongues, he prophesied a flood in Ferriday and the bombs that would drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Swaggart eventually decided speaking in tongues was too weird for a mass audience, and in 1972 he dropped it from his services.)

Seaman examines Swaggart's subsequent rise through the revival circuit to the peak of televangelism -- and his 1988 fall -- through a forgiving lens of psychology. On page 369 she drops the bombshell that Swaggart may have been sexually abused, repeatedly, by a relative when he was "eight or ten." Though she admits that her sources are shaky, she makes a case for incest that includes as evidence the speaking in tongues, the childhood prophesies and the lifelong "addiction" to pornography and prostitutes. She's less convincing when she diagnoses what Swaggart calls the "demon oppression" of his lust as clinical depression -- an ailment known for dulling sex drive.

Along with overreaching from her armchair, Seaman foreshadows too portentously too often, and the book is a third longer than it needs to be. Her prose tends to thud when she writes about the music in this gifted family. She's unearthed wonderful stories about Jerry Lee and Jimmy learning the "walking left hand" of the "Holy Ghost boogie" by sneaking into all-black dance halls, but she never makes the reader hear glossolalia or Jimmy's piano playing on his gospel records or the difference between a stoned, alf-assed Jerry Lee Lewis concert and a great one.

She has done seven years of reporting, however, and her story is consistently fascinating, with its dead young brothers and sons, child brides, fleets of Cadillacs, media-empire building, rise of the Christian right and the vicious smear campaign that Swaggart and Jim Bakker, the little Caligula of the televangelists, carried out. (Fun fact: In 1983 the unbeautiful Bakkers spent $22,000 on mirrors.) The "Partial Lewis/Swaggart/Gilley Genealogy" chart is astounding, with its "cousin," "nephew" and "sister" arrows crisscrossing the usual lines of marriage and descent.

Most important, Seaman's evenhandedness (I can't tell if she's a Christian herself) invites you to have some sympathy for the hypocritical, megalomaniacal Swaggart. You wish he and his brethren could find a god who wouldn't demand the compartmentalizing that tears them apart. Though a mixed-race-looking womanish man is probably the last prophet these Southern boys would heed, they could all take a page from him whose name was Prince when he sang: "I know from righteous/I know from sin/I got two sides/And they both friends."
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Jimmy Swaggart could be an easy target. The former crown prince of televangelism, who channeled the Holy Ghost with unprecedented made-for-TV gusto and turned quickly on fellow Assemblies of God pastors embroiled in sex scandals during the mid-1980s, was the butt of many jokes after his own less-than-pure habits came to light in 1988 courtesy of a vengeful former colleague. But Seaman, an editor and native Texan, approaches her subject not with Old Testament invective but with a patience that conveys an intimate understanding of the man's world. While not an apologist for Swaggart, Seaman probes beyond the headlines for the factors that shaped the pastor's psyche and defined his world. The result is an intelligent and smoothly readable personal history that chronicles a fascinating slice of Americana. Swaggart was part of a trinity of first cousins--along with country star Mickey Gilley and rock icon Jerry Lee Lewis--all natural entertainers in an intermarried clan of dirt-poor laborers and moonshiners in tiny Ferriday, La., during the heart of the Depression. Desperate to establish an identity within a family increasingly dedicated to the growing Pentecostal movement, Swaggart became inextricably wedded to his role as crusader. The final chapters bring the story full circle with a detailed account of Swaggart's 1990s comeback attempts (one capacity 1991 San Diego crusade was followed less than a week later by another well-publicized rendezvous with a prostitute), and the book ends with the indomitable evangelist preaching to a tiny church with a choir of four people. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This well-documented account of the life of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart is based on interviews with key people and a thorough literature search. Beginning with a fascinating look at his family background, the author traces Swaggart's rise from obscurity to fame, his fall (because of sexual misconduct), and his subsequent efforts to make a comeback. Along the way, the reader becomes acquainted with other celebrities of televangelism and catches a fascinating glimpse into behind-the-scenes religious power politics. Seaman neither whitewashes nor vilifies Swaggart, instead examining him and seeking explanation for both his tremendous accomplishments and tragic flaws. Though unauthorized by the Swaggarts, this honest, evenhanded biography strives for objectivity. It is also the only biography of Swaggart currently available. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--C. Robert Nixon, Lafayette, IN Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Jimmy Lee Swaggart was born in March 1935, in a sharecropping town in rural Louisiana. His first cousin, rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, was born six months later. Raised together in poverty, both seemed destined for the Pentecostal ministry, and both were adept at the honky-tonk style of piano known as Holy Ghost Boogie. By the late 1980s, Swaggart was one of the most popular preachers in the world, and Jerry Lee was a living legend. This respectful yet honest biography of Swaggart intertwines his life with two intimately linked themes of the American century: Pentacostalism and Rock and Roll. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826411174
  • Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/1/1999
  • Pages: 438
  • Product dimensions: 6.49 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann Rowe Seaman, a native of Austin, Texas, is the author of Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Metairie, Louisiana, Fall 1987


On October 17, 1987, on a dreary strip of unplanned growth to the west of New Orleans, a man wearing jeans and a baseball cap crossed a motel parking lot paved with white gravel. He walked up to a tan late-model Lincoln Town Car and stooped down near the right front tire. He looked around, unscrewed the valve cap, bent the stem, and let the air hiss out. His shoes crunched hastily back through the gravel toward Room 12.

    The parking lot belonged to the Travel Inn Motel. It sat on Airline Highway, in an area of railroad tracks and gray, vague buildings that seemed to have no fronts, a place of smokestacks, loading docks, and chain-link fences.

    A message to travelers was painted on a wooden fence made of buckled white horizontal boards that spilled into the overgrown bar ditch. "Single room $18. Nice clean rooms. Day rate $10 and up." Another sign, in the window of the drive-up lobby kiosk, was more revealing:

    "Positively no refunds," it said, "after 15 minutes."

    The building was painted raw umber. Decaying plastic tub chairs sat outside the rooms on the cracked sidewalk—in case a guest wanted to sit in the sweltering heat and take in the sight of the parking lot dotted with mostly old, faded American cars.

    Guests, always women, often chose to do so. They sat with their backs to the wall, under window panes held in place by flaking grout. The women eyed the cars that nosed into the parking lot and looked at the drivers; they cut deals with eyecontact. The Travel Inn was a pragmatic place.

    No one was sitting outside at mid-afternoon on Saturday, October 17, but in Room 7, Debra Arlene Murphree peeked through her curtains. Debra, a stocky, pale woman of 27 with black hair, high cheekbones, and thinly plucked eyebrows, saw the man trot away from the Lincoln Town Car and into Room 12. She knew him. He was one of her customers. He was a part-time sheriff's deputy.

    She turned to another customer now sitting in the plastic padded armchair next to the other window, facing the ill-fitting green curtain that slopped over the moldy air conditioner in the window across the room. A TV was mounted near the ceiling, and the bed was utilitarian: a foam mattress and box springs on a metal frame. They had not gotten down to business yet, but the table was where he usually sat, his feet planted on the orange shag carpet. Like most of her clients, he had only a first name: Billy.

    Seeing the deputy had bothered her.

    "I don't like the way this looks," she said.

    She got no flak from Billy. He was always nervous about the law, and invariably asked whether "the cops [are] bad" when he arrived to see her.

    She let the curtain fall back into place. She had been arrested twice on prostitution charges in the past few weeks. Room 7 was her regular place and the cops knew it; she had photos of her children—aged 10, 8, and 7—on the dresser and kept personal items in the room.

    Billy rose to his feet, scooped up the $20 bill he had laid on the table, and asked if she could walk down and meet him at Popeye's. The fast food place was a couple of blocks down Airline Highway.

    "Wait a minute, stay put," she said.

    She wanted to make an appearance at the door to assure any watching vice officer that there was nothing going on in the room. She stepped into the open doorway, wearing white jeans, a sleeveless blouse, and sandals, and looked out casually. She was very feminine, with a little gap between her front teeth and a softly Southern accent. She had two small, crude tattoos, one on each arm, and an engaging little sneery grin. She understood that men wanted to do things nice women wouldn't do with them, and that grin made it okay. She was a quiet girl who knew how to keep her mouth shut.

    A light blue car drove past, turned, and came back.

    Billy came up behind her and stood for a moment, looking around. He was one of her cheaper clients, but then he seldom took more than 15 or 20 minutes of her time. He hadn't even asked for intercourse, except once—which was the main reason she put up with his miserly fee. His habit was to ask her to pose in positions he found exciting; he never paid her more than $20 for this.

    He was a gentleman among her customers. She liked him: "He never tried to hurt me or got loud." He was real polite and nice, always used a soft voice.

    He'd asked her to have sex with another woman in front of him. That was fairly common. If he asked for oral sex, he used a condom. He was very concerned about AIDS. When he was done, he would pull up his pants and leave, dropping his money on the formica table. For the year he had been visiting her, he had never tipped her.

    He stepped around her and walked to the tan Lincoln.


* * *


October in Baton Rouge was crisp and sunny, with a hard blue sky and a nice breeze off the Mississippi River. Every Sunday people nudged down Bluebonnet Road by the thousands, stacking up in the special turn lanes installed to accommodate traffic at Jimmy Swaggart's overflowing Family Worship Center. He was always expected to preach a powerful sermon, and he never disappointed.

    On one side of Bluebonnet Road was the bulk of the ministry Jimmy and Frances Swaggart had built up over 30 years: the big, sand-colored World Ministry Center, flanked by the flags of some of the 195 countries reached by Jimmy's telecast, and its constellation of multi-million-dollar facilities—the Family Christian Academy, the Morris Plotts Gymnasium where the award-winning basketball team of the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College played, the state-of the-art building where videotapes were edited and dubbed in a score of languages for distribution throughout the world, and the buildings that housed the huge mailing operation, the crusade team's mobile production equipment and its five 18-wheelers, the telethon operation, the travel operation, the maintenance operation, and, of course, the 7,500-seat Family Worship Center.

    The Jimmy Swaggart Ministries also included a Christian elementary and high school, and an enormous mail order facility that did so much business the ministry had its own zip code. The Family Worship Center, completed in 1984, was already being planned to accommodate 2,500 more visitors. Jimmy's organization was a major employer in the city of Baton Rouge, with a payroll of over 1,500. It issued more building permits than the state of Louisiana. It took in $500,000 a day.

    Two pedestrian walkways crossed to the other side of busy Bluebonnet Road, where two residence halls for the Bible college rose twelve stories each—the Minnie Bell Swaggart Hall, named after his late mother, and the D. Mark Buntain Hall, named after an admired missionary to India—plus the classrooms, fitness center, and administration building. Another new multi-story dorm was going up next to the administration building.

    A strip of retail—housing the Delchamps food store, a drugstore, and shops for flowers, cards, books, haircuts, and coffee—was located next to the dorms on Bluebonnet and fed off of the clean-cut Bible college students. Like most commercial strips, it was low on architectural imagination, a scar on the fecund bayou setting behind it of tall pines and understory woods where creeks flowed and frogs sang out. But it was thriving.

    The Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, 35 years ago a teenager's daydream in a dreary sharecropper village 90 miles up the Mississippi River, was in 1986 a reality, spreading physically over some of Baton Rouge's prettiest real estate and electronically over the entire planet.

    In the past five years, his ministry had exploded with popularity. Called by God on the sidewalk in front of his hometown movie theater when he was eight years old, Jimmy Swaggart had, by October 1987, become one of the most popular video preachers in the world.

    Born in tiny Ferriday, Louisiana, he went on the air in 1973 in Baton Rouge, when he was 38 years old, tall and solid, good-looking and full of sauce. Like the other video preachers, he stood behind a pulpit. But he did not stay behind it, puling and beseeching. His microphone was not fixed on the pulpit or pinned to his lapel. It stayed in his hand, big and phallic, eight or nine inches long, with a fat bulb on the end. He used it instinctively, clutching it sometimes with both hands, squeezing it, sometimes waving it, sometimes holding it daintily between two fingers, the pinkie crooked, when he made biting comments about wimpy, vain, blow-dried preachers who thought they could somehow get around God's wrath with their carry-on about psychology and prosperity.

    In the middle of a sentence, he would whirl and stride to the piano, slip onto the bench, and begin running his thick fingers delicately up and down the keys, honky-tonk style.

    This was Jimmy Lee Swaggart, prowling across the stage, shouting, whimpering, strutting, whispering, whipping out his handkerchief and mopping his face, then slapping it downward as he leaned forward from the waist, legs stiff, heels together like a Russian officer bowing to the Czar, to bear down on his audience. Soon you could catch him in Houston, Dallas, almost anywhere in the South.

    By the end of 1987 his television audience was estimated by Arbitron to be more than 2.1 million per week in the U.S. His message reached millions of other souls in 143 countries. The only ministers within striking distance of his success were venerable Tulsa faith healer Oral Roberts and possibility-thinker Robert Schuller in Orange County, California.

    His crusades were packed even in Catholic countries, into whose economies he pumped millions of dollars with church schools and outreach programs. He visited heads of state and dabbled in politics. Standing with Chile's president in January 1987, he denounced the former government and mentioned his friendship with President Ronald Reagan; he prayed with El Salvador's president the same month.

    Jimmy had recently returned from a triumphant crusade tour in Monrovia, Liberia. He was also fresh off a write-up in the October 1987 issue of Current Biography, in which he was depicted as a leader, a straight shooter. Considering the mistrust by many of the burgeoning political clout of the Christian right, Jimmy came across as a statesman with credibility.

    Part of that credibility came from his fearlessness in the pulpit, noted in Current Biography: he took on Catholics and Jews, New Age theology, Christian-Theme-Park theology, Feel-Good theology, Prosperity theology. In the fire-breathing tradition of the 19th-century circuit riders from which his denomination had sprung, he gave special attention to adultery and all its trappings, such as dancing and rock music. "It's my business," he said, "to make you kind of hot where you're sitting ... It's my business to keep you up at night, to make you toss and tumble, unable to sleep."

    He seemed piercingly aware that sex had been the downfall of many great men of God.

    Current Biography called him "one of the most influential Christian exponents of right-wing populism in America" and the most-watched television evangelist in the US. It noted he was the only celebrity televangelist to yet endorse a candidate in the 1988 presidential race (Pat Robertson) and that he had met not only with President Reagan, but with Vice-President George Bush. It spoke of his disciplinarian father, his childhood inklings of greatness, his Faulknerian clan, his hardships, and the stubborn healing persistence in his life of music.

    Inevitably, it compared him to his first cousin, rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, noting like many others the seesaw of fortune the two seemed to ride: bad luck for one seemed to presage a burst of fortune for the other.


* * *


The Family Worship Center was an eight-sided building made to evoke a revival tent, with a simple, dramatic cross soaring from its roof. Around it was a huge parking lot, dotted with tree-and-shrub islands. In the middle, fenced off by chain link, was a shred of the creek they had paved over to make the parking lot. The main entrance off Bluebonnet Road, World Ministry Avenue, was neatly groomed and planted with azaleas and other flowering shrubs.

    People parked their cars, pulling starched and scrubbed children out behind them. Young couples arrived, the women rouged and hair-sprayed and scented and pantyhosed, with tinkling bracelets and Bibles with lace or denim covers, the men necktied and contained inside colorless suits. As with most churches, there appeared to be few men who came to the Family Worship Center without women, but there were plenty of women without men.

    They streamed up the six sets of broad, shallow steps through three massive double glass doors, into the foyer that ringed the Family Worship Center's sanctuary like a doughnut. At every outside door were large, heavy doormats, colored wine-red with white doves outlined on them.

    On the two 30-foot-high walls flanking the foyer entry hung Florentined aluminum continents ten feet high, with rashes of small knobs and red buttons showing where the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries had Bible colleges and ministries, and television downlinks or stations over the world. Underneath the maps was a long string of photo panels, lit from behind, of poor people with third-world faces.

    At Christmas, a huge tree was erected in the foyer, covered with ornaments from all over the world. The bookstore was stocked with Bibles, textbooks, social commentaries, audio and video tapes, booklets, the ministry's magazine, the Evangelist, bookmarks, mugs, refrigerator magnets.

    The sanctuary filled rapidly, the balconies packed. Filtered light streamed in from panels high in the ceiling, illuminating the large raised platform where Jimmy would pace, jabbing the air with his finger. At stage right was a brace of chairs known as the Amen Corner. Visiting clergy and church bigwigs sat there, joined by Jimmy's wife Frances and 33-year-old son, Donnie.

    The atmosphere on Sunday was like a concert hall. A gray cyclorama flanked the stage, giving the feeling of a great castle with heavy drapes on the walls to keep out the chill. Musicians peeked out from behind it. People greeted each other and marked their seats with Bibles while they looked for friends.

    Suddenly, the curtain lifted in swags, letting out rousing music and a view of the band and choir, stretched across the entire back wall of the stage: horns, guitars, drums, 120 or more jiving blue-robed singers, a bank of microphones for the lead singers, and Jimmy's big Steinway grand off to the left. A man came forward, seized a mike, and began singing without preamble, the first of a host of church favorites such as "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," in barely-disguised boogie. Everyone sang and clapped along, smiling. The service in this church didn't "begin"; it was launched.

    The Amen Corner filled with beaming men in handsome suits, who sang and pumped their bodies to the music and waved to friends. People stood up, clapped to the beat, sang out strongly and with a sense of ownership of the music and the church. Men sang with emotion, many of them as talented as the song leader. At the Family Worship Center, the music belonged to the people. But there was barely a whisper of difference between it and that devil's music played by Jimmy's cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and country crooner Mickey Gilley.

    Song after song filled the sanctuary. People started raising their palms upward toward the stage in attitudes of praise and reverence. Joy bubbled onto their faces and they began to enter light trances. Some held their hands up, as if they were toddlers wanting God to pick them up. Others sang with their eyes shut tight, releasing, lyric by lyric, the filthy, burr-clogged beasts of failure and despair they had dragged into the Family Worship Center to leave at the altar.

    "Glory! Glory!" they yelled, "Praise God! Praise Jesus!" Perspiration began to gleam on faces as people moved out into the aisles to dance in the spirit.

    Over the choir could suddenly be heard a distinctive, velvety baritone. The excitement elevated. Jimmy and Frances had slipped into the Amen Corner, where he had picked up the mike waiting on his chair.

    Frances, a pretty, dark-haired girl when she and Jimmy had married as young teenagers, was now ash-blond. She had taken her time becoming a blonde, and done it with tact and restraint; no one swayed Frances Swaggart or stampeded her into anything. Her hair floated around a round, foxlike face with quick brown eyes.

    It was probably Frances who was responsible for Jimmy's tasteful suits; on television debating with Ted Koppel, or praying with heads of banana republics, or facing an 80,000-person SRO crowd in some far-flung amphitheater or soccer stadium, he never came across as gaudy and attention-starved like some other televangelists. He wore nice suits or well-integrated outfits: powder-blue pants and matching tie, white shirt, navy suede blazer.

    The musicians bore only vestigial traces of the entertainment world, where they had gotten their experience. A harmonica player who had the sweetness of a child under his hard-bitten face wore red and black snakeskin boots and a big Texas-shaped ring; a choir director's conservative suit terminated in saddle oxfords.

    The only member of the troupe, in fact, who really had permission to echo Nashville—hot pink and aqua, snakeskin, fur—was Frances. She would be seen wearing Gypsy-looking dresses with scooped necklines and large shoulder pads. Her skirts were often filmy chiffon, perhaps with a silver lamé scarf tied tight over her hips. She liked swaying, rustling, mystery clothing, the kind that releases scents when its wearer shifts in her chair. With an instinct for finishing touches, she favored jewelry and showy pumps.

    She never entered the bimbo territory that other televangelist wives such as Tammy Faye Bakker and Jan Crouch staked out with their lurid clothing and makeup. Still, when Frances walked onstage and sat among the men in their conservative suits, it was as if a parrot had flown in and perched in the Amen Corner.

    Jimmy glanced at the audience to see if they were ready for more. They were. He jumped up and strode across the stage, expertly dodging the mike cord.

    "Come on!" he yelled. "Sing it, Church!" People grinned conspiratorially at each other and laughed. They jived, stomped, and clapped.

    Jimmy gestured to a trumpet player, who came up, pointed his horn in the air and did a slow, sweet, bluesy, sensuous solo. The harmonica weaved in and out, gravelly and wicked here and there, and the audience swooned and giggled. Jimmy had actually created a church where people could be "in The World but not of it." As if to rub The World's nose in this, Jimmy went to the pulpit and said, "My, my, my! Nashville and Las Vegas have nothing over that!" And then gestured to the band to kick in again. He was giving his conservative hellfire church permission to flaunt the music of flesh, of New Orleans, of mixed drinks with paper umbrellas, rich food and wild dancing. The grins were especially big in the Amen Corner.

    Jimmy knew his business: the half-hour of music put people into a trance. They were dancing in the aisles, flailing and hyperventilating with glazed, excited eyes. A fat young man with an Elvis face and a bad-boy haircut, with sharp gray slacks and a pink sport coat and tie made hard downward slapping motions with both hands, and then broke into a wild jig in the aisle, jabbing his toes into the carpet with blinding speed.

    A slim young black man danced gracefully down to the dais and all around it, followed by a heavy man dressed in a snappy business suit, with a bald head and a paunch, the image of Bull Conner, jitterbugging with his palms upward in the supplication position. A black woman jumped stiff-legged like an African deer. A fat woman came reeling out from her pew, with bare feet, flopping her body and banging into the backs of the pews. Those near her waited for her to spin out onto the floor, but she never did. Her eyes were open but unseeing.

    This sort of thing never got on Jimmy's television shows. His church was one where ecstasy was the objective—people surrendered to a state of possession called the "infilling" of the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Spirit—but he didn't want to seem on the Holy Roller fringe to his large viewing audience. His television formula was mainstream: all the good stuff—joy, forgiveness, some brimstone, music, tears, fashion, a big peer group that was, in this generation, richer and more acceptable than the poor, alienated, fat generation that preceded it—and none of the bad. No Jim Jones, dead in the Guyana jungle, no messiah complex, no presidential aspirations.

    Jimmy finally silenced the choir and musicians and made a few announcements, giving people time to calm down a little. He told a few humorous stories, and Frances came up and gave testimony about the ministry, as was their routine. One day, for example, she called a deaf Native American woman up to the front and introduced her. From the ministry hotline she had learned that the woman was saved when her 14-year-old son was signing a Jimmy Swaggart telecast to her, and the son was saved, too, in the process. It was Frances' idea to bring them forward and hug them in front of the congregation.

    After announcements, Jimmy began to preach. He always worked hard at it, pouring himself into it. He made his hand into a pistol and pointed it at people; he threw his arms back and pushed his chest out like a toad. He held his hand up like a claw at the audience, his voice a bull-bellow. He used no notes.

    They understood him. They felt grateful. They murmured, Praise Jesus, Glo-ray, Glo-ray to God, Praise God. They closed their eyes and tears squeezed out. He was truly lifting something from them, some lie or misunderstanding. They may not remember exactly what they had learned, or even be able later to quote what the anecdote was, but they would remember the release, the sweet warming relaxant of truth that allowed them to forgive something suddenly in that moment.

    "Brother Swaggart preached a fine sermon today," they would say.

    He'd lift the Bible high in one hand, the mike in the other, and shout: "That's the reason the devil wants us off this television!" He knew his audience wanted the enemy named: the devil. They wanted it externalized; they wanted to believe that the devil got into them from the outside. Somehow, through their weak flesh, he got in and tricked them. He did this daily. Daily. It happened to everyone, so don't feel bad about it, but come to church and give the devil two black eyes. It's hard to do it driving in your car, or at work, because you're on the devil's turf then, you're in The World. But in church, at the Family Worship Center, the devil is exposed—by Brother Swaggart—and we can kick his ass.

    When Jimmy cocked his body like a bantam, chin out pugnaciously, the audience howled with delight. When he began to whisper into the mike, the women shifted on the pews and crossed their legs. His voice was sexy and he knew it. The men sat entranced. He was making love to their wives without dishonoring anyone, and it was all perfectly okay.

    When he'd say, "You're not getting it, are you?" they knew it was nearly over. He was pretending to be exasperated with them, and they knew that soon he would uncork some final verbal feat. "Come on!" they would shout.

    Once, he yelled, "I'm sick of filthy, depraved, long-haired, smelly, stinky, beer-guzzling, coke-snortin', marijuana-smokin' freaks!" Another time, in a milder mood, he announced an "old-fashioned, heartfelt, Holy Ghost, heaven-sent, Devil-chasin', sin-killin', true-blue, red-hot, blood-bought, God-given, Jesus-lovin', hand-clappin' camp meetin'!"

    People would leap to their feet, and the sanctuary would be filled with shouts and raised palms. They would leave their pews and mill in the aisles. It would be time for the offering and then for the altar call, when people went down to the platform to give themselves to Jesus.

    The altar call was like a muffled feeding frenzy. The music was gentle, slow, and sweet, as hundreds of people crowded forward to be touched. The elders from the Amen Corner pushed through the crowd, laying on hands and murmuring. The people were fastened onto the octagonal platform. Elders' faces clenched as they concentrated, babbling low, eyes closed, hands on people's heads or shoulders.

    Donnie and Frances and Jimmy would also come forward and place hands on the tops of the supplicants' heads or the backs of their necks. They would hug them and pray hard as their charges fell back and cried, their defenses peeled down to the wishbone. Jimmy would intercede for them in the first person. "I can't handle it alone," he would say emotionally to God. "I just can't handle my life any more, I can't do it."

    He used the tones and gestures of the old-time preacher, tapping into the feeling-clean memories, the memories of dress-up clothes and a Sunday roast.

    As the service wound down, people milled around the stage, looking happy and relieved. Although they called it "being filled," it had the gutted, vacant look of emotional exhaustion. Eyes and noses were red, there was sparse singing and clapping. People hung on for awhile, chatting. The stage lights went down, the crowd thinned. Jimmy and Frances hurried off through a special door. Shortly the Family Worship Center was dark and quiet and empty.


* * *


Nineteen eighty-seven had been filled with notoriety for religious leaders and in particular for Jimmy. The Christian right was gaining such political viability that the agendas of its leaders—ministers like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson—were being openly courted by Republicans and openly challenged by Democrats. Falwell's Moral Majority, founded in the 1970s, had become a robust eminence in Republican platforms. Vice President George Bush addressed the 1987 annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters in Washington, D.C. Pat Robertson, head of the 33-million-subscriber Christian Broadcasting Network, planned to run for the GOP nomination for president.

    Jimmy's denomination, the Assemblies of God, had outstripped the growth rate of every mainline religious group in the U.S. over the last decade. It was the tenth largest Protestant body in the U.S., and the largest Pentecostal body in the world. There were more than two million Assembly of God adherents in the U.S. and 14 million more worldwide.

    On March 18 that year, Reverend Jim Bakker resigned as head of the PTL television ministry in a sexual and financial scandal that had been simmering for years. PTL (for Praise The Lord or People That Love) was the booming, loose-cannon ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina headed by the boyish, diminutive Bakker and his heavily made-up wife, Tammy Faye. Bakker resigned when the Charlotte Observer revealed his 1980 affair with a church secretary, Jessica Hahn, and told of hush money paid her from PTL's coffers.

    The public became enthralled with the baby-faced Bakker, who was accused of bilking followers and using their donations not just for hush money, but for outrageous luxuries and perks. Television news ratings were astronomical whenever any aspect of the Bakker story was covered, largely because of Tammy Faye. Tammy's grotesque makeup, garish Nashville-style outfits, heaps of tasteless jewelry, low-cut necklines, wigs, breast implants, onscreen airing of marital problems, and confessed enslavement to a "shopping demon" made irresistible video for a nation still wedded to the image of a preacher's wife as someone with decent hemlines and sensible shoes.

    Jimmy Swaggart had played a key role in Bakker's resignation. Bakker accused him of trying to gouge him out so he could get his hands on Heritage USA, PTL's $172-million Christian theme park and hotel complex in Ft. Mill, South Carolina. But that was not true. Heritage USA was losing money; Jimmy had other reasons for his enmity with Jim Bakker.

    Now broadcasters like Ted Koppel from ABC-TV's "Nightline" were looking to Jimmy for intelligent perspectives. He was articulate and candid about the religious community's problems. Newscaster Dan Rather called him "the most effective speaker in the country." Jimmy Swaggart came across as a statesman whose credibility could help straighten the listing ship of the Christian right.

    But the PTL affair had exhausted Jimmy and brought uncertain gains. His national prominence brought out local media adversaries: a Baton Rouge television station, WBRZ, cobbled together a documentary rehashing past problems of his ministry. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, unable to resist the peg to Jim and Tammy Bakker, also Assemblies of God Pentecostals, followed suit. His non-profit tax status was being challenged, and a House subcommittee heard testimony accusing preachers like Jimmy, Robertson, Falwell, and others of breaking federal tax laws, evading local laws requiring permits for solicitation over television, and violating FCC licensing requirements. He was the target of numerous lawsuits, ranging from cities claiming he owed taxes on sale of religious merchandise to an action that he had damaged someone by using their dead relative's personal story in a sermon.

    Twelve major Jimmy Swaggart Crusades—massive gatherings of the faithful that went on for days—had been scheduled for 1987, most of them abroad. He traveled with 82 tons of equipment and an enormous crusade team, and attended to musical rehearsals, meetings with government functionaries and heads of state, coordination with Assemblies of God missionaries, visits to projects his ministry was funding, and preparation of messages. He had been a featured speaker at the National Religious Broadcasters' meeting in February 1987, and was constantly tugged by visitors, formal dinners, and the affairs of his 800,000-circulation Evangelist magazine, his 1,450-student Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, and his highly popular "camp meetings" in Baton Rouge—five-day services which attracted thousands of visitors from all over the U.S. Even independent Frances complained, "We never have any time alone any more. All you do is pray."


* * *


Billy walked to the tan Lincoln in the parking lot at the Travel Inn, opened the door, and slid onto the seat. He started the engine, and began backing out when he realized he had a flat tire. He pulled back in, in front of Room 6. As he changed the tire, Debra sat on the curb next to a small rectangle of sour dirt with a weak Spanish dagger plant poking out of it. If he was stopped, she fretted, it might go badly. Lots of girls had been busted this week. As he worked, perspiring in his sweat suit and headband, she entreated him not to tell the cops anything.

    He hoisted the spare onto the nuts and started tightening them. Debra glanced around. Across the highway was a billboard that showed an open Bible. In large letters was a verse from the book of John: "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God! Your eternity is at stake!"

    Her eyes roved, rested on the window of Room 12, and froze. In the window was a telephoto lens, draped with a black cloth.

    Debra ran back into her room and watched through a crack in the door as a blue car pulled into the lot. A man got out. Debra didn't recognize him.

    The man barked a name as he approached the Lincoln. Billy didn't look up. Before she closed the door of her room, she heard the stranger say to Billy, "What do you think you're doing?"

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Table of Contents

1. Metairie, Louisiana, Fall 1987 11
2. Rebuke before All 23
3. Frances 25
4. In the Beginning 27
5. Cloven Tongues Like As of Fire 29
6. Ferriday 33
7. Stars Are Born 38
8. The Church That Darwin Built 41
9. A Goodbye, and a New Bargain 45
10. Another Goodbye 50
11. Guilt 53
12. Belonging 55
13. Softening 59
14. "Ninety-nine Cents out of Every Dollar" 61
15. Texas Redux 64
16. The First Surrender 66
17. Taboo 68
18. Revival 70
19. The Theater of Salvation 75
20. Defection 78
21. The Blockbuster 82
22.Rivals 86
23. Last Chance 90
24. Many Are Called 96
25. Running from God 103
26. The Anointing of Satan 108
27. Narrow the Path 111
28. Girls 116
29. Into the Fire 120
30. Seize the Moment 123
31. Back in the Fold 126
32. Out of Nothing 130
33. By the Grace of God and Women 134
34. Shakin' 140
35. Awakening 143
36. Miraculous Healing 151
37. On the Road 160
38. The Color Line 163
39. Being Seen 167
40. A String of Tragedies 170
41. Keeping the Faith 177
42. Just Do It! 183
43. Demon Oppression 186
44. A Good Man 190
45. "What Hath God Wrought?" 195
46. Camp Meeting Hour 200
47. Voices 205
48. "People Always Kill God" 208
49. A Radio Station 213
50. A Huge Burst out of a Shotgun 216
51. "Don't Ever Let Me Get Like That" 222
52. The Principality of the Powers of the Air 224
53. The Mission of the Air 232
54. Guarding the Temple 239
55. Petra 247
56. Brimstone 251
57. A Son of the Reformation 262
58. "I Don't Want This Thing to Come Back and Haunt Me" 267
59. The Highland Road 272
60. Gorman and Bakker 275
61. Do Not Fail 286
62. Francesville 291
63. The "Hostile Takeover" 301
64. October 17, 1987 326
65. I Have Sinned 339
66. Comeback 364
67. Unfinished Business 367
68. Do Nothing 373
69. Under the Influence 380
70. The Secret Room 383
Epilogue 388
Acknowledgments and Sources 392
Archival Resources 394
Notes 397
Bibliography 429
Index 433
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 1999

    This book is terrific!

    As I read Seaman's book, I couldn't help wondering if Swaggart would be as enticing to his flock without his powerful and soulful singing voice! He reminded me very much of a character in a murder mystery by Jerry Marcus, 'The Salvation Peddler,' which not only gives insight into the outrage of televangelism, but vividly portrays the impact their quest for money, fame and power has on their families. I always thought that Swaggart should be tapped to play Marcus' Jason Blake on the screen.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 1999

    A wonderful and surprising book.

    This well-researched, beautifully written biography is an insightful and balanced look at Jimmy Swaggart and 'big religion' in America and a fascinating analysis of the 'evil twins' of Mr. Swaggart's religion and his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis' music. Ms. Seaman remains fair to Mr. Swaggart without being blind to his faults. She does not try to make you like or dislike Jimmy Swaggart or his religion; she helps you to understand him and how he is a result of his background. I have never been a Swaggart fan, but after reading this book I can respect what he accomplished and am sympathetic to his shortcomings. It is obvious that Ms. Seaman is from the South (Texas). She has a great feel for the poor rural South and portrays its people with understanding and sympathy, but without creating false heroes. The descriptive passages reminded me of William Faulkner. This book will be enjoyed by anyone interested in the phenomenon of organized religion in America; in stories about overcoming a 'hard luck' childhood; or in the South.

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