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Church Going

Gibbon relates Constantine’s advice to the complaining Bishop Acesius: “Take a ladder and get up to heaven by yourself.” Scott’s idea is, “If you’ve got a problem, you and God work it out between you.” Of course, even he is forced to, or accepts, the television hustle, the huckstering. “Get on the telephone,” he demands, with a bit of the bad humor of “take your hands off me.” One curiosity—Dr. Scott actually appears to know Greek and this is of interest because even Jimmy Swaggart likes to offer as an insert, “in the Greek the word means…” and then to give the translation or equivalent of the word in hand, in the special Jimmy Swaggart Bible. In the Scott program when the eternal call number flashes on the screen, “Roll Over, Beethoven” plays on the tape.

The Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, just yesterday cast down by the powers of nature and, as in a fated, solitary defeat of the abstractions of his calling, becoming a man, merely that. In giving way to the shark’s grip of the human pornographic imagination, Swaggart threatens to take the uxorious, family-values thunderers down with him.1 The pitiful meeting on Airline Avenue with a local prostitute, Mrs. Debra Murphree, was caught by the impugning cameras and then in a public hanging “reenacted” in dolorous black and white for Penthouse magazine. Publicity indeed, making the national scene. It must be said nature was aided in his discovery, his capture as it were, by Swaggart’s rich lode of hypocrisy, his scornful crushing of Jim and Tammy Bakker, and, more to the point, his brash and brisk clerical execution, for adultery, of Dr. Marvin Gorman, his Pentecostal colleague. Gorman ran the hell-raiser down with private detectives, cameras, deflated tires, and all the cool calculation of a cocaine squad.

Swaggart is not, and never has been, a “nice fellow” in the Falwell-Robertson mode. He is hard-scrabble hill all the way, scratching and clawing up the Family Worship trail. He is a greatly embarrassing figure, shrewd and out of control at the same time. On Bluebonnet Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he has pitched his Gospel tent, and an impressive overhang it is, competing as a local sight and employer with the state capital and the state university. He claims from time to time to be on his knees more hours of the day and night than the most punished scullery maid of yore. But there is no doubt that Swaggart, his wife, Frances, and his son, Donny, are keen as eagles at the source of cash flow sequestered in the administration building.

Here, in the business offices, the Lord expresses His will to the costly worldwide mission, to the bringing in of the sheaves, the millions of dollars and the millions of souls for Christ. It is made to appear that the Holy Two reign in a condition of sad financial distress and anxiety. Such inappropriate images are brought to mind by the extraordinary union of the wishes of God and the needs of the preachers. The Family Worship Center from whose octagonal “pulpit” Swaggart appears and preaches, microphone in hand, is merely a large theater for audience, choir of one hundred voices, center stage for soloists and for the high performer himself, for wife and son and the few Pentecostal colleagues, fellow preachers, remaining. Protestant denuding of setting and symbol can go no further; there is no altar, no communion rail, no face of Jesus in a frame, no baptismal font, and, naturally enough, no Stations of the Cross, no Ark of the Covenant. These preachers do not perform marriages, visit the sick, bury the dead, and so no “dead lie round” in the parking lots. There is no symbol at all except the highlighted star, the beseeching main attraction.

Women do not command many of the microphones and screens of this phenomenon; the sex so prominent in the matter of contributions is represented by the powerful Wife of the Minister, a course in such duties being listed in the Swaggart Bible College catalog. This wife is a serious handmaiden, both Mary and Martha. The Bakker dual crown in the day of popularity was greatly enhanced by the peppy talents of Tammy Bakker, the heart-stopping shopping moll of the Bakker mob; it is nevertheless not thought Tammy was ordained to be a single act. Frances Swaggart is a cooler ministerial, now suffering, bride, and seen around the Bayou to be an arctic breeze of strict, controlling watchfulness. The Swaggarts have all the necessary appointments: the Gulf Stream jet, the inevitable Cadillacs and Mercedes, the pricey residence. But the Swaggarts are tight and drive a hard bargain. Swaggart showed himself to be a country boy of invincible habit when, according to one prostitute, he refused her twenty-dollar fee, claiming ten as his top, and when his bargaining did not prevail upon her, Swaggart put her out of the car.

The Bakkers and Swaggarts are children of hard-luck America, all either born into or early assuming the social rigors of the Pentecostal landscape, growing up in the lingering rural depression days. Jimmy Swaggart, like the Bakkers, literally hit the evangelizing streets early in life; and if they are not still handing out tracts on corners, pumping the hand organ, and passing the basket, that is to be seen as moving with the times. Swaggart early combined his musical talents and what must be called, in his lights, a genuine “calling.” He grew up in the lugubrious agitation of the Holy Roller world, swamp-bred in Ferriday, Louisiana. His father after various disappointments, the death of a child, a spell in Texas defense plants, took to Pentecostal preaching. Swaggart dropped out of high school, as did Frances, so that they could marry at seventeen. Their son was born and the couple knew a life of poverty, with Swaggart hauling gravel and chopping cotton.

Lord, I want you to give me the gift of playing the piano,” Swaggart prayed as a youth and the Lord obliged forthwith. Musical talents led to the temptations offered by his cousin, the country singer Jerry Lee Lewis, but Swaggart refused the attractions of entertainment, at least of that nature. He was twenty-three when his full-time preaching began and now, at age fifty-three, he has been at it for thirty years. The inane elaboration of the Jessica Hahn seduction is foreign to Swaggart’s nature. He is too stingy, too close to the demons and the bitter fatality of the backwoods imagination. There is always his irredeemable rural suspiciousness, the ferocious harshness of his longings. The hyperkinetic Jim Bakker assaulting Miss Hahn in the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach, Florida, the $265,000 trust, well-named, fund are a tinsel squandering of hard-rock funds that must have played a part in Swaggart’s contemptuous disgust with and glee for retribution against his colleague. When Swaggart was accused of attempting to take over the Bakker circus, he said, “What would I do with a water slide?”—the remark considerably more respectable than Pat Robertson’s crying out that the timing of the fornication scandals was designed to tarnish his presidential campaign.

The old swoon in the choir stall has ever haunted the dreams of preachers, so often following upon their professional soothing of bereaved young wives or women afflicted with pulpit-adoration. Henry Ward Beecher, the famous orator and fornicating backslider, was in the honored tradition. His two outstanding seductions were of the wives of his finest friends and supporters, members of his congregation. The women involved were of a reticence altogether old-timey. Mrs. Tilton delayed and delayed before making her confession, the confession, in the end, few of the adulterous can bear to forego since, perhaps, the encounters have a high degree of domestic dramaturgy, and, say what you will, confer a measure of obscure credit on the chosen ones. When the confession arrived, it was accomplished with all the sentimentality and sweet self-abnegation of the period. When Mr. Tilton was, by this circumstance and that, drawn into filing a lawsuit against Beecher, the greatly famous pastor of the Brooklyn Plymouth Church found large support, which included the influential religious publisher Mr. Bowen. On her deathbed, Mrs. Bowen at last confessed that some years before Mrs. Tilton she herself had been in the pastor’s ardent favor.

The Beecher trial was a current sensation here and abroad. The Spectator, in London, noted, in words remindful of the present noise, Beecher’s dreadful habit “to be always kissing, pardoning, crying and writing hysterical Americanese.” The novelist George Meredith wrote about Beecher: “Guilty, or not guilty, there is a sickly snuffiness about the religious fry that makes the tale of their adulteries and fornications absolutely repulsive to read about…it disgusts one more than the chronicle of the amours of costermongers.” At the end of the Beecher case, the persons to suffer most painfully were the seduced Elizabeth Tilton and her betrayed husband, Mr. Tilton. As for the distinguished cleric, he went on appearing and appearing and drawing crowds.

Perhaps Jimmy Swaggart will also prevail in a forced retrenchment of ambition—a useful financial condition, in any case, for all the swollen ministries. Until the bedeviled Marvin Gorman set his trap, the Swaggart Ministry was a $140 million a year business, taking in $500,000 a day. It is common to name America a rich country, but some numbers amaze.2 Ninety percent of this was said to come from the income offered by the entranced, most of whom, if the efforts of various statisticians working in the murk and mire of the Gospel business are correct, are elderly, likely to be southern and female. As for the remainder, it arrives from the sale of a bunch of goods including special Bibles, cassettes of sermons, musical cassettes of Jimmy Swaggart’s Greatest Hits and others, a magazine, and so on and so on. No feather falls from the crested tuft of Swaggart and his kind without being retrieved for usefulness. Every sermon, every idea for a prayer, every incoherent notion brought on by a snatched clause from the Scriptures, all to be crushed into a great down bedcover of tax-exempt securities.

After the three-month silence imposed by the Louisiana Assemblies of God hierarchy, and a refusal of the one-year suspension ordered by the national board, Swaggart appeared in April in the Family Worship Center. America had seen the “I have sinned against you, my Lord” performance that provided fresh material for the nation’s professional comics. No matter, there was considerable interest in just what Swaggart would say about the humiliating, unpromising discoveries. He quickly enough forgave himself, with the usual insistence from on high that he indeed do so. “I have borne it all! I have carried it all! Christ, sitting on the Right Hand of God, says that he has washed the sinner clean…. The Blood of Jesus is not a treatment. [Such was advised by the church.] It is a cure! It’s settled! It’s settled!”

The old account was settled long ago,
And the record cleared away today.
For He has washed my sins away.
Long ago.

Acquaintance with the narrative victories of the Bible never instructs the preachers when they must compose some petty parable of their own. Swaggart put forth a woefully uncompelling account of two dreams, both about huge, huge serpents, over a thousand feet high, the lashing of their tails causing shatterings powerful as earthquakes. He could not, as we know, fight the primeval tempter alone. In the second dream there was a figure standing in the shadows, our Saviour Himself, who took up the battle, although with unfortunate tardiness, after the fact. But it is finished, it is finished! That’s it.

The intrepid sinner is back on the air, at one time weeping for the resulting deficit, begging now to continue in America and Canada alone, foregoing for the moment the transcontinental mission to save souls. “Surely this ministry is as important as the crossing of the Red Sea.” The reduction of goal did not last long; the next week in a seizure of madness a wild expansion against Gog and Magog was afoot; now the great millions of China were to trot like a herd of buffalo into the fold, some Moslems too were to be kidnapped along the way, and “old dead humanistic Europe.” One of the most dismaying effronteries of the Swaggart films is the casting up on the screen of the suffering faces of the starving children of Africa, with the implication that the Bluebonnet Road folk can accomplish what the efforts of the Red Cross, Oxfam, and the power of governments have failed to achieve. The starving children outreach is the object of widespread suspicion even among some fellow Pentecostals.

Poverty is not seen by the television ministries as a significant rebuke to Christ. For all their early acquaintance with lack, the preachers are wary of the hallowed poor as a theme. The dour, patient usefulness of the Salvation Army must appear to them a treadmill of obsolescence. Relief is to be directed to the church budget and not to the insufficiencies of the social security check or pension. Repeat, repeat in an unbearably humid tedium: give and it shall be returned to you tenfold. To hear the preachers utter, “Feed my sheep,” their own coffers, is to experience a chill. In a recent broadcast, Swaggart mourned his seven-million-dollar deficit, along with Frances having undergone a deficit of fifteen pounds, and he recalled with indiscriminate conceit Moses in Exodus smiting the rock to bring forth water for the children of Israel. “Frances and Donny have suffered like the early disciples,” a degree perhaps just less than the beheading of the Apostle Paul.

In any case, “God has pruned the tree.” Here the preacher dipped into the Gospel of St. John, dipped in the manner coming to all the television preachers, which is that of a gull skimming and diving in and out in a relentless search for food. Swaggart promoted, as it were, his reading of the question asked by Christ after the meeting at the well with the woman of Samaria: “Say not ye, there are yet four months and then cometh the harvest?” Four months? There is indeed no way the Family Worship Center may wait for four months. The Lord’s Prayer, an infrequent resource, was invoked for Baton Rouge with a deplorably suggestive underlining of “Give us this day, our daily bread.”

Richard Roberts, son of Oral, when asked about his taking over during his father’s recent bouts of manic indiscretion, had the miserable impertinence to call upon Elisha’s assumption of the mantle of Elijah, this royal succession, as Kermode notes, the only account of such transfer in the Bible. Years and years of demanding and receiving from the Lord, the granting of every flagrant wish, every ludicrous fancy, cannot help but unbalance the mind in the direction of the deification of the preacher himself. Their assumption of God-like powers, command of whims that recall the pagan deities, their impish cunning in exploitation such as the selling of indulgences that would shame a Borgia Pope; the measliness of their appeals to heaven, the glazed hypocrisy of these quite, or less than, ordinary persons, vessels of inflated presumption and tired theatricality, proposing no distance between themselves and the Holy Trinity—it’s a fearful infiltration of the Godhead, an oozing into the sacred sources, blatant as an updated campaign of the Antichrist.

We note the preachers’ immunity to error. What is promised one day, foretold, is unforetold the next, with no more wrenching reflection than a bee moving from one blossom to another. If God told Pat Robertson to run for the office of president and did not instruct the proper number to vote for him, perhaps the message was garbled in transmission, but the minister himself has not withdrawn the sanction. To admit error and its consequences would undermine every enterprise of the television ministries. True, for the Pentecostals, obstruction is the work of Satan, of demons, although it must be said the work of the powerful, fallen archangel is outstandingly brief in its effects upon the inner being of the ministers. The Lord and Jesus step in and swat down the great provoker as if he were one of the black flies of early summer. For Swaggart, leaving the Assemblies of God where he has been in ordination for so many decades, that too is nought. “God doesn’t consult deacons, boards, denominations, anyone!” Like God, neither will he, henceforth.

So farewell to the Sunday morning time-buyers, farewell to their indolent repeating; farewell to the Reverend Jerry’s 15,000 club at $200 a head, with the leather, annotated inerrancy Bible of “conservative theology, simplicity of expression ordinary people can understand”; farewell to the clubs, the calls, the emergencies, farewell to the donors who, at the least, deserve better.

Perry Miller tells of one of the embarrassments that came upon Jonathan Edwards during the Great Awakening. Some children of Northampton were discovered in a barn reading a book written for midwives and called locally “the Granny Book.” These were important children, since even for the purposes of salvation the ignorant and unlettered were not encouraged. A committee of investigation was called and it was decided that the children’s names were to be published and their perfidy advertised. One of the ringleaders in the Granny Book episode was a lower-class youth named Timothy Root. Root faced up to Edwards, to the committee of investigation, the whole Northampton hierarchy, and said about them: “They are nothing but men molded up of a little dirt; I don’t care a turd, I don’t give a fart for any of them.”

  1. 1

    Newsweek, July 11, 1988. After the Bakker and Swaggart scandals, a drastic fall of revenues for the television churches. The Bakkers in bankruptcy, Jimmy Swaggart “fending off collapse”; Oral Roberts barely solvent, Pat Robertson trying to keep his Christian Broadcasting Network afloat, Jerry Falwell cutting back; Robert Schuller, the clerical dean from California, also cutting back. All losing ground; IRS on the money trail. More scandals to come perhaps.

  2. 2

    In New York, a white, obscure Reverend Streitferdt founded his True Assembly of God Church in 1964—in Harlem. The church grew to occupy an entire block, set up a school running from kindergarten to the eleventh grade, pausing before the end out of regard, according to one parishioner, for the preacher’s belief that church members shouldn’t go to college. Streitferdt picked up the whole clerical package, expensive cars, a million-dollar estate on Long Island and more. At the moment he is out on $25,000 bail in connection with the alleged rape of two teen-age sisters in his congregation.

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