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Church Going

Jonathan Edwards

by Perry Miller
reprinted by University of Massachusetts Press, 384 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Fathers of the Victorians

by Ford K. Brown
Cambridge University Press, out of print

Free Love and Heavenly Sinners: The Story of the Great Henry Ward Beecher Scandal

by Robert Shaplen
Knopf, out of print

Redemptorama

by Carol Flake
Penguin, 300 pp., $7.95 (paper)

1.

They sound forth their message, these New World, and yet not quite to be called new, Gospel evangelists of fame earned and infamy pictured on television, these persons of bold insignificance, masters of inconsequence and befuddlement and reiteration, and yet significant corporate reapers of the efflorescence arising from the spiritual seed packets thrown on the ground of the American South. Or mostly the South, since that is where the insistent saviors have sunk their roots of reinforced concrete or colonial-style brick, built their tax-free parent companies, with subsidiaries of Bible College, schools for little people, costly broadcasting equipment, transcontinental, printing and processing plants for tapes and videos, pamphlets, and magazines, prayers and scriptural siftings, preacher autobiographies, and, above all, administration stations for the handy receiving of telephone pledge and mailed dollar in a daily superlative flow that is never quite enough, merely a few inches of rain when it is a flood of “offering” that God needs as the preachers swing from Pole to Pole, winging on their satellites, a ghostly eschatological companion of Star Wars.

The preachers know, they, they, the millions of lookers and listeners, are out there somewhere, locked to their cable stations or major networks, watching the 800 number, the response number, ever floating its ribbon across the bottom of the screen; and not in haste out of care for the failing eye and uncertain memory: the everlasting number accommodating the “saved” who are asked for a contribution as one might ask a healthy man for a pint of blood for the community, for the emergency, wrongly named since thus far no Gospel corporation has achieved a period of remission. From the “unsaved” the number wants that first tremulous inquiry on the prayer line so that the name may go into the churning stomach of the computer, enter, in the blinking of an eye, the mass-mail prison from which there is no parole. In this meticulous accounting, the Lord and Jesus serve in promotion of product very much, alas, like some empyrean brokerage house.

They are a mannered lot, the evangelists, some of them in a perpetual spit of video distemper and others displaying a drummer’s affability, the smile and chirp of the salesman at the door. Amid the dogwood and the honeysuckle, the shrimp and the crab, the programs unveil a world profligate with the tears of Redemption and pockets profligate with the widow’s mite. The donors, the donors: they will, it seems, once and then once more, send off income to the one who, like the old fad for sitting on a flagpole to set a record, climbs the steeple and threatens to be shipped off to heaven, before what, curiously, he does not consider his due time, for want of a mere eight million; this the antic of the old-timer Oral Roberts. And there is money for the one who is turning back hurricanes and in a whirlwind running for the office of president. They are all here in the green spring and back-yard summer, and being here they propose that the face of the Republic be carved anew in their image, the image of the preachers and the good, plain folk whose claims are ignored by the advancement of science, by the empty victories of hedonism, by all the secular smog darkening the landscape.

The cricket and the frog are silenced by the great roar of the preachers’ petitioning. The Almighty and His Son in their eternity are never to be allowed a moment of silence. The Holy Ones are doomed to an everlasting talking, talking into the preacher’s ear, giving advice on the car, the debts, the offense of colleagues. The Lord and His Son are in the kitchen, on the highway, practical, vocal, clear in their prodding as the sound of a horn on the street; and sleepless They are in the wake of the merciless pleading to “seal the covenant with television,” to mandate this ministry and that, to beam its squall across the states, down to the earth-quake rubble of Nicaragua, to the favelas of Rio, to the dead sand and dry earth of Ethiopia. For the tireless fund-raisers in heaven, there is no pity, no surcease; here, Lord, is a $7 million deficit, here a rival candidate, more than one, here a nearly empty God-built hospital, here a video waiting for processing and transmission; here a healing only He can see may have regressed on the way back up the aisle. Listening and listening, having to take the call; more demands for audience than the great Moses himself. The prayers, mundane as a grocery list, rise in a cloud, a break in the ozone layer; the far-flung planning for the next Crusade, the Lord required to serve as quartermaster, requisition the steeds and armor for battle with a woebegone infidel in earphones.

And the ever-increasing number of Evangels, way, way beyond the discrete settlement on The Twelve, each now nominated by his own designation, each with his style of stagecraft, his act, and all competing, envious, all to be heard and placated and supported unto old age, refreshed by a summer parsonage in Palm Springs, accommodated by a large estate with the great house for the star and Mrs. star and a somewhat lesser dominion for the son, the priestly heir, put forth for observation and admiration, the dauphin in shirt and tie and often a sober mustache; accommodated, too, by a private jet in the hangar, by more than one Mercedes or Cadillac in the ministerial garage. Remorseless demands for expansion lest some hound on the trail overtake, for budgets, for public relations, a pack hungry and feeding for The Glory.

Suddenly, as it were, truly prostrating embarrassments of a peculiar squalor even the All-Seeing could not be prepared for by Paolo and Francesca or Bruno Latini. The old demons of the American evangel circuit, the cigarette, the bottle, the rouged cheek, the dance hall and the movie house, are swept away by a female serpent under the street light with her key to the motel room. Screams on the celestial line—Oh, Lord, counsel me now.

Premillennialism, Pretribulation, Revival or ruin, as the Reverend Falwell exclaims—all are upon us. Sometimes the screen indicates a sort of theological exhaustion with waiting for what must be. Armageddon—the great fire, the seven seals, the white horse, the black horse, and the red horse, and the pale horse and its rider. Awful, but the faithful, by contribution, have bought their ticket, and many are getting on in years. And yet Renan’s gentle Jesus on His donkey might wish to linger in heaven before His Second Coming, since the Event is to be filmed by the clerical presidential candidate, perhaps in Jerusalem, and He is to serve the thousand-year reign on earth with the garrulous Reverend from Tulsa, Oklahoma, His self-deputed vice-regent, there throughout the long years, until all is at an end.

Say what you will, it is no religion for a gentleman.” Charles the Second on the Calvinists. The Calvinists, in the natural waning of the impractical notions of Election and Predestination, are today a mild and reasonable denomination, recessive in the manner of the other traditional Protestant churches. In the current aggressive landscape of Fundamentalism, Evangelism Charismatic, Pentecostalism, the theological foundations are united by “inerrancy,” whatever that may mean about the opaque Word of God and its triumph of rhetorical suggestiveness and metaphorical grandeur. The evangelistic groups are divided by what are really matters of deportment, such as “speaking in tongues” and the curiosities of faith healing by a pat on the head and an assertion in the vernacular of “It’s gone!” as in the advertising contest between pain killers. Some Fundamentalists reject the performance of miracles; reject or not, miracles still are notable for the way in which they serve the furtherance of business, Gospel business, all without the old empirical Roman Church practice of the devil’s advocate, rightly, if thought of at all, to be seen as a hazardous delay in the recognition of the instant-healing-brew and likely to disease the thoughts with the contemplation of just who, in these miraculous negotiations, is the Devil.

No differences in the evangelical groups bring to mind the great beauty and difficulty of the Scriptures; nothing recalls the dense and painful, morally painful, studies and disputes of centuries past. Neither the Higher Biblical Criticism nor the old local religious turmoils can give pause to the narrow liveliness of the celebrated Falwell Old-Time Gospel Hour, the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Possibility Cathedral in California, the Swaggart Ministry in Louisiana. Anyone who has lived outside the big cities can remember the social peculiarity and isolation of the little Church of the Nazarene, meekly standing by the road; and the Assemblies of God Church, plain as a garage; and the bashful believers who gathered of a Sunday morning or for the Wednesday night prayer meeting. At the present time the Assemblies of God Church is said to be the fastest growing in the country. It is clear that the narrowness of doctrine is itself the source of the prosperity of the denomination. The Pentecostal churches, with the unusual gravity of their prescriptions, are nevertheless lighthearted, hands uplifted, fulfilled, with the sense of certain escape from the source of handicap and retribution, sin.

There is a tragic aspect to the shattering intellectual and spiritual energy of Jonathan Edwards, to the intense scholarship and depleting passion he brought to doctrinal and personal controversy. The acts of this individual soul in a violent confrontation with the Scriptures, with, as Frank Kermode phrases it, “the gnomic excess of Jesus,” have obliterated the obscure writings of Edwards, and few would wish now to read them, although he lives on as a figure, disfigured too from the greatness of his mind, as a generation before Cotton Mather, in his way, has been also.

The horrors of Arminianism, that sweetening of traditional Calvinism, occupied the days and nights of so many. If God can elect whom He wishes and, should He wish, fail to elect any, God was, for the Arminians, the author of evil. They could not allow that He be a capricious executioner, condemning without trial to eternal damnation. To poor Edwards this doctrine seemed an unacceptable diminishment of Hell, that vast abyss over the border of life, the abyss of which he was the master imagist. As Perry Miller writes in his brilliant and difficult book about the tormented complexion of Edwards, the extraordinary preacher “coils a monstrous accusation against mankind.”

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God—horrible it was and not suitable to the new republic, except for a time.

God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else…. You are ten thousand times so abominable in His eyes, as the most hateful and venemous serpent is in ours.

We do not have free will, Edwards believed, although how does one achieve the Great Awakening of the 1740s without the will to a personal repentance, a bit of Arminianism in the hope of reprieve?

Jonathan Edwards’s revivalism in Northampton, Massachusetts, the conversions there, surprising, displayed in their mode many of the symptoms, in multiplication, seen in the random tent revivalism later and on the screen today. The sudden apprehension of God’s will can perhaps find no other visibility and embodiment than weeping, writhing, shouting, and so on. The Great Awakening died away as enthusiasm will unless shrewdly maintained by organization, by propagating methods that Edwards abhorred and that were alien to his studious manias for doctrine. Mistakes were made, and the early revival suffered local embarrassments, a bit of scandal and distress in the community. A respected person committed suicide, after being thrown into despair by Edwards’s unrivaled command of Hell rhetoric—this was a Mister Joseph Hawley.

The nineteenth-century Evangelical Reform Movement in England was summed up by the powerful Wilberforce when he said God had made his aim in life the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of manners, by which he meant the reform of the vices of the Established Church among other things. Note the announcement of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice when he arrives to assume his churchly “living” in the neighborhood of the Bennet family and of others more important:

Having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honorable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest effort to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.

The Anglican clergy’s obsequious pursuit of the titled and the landed gentry who controlled many of the appointments and could offer them by will or whim, the neglect of parish duties, the worldliness of the “fox-hunting parson,” and George Eliot’s “two-bottle” man, the hours at the whist table, the greed in the absorption of church revenues: all of this appears in the English novel, and was, of course, a representation of the decay of English clerical practice that led to the enthusiasm for reform.

The prominent English evangelicals remained for the most part in the Established Church, becoming “low church,” like most of the American Episcopal community. They were pious Christians, many of them wealthy and outstandingly philanthropic, much concerned with the evident spread of vice in the lower and upper classes, the falling away from the true Christianity “of the heart”; with the dreadful illiteracy and disease in the cities and in the countryside, the need for foreign missions to the heathen, and, above all, with the abolition of the slave trade in the English colonies. When, in 1807, the Act of Abolition was passed, the House of Commons rose to its feet, giving the evangelical parliamentarian Wilberforce “an ovation such as it had given to no other man.” Slavery itself was not abolished until 1833, shortly before the death of Wilberforce.

The Reform Movement occasioned societies and subscriptions, both particular and general and in such great numbers one can imagine the volunteer, the subscriber, fatigued by the mere choice at hand. Societies for employing the female poor, for the Benefit of Gentlewomen of Good Family; hospitals for lunatics, for people afflicted with venereal disease, for impoverished married women lying-in; the National Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor; orphanages, Bible societies, the London Society for the Conversion of the Jews, the YMCA, the Royal Humane Society, the Society for Returning Young Women to Friends in the County, the Society for the Preservation of Public Morals by Providing Temporary Asylum for Prostitutes. (Prime Minister Gladstone grew up in the evangelical world, but did not persist within the group. Perhaps his early atmosphere accounted for his great determination on the reclamation of prostitutes, a determination so pressing that some thought he might be Jack the Ripper.)

This period in brilliant detail is examined in Ford K. Brown’s book, which he calls Fathers of the Victorians, and indeed his scholarship justifies the line of descent. The Clapham Sect, philanthropic and reforming, settled in the village near London, counted among its leaders the father of the historian Macaulay and the father of Leslie Stephen. De Quincy’s mother was an evangelical; the rich and public-spirited Mr. John Thornton was the father of Marianne Thornton, the great-aunt of E.M. Forster. The families of Elizabeth Barrett, Benjamin Jowett, Samuel Butler, and, of course, that of Edmund Gosse maintained pietistic households marked by a restriction of animation. Macaulay, taken as a child to live in Clapham, remembered the village and the church with affection. “I love the church for the sake of old times,” he said. None of the great figures of the second generation remained caught up in evangelical practices, but there is no doubt that the movement, along with scripturally more rebellious Dissenters and Methodists, transformed English society.

The horrors of the Brontë sisters at the charitable, evangelical Clergy Daughters’ School are remembered with vivid lamentation in Jane Eyre; the school, by its rigors, hastened the deaths of the tubercular younger sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. George Eliot knew well the spread of the evangelical commitment in the countryside. Dinah Morris, the Methodist street-preacher in Adam Bede, is seen in a plain but celestial light; Mr. Bulstrode, in Middlemarch, is the deformed side of the evangelical—philanthropic in a manipulative way, but sanctimonious, cold, dishonest, looking upon most of his fellow beings as a “doomed carcass” which would feed him in heaven. The liberal enthusiasm in the early movement, the high concern for the welfare of the English people, was a wind of much charm and attractive sentiment, but it blew where it would and in lopping off the branches of excess, hypocrisy, and indifference it left a badly shorn tree ready for a fresh growth of respectability, conventionality, and hardy self-righteousness. The Bleak Age is Professor Brown’s name for the period that followed the genial reformers.

2.

Nowadays, in America, in most of the small New England villages, someone has bought the parsonage and “fixed it up.” “It’s awful to reflect how many sermons must have been written there,” Hawthorne stated as he moved into the old manse. The churchly melancholy of the pastor and his troupe, wife and children, going of a Sunday through the back door of the white clapboard Unitarian Church, next to the green and the Civil War soldier in his little stone cap, is scarcely a memory as the present pastors “cover the territory,” servicing this reduced parish and that. If the church and its steeple are handsome it is a popular photographic object and inside, at the usual times, the latitudinarian meetings survive to offer much the same pleasant and trustworthy satisfactions of a poetry reading. The bereft downtowns of middle-sized cities find the not very old mustard-colored brick of the churches dozing in its ordained routine. Hanging on, watching the figures of the old endowment, and in the big cities wondering if the sale of air rights to towers dimming the old dome and steeple might not solve the problem of endurance. The smaller urban Roman Catholic churches open the doors of their dusty baroque to find the Irish fled from their old residential concentration, replaced by the shorter, dark-skinned parishioners from Salvador, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.

Still there is a repercussive loyalty hanging about the “normal” churches. Perhaps a bit cool and distant since in many places it is doubtful that the people gathering know each other. The serene repertory of hymns, the Doxology, the organist pedaling hard during the “Offering,” perhaps at a transcription from Mendelssohn. The Episcopal churches so often attract those who have a baffled, somewhat embarrassed belief that “exposure” is good for the children. There is, there is, after all, the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Creed. “I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”—better than nothing, education somehow, a pinch of tradition.

The modesty of the claims of the general Protestant churches, the humbleness of their techniques of propaganda and propagation, the long shadow of relativism lying on the moral ledger, the inscrutable confusion about the Good, with each case to be adjudicated on an infinity of special conditions far more exhausting than Sin or Evil. Going on year after year, the clearest, the happiest moral decisions are the soup kitchen, the gathering of old clothes, the AA nights, and the performance of cantatas during the liturgical season. Yet there is a remaining sanctification to the mild, permeable doctrine and for some of the older ministers perhaps the memory of student nights, a glass of sherry, and the challenge of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the shady Paul Tillich. The churches are here, on their plots, institutions with some still-echoing claim beyond utility; “If only that so many dead lie round,” as Philip Larkin ends his ironic poem “Church Going.”

The Sabbath comes around and what are we to call the surging preachers on the television screen? The baldly modern fishermen; fishermen, yes, the bait more congruent than the guiding shepherd’s staff. With their confidence in the instrumental, the electronic, they are fantastical intrusions into the individual soul, into family values and Christian education. There is, or was, the Reverend Pat Robertson, maintainer of his marbleized, polished, imperturbable fatuity, a smiling cavalier, gliding here and there over the span of doctrine, from Baptist, to Charismatic healer and tongue-twister and miracle worker, until at last, by the prudence recommended in pursuit of public office, no preacher at all, just a Christian businessman, sliding away from his record of follies, presumptions, and predictions.

A student of religious manners might in a side step come upon a Dr. Eugene Scott, who says God loves a hilarious giver and is himself a hilarious emanation from California, a sort of brawler on the Gospel circuit. Scott is a monologist and stares rather thuggishly into the camera, without any reassuring stagecraft. He has no church except the scruffy temple of himself. He is well-fed and sometimes wears a sort of truck-stop cap and then again a wide-brimmed, vanilla-colored purchase. He adjusts his glasses on his nose to have a dip into the Scriptures. But most of all he projects what might be called his evangelistic logo—a large, wet cigar which he keeps in his mouth. “If the cigar offends you, turn the damn television off. The hell with you.” Scott offers, as he says, rugged Christian individualism. “I’m not a clinic. I’m not running one of those schools where you don’t meet the world or those little Christian colleges where you don’t get an education.” The weak give Scott a pain.

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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