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


by Carol Flake
Penguin, 300 pp., $7.95 (paper)
Jimmy Swaggart
Jimmy Swaggart; drawing by David Levine


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…

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