The Fall of Jimmy Swaggart
The self-appointed judge of televangelists finds himself the penitent
In the days after the founder’s fall, the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries center in Baton Rouge was swept by shock, anger and an unsettling sense of foreboding. Two high school girls ambling down a flower-lined path visibly flinched when asked about Brother Swaggart. Their eyes widened with anxiety, and one stammered out what had overnight become a standard phrase to ward off outsiders: “No comment at this time.” Some older church members were less reticent. “I am indignant,” said a 47-year-old woman member of Swaggart’s Assemblies of God Church. “How could he stand up there in the pulpit and preach against adultery and promiscuity when he was doing that kind of thing all this time? I think he ought to stay out of the pulpit.” Angry as she was, she would not give her name, fearful of a fanaticism she’d had no cause to fear before.
He used to say, letting his face slip into that big, easy grin, “The Lord has been good to me,” and so it seemed. He had come bootstrapping out of a backwoods upbringing in Ferriday, La., borne up on the wings of Pentecostal Christianity, to become perhaps the preeminent televangelist. He had all the perquisites of that special priesthood—three spacious homes, a personal jet and the use of a luxurious ministry “retreat” in California. Just as his antic cousin Jerry Lee Lewis was the original wild man of rock and roll, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, 52, was the charismatic maestro of high-energy salvation. In the course of each sermon, the fired-up preacher would rant, weep, thrust his Bible high in the air and strut the stage this way and that, whipping his followers and himself to a devotional frenzy. An acute businessman as well as a spellbinding performer, he built an electronic empire with hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide and an income from contributions of $150 million a year.
Less visibly, he was fighting all along a secret war with Satan and—it is now clear—he was losing it.
Swaggart’s televised confession last week was the most tortured public display of contrition in recent memory. “I have sinned against you,” he said, looking directly at Frances, his wife of 35 years, and then turned his apologies to his son Donnie, daughter-in-law Debbie, his parishioners and his God. “I have sinned against You, my Lord, and I would ask that Your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God’s forgetfulness.” His audience, plainly moved by his copious tears, wept with him, interrupting him twice with standing ovations.
The elders of his Assemblies of God Church held their applause but barely slapped him on the hand for his sins. (Swaggart did not confess to any specific transgression but did admit to an encounter with a New Orleans prostitute.) Cynics attributed his light sentence—a three-month suspension from his U.S. pulpit, with the understanding that he was free to honor preaching commitments elsewhere in the world, and a two-year rehabilitation period—to the $14 million he gives each year to the parent group.
Outside Swaggart’s field of influence, the hypocrisy of his situation seemed breathtaking. Swaggart had always been a firebrand on the subject of moral turpitude and demon lust (“That Thing,” as one of his discourses titled it), and as scandal rocked his fellow TV ministers last year, it was Swaggart who had wielded the avenger’s sword, smiting Jim Bakker in particular as “a cancer on the body of Christ.” It was Swaggart, of course, who helped engineer Bakker’s downfall (and the damage done to Bakker’s rival PTL network) by informing officials of the Assemblies of God of Bakker’s affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn. Indeed, if there was any rough justice in the Swaggart scandal, it lay in the fact that his habit of doing in his rivals with righteous tale-telling and his church’s tolerance of housecleaning-by-vendetta had laid the groundwork for his own downfall.
In July of 1986, Swaggart summoned Marvin Gorman, pastor of the 5,000-member First Assembly of God Church in New Orleans and the star of his own budding TV ministry, to a meeting. Under questioning by Swaggart, Gorman confessed to an adulterous relationship. Swaggart reported the episode in a letter to a church official: “I asked him if there had been other women involved. He assured me there were no others. However…he was, even then, having an affair with the second woman”—the wife of a former First Assembly deacon, Swaggart charged.
Gorman filed a $90 million lawsuit accusing Swaggart of “conspiring, plotting and coercing” to defame him. He admitted to one adulterous affair but said that Swaggart had lied about the others. By the time Gorman’s suit was dismissed last year (he is appealing the decision), the pastor had long since been banished from his denomination, deprived of his large church and TV ministry and had begun again, in an independent church located in a former warehouse on the outskirts of New Orleans. His promising career had been all but ruined, and meanwhile the ministry of his persecutor grew ever more glorious.
So it was of more than casual interest to Gorman when he began receiving anonymous telephone calls a few months ago informing him that Jimmy Swaggart was seeing a prostitute. With those telephone calls, the seeds of Swaggart’s public humiliation were sown.
Of course, they were sown long before that. “I thought [Swaggart] was one of the most honest and sincere preachers I had ever met,” says Rice University sociologist and longtime Swaggart commentator William Martin. “But I’ve seen him change over the years. He really seems to have been seduced by the power and the fame.
“I think what happens to this kind of person,” Martin continues, “is that he begins to think, ‘I couldn’t have come this far if not for God.’ Then he begins to say, ‘Well, if I have this idea to build a bible college or a mission, it must have come from God.’ Next he starts to say, ‘God told me this. God told me that.’ And the next step from there is that he says, ‘I think what God meant to say was…’ ”
Swaggart got his first message from God as an 8-year-old standing in line at the movie theater in his one-traffic-light hometown of Ferriday. “I gave my heart to the Lord, and I remember the incident vividly,” he said of that Saturday afternoon. “The Lord spoke to me. I know that sounds funny. It was not an audible voice or anything of that nature. But I sensed it and felt it in my heart. It was so vivid and so powerful, I will never forget it. The Lord said, ‘Don’t go in there but give me your heart. I want to save your soul and set you apart as a chosen vessel used in my service.’ ”
Swaggart said that he tried to ignore the inner voice, that he continued to stand in line, that he even went so far as to plunk down a quarter for his movie ticket. “The ticket machine jammed, and the ticket wouldn’t come out,” Swaggart recalled. “Then I heard the Lord again. I finally got my quarter and left.”
It would be a decade before Swaggart, having dropped out of high school, would preach his first sermon. Meanwhile, the future pillar of the church played honky-tonk-style piano and got into mischief with his cousins Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis. So deep was the bond between them that after the success of Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire, Jerry Lee bought Swaggart a new Oldsmobile to replace the jalopy that was providing him shaky transportation from one revival meeting to the next.
Swaggart returned the favor when Lewis was so high on drugs during an Ohio concert that “he couldn’t hold a tune,” says Swaggart. “I walked onstage and took the microphone away from him and said, ‘Jerry Lee is my cousin and I love him. And I think that you know I love him, and I’ve come to take him home.’ ”
Married to Frances Anderson at 17 (she was 15—”and not pregnant,” says her husband with a laugh), Swaggart delivered his first sermon in front of a grocery store in Mangham, La., not long after. He played an accordion and sang, knowing even then that “we get the crowds with music.”
By the ’60s, Swaggart was an itinerant preacher crisscrossing the Southeast. He began cutting gospel records. (To date, he has sold more than 150 million.) Later, receiving another message from God, he began to do a radio show. From that moment, television was Swaggart’s manifest destiny. “The ministry probably quadrupled with radio,” he said. “With TV, it exploded.”
Never shy about sharing his views, Swaggart became only more outspoken after his move to television. He called Roman Catholicism “a false religion. It is not the Christian way.” Of Jews he has said that “because of their rejection of Christ, they have known sorrow and heartache like no other people on the face of the Earth.” Homosexuals have been another favorite target, particularly those who are ministers: “We’ve got to get those limp-wristed preachers out of the pulpits,” he has railed on TV.
By the 1980s Swaggart was big enough to be a target of investigations, and while the scale of alleged improprieties was nothing compared with the wretched excesses of Bakker’s PTL organization, some of the charges stuck. In 1981, when a wealthy California widow named Zoe Vance died leaving almost her entire estate to the Swaggart ministries, the “evangelistic association and its agents” were charged by the Vance family lawyers with “preying upon her loneliness and illness for the purpose of…securing donations from her.” A 1984 settlement allocated 70 percent of the estate—about $10 million—to the Swaggart ministries.
In 1983 John Camp, a reporter for Baton Rouge’s WBRZ-TV, unearthed allegations that money collected for a children’s aid fund was instead being used on buildings and furnishings for the ministry. (The allocation procedure was changed the following year.) There were also charges that Swaggart’s brother-in-law was taking kickbacks from a Dallas printer who had been printing Swaggart’s monthly magazine, The Evangelist. Treated as an internal church matter, the allegations were hushed up.
That same year, Dwain Johnson, the guitarist in the Swaggart gospel band was caught in flagrante delicto with Jimmy’s daughter-in-law, Debbie. When Swaggart heard about the affair, he reportedly told Johnson that if he wasn’t out of town by Monday, he’d be carried out on a stretcher. Eventually, in a settlement negotiated by Swaggart’s lawyer, Johnson was given title to a ministry-owned home and allowed to sell it on the open market, netting a profit of about $20,000. That settlement, claims John Camp, was in effect hush money.
It was about four months ago, according to a New Orleans prostitute named Peggy, when a man she believes was Swaggart first became a habitué of the seedy Air Line Highway pickup strip on the outskirts of New Orleans. Peggy, who appeared on a Baton Rouge TV station with her face obscured, said that on one occasion the man told her he was in that dubious neighborhood to arrange an adoption. Another time he stopped his Lincoln Town Car, invited Peggy to get in and asked her to perform a sex act for $10. “I just laughed,” she said, “because, you know, here is Jimmy Swaggart, and he has millions he could pay me, or at least thousands. I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Well, I guess you’d better get out of the car then.’ ”
When Marvin Gorman began hearing about Swaggart’s exploits along Air Line Highway from his anonymous telephone tipster, a private investigator was put on the case. The detective tracked Swaggart to a sleazy motel, alerted Gorman to the situation and then let the air out of one of Swaggart’s tires to slow his getaway.
Gorman reportedly found Swaggart fixing the flat. “He was wearing a sweat suit,” Gorman has been quoted as saying, “so that kind of does away with the theory that he was ministering to somebody.”
That was a theory Swaggart didn’t even try to float. Confronted by pictures of himself and a prostitute, he reportedly admitted, in a 10-hour session with church elders, at least this much: that he had paid her to perform pornographic acts, and that he had had a fascination with pornography since childhood.
Although the local Assemblies of God hierarchy has passed on its recommendation, the national council in Springfield, Mo., will have the final say on Swaggart’s penance. One member of the national presbytery who says he saw the pictures of Swaggart thinks the three-month suspension is too lenient.
There is little doubt, however, that Swaggart will ultimately be forgiven—and restored, if not to his former glory, at least to some measure of it. “I admire him for confessing the way that he did in front of his church,” says cousin Mickey Gilley, echoing the sentiments of many of the church members who filed out after Swaggart’s emotional confession. “It takes a lot to stand in front of a congregation and pull something out of your soul like that.”
Perhaps the best family wisdom on the matter comes from Swaggart’s 63-year-old aunt, Edna Mequet, of Mandeville, La., who said she was “shocked” at the news of Swaggart’s lustful exploits: “To tell you the truth, it made me sick. My blood pressure shot way up. But somehow God can take things that are wrong, like this problem, and turn them around to His glory.”
“If it’s true,” Aunt Edna continues, “maybe that’s why he preached so hard against it for so long, because he knew what a grip it could get on you. Jimmy’s daddy said that this might help Jimmy learn not to be so critical of others. I think maybe this will make Jimmy a better man, a more humble minister. Maybe now he won’t be so hard on people.”
“It just goes to show that none of us is so high that we can’t fall, and maybe that’s what God is trying to show us with this.”
—Written by Joanne Kaufman, reported by Kent Demaret, Anne Maier and Joyce Wadler