Wednesday, March 15, 2023
Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we examine one of the more high-profile televangelist scandals of the 1980s.
It is the 15th of March 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Oh boy. Ok, this show isn’t interested in doing “heretic hunts” or the like. I’ll tell you about people, and you can decide what you’ll do with them based on your church body or confession. And I’m also not here for the Nelson Muntz laugh when somebody screws up. But sometimes, these stories become legit mainstream news, and we will look at eccentric characters and their place in history.
All that to say, today is the 88th birthday of Jimmy Swaggart- and if you were alive in the 1980s, it would be hard to have not heard about him and his controversies.
For the quick bio, I went to his own website and checked out the biography there. It looked fair enough in some places. Jimmy Lee Swaggart was born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on March 15th, 1935. His parents made extra money during the depression playing fiddle and guitar. Jimmy was also musical, often playing with his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis. But Jimmy Lee was headed for a different kind of fame. He would become a preacher in the Assemblies of God church and, by 1969, aired his first live radio broadcast. The next year his own magazine started, and three years later, in 1973, he began his television ministry. His television station has since broadcast around the world. He has traveled globally and has released several gospel records with sales of over 17 million.
That’s a fair bio. But it misses kind of a big story- one so big it would lead to Jimmy making Time magazine cover in 1987 under the banner “TV’s Unholy Row: the Scandal of Televangelism.” But in that story, Swaggart is not the villain- in fact, he is part of the story of the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Swaggart was painted as the holy prophet condemning the failures and excesses of his television rivals. He claimed more would come out on Bakker in the coming years. And it did. But more also came out on him.
Within a year, it was a new Time Magazine story entitled “Now It’s Jimmy’s Turn.” After accusing a fellow Assemblies of God minister of indiscretions, that minister hired a private eye to follow Jimmy. It turns out he was meeting with a woman of the night and had been for some time. This led to a national story with Jimmy admitting an undisclosed “sin” and dramatically and tearfully asking for forgiveness on live television. It was an early meme of the crumbling televangelical industry.
But he did not step down- in fact, Time magazine would carry another story with the title “No Apologies This Time.” Swaggart was caught with another woman but told his congregation that God told him to keep preaching and that "the Lord told me it's flat none of your business.” Unsurprisingly there have been other problems with Swaggart (including a tax case that went to the Supreme Court), but he was the face of televangelism and its scandals in the 1980s.
In 1998, a historian I respect very much, Randall Ballmer, wrote an article in Christianity Today reflecting on Swaggart entitled “Still Wrestling with the Devil”- in it, he digs deep into the scandals but also paints the picture of a man still wrestling with the darkness, his diminished ministry and reminders everywhere of his guilt and shortcomings. If you want to read more- I recommend that article, available online.
From a church historical perspective, there is something congruous about Jimmy Lee’s cousin being the infamous Jerry Lee, who scandalized America by marrying his 13-year-old cousin. The evangelist and the rockstar- the evangelist and the celebrity caught in a scandal is an old trope- and for a good reason. There seems to be something intoxicating about fame that can also numb one to honest self-reflection and repentance- a theme much older than Jimmy Swaggart. That is, older than 88 years, at least as Jimmy Swaggart was born on the 15th of March, 88 years ago in 1935.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from the Gospel of John, the 7th chapter:
25 At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? 26 Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Messiah? 27 But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.”
28 Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, 29 but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.”
30 At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. 31 Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of March 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose greatest scandal was when he failed the Folgers taste test- he thought the crystals tasted better… He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who wonders what happened to taste test commercials… I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.
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