By Steve Wolfgang
The fastest-growing “televangelism ministry” in the United States today belongs to Jimmy Swaggart. His 270-acre complex in Baton Rouge, LA, includes his million-dollar home, a 7,000-seat church, a state-of-the art television production studio, a 15,000-square-foot printing/mailing operation employing more than 1,000 people, and a 1000-student which will Bible college (which received 18,000 applications for the initial class of 400 students). According to Arbitron,
“The Jimmy Swaggart Hour” TV program reaches more than 2 million households; Newsweek recently reported his 1986 revenues at $142 million.
Not bad for a small-town boy (born in the one stoplight hamlet of Ferriday, LA). That Swaggart has sold more than 15 million “gospel” record albums is not surprising, since he grew up with his cousins, rock ‘n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis and country singer Mickey Gilley.
Swaggart, like Jim Bakker, is a member of the “Assemblies of God,” supposedly the fastest-growing American religious denomination. In fact, it was evidently Swaggart who first called attention to Bakker’s adultery with Jessica Hahn which has been so widely-reported in the news media recently. The Assemblies of God, with headquarters, publishing enterprises, and a seminary all located in Springfield, MO, consist of 10,866 congregatoins; during the last decade, they averaged 332 new congregations each year, but that growth has produced some internal tensions.
According to Martin E. Marty, church historian from the University of Chicago, there are “two separate movements” within the Assemblies of God, which have typically been handled by often having two congregations in the same town. “In one, there are pickup trucks in the parking lot and handbills advertising square dances on the bulletin board,” says Marty; “At the other, there are Oldsmobiles and the people go to weekend retreats on how to make money.” Observers of both Swaggart and Bakker can easily tell who might appeal to which subgroup. As anyone who has observed both can verify, “they appeal to very different segments within that denomination” (as sociologist of religion Jeffrey K. Hadden of the University of Virginia recently commented).
Doctrinally, the Assemblies affirm sixteen “fundamental truths” in their creed, including “Unity of One Being in Father Son, and Holy Ghost,” “Water Baptism,” “Baptism in the Holy Ghost,” “Sanctification,” “Divine Healing,” and “The Millennial Reign of Christ” (an earthly reign following the “rapture” which will “bring the salvation of national Israel”).
Swaggart began as a street preacher in Mangham, Louisiana at age 19 (a passing patrolman commented, “Son, you’ve got the fire”). He soon moved into small Pentecostal churches; after about twelve years he began to conduct his “crusades” in the city-wide auditoriums of large, metropolitan areas. His first radio broadcast on an Atlanta station in January 1969 launched his entry into media evangelism. The growth of his organization was accompanied by the production of a slick, fullcolor 36-page monthly magazine, The Evangelist, sent into about 700,000 homes. The Swaggart organization has spread to include overseas branch offices in Brazil, Chile, Central America, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, and Hong Kong.
Swaggart’s main growth, however, has been through television. In his own words, “That’s when it exploded… some people say that Jimmy Swaggart and television were made for each other.” Whether that is true or not, there is no doubting sociologist Hadden’s assessment that “Swaggart has the fastest growing audience of them all this past decade.” Swaggart’s aggressive attacks on immorality and his willingness to take unpopular positions have no doubt contributed to his distinctive message in a vast sea of health-and-wealth hucksters preaching a gospel of prosperity. Truly, he would appear to the “rising star” of television evangelists.
David Edwin Harrell, AM Things Are Possible., The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America (1975); The Evangelist: Voice of the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries 13:9 (September, 1981; “Special 25th Anniversary Edition”); William W. Menzies, Anointed To Serve. The Story of The Assemblies of God (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1971); issues of Time, Newsweek, and US News for April 6, 1987.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, p. 361
June 18, 1987