To understand clearly that Jimmy Swaggart plotted his own destruction, you must stand here in the courtyard of the Travel Inn, that squalid rendezvous on Airline Highway in Metairie, Louisiana, just across the parish line from New Orleans. A few hundred years away looms the vacant brick building that formerly housed the largest congregation in Louisiana, the First Assembly of God, which was pastored by the Reverend Marvin Gorman until the avenging finger of Jimmy Swaggart brought him down. About an equal distance in the opposite direction is the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office. It was from this spot, between his bitterest enemy and the law, that Jimmy Swaggart, dressed in jogging clothes, would cruise Airline Highway in his tan Lincoln, searching for cheap women and his own inevitable downfall. 

Why? Why would the most popular television evangelist in the world, a man who once claimed a worldwide viewing audience of more than 500 million, whose weekly telecast was carried on more than 3,000 stations, not counting cable outlets, whose show was seen in 145 foreign countries and “available,” he could boast, “to more than half the homes on this planet”—a man, moreover, who saw himself as God’s Messenger, the only real hope for the evangelization of the world and the salvation of America—why would such a man sabotage his reputation and his career and his very soul for the guilty pleasure of watching women masturbate?

Hold that question in mind as we move seventy-five miles north, to Baton Rouge, to the 270-acre headquarters of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, passing the immense headquarters building on World Ministry Avenue, framed by flags of the 195 nations reached by Swaggart’s missions, passing the vast complex of his partly finished Bible college, his $10 million teleproduction center, his printing plant, his private Christian school for grades kindergarten through twelves, until we come to the eight-sided Family Worship Center, where off-duty policemen are waving traffic into the acres of parking lots. It’s Easter Sunday. The azaleas are blooming. Inside the lobby of the church there is a world map on either wall, one indicating the countries receiving the Jimmy Swaggart telecast and the other showing missions, churches, hospitals and schools supported by his ministry. Both maps are clotted with dots. There is a concentration of missions in Central America, the Caribbean and the west coast of Africa. The television broadcasts blanket the United States, Canada and most of South America and extend into the unlikeliest of places—Mongolia, according to a red dot in Ulan Bator, and several atolls in the remotest stretches of the Pacific Ocean. All of this has come to pass since New Year’s Day 1969, when Jimmy Swaggart made his first radio broadcast.

He had erupted from the poor hamlets and lonely whistle stops of the rural South. Uneducated, unexposed to the larger world and yet propelled by an inner certainty that he called God’s anointing, he had stormed the dirt-road churches and Holy Roller tent revivals in the piney woods, gathering force, learning how to sway the multitudes with his muscular voice and his boxer’s body, dancing, crying, damning, beseeching the brokenhearted and despairing souls to come forth and be saved. He had known since he was a child that God would lift him above all others. God had led him out of the tents and backwoods churches and into city auditoriums, and onto radio, and then onto his ultimate instrument, television. 

In 1973, Swaggart taped his first television program, in the Hee Haw studios, in Nashville, and began his unparalleled rise to power and prominence. His invasion started with UHF stations and spread to independent cable and Christian networks. And it was not just his Sunday sermon that went out to the world; at one time, Swaggart had seventeen different programs on the PTFL Network and a similar number running day and night on other stations. The casual viewer scanning the offerings of this flea market of American culture was perhaps more likely to see Jimmy Swaggart’s face than any other.

“Monday morning, July 1st, 1985, at about 9:30, God spoke to my heart that we should put the telecast on every station throughout the world,” Swaggart has said on many occasions. “He said, ‘Do this immediately, and do not fail!’” Later, Swaggart said in a revival last fall, God revealed to him some of the messages he wanted his servant to deliver. “What he said was so strong I fell! I fell on my face! I said, ‘God, I cannot say it—it’s too hard!’ And God said, ‘I will give you a face as flint! I will give you a head like steel! I will give you a tongue, I will give you a mouth, but you will say what I tell you to say!’”

“He was preaching on the edge,” says Reverend Glen Berteau. “You always had the feeling with Jimmy Swaggart that he was going to the limit with it every time.”

What Swaggart has said includes statements that Catholicism is a “monstrosity of heresy” and a “complete contradiction of the word of God,” that all dancing, including aerobic dancing, is “sinful and harmful,” that AIDS can be contracted by eating at a restaurant where food is prepared by homosexuals” and that “all rock music … being aired today is demonically inspired.” According to Swaggart, “The main problem in the free world today is that there is no punishment for crime!” He has an answer for this uncurbed lawlessness. “In all honesty, I have two answers for it: the side-by-bide answers of a double-barreled shotgun!” He has called homosexuality “the worst sin in the world’ and has said, “I’m sick to death of words like gay being used to amass respect for people who don’t deserve respect. Why don’t we use words descriptive of their chosen lifestyle—such as pervert, queer or faggot?” He is opposed to public education and has said that the United States Supreme Court and the Congress are “institutions damned by God.” He resents the media for advocating “a system of atheistic socialism where all decisions are imposed by this small, elite, superior intellectual class who do the thinking for all common people.” He has told reporters, “You can write your poor little old pitiful pukish pulp in your papers if you want to. But you can stop what I’m preaching about like you can stop a Louisiana hurricane with a palm branch.”

These tirades are delivered with Swaggart’s waving his Bible overhead, his baritone voice rising into shrieks or falling into a breathless whisper but always demanding, insinuating, taunting—an irresistible performance. He is “the most effective speaker in the country,” in the opinion of CBS anchorman Dan Rather. Swaggart kneels, he struts, he dances, he sings, he bursts into tears, then he abruptly rains laughter on the thousands of worshippers waving their arms before him. Suddenly he breaks into the incantatory language of the Holy Spirit: “Hun da sheek kulaba some do roshay ketab do rotunda!” Swaggart has proudly said, “I speak in tongues every day of my life.”

“He was preaching on the edge,” says Reverend Glen Berteau, who spent four years working as the director of Swaggart’s youth ministry. “There is something glamorous about being on the edge of anything. You always had the feeling with Jimmy Swaggart that he was going to the limit with it every time.”

“Is it Jimmy’s masculinity, his macho?” wonders Richard Dortch, the past president of the PTI Network, who was once a close friend of Swaggart’s but is one of the many people ruined by Swaggart’s purse of his television competitors. “What is it that makes him what he is? His music had a lot to do with it, and his abandonment to the Holy Spirit. When he would preach, he would just kinda go into overdrive.”

“He’s got a style that’s perfected in terms of the words, the body language,” says Dr. Jefferey Hadden, a University of Virginia sociologist who is coauthor of the recent book Televangelism. “It’s the dynamism of a Billy Sunday and the populism of a Huey Long.” 

That is a powerful combination. Indeed, until February 21 of this year, there seemed to be no brakes at all on the expansion of the Swaggart empire. His Baton Rouge office, which has its own ZIP code, handled more mail than any other entity in the state of Louisiana. Most of the 40,000 letters received each week contained money, amounting to nearly $500,000 a day in 1986. Although Swaggart’s ostensible goal was to evangelize the world before Armageddon—he claimed to be saving 100,000 souls per week—he also had allied himself with the Christian right and was vigorously pressing its political and social agenda. No single person had ever assembled such a global television audience, and it was difficult to foretell what the consequences of such a supranational phenomenon might be. Already his telecast was being translated into sixteen languages, including Russian, Mandarin, Icelandic, Persian and Swahili. 

But now, suddenly, this soaring preacher was falling, falling, and no one could say where he would land. He had been revealed as a sinner, and he had bravely admitted his sinfulness to the world, bawling as the translators rendered his confession into the tongues of men, humbling himself before his wife, his congregation, his God, even the news media. “And to the hundreds of millions that I have stood before in over 100 countries in the world,” he cried, becoming almost incomprehensible, “I’ve looked into the camera, and so many of you with a heart of loneliness that needed help reached out to the minister of the gospel. You that are nameless—most I will never be able to see you except in faith—I sinned against you. I beg you to forgive me.”

The fifty-three-year-old Swaggart delivered his confession on February 21st, the first Sunday of Lent. In the six weeks that followed, Swaggart’s fate became a matter of church politics. The state council of his denomination, the Assemblies of God, was controlled by Swaggart’s close associates and relatives and by members of the board of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. They met and announced that their repentant brother would be removed from the pulpit for three months of rehabilitation, not the usual full year. A more severe punishment threatened to put an end to the entire Swaggart ministry—not just the television show but also the Bible college, the private school, the missions and the $1 million a month Swaggart tithed to the national Assemblies of God. At once, the switchboard of the Assemblies’ national headquarters, in Springfield, Missouri, lit up with 300 phone calls an hour, almost evenly divided between Swaggart supporters and those who wanted his punishment increased. The thirteen-man executive presbytery, which decides denominational matters, overruled the Louisiana district and imposed a two-year suspension that called for the complete absence from the television ministry for the first year and a probationary period thereafter. The next day Swaggart rejected the Springfield ruling and said that he intended to abide by the three-month ban. Two days later, however, on Good Friday, the Louisiana district reversed itself and called upon its most famous minister to remove himself from the television screen for a full year.

And so this Easter Sunday, April 3rd, is a crucial moment in the life of Jimmy Swaggart. Will he return to the pulpit and be defrocked? Or will he stand aside and watch the satellite bookings and time slots that he spent years putting in place be lost to reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and The Dukes of Hazzard and the highly competitive sulfurous evangelist behind him? And isn’t this the predicament he sought, even longed for, on those Saturday afternoons when he was supposed to be off rehearsing his sermons and talking to God but instead was sneaking down to New Orleans to pay women to take off their clothes?

The 7500-seat Family Worship Center is only partly full at 10:00 A.M., as the bass drum sounds and the curtain rises on the crumbling Swaggart empire. The choir, which formerly spanned the bleachers across the rear of the auditorium, is reduced by at least a third. The brass section of the Swaggart band is down to two horns and five empty chairs. The Amen Corner, where fifty-four associate pastors usually sit, is missing some notable faces—including, at this moment, Jimmy Swaggart and his wife, Frances.

There is a sullen air in the Worship Center, which on any previous Easter Sunday would have been overflowing with ecstatic worshippers singing the praises of God and his beloved deputy in Baton Rouge. Many here today have come only to gawk, and even the faithful rise grudgingly from their seats when the hymns begin. We have all heard about the graduating seniors of the Jimmy Swaggart Bible college who are trying to get their diplomas changed and about the defecting undergraduates, some of whom are just learning that at the college has never been accredited by the by Assemblies of God, and about the hundred employees who have gotten their pink slips. The band and the choir are belting out a rollicking gospel number, but the faces of the mostly middle-class congregation appear cautious, uncommitted. Indeed, the entire production has the atmosphere of a Las Vegas revue on its closing night. 

During the second chorus, Jimmy and Frances slip in from the rear of the stage—she is in one of her sensational designer outfits, which have always been the talk of the Pentecostal world. This time it is a turquoise skirt with a sort of Joseph’s-coat serape. Frances Anderson Swaggart has been a dominating force not only in Jimmy’s life but also in his ministry, which has numerous members of her family in key positions. “If you can imagine a bull’s-eye,” a former aide says of the hierarchy, “the inside circle is Jimmy, Frances and Donnie [their thirty-three-year-old son]. The next circle is the rest of her family, some thirty people.” Her brother, Robert Anderson, treasurer of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, has been the subject of several exposes by Baton Rouge TV reporter John Camp, who has accused Andersen of financial irregularities. 

“I’ll rise again,” he boldly sings out on this Resurrection morning. “Ain’t no power on earth can keep me down.”

In the past, when Frances suspected that staff members were talking to the press, she made them take lie-detector tests. A fit and stylish woman herself, Frances also supervised a campaign to slim down the employees, requiring them to be weighed once every quarter to see if they were meeting the guidelines posted by the personnel department. Reporters and even scholars who have questioned Jimmy Swaggart’s ethics or theology often had to answer to a ferocious Frances angrily demanding a retraction. Until February, however, the Swaggart empire had never really been in peril. Now everything was on the line, not only the fortunes of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries but also the future of the entire Anderson clan. 

Swaggart’s suspension prohibits him from preaching—from appearing at all—so his mere presence on the stage this Easter Sunday is a technical violation. He and Frances take their places at the head of the Amen Corner, Jimmy fiddling with a microphone in his lap, into which he occasionally sings counterpoint to the choir. Indeed it is that gentle, Elvisy baritone in the background that alerts most of the worshipers that the Founder, as he designates himself, is onstage. 

The Reverend Jim Rentz, official pastor of the Family Worship Center since February, preaches the service while the smoldering Swaggart shifts restlessly in his seat, like a bull in a rodeo pen. Bridled as he is, his energy seems to expand and feed on itself. At last, after the choir has sung “I See a Crimson Stream of Blood,” Swaggart can contain himself no longer. He leaps up and rampages across the stage, imploring the choir to sing another chorus. “Satan says it’s over!” he cries ecstatically. “Jesus says, ‘Look at the blood!’ The angels say, ‘look at the blood!’” It’s this sort of passionate Swaggart riff that usually gets the audience to its feet, but today the response is leaden, the cheers are hollow, and some in the audience appear a bit shocked by the Founder’s shameless defiance. 

“Brother Swaggart!” comes the voice of a teenage boy from the balcony. “Brother Swaggart!” The church grows quiet. Swaggart does not turn around. “Your hypocrisy is scornful of the government God! Liar! Hypocrite!” Swaggart’s plowboy shoulders hunch around him. Rentz asks the congregation to stand and “just praise the Lord” to drown out the shouting as the ushers race toward the youth and drag him out of the sanctuary. In an instant he is gone, but the accusation hangs in the air, a weird and penetrating moment of truth. Swaggart makes a characteristic jutting gesture with his chin, like a boxer shaking off a punch.

A few minutes later is up again to sing with the choir, this time a tune of his own request. “I’ll rise again,” he boldly sings out on this Resurrection morning. “Ain’t no power on earth can keep me down.”

Some of the reasons that Jimmy Swaggart would destroy himself may be found in Ferriday, Louisiana—”my beleaguered little town,” he would call the place of his birth, ten miles from Natchez across the Mississippi River Bridge. It has been rather routinely described by passing journalists as a “typical” Southern crossroads town—an adjective weighted by the natives with a sense of disbelief, for even in the Deep South, Ferriday has the reputation of being one of the darker and more Gothic pockets of humanity. 

Here Swaggart grew up with his cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley—all of them were born within a year of one another in the mid-1930s. Back then the town was run by their uncle Lee Calhoun, a “vile, vulgar, profane old man,” as Jimmy later described him, whose name was carried forward by both Jerry Lee and Jimmy Lee. Although Uncle Lee made his fortune from bootlegging and cattle rustling, he seemed to float eerily above the world of law and consequence. “He was well respected in the community,” Jimmy writes in his autobiography, To Cross a River (co-written by Robert Paul Lamb). “He never seemed to have the problems all my other relatives had. His house was constantly full of people looking for money, politicians asking for favors, and preachers hoping for some kind of contribution.” Lee Calhoun’s example would powerfully affect his namesakes. 

Uncle Lee’s main moonshine still was busted by revenuers in January 1935. One of the men captured in that raid was W.L. “Sun” Swaggart, a fur trapper, pecan picker and occasional fiddle player. As the revenuers were leaving with a truckful of arrested men, they passed a heavily pregnant woman walking on the side of the dirt road. “Who’s she?” one of the agents asked Sun Swaggart. “That’s my wife,” he said. 

“The agent paused, then shrugged,” Jimmy writes. “‘Well, you get her out of here,’ he said to daddy. ‘And if I see you around here a minute longer, you’re going to jail.’

“Daddy grabbed mama and took off down the road, but all the other relatives, including five of my uncles, wound up behind bars. 

“Two months later I was born.” 

Jimmy’s aunt Mamie was also pregnant when the revenuers took her husband, Elmo Lewis, but she was not as fortunate. Elmo, however, soon escaped from prison and was back home when his son Jerry Lee was born, eight months later. 

The following year, in 1936, a woman called Mother Sumrall and her daughter Leona wandered into Ferriday from Laurel, Mississippi. They went around the village knocking on doors and inviting people to attend their “church”–an overgrown vacant lot with benches and chairs set among the weeds. Eventually they erected a tent in that lot, which was across the street from the Community Hall, where Sun Swaggart and his wife, Minnie Bell, would play community dances, he on the fiddle and she on the rhythm guitar. In that same hall, Sun’s amateur boxing career had come to a sudden halt one night when a professional slugger separated him from consciousness. But by then he had raised enough money to own a small gas station a block away, on the main highway. He had been to church only one time in his life, for a Catholic funeral, but as he sat in his gas station, the music from Mother Sumrall’s tent came tugging at him. One night Sun and Minnie Bell picked up their instruments, and the Swaggart family entered the Assemblies of God. 

That night they became a part of a religious movement that already was profoundly changing the country and much of the world. It was the great Pentecostal revival, which began in Topeka, Kansas, on New Year’s Eve 1900, when a young Bible student named Agnes Ozman prayed aloud in a language she had never heard before. Some syllables were later identified as Chinese, and for the next three days she was unable to communicate in any other language. Soon other students began speaking in tongues; their words were variously identified as French, German, Swedish, Czech, Japanese, Hungarian—twenty-one languages were counted. 

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, was known to anthropologists, who have cited accounts of American Indians who spoke in languages they never could have learned and even of Tibetan monks who quoted Shakespeare in English. Until Agnes Ozman spoke Chinese, however, speaking in tongues was practically unknown in the major denominations of the Christian faith, although Saint Paul makes frequent references to the gift of speaking in tongues in his Epistles. The most frequently cited Scripture about speaking in tongues occurs in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, which describes the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The apostles were gathered in an upper room in a Jerusalem inn when “suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind.” The apostles were filled with the Holy Ghost “and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” 

Charles Fox Parham, Agnes Ozman’s teacher, also received the gift of speaking in tongues, along with a dozen other preachers of various denominations. They planned a coast-to-coast evangelical tour to spread the message of the “full gospel”—a message that included other gifts of the Spirit,” such as healing and prophecy. The tour fell apart on the first stop, Kansas City, where the preachers were met by the incomprehension and derision that would always accompany the Pentecostal movement and mark it as a refuge for the credulous and the ignorant. Parham, broke and dispirited, began preaching on street corners. Eventually he established another school in Houston, Texas. 

One of his students there was William J. Seymour, a black minister who carried Parham’s message to Los Angeles. Seymour arrived in April 1906 and set up a church in an old livery stable on Azusa Street. What followed was the greatest religious revival in American history; it went on day and night for more than three years. People of all races and classes passed through, speaking in tongues, shouting hallelujahs and singing gospel music. Indeed, it was this radical fusion, especially of the races, that would give Pentecostalism its particular primitive fire. It was born of the same kind of marriage that would later produce rock ’n’ roll. 

Perhaps because Pentecostalism has been a mixed-race phenomenon, even in the Deep South, there has hung about it the taint of broken taboos. Of course, this has always been a feature of ecstatic religions. It is a legend of those early camp meetings and tent revivals that a population boom would follow nine months later. In the Twenties, the first voice of Pentecostalism to capture the national airwaves was that of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who scandalized the county by staging her own kidnapping, which appears to have been a cover-up for a five-week sexual escapade. Among her other amours was Charlie Chaplin, who is reputed to have said to her, while they were making love, ‘‘Keep your wings on.” 

Derided as Holy Rollers, the Pentecostals nonetheless represented a powerful and growing counterforce to scientific thinking and the belief in social progress that had taken over the cities and universities. The Pentecostals lived in a world of miracles. They saw science turned on its head by the triumph of faith. Science, for its part, looked upon Pentecostalism as a kind of mass psychosis. Linguists who studied these prayer languages easily showed that they were not French or Japanese, as the speaker might claim, but a “facade of a language” like Sid Caesar’s French or the Japanese of John Belushi’s samurai tailor. Linguists admitted, however, that the sounds were not gibberish; they had the shape and form and sound of languages, and other Pentecostals who heard the sounds could interpret them and agree upon their meaning.

Jerry Lee and Jimmy were closer than brothers.

The Assemblies of God was one of the several Pentecostal denominations to come out of the Azusa Street Revival. Founded in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914, the Assemblies would become the fastest-growing denomination in America, at a time when mainstream Protestant churches were in decline. Its roots were in the rural congregations like the little white church in Ferriday that was built on Mother Sumrall’s lot and paid for by that old reprobate Lee Calhoun. 

In the Pentecostal world, the little church on Texas Street has become a kind of shrine to the movement’s most famous preacher. When I arrived in Ferriday, the family of a visiting evangelist was packing up and leaving the parsonage under a cloud much darker than that hanging over Jimmy Swaggart. “We call it the crime of the century,” says Frankie Jean Lewis Terrell, Jerry Lee’s sister. “This poor little Assemblies of God man was arrested over here. They say he raped his two daughters, and they’re lookin’ at the parakeet.

“He sent his last five dollars to Jimmy Swaggart.” 

It was in this church that the Swaggarts, the Lewises and the Gilleys all came to find God. The women were particularly fervent. Mamie Lewis and Irene Gilley and Jimmy’s grandmother Ada Swaggart would all become evangelists, as would Jimmy’s father. The boys, Jimmy, Jerry and Mickey, were in the same Sunday-school class, which was taught by Sun Swaggart, and they each cut their names into the pew in the back of the church. Jimmy enjoyed the Bible stories. “David and Goliath was my favorite. Many times I sat pretending it was me hitting the giant with the rock.” 

Minnie Bell Swaggart had been saved for about a year when she began praying for her son. Jimmy preferred to spend his time with Jerry and Mickey, going to see Hopalong Cassidy or Johnny Mack Brown movies at the Arcade Theatre. “You really shouldn’t go,” his mother would tell him. She herself had given up going to movies when she became a Christian. Jimmy went anyway. He was standing in line to buy a ticket when “an entreating voice suddenly spoke to me. ‘Do not go in this place. Give your heart to me. I have chosen you a vessel to be used in my service.’” Jimmy began to cry. He was eight years old. 

Still, he resisted the call. Once during a revival, both Irene Gilley and Mamie Lewis fell to the ground and began speaking in tongues. These demonstrations alarmed Minnie Bell. “This shouting and hollering is ridiculous. I’ll never do it.” But the Spirit seized her during that revival. Jimmy had not gone to the meeting that day; he was playing with Jerry Lee and some other boys several blocks from the church when they all heard someone shouting at the top of her lungs. A dread swept over my heart,” Jimmy writes. “I knew it was my mother.” He ran home in shame. 

But that summer the Spirit came over him too. A woman came from Houston to preach. “The last night of the services something finally released within me,” Swaggart writes. “Kneeling at the altar, praying as usual, I became aware of what seemed to be a brilliant shaft of light descending from heaven and focusing on me. Moments later I was speaking in tongues. 

“For days afterwards, I spoke very little English.”

Jerry Lee and Jimmy were closer than brothers. “At times it seemed as if we were twins,” Jimmy notes, and indeed their lives would be intertwined in complex ways. It was almost as if they were opposing halves of a single person, neither of them complete by himself. Jimmy was fiercely shy; Jerry was hilariously boisterous. Jimmy was afraid of girls; Jerry was a teenage Casanova. Jimmy was a frugal, sanctimonious teacher’s pet; Jerry was a profligate, untamed hellion. Anyone in Ferriday could assemble a list of such personality traits, marking Jimmy at one extreme and Jerry at the other. The only characteristics they had in common were an intense competitiveness with each other, a boiling need to get out of Ferriday and a tendency, as the world would see later, to live symbolic lives. 

Each was fanatically devoted to his mother, and perhaps this would affect the twisted relationships with women that awaited the boys when they would become men. “These boys were mama’s babies,” says Frankie Jean, who lives in the five-bedroom brick house in Ferriday that once belonged to Lee Calhoun and then to Elmo and Mamie Lewis. The house has been carefully preserved, at her brother’s insistence. “Jerry didn’t want me to put a microwave in the kitchen,” says Frankie Jean. “He won’t let me vacuum in her old bedroom because it’s got her heel prints in the carpet.” 

Frankie Jean is a female photocopy older brother, with his small, delicate mouth, sharp chin and high Indian cheekbones. She sits at the baronial dining room table with a rack of ironed shirts behind her and a police scanner crackling in the background. Frankie Jean cleans houses for a living. She “may or may not be an occasional correspondent for the National Enquirer, and she tends to speak in that publication’s exclamatory style. “I loved my mother, and I loved my aunt Minnie Bell,” she says. “They didn’t mean any harm. These were two wonderful ladies! But they had a way of just pulling you in. They would sit around and talk about what they were going to say to Jimmy and Jerry–he must do this, he must do that–you see? Their little cult! They brainwashed the hell out of ’em! All of a sudden this religious thing came over them. They just became so righteous. I mean, these were moonshiners! It was just church, church, church! Jimmy’s been programmed! Jerry’s been programmed! Mother would tell Jerry that every hair on his arm was perfect. Aunt Minnie Bell would tell Jimmy, ‘You’re going to be completely perfect.’ Jerry was the bad one. Jimmy was going to walk with God. Well, look at ’em! These boys were robots!”

Catty-corner from Frankie Jean’s house is a forty-five-foot trailer where Jimmy’s father lives with his fourth wife. Sun Swaggart is seventy-three years old now, with thick plastic bifocals and a nervous cough, but he still carries the frame of an amateur heavyweight Although he lives poor, “Uncle Sun is a very wealthy man,” according to Frankie Jean. “A millionaire several times over,” says one of his nephews. His frugality is a matter of legend in Ferriday. “He still gives me his leftover tea bags,” says Frankie Jean. 

There has existed between the Swaggarts and the Lewises an ancient antagonism over how the children were raised. “Jerry has a good heart,” Sun says, “but it would take a miracle to save him. Jerry’s mother and dad—they was Christian maybe for a few months, and then they’d go cold on God, y’see. So naturally he didn’t have the rearing most Christians have.” 

Frankie says of Uncle Sun, ‘This is a very domineering man. Uncle Sun had the only word in the house, and I think this has made Jimmy very insecure. Everything was so damn tight. Sure, I know Jimmy has giggled a bit and had a tiny bit of fun, but Jimmy has not been allowed to think, act or breathe like a normal human being. Jimmy’s been held— I’m gonna cut the namby-pamby—Jimmy’s been held down. He’s been so deeply suppressed—this guy has never been allowed to be anything. No talking at the table. Yes sir and no sir. This kid has had a difficult time. If he challenged his father. Uncle Sun would put on boxing gloves and just deck him. Now we would call it child abuse.” 

“Jimmy wasn’t very talented,” Frankie Jean says, “but he prayed all day and night for that talent and it came to him. I was about as shocked as the rest of them. I thought the days of miracles were behind us.” 

In their ninth year, the lives of each boy would be forever changed. During Christmas, Jerry Lee sat at the piano in Lee Calhoun’s parlor and picked out “Silent Night,” mostly on the black keys. Jimmy and Mickey would also play their first notes on that piano -a small historical oddity, since the three cousins would one day rise to separate peaks of musical prominence in rock ’n’ roll, gospel and country music. Jerry Lee must have made an impression, because three months later his father mortgaged his house for $900 and bought him a used Stark upright. Eventually the bank foreclosed on the house, but Jerry Lee kept the piano—by then he had worn the ivory off the keys. His musical training ended after four piano lessons when his teacher slapped him across the face. The rest of his education came from Haney’s Big House, a black nightclub Jerry and Jimmy would slip into on Friday and Saturday nights to hear B.B. King and Muddy Waters and a local piano player named Old Sam play the devil’s music. “We’d go down there and sell newspapers and shine shoes and everything, and we’d keep on doin’ it until nobody was looking’,” Jerry Lee told an interviewer many years later. “And, man, we’d sneak in there and old Haney, he’d catch us. He’d say, ‘Boy, yo’ Uncle Lee come down heah and kill me and you both!’ And he’d throw us out. But I sure heard a lot of good piano playin’ down there, Man, these old black cats come through in them old buses, feet stickin’ out the windows, eatin’ sardines. But I tell you, they could really play some music—that’s a guaranteed fact.˘” 

Jimmy was drawn to the piano as well. He had been moved by the performance of Brother Cecil Janway, a traveling evangelist who came through Ferriday and lifted the roof off the little frame church with his righteous piano style. Jimmy sat as close as he could to Brother Janway, and while he watched, he prayed aloud. “Lord, I want you to give me the gift of playing the piano,” he said again and again, sometimes so loudly his father punched him. “If you give me this talent, I will never use it in the world …. I will always use the talent for your glory. If I ever go back on my promise, you can paralyze my fingers!” As soon as Brother Janway stepped away, Jimmy walked directly to the piano and began to pick out chords. 

“Jimmy wasn’t very talented,” Frankie Jean says, “but he prayed all day and night for that talent and it came to him. I was about as shocked as the rest of them. I thought the days of miracles were behind us.” 

That summer, in 1944, Mickey’s mother held prayer meetings in her home above the pool hall. The war raging in Europe and the Pacific seemed far, far away, but it grew closer when little Jimmy Swaggart began to prophesy in tongues. According to his father. Jimmy spoke for five days in German and Japanese (the languages were verified by war veterans who were drawn to the meetings) and then gave his own interpretations in English. His father says, “It would make cool chills run up and down your spine, because he’s speakin’ in the supernatural; he wasn’t speakin’ like just an ordinary person. He was a child in third grade, y’see, and yet he spoke as a college graduate.” 

“I didn’t know what was happening,” Jimmy writes in his autobiography. “I felt like I was standing outside my body. Then I began to describe exactly what I saw ‘… a powerful bomb destroying an entire city … tail buildings crumbling … people screaming.’” 

Each day more prophecies poured forth. The crowds that gathered to hear this entranced, flaxen-haired child grew larger and forced the meetings to be held in the church, “Many outsiders, wandering into the little church on Texas Street, were saved after hearing the prophecies,” Swaggart writes. “Some dismissed the whole matter because I was only nine years old. But a year later, when the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, nobody thought the prophecies were childish anymore. 

There were other prophecies issued that week that were not recorded. Sun Swaggart says that there were ten divinations, of which nine already have come to pass. “Of a hydrogen bomb, of a cobalt bomb, of an atomic bomb—they’re all here, y’see. And many other things that were stated about the affairs of nations and the entire universe.” More than that he won’t tell, especially about the unfulfilled tenth prophecy. 

“The last one is water,” Frankie Jean says. “Something about water covering this town. It’s never clear. Something about Ferriday being wiped out.” 

Despite this potent evidence that God’s hand was on him. Jimmy resisted the call; instead, he turned to crime. He and Jerry Lee began to break into local stores. “It was a lark to us,” Jimmy writes. “We even stole some scrap iron from Uncle Lee’s own back yard and sold it back to him” Jimmy’s only interests then were playing the piano and boxing–his ambition was to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Already he sensed inside himself some raw force that could dominate the world of men. The only opponent he couldn’t conquer was God. 

“I no longer considered myself a Christian,” he has said of this period. He and Jerry Lee worked up a stage act, where Jimmy played the bass line on the piano and Jerry played the treble, and together they swept talent contests around the state. One night each played separately, and Jimmy began a romping version of “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-o-dee,” one of Old Sam’s numbers at Haney’s Big House. “A strange feeling came over me,” Jimmy writes. “I was able to do runs on the piano I hadn’t been able to do before. It seemed like a force beyond me had gripped me. My fingers literally flew over the keys.” The crowd in the auditorium stomped and cheered. “For the first time in my life, I sensed what it felt like to be anointed by the Devil.” Remembering his promise to the Lord never to play for the world. Jimmy felt a sudden rush of fear. 

At this juncture in their lives, in their early teens, the future careers of Jimmy and Jerry Lee might have changed places. Each saw the choices of life as being all good or all bad. The roads out of Ferriday led only to good or evil, toward God or toward Satan, and each boy was standing at the crossroads. At the age of fifteen. Jerry Lee got a job playing the piano in the notorious Blue Cat Club, in Natchez, “the meanest, lowest-down, fightin’-and-killingest place in the world,” he said later, but on Sundays he was preaching in Ferriday. When he was sixteen, he married the first of his six wives, a preacher’s daughter named Dorothy Barton, and dropped out of school. Uncle Lee paid to send Jerry Lee to a Pentecostal Bible college in Waxahachie, Texas, but he lasted only three months before he got kicked out for playing a boogie version of “My God Is Real” during chapel. He came home and started preaching at the church on Texas Street. 

Women became spiritual metaphors for his relationship with God. They were holy vessels of God’s love, and the holiest vessel of all was Minnie Bell Swaggart.

Jimmy would remember this period as “the darkest time of my life. God had called me to preach, but as the world drew me, I wanted less and less to obey Him.” One day, to Jimmy’s horror, his father declared that he was giving up his successful grocery business to go into the ministry full time, along with his wife. Jimmy began to cry and plead for them not to do it. For the first time in the history of the Swaggart family, they had become financially comfortable. Now all that was being thrown away in the pursuit of a pulpit in a little Holy Roller church in the dismal neighboring town of Wisner. Jimmy was profoundly ashamed. “For years after that,” he writes, “when I had to fill out a school form listing my parents occupation, I left it blank.” Whenever his father and mother and sister Jeanette went to preach revivals in the little towns around Ferriday, Sun would ask Jimmy to come along. “We need you on the piano,” his father said, but Jimmy refused. Jerry Lee went instead. 

There is a pattern here. God calls, Jimmy resists. As why should he not? God wanted his soul, but Jimmy wanted his identity. His mother had told him repeatedly that he was going “to walk with God,” that he would be “perfect.” His cousins thought he was close to perfection already. “Jimmy to us was like Jesus walking on the face of the earth again,” Mickey Gilley would say years later, after the scandal broke. To be perfect, to be Jesus, was a role Jimmy wasn’t quite ready to play. Later, when he was a middle-aged man trapped inside this holy persona and God was making one dramatic demand upon him after another, what was left of the real Jimmy would conspire to break free. It was no accident that the route of his escape was through women.

Women became spiritual metaphors for his relationship with God. They were holy vessels of God’s love, and the holiest vessel of all was Minnie Bell Swaggart. It was she who had led Jimmy to Jesus, and Jimmy’s estrangement from his mother made him feel his separation from God most acutely. Minnie Bell and Sun would be off preaching out of town and would come home late at night, then she would slip into Jimmy’s room. “I would not open my eyes when she kissed me on the cheek,” Jimmy writes, “but after she left, I would remember the prayer she whispered over me. Many nights I would lay awake for hours, crying.” 

Other nights this haunted child would awaken “in the wee, still hours of the morning. The house would be quiet, and I would not hear a sound. I would suddenly be assailed with a terrifying thought: ‘Jesus has come, everyone is gone, and I’m left!’” 

Where had everyone gone? They had been raptured. They had risen to meet Christ in the clouds of heaven. Those who were left behind, the unsaved, would, according to the Book of Revelation, endure the seven years of the Great Tribulation, a period marked by the appearance of that dark figure of prophecy, the Antichrist. This was the very core of Jimmy’s belief. “When I was a boy,” he writes in Armageddon: The Future of Planet Earth, “every other sermon that was preached from behind our pulpits was based on the rapture. We were continually cautioned to be ready. Jesus was coming at any minute.” 

Had he come and left Jimmy behind? “More than once, I slipped out of bed and crept to my parents’ bedroom door. There I would kneel and put my ear to their door in the hope that I would hear my mother breathing or, as she would so often do in  her sleep, say the name of Jesus out loud …. I knew if I could hear them, the rapture had not as yet taken place—and there would still be a chance for me.” 

At the age of seventeen, Jimmy followed Jerry’s lead and dropped out of high school, then married Frances Anderson, a pretty girl with dark hair and a crafty face who sang in the choir in Sun s church. “She was fourteen,” Frankie Jean says. (“She was fifteen,” Swaggart has said, “and not pregnant.”) 

The lives of Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis would begin a curious seesaw in which the fortunes of one would rise as the other’s fell.

“I couldn’t believe Jimmy made the fatal step,” Frankie adds. “Of course, I had gotten married myself when I was twelve. We’re all kind of earthy, to say the least.” Until he met Frances, Jimmy had never expressed interest in girls. Thirty-five years later he was still describing her as “the only woman I ever kissed.”

Through Frances, Jimmy found the Spirit once again. He began preaching on street corners. Once when he was sermonizing in Ferriday, he spotted Mickey and Jerry Lee standing in the back of the crowd, with tears streaming down their faces. “I wish I had the guts to do that,” Mickey told him. Jerry Lee said, “Jim, I just want you to know, me and Mickey are going out and hit the big time—and help support you in the ministry.

That was a prophecy that would soon come to pass. In 1954 another young communicant of the Assemblies of God, a nineteen-year-old truck driver from East Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Presley, cut a record titled “That’s All Right,” and the age of rock ’n’ roll was born. Soon after that, Jerry Lee’s dad drove him to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips, who had produced Elvis at Sun Records. Jerry sang “Crazy Arms” on a demonstration record, and two months later the song had sold 300,000 copies. Jimmy was digging ditches at the time. He was sitting in a diner when he first heard his cousin’s voice come over a jukebox. “My thoughts drifted back to the times Jerry Lee and I had played piano together, the times we had talked about making lots of money, the times we had planned to leave Ferriday for the big time,” Swaggart writes. “Now it looked as if Jerry Lee had finally realized his part of the dream.” 

The lives of Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis would begin a curious seesaw in which the fortunes of one would rise as the other’s fell.

While he was in Memphis, Jerry Lee has said, he prayed to God for “one hit record, an’ I’ll take the money an’ set up a li’l church an’ dedicate the rest of my life to you, like Jimmy Lee.” God had more than granted that wish. By 1957, Jerry Lee had sold 21 mil-lion records. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” had made him a sensation. “Great Balls of Fire” was the hottest-selling single in the country. Jimmy, a father now, was still draining swamps, preaching the backroad churches, living in a house trailer and driving a crummy old Plymouth with faulty valves that he claimed to have “healed” with an anointing of oil on the hood ornament One Sunday in early December 1957, Jerry wheeled into Ferriday, driving a new Cadillac. He seemed to be on top of the world, but that night in church he held the pew so tightly his knuckles turned white, and he wept, Jimmy has recalled, “as though his heart was shattered.” 

Jerry Lee’s career, which had risen so high so quickly, was about to take a calamitous fall. On December 12th, Jerry Lee married his third wife, his thirteen-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown, a wide-eyed seventh grader who still believed in Santa Claus. That spring Mr. and Mrs. Lewis flew to London to perform, the British press uncovered his “child bride” and the fact that he had never been divorced from his previous wives, he was booed out of England as a bigamist and a cradle robber. When he got home, he found his bookings canceled. Disc jockeys dropped his songs from their playlists. Barred from television and most major concert halls, dogged by a jeering press, he was reduced to one-night stands in the beer halls and ballparks of Waycross and Sulphur Dell. 

In the meantime, Jimmy’s career as an evangelist was picking up—thanks to Jerry Lee’s notoriety. “Back in those days, he made posters saying, COME HEAR THE FIRST COUSIN OF JERRY LEE LEWIS,” says David Beatty, himself a cousin and a rival evangelist. Despite his in-creasing popularity. Jimmy was still driving his rattle-trap Plymouth, and he had begun to pray that God instruct Jerry Lee to give him an Oldsmobile. Jerry had made some careless promises before he went to Memphis. According to David Beatty, Jerry had promised to buy him a car if he sold a million records. “I made a fatal error,” Beatty says. “I told Jimmy about it.” 

With the gift of an Oldsmobile 88, the genie of success passed out of Jerry Lee’s hands and into Jimmy Lee’s. Jerry would never again know the wild popular acclaim that had once been his. He watched Mickey Gilley, whom he would deride forever after as “an imitator, become a popular country singer, with three Number One records in a single year (a feat Jerry never accomplished), and the owner of the colossal nightclub in Houston that was the setting of the movie Urban Cowboy. Jimmy eventually recorded forty-six albums and claims he’s sold 15 million copies. (Since most of them have been sold through his mail-order business, the Recording Industry Association of America has no figures to support the claim.) “I have sold more long-play albums than any gospel singer on the face of the earth,” Swaggart would boast, and he lined the walk of his office with gold and platinum records that he had printed and awarded to himself. At the peak of his success. Jimmy was the sexual phenomenon that Jerry Lee had been thirty years before. To see him strut and dance on the stage, full of juice, his voice rippling with insinuation, was to be reminded of the young Jerry Lee, his wavy blond locks flying, as he gave himself up to ecstasy. 

During those thirty years. Jerry Lee would see two of his children die, one in a car accident and the other drowning in Jerry’s backyard swimming pool. He would descend into a bitter midnight of the soul, going through women, wrecking cars, shooting his bass player, drinking, taking pills by the gross, beating his wives and, finally, getting arrested outside Elvis Presley’s mansion with a gun in his hand. Many people would suspect him of murdering his fifth wife, a bouncy twenty-three-year-old blonde named Shawn who was found dead in Jerry Lee’s guest bedroom with blood in her hair and bruises on her body. (After a quick inquest, the authorities in DeSoto County, Mississippi, where Jerry lives, attributed her death to a drug overdose; Jerry Lee denies any involvement in her death.) 

And all of this time Jerry Lee would watch Jimmy Swaggart grow mightier, and more censorious, until he appeared as some volcanic prophet from the Old Testament Jerry would be sitting in another hotel room in another city, and he would see Jimmy on television thundering like some new Isaiah, clothed with the garments of salvation and covered with the robe of righteousness, proclaiming a day of vengeance. Despite the confusion of narcotics, Jerry trembled in the sight of his cousin’s judgment. He was tortured by the idea that he was playing Satan’s music. “A man can’t serve two masters,” he would often say. “Satan has power next to God. You ain’t loyal to God, you must be loyal to Satan. There ain’t no in-between. Can’t serve two gods. I’m a sinner; I know it. Soon I’m gonna have to reckon with the chillin’ hands of death.” 

In February 1982, Jimmy preached the sermon at the graveside of Mickey’s father. Jerry Lee was there, a bitter man. At the end of the sermon. Jimmy asked of the mourners, “Whosoever among you believes you wouldn’t go to heaven with Uncle Arthur if you died today, come forward.” Jerry Lee walked up and stood right in Jimmy’s face. “Will you accept Christ as your savior?” Jimmy asked. 

Jerry just stared at him, then turned away.

Their paths would cross again in Dayton, Ohio. Jimmy was there on a crusade. He would later tell a reporter for the Nashville TV station WSMV that he was surprised when Jerry*s fourth wife called him. “She said, “You’ve got to do something. He’s in serious shape, and there*s nobody else that can.’ She was sobbing and almost hysterical.” 

Jimmy went to the auditorium. Jerry was playing “Meat Man,” one of those dirty honky-tonk dimes, but his words were scarcely intelligible; he might as well have been speaking in tongues. Jimmy walked onstage and took the mike out of his hands. “He was the most astonished human bein’,” Jimmy said. “The music kinda just stopped, kinda just drifted off on its own, and the crowd—you coulda heard a pin drop. I was shakin’ all over, I was scared to death. I said, ‘Jerry Lee’s my cousin, as most of you know, and I’ve come to get him.’” When the promoter protested, Jimmy pulled out a wad of cash and paid him off on the spot. 

He flew Jerry to Baton Rouge in his private plane and fed him malted milk and shrimp for the next seven days. Jerry left a sober man, but it didn’t take. Nor did Jimmy’s plea to join him in the ministry. Because by now the cousins had been absorbed by forces larger than themselves. “Satan,” Jerry mumbled in a radio interview. “He got power next to God. He’ll drag you … to the … depths of… agony.

“How does Satan benefit from your entertaining people?” the puzzled interviewer asked. 

“ ’Cause I’m draggin’ the audience to hell with me.” 

In the meantime. God was speaking to Jimmy. He came to him in a dream. There was an enormous field of cotton below a gloomy sky. God told Jimmy that the field needed harvesting before the storm came. Then he said, “If you fail. Acre is no one else to do it I have many laborers, but none to reach the masses, and you must not fail!’” 

No one else! This was the stark commandment that lived with. He had become the new Messiah. “I must do it,” he writes. “God has called me to do it. He has laid His hand on my life to do it …. If you think there are many others out there—or even one other person—who can do it, you are so sadly mistaken …. So if I do not do it, it will not be done. I know that to be the truth.”

It was this awesome responsibility, the very fate of the world itself, the salvation of the planet, that would eventually lead Jimmy Swaggart to ruin himself on Airline Highway.

Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets; Behold, I will feed them with wormwood, and make them drink the water of gall: for from the prophets of Jerusalem is profaneness gone forth into all the land.

—Jeremiah 23:15

The secret that burned inside Jimmy Swaggart was that he had been a slave of sexual perversion since the age of ten. This he confessed last February to the elders in Springfield and to a small group of his own aides. And yet God had lifted him above all others. This was the terrible paradox of Jimmy Swaggart’s life. He had been chosen by God to evangelize the world in the last days, and yet his own soul was losing ground in a desperate battle with Satan. “Once the individual indulges in pornography, bondage is sure to follow,” Swaggart has preached. “He must now wallow deeper and deeper in perversion to satisfy the demands of a mind that is rapidly becoming warped by this disease of hell.” According to Frankie Jean, Swaggart told his father, “There were demons hovering over me; they came from every direction …. It was my every thought, my every thought was this lust.” 

Does this account for his rage in the pulpit? His savagery in bringing down the ministries of his competitors? His feverish jeremiads over the sexual transgressions of other preachers in his denomination? He began by attacking the ministry of the elderly radio evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong, who had proclaimed that his Worldwide Church of God was the only source of salvation in the world. “This is always the first mark of a cult,” Swaggart wrote in his denunciation of Armstrong, then quoted 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, believe not every spirit but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” Next he turned to Oral Roberts, his main rival among the Pentecostals, who had claimed to raise the dead in his revivals, calling Roberts a false prophet as well. “Somehow,” Roberts replied, “Satan has put something in your heart, that you’re better than anybody else.” 

And then he brought down Marvin German. Like Swaggart, Gorman was ordained by the Assemblies of God. He had risen in the denomination to become the assistant superintended to of the national presbytery. In many respects the Marvin Gorman Ministries  were modeled on Jimmy Swaggart’s—all too successfully. The congregation of Gorman’s church, the First Assembly of God, in New Orleans, had recently surpassed 5000 members, becoming the largest church in Louisiana and eclipsing Swaggart’s Family Worship Center, which had a congregation of 4300. Although still a small-time television preacher by Swaggart’s standards, Gorman was rising fast. He was a regular guest on Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club. His own daily talk show, Marvin Gorman Live, was broadcast over the PTL Network and thirty-seven independent stations. He operated two television stations of his own and was in the process of purchasing a third, but the big news for German’s ministry was that he had just secured a satellite uplink, would would make his program available internationally. 

According to one of Swaggart’s former aides, on July 15th, 1986, Marvin Gorman was confronted by a fellow New Orleans Assemblies of God minister with the charge that German had been carrying on a lengthy affair with the other man’s wife. (On the advice of his attorneys, Gorman has refused to respond to any questions from ROLLING STONE.) Late that evening German drove to Baton Rouge to confront the aggrieved husband in Swaggart’s home. (German had requested that Swaggart mediate the dispute.) Swaggart’s lawyer and two other Assemblies preachers were present. After hearing the complaint, Swaggart handed his Bible to German and asked him to read from the fifth chapter of 1 Timothy, where Saint Paul prescribes the conduct of the Christian ministry. “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses,” German read. “Them that sin rebuke before all that others also may fear.” 

“Rebuke before all”—that was the text of the sermon Jimmy Swaggart preached in his home that night before Marvin Gorman and his witnesses. According to German’s $90 million defamation suit, Swaggart demanded that Gorman confess his sins, step down from his ministry and seek rehabilitation. German refused, claiming he was innocent, but by the time he arrived back in New Orleans, well after midnight, Frances Swaggart had called Gorman’s associate pastor and several prominent members of his congregation to tell them of the allegations. The following day Gorman resigned from the Assemblies of God. That Sunday a statement prepared by Jimmy Swaggart and several others was read aloud to the stunned parishioners in German’s church, accusing their former pastor of numerous adulterous affairs. Soon after that, the powerful evangelist “coerced” Jim Bakker to drop Gorman’s show from his television network. Quickly the Gorman empire, such as it was, collapsed. His church, his television stations and especially his reputation were lost to him. He was reduced to preaching in a drafty warehouse in Metairie to a congregation of folding chairs. There he began to consider revenge. 

“To allow a preacher of the gospel, when he is caught beyond a shadow of a doubt committing an immoral act to remain in his position would be the most gross stupidity,” Swaggart admonished church elders.

The very same month that he crushed Marvin Gorman, Swaggart turned his attention to Jim Bakker, the boyish host of The PTL Club and president of the PTL Network. Bakker was the darling–as Swaggart had never been–of the Assemblies of God hierarchy. With his amusement park and talk show, his Rolls-Royces and several mansions, his prosperity gospel and psychological counseling, Bakker represented the status and acceptance that the Pentecostal movement had longed for since its founding. 

Swaggart, of course, had a 9337-square-foot mansion of his own, a neighboring mansion for his son’s family and a two-story air-conditioned tree house for his grandchildren. He enjoyed a vacation retreat in Palm Springs, new Lincolns every year and a $5000 Rolex watch, but in the minds of many denominational officials, there was still too much of the Holy Roller about him. And something else as well—something deprived, resentful and savage, some blind urge toward chaos.

Like many Assemblies ministers, Swaggart had heard rumors that Bakker was bisexual, and lately Swaggart had been tipped by a defrocked evangelist named John Wesley Fletcher about a tryst he had arranged between Bakker and a young church secretary. Swaggart had aired his suspicions before the executive presbyters, but they ignored him. It would be nearly a year before Swaggart would have the proof he needed of Bakker’s involvement with Jessica Hahn, but when he had the information, he knew what to do with it. “Jimmy took on Jim Bakker like a pit bulldog taking on a French poodle,” one of Swaggart’s former aides says, “just tipped him to shreds, destroyed the man” 

“To allow a preacher of the gospel, when he is caught beyond a shadow of a doubt committing an immoral act to remain in his position would be the most gross stupidity,” Swaggart admonished church elders while Bakker was fighting to stay in the denomination—words that would be remembered. 

Swaggart was now the scourge of television evangelism. He drove to New Orleans to preach from Marvin Gorman’s former pulpit, on Airline Highway, and there he told the congregation about his dream, how no one else could harvest the fields of the Lord. Neither the demons nor “all the corrupt preachers they can get on their side” would stop Jimmy Swaggart from doing God’s bidding. It may have been at this time, around Palm Sunday 1987, with Jim Bakker in exile and Gorman destroyed, that Jimmy Swaggart first consorted with prostitutes.

“I was in the washroom of the Texas Motel with another girl,” a redheaded prostitute would say a year later to a reporter for WBRZ, a Baton Rouge television station. The woman used the name Peggy Carriere. (She would later fail a lie-detector test administered by a Swaggart employee.) She said she had noticed a Lincoln town car pulling up by the dumpster in back of the motel. “I looked and I looked and I said, ‘Girl, that’s Jimmy Swaggart. Maybe he needs some directions or whatever.’ So I walked up to him and said, ‘Hello, Jimmy Swaggart How are you doin’? What do you think about this Jim and Tammy Bakker stuff goin’ on?’ . . . And he said, ‘I’m not Jimmy Swaggart. And I laughed and I said, ‘Yes, you are. And then he started doin’ like this with his pants, and I realized he had an erection when he drove up …. He was tryin’ to get it to go back down, and I kept talkin’ about Jim and Tammy Bakker and how was he makin’ out with his own congregation and all that. He kept insisting he wasn’t Jimmy Swaggart, that he was just back there to meet a man and two little boys, that he was supposed to help this man adopt these little boys. The back of the Texas Motel is an empty lot and a garbage dump. So I just tol’ him, ‘Yeah, all right,’ and he drove off.”

Several days later she saw the same tan Lincoln parked in the back of the motel. She looked inside to make sure. “He had the telephone in there, the same color seats, plush-velvet brown seats.” Then she saw the man she claims was Jimmy Swaggart coming downstairs. “He had on red jogging shorts with a white V-neck shirt and the white sweatband and the tennis shoes and white socks.” As he left, Carriere said to a man standing downstairs, “You know, that’s Jimmy Swaggart.” And the man replied, “He just gave my old lady twenty dollars for a head job.” 

Then Marvin German started getting anonymous calls claiming that Swaggart was cruising his neighborhood. “It seems the visits Jimmy Swaggart made were so often they were almost periodic,” says an Assemblies executive presbyter. 

Why? Why would he return again and again to Airline Highway after he had already been recognized? Consider the thoughts that must have been in his mind: God had given Jimmy Swaggart the commission to blanket the globe with his message. The minister’s power continued to grow, even as Satan had gained control of his soul. Who was he really serving? Was he a false prophet, as he had accused so many others of being? Or had his power grown so great that he was swelling into the mighty Prince of Darkness, of whom Jesus had warned, the titan who would be received as the Messiah but would be revealed in the Great Tribulation as the Antichrist? 

There was only one way to block this awful progress. 

The Travel Inn is one of several deteriorated motels along Airline Highway that rent rooms by the hour. NO REFUNDS AFTER FIRST 15 MINUTES, reads a sign in the lobby. Outside the rooms are molded fiberglass chairs in faded pastels where girls sit, waiting for customers. Across Airline Highway, facing directly into the courtyard of the Travel Inn, stands a large billboard that says, JESUS SAID UNLESS A MAN IS BORN AGAIN HE CANNOT SEE THE KINGDOM OF GOD: JOHN 3:3. YOUR ETERNITY IS AT STAKE. It is no wonder that Jimmy Swaggart chose this spot to give himself up to his enemies. Here, in this battleground between God and Satan, he found a twenty-eight-year-old woman with a cross tattooed on her right arm. “Sometimes I would see him drive down the street every week, and he wouldn’t stop unless he knew I was there,” Debra Murphree would tell the New Orleans TV station WVUR. “He told me to get naked and maybe lay on the bed and pose for him …. To me, I think he’s kind of perverted, or, you know, talking about some of the things that we talked about in the rooms, you know, I wouldn’t want him around my children.” (Murphree also failed a lie-detector test, but she claims the results were influenced by her drug use.) She later told Penthouse that Swaggart had had intercourse with her but didn’t come to climax. (Swaggart denies this.)

On October 17th, 1987, Marvin Gorman had his revenge. His son Randy worked part time for the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office and, according to the Washington Post, had courted Debra Murphree himself. While Randy snapped photos from behind a curtain in another room in the motel, Swaggart went into room 7 in the company of a woman who, according to people who have seen the photographs, resembles Murphree. Shortly after that, Gorman drove into the courtyard and found Swaggart changing his tire. Someone had cut the valve stem. The two evangelists spent the next two hours talking in Gorman’s car. Gorman says that Swaggart asked repeatedly, “What do you want, Marvin?” and that he replied, “Jimmy, I want you just to get your life straight and to love me.” 

The following day German met with Jimmy, Frances and their son Donnie at a Sheraton in the New Orleans area. Gorman gave Swaggart four months to “clean up his act.” What that meant, according to a friend of Germans, was a public confession and apology from Jimmy Swaggart Some people in the Swaggart camp suspect the bankrupt Gorman wanted a significant settlement in his suit against Swaggart. 

But four months passed with an eerie silence from Baton Rouge. Swaggart continued his telecast and crusades, traveling to the Ivory Coast and Liberia and then swinging through Central America. At times, his despair would break through, and he would ridicule himself as a “poor, pitiful preacher,” even comparing himself to Judas. “Let me tell you this,” he cried out in a Thanksgiving camp meeting. Demon powers, fallen angels, work more in religion than they work anyplace else. I pray constantly: 

‘God, don’t let spirits get in this work. Don’t let spirits get in Jimmy Swaggart’”

It was, no doubt, an awkward time in his marriage. 

In January of this year, Jimmy and Frances went out to dinner with several of their top aides, including Jack Pruitt, who was director of financial development “Frances is an avid jogger–she jogs six miles a day–and Jack jogs,’ says an aide who was at the dinner. “Jack says, ‘Well, Frances, something I’ve been using lately that has helped me is bee pollen. I have some candy bars with bee pollen in them, and they’re a great energy boost. They help your endurance; they even say they will increase your sex drive.’ We all laughed, because here are these preachers talking about sex drives, but Jimmy didn’t laugh. In fact, Jack tossed one of the candy bars to Jimmy and said, ‘You eat that, Jimmy, and Frances will thank you for it.’ We all laughed, except for them. Jimmy sat there a minute, and it got quiet, and he said, ‘Well, Jack, I’m trying to think of a gentlemanly way of answering you. I don’t need something to speed me up. I need something to slow me down.’”

That same month, according to Peggy Carriere, Jimmy Swaggart returned to New Orleans. She says that she was walking on Tulane Avenue when she saw the same man wearing jogging clothes and a white sweatband, this time driving a white Lincoln. (Swaggart owned a tan Lincoln, his wife a white one.) I got in his car,” she told the WBRZ reporter, “and he asked me if he gave me ten dollars, would I let him play with my pussy while he jacked off? And I just laughed. I told him, ‘You don’t remember me, do you? I talked to you before.’”

Carriere said later, “He was slumming. That’s what he wanted–ten-and twenty-dollar tricks. It was like he wanted to see how low he could go.” 

In February, German’s deadline was about to expire. Gorman says he hand-delivered a note to Swaggart, reminding him of his terms, but again he received no response. Instead, Swaggart traveled to Managua to preach to 40,000 Nicaraguans in the Plaza de la Revolución. In the meantime, Marvin Gorman flew to Springfield with a package of photographs. Jimmy Swaggart had accomplished this sad task. He had brought himself down.

“Swaggart: He Threatens Divorce As Marriage Crumbles,” reads the headline in the National Inquirer in the supermarkets and convenience stores of Baton Rouge. “She treated him like a little boy, and like a little boy he rebelled,” an unnamed family member has told the Enquirer. The actor Dennis Quaid has just checked out of the Sheraton on Interstate 10, where he has been staying while working on a movie, to go on to his next role, that of Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire. Jerry’s career seems about to rise out of the rock ’n’ roll archives, an ominous development for his cousin on the other end of the seesaw. 

And here come the reporters, whom Swaggart has avoided talking to since the scandal broke. For it is the Sunday of—Pentecost, May 22nd, the day Jimmy Swaggart has chosen to return to the pulpit. On April 8th, he was officially defrocked by the Assemblies of God. In the course of his self-imposed three-month suspension, Swaggart has laid off about 500 workers; he has been booted off two major television networks; his worldwide television coverage has been reduced, according to church officials, to only four or five countries; missions have dosed down; students have deserted his Bible college; every minister on his staff has been forced to choose between working for Swaggart and keeping his Assemblies of God credentials; IRS agents are poring over his books; and Marvin Gorman’s defamation suit is marching toward trial “Maybe there is no other man in history more humiliated than me,” Swaggart has said, with his usual breathtaking perspective on his own importance. 

The death knell is sounding for Jimmy Swaggart, or at least for what Jimmy Swaggart could have been. He has promised to come back more contrite and less accusing than he was in the past “I believe my message will reflect a deeper compassion and love,” he wrote in his monthly column in The Evangelist. But it is unclear if that is the message his audience wants to hear, 

“I preached to some of the largest crowds in the world, but I guess that I stand today with more fear and more trembling than I ever stood before in all my life,” he says, surveying a crowd of about 5000, He speaks of two dreams. In one he was “in a church. The church was empty—it was not this one—and I was tied or held down to the floor flat against the far wall.  I remember wanting to get to the platform, to the pulpit, but I could not” In the other dream he fought a serpent with a sword or club …. 

“Halabi man ni kasaba man!” A middle-aged black woman interrupts with a chant in tongues. 

“Sister, give your utterance just a few moments from now,” Swaggart says. Two ushers lead the woman out while Swaggart continues. 

“I fought this thing, fighting with all the strength I had, and I finally subdued and killed it … I was standing exhausted with this club in my hand. Then I looked to my right. I thought at first it was a huge concrete pillar standing a hundred or so feet high, but it moved, and I saw it was another serpent … And I remember my knees buckled. I awakened from die dream and said, ‘God, I have to fight this, and I don’t know how to do it.’” But then, he says, God showed him. He did not have to fight the serpent Jesus had already slain the leviathan. 

“I have suffered the fire of the eternal Lord!” he cries, suddenly breaking into a jig. “CNN is going to be taking a picture. … CBS and ABC and NBC! I want to serve notice on all the Whole world, what’s past is past! I’m not looking back! I want to serve notice on all the demons and devils and hell itself, the best is yet to come!” The crowd stands and praises him. Some of them are sobbing. It seems obvious Swaggart will never be reduced to “sweeping out a little mission house across the tracks,” as he put it; he will always have an audience. And yet God told him, “You’ll be a cripple the rest of your life.” 

“Malala mani goboso maniki!” The black woman is back. This time her voice is louder and more insistent, and as she gives her utterance, she rocks back and forth, and her hands shake in front of her face. When she is finished, Swaggart asks if anyone in the audience is moved to interpret the message. Abruptly a slender white woman rises and in a high, quaking banshee voice relates the following: “Yeah, I am a God of purpose …. Yeah, I say unto thee, go forth in my name for I am with thee, I shall never thee or forsake thee … I will flow like a river through you, and I will preach to the Holy Ghost’s fire …. and they will not be able to deny my power and my spirit!”

At the end of the service, the worshipers come to the altar to hug Swaggart and, as they so often do, sock love offerings in the pockets of his suit. One of the men who hug him whispers in Swaggart’s ear that he is Marvin Gorman’s private investigator and he has an offering of his own: a subpoena. When Swaggart refuses to accept it, the detective shoves it in Swaggart’s breast pocket with the greenbacks of the faithful.  

Outside the Family Worship Center, summer has returned to Baton Rouge with a damp embrace of its own. The drama that was playing out inside the soul of Jimmy Swaggart has come to a close. He has defeated his demons by crippling himself forever—and for that we must be grateful. Yet who can know when the public catastrophe of his life will open another chapter? One has the sense that it is not damnation but obscurity that causes Swaggart’s knees to knock. In the meantime, he will still be waiting for us, on the Airline Highways of cable TV, asking us to pay him for his precious love.

[Photo Credit: William Christenberry c/o The Art Institute of Chicago]

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