On February 21, 1988, television preacher Jimmy Swaggart addressed his audience — both the 7,000 congregants gathered before him in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and countless more via satellite — and broke down.
Swaggart burst into tears and, through heaving breaths, quaveringly repented:
“I have sinned against you, and I beg your forgiveness…. My sin was done in secret, and God has said to me, ‘I will do what I do before the whole world’…. 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, never to be remembered against me, any more.”
God may well have forgiven Swaggart. The secular world, though, has hardly forgotten the whole unholy spectacle.
Swaggart’s sin (the first in a series) initially came to light by way of Martin Gorman, a rival TV preacher who Swaggart had publicly accused of “immoral dalliances.” Gorman went on to sue Swaggart for defamation, and claimed that his rival just wanted to knock out a competitor.
Properly motivated, then, Gorman turned over photographs to Swaggart’s church, the Assemblies of God, in which Swaggart was clearly depicted picking up a New Orleans corner prostitute and taking her to a dive motel.
The timing brought forth a firestorm of, indeed, Biblical proportions. Coming less than a year after a sex scandal took down Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise the Lord Club, Swaggart’s collapse dealt a devilish hand to big-business religious broadcasting.
As the 1980s dawned, “televangelism” — the term for churchy TV programming dating back from Oral Roberts in the ’50s to Joel Osteen today — bolted from being an oddball, off-hours boob-tube phenomenon to seeming like it was slickly taking over mainstream media … and, from there, maybe the world.
TV religion kingpin Jerry Falwell credited his Moral Majority organization with electing Ronald Reagan president. Pat Robertson turned his nightly 700 Club show into the omnipresent cable superstation CBN and launched his own stunningly sea-worthy 1988 presidential campaign. Viewers of the Bakkers’ PTL Club, prior to the scandal, had donated sufficient dough to open Heritage USA, a Six-Flags-scaled, Jesus-themed amusement park and family resort.
In seeming contrast, however, there was also Jimmy Swaggart. He, too, took in mammoth tax-free funds via television (reportedly up to $12 million a year), but this wild-eyed Bible Belt brawler did so with a fire-and-brimstone brio all his own.
Swaggart is the first cousin of hell-raising rock and roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, and to watch Jimmy in action is to notice an unmistakable family resemblance.
While his peers went high-tech glossy and scripture-inscribed Rolex gaudy, Swaggart continued to gnash and wail about humanity’s endless downturns and inevitable eternal damnation like a man possessed, still often in remote UHF outposts in the dead of night.
Raging high near the top of his targets for condemnation, of course, were prostitution, pornography, and all other iterations of commercial and/or extramarital intercourse.
In 1987, Swaggart focused especially intense and infernal wrath on the alleged sexual peccadilloes of Jim Bakker, playing so significant a role in the undoing of PTL that Time magazine dedicated a cover story to Jimmy’s roaringly “righteous” crusade.
At the same time though, outside the pulpit, Jimmy allegedly liked to cruise streetwalkers in a car piled high with nudie magazines.
At least that’s what Debra Murphree, the sex worker photographed with Swaggart, said in a July 1988 Penthouse magazine cover story and pictorial for which she received $210,000.
Murphree also maintained that Swaggart was a regular customer, but he didn’t pay her for actual intercourse. Instead, Jimmy preferred to just watch her strip naked and strike poses. Murphree recreated his supposed favorites in her Penthouse spread.
Sobs or no sobs, the Assemblies of God promptly defrocked Swaggart and sent him packing. Almost as promptly, though, Jimmy got back on TV and resurrected his televangelism business in huge fashion.
Remarkably, in 1991, Swaggart got popped again in the company of a pay-for-play pro, this time while driving on the wrong side of the road in Indio, California.
Rosemary Garcia, the woman riding alongside Swaggart, told the press, “He asked me for sex. I mean, that’s why he stopped me. That’s what I do. I’m a prostitute.”
Jimmy indulged in no hysterics the second time around though. Instead, Swaggart addressed his flock at the Family Worship Center point blank, and said, “The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business.”
Following “a time of healing and counseling” in which he stepped down, the twice-busted man of the cloth returned to run his mega-million-dollar multimedia empire, and he remains doing just that today. So weep not for Jimmy Swaggart.
Main photo: Jimmy Swaggart/ABC News video [screenshot]