The Fall Of Jimmy Swaggart
Way back in 1991, the California Highway Patrol pulled over a white Jaguar in the town of Indio for driving on the wrong side of the road. The driver explained that he had pulled over to give a ride to a young woman standing on that side, and was in the process of pulling back over when he was stopped. The police might’ve accepted that, or given him a ticket and gone on their way, except for two things: the woman was a known prostitute named Rosemary Garcia, and the driver was well-known televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Nor was this Swaggart’s first time being caught in the company of sex workers; four years earlier he was found with a prostitute in a motel on Airline Highway in Metairie, Louisiana. That earlier scandal had almost ended his career, and the second one sharply curtailed his comeback. Before going into this in more depth, it's worth learning a little about Swaggart's back story.
Jimmy Swaggart was born in Ferriday, Louisiana on March 15, 1935, just six months before his cousin, rock and roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis and a year before another cousin, country star Mickey Gilley. He married Frances Anderson when he was only 17 years old and was a father at 19, despite the fact that he had neither residence nor income. The Swaggarts lived an itinerant existence as Jimmy preached in small rural Louisiana churches, bringing in roughly $30 a week and staying wherever people would let them. But showmanship ran in the family, and by 1957 Swaggart was popular at revival meetings all over the South. He entered Bible college, began recording Gospel music albums in 1960 and was ordained by the Assemblies of God after graduating in 1961. He soon had his own radio show, and by 1969 it was popular throughout the Bible Belt. That was the year he founded his Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge, bought an AM radio station and started a weekly 30-minute television broadcast which was later syndicated. His television ministry quickly expanded; in 1978 the show grew to an hour, and in 1980 went from weekly to daily. By the mid-1980s his broadcast appeared on more than 250 television stations across the U.S. and pulled in about $150 million dollars a year.
Jimmy had come a long way from sleeping in church basements and preaching from the backs of trucks, but instead of rejoicing in his good fortune and helping other struggling preachers as Christian morality demands, Swaggart instead grew jealous of his position and schemed to bring down rival Assemblies of God televangelist Marvin Gorman, whose television show was becoming increasingly popular. In 1986 Swaggart discovered (possibly through the use of a private detective) that Gorman had a mistress, and exposed him to the AoG Presbytery with claims of “several affairs” (though Gorman only confessed to one). Gorman was defrocked, his TV ministry collapsed and he was forced to file bankruptcy; as one might expect, he wanted revenge. So, he hired a private detective named Scott Bailey and assigned his son Randy to assist him, and the two set out to discover whatever Swaggart might have to hide.
It didn’t take long; early in 1987 they discovered that Swaggart regularly employed the services of Debra Murphree, a sex worker who worked out of the Travel Inn on Airline Highway. On a day when Bailey expected Swaggart to visit Murphree, Randy Gorman rented another room and secretly took pictures of her clients coming and going; when Swaggart arrived Randy snapped his picture entering the room, then let the air out of his tires and called his father (who lived only a few minutes away). The elder Gorman confronted Swaggart when he emerged and promised he wouldn’t release the pictures if Swaggart would publicly apologise to Gorman, admit to the Assemblies of God that he had lied about the affairs and use his influence to have Gorman reinstated.
But for some reason, Swaggart never made good on his end of the deal, and in January of 1988 Gorman told Swaggart his time was up. On February 15th Gorman contacted the AoG Executive Presbytery, the same officials who had defrocked him two years earlier, and exposed Swaggart’s transgression; they initially suspended him for three months, then travelled with him on his private plane to AoG headquarters in Springfield, Missouri to set the matter before the church’s national leadership. One would think Swaggart would be contrite and penitent, but this was not the case; an evangelist who was on that flight later reported that “Swaggart was VERY contemptuous of them. At one point…he stood up and wagged his finger in their faces and said…[words to the effect that] Swaggart spoke for God, and the AofG did not.” The national leaders were so offended by Swaggart’s arrogance they increased the suspension to two years, and so it was that on February 21st, 1988 Swaggart made his now-famous “I have sinned” speech and temporarily stepped down from the pulpit.
Murphree was interviewed repeatedly by news media and admitted to the odd fact that though Swaggart had seen her many times, he had never had sex with her; instead he had paid her to pose while he masturbated. This dovetailed with Swaggart’s admission to the AoG leaders that he “suffered from a lifelong addiction” to pornography, which certainly surprised no one who knew anything about reaction formation considering his vocal anti-porn stance. In July she got an illustrated interview in Penthouse which they paid $210,000 for her story, of which the IRS stole three-quarters.
Meanwhile, Swaggart had returned to the pulpit in May, at the end of the original three-month suspension; the AoG leadership responded by defrocking him for disobeying their two-year ban, and Swaggart countered by making his Family Worship Center and TV ministry non-denominational. The defiant move came at a heavy cost; he had already lost considerable following due to the scandal and was a national laughingstock (mocked by celebrities from Saturday Night Live to Ozzy Osbourne), and the break from AoG sent him into a downward spiral. By the end of 1988 he had lost 80% of his viewership, and in September of 1991 a New Orleans jury found that Swaggart had defamed Gorman with false allegations of adultery, and ordered him to pay $10 million in damages. Still, the fallen icon was determined and charismatic, and soon after that verdict he preached to a standing-room only crowd in San Diego.
But a week later he picked up Rosemary Garcia in Indio…and that’s where we came in. She said he asked her to guide him to a hotel with in-room porn, and as she later told reporters “He’s the same guy who cries on TV for all these people to feel sorry for him…to give him all their money. For what? So he can come give it to us. That’s pretty good.” There was no tearful apology from the repeatedly disgraced televangelist this time; instead, he stood before his congregation and issued the statement which forms today’s epigram. His quick-thinking son Donnie immediately announced that his father would be temporarily stepping down as head of the ministry for “a time of healing and counselling.”
One might think that would be the end of the road for Swaggart, but as the adage tells us “you can fool some of the people all of the time.” In 1995 he founded the SonLife radio network, which according to Swaggart’s website “is heard nationwide on over 78 stations and around the world via the internet.” In 2009 he launched SonLife Broadcasting Network, “a Christian Television Network which airs nationally and internationally to a potential viewing audience of over 80 million.” And though he’s not the force he once was, there’s no doubt that he’s still a multi-millionaire with millions of adoring fans.