Tears streaming down his cheeks, Jimmy Swaggart stood before a packed house in the Baton Rouge, La., headquarters of his ministry (and millions of TV viewers) on Sunday, Feb. 21, 1988, and admitted ”I have sinned against you, my Lord.”
It was a bravura performance, and it had to be: Swaggart’s empire was at stake. Days earlier, allegations had surfaced linking the Pentecostal minister to then prostitute Debra Murphree.
Reading from the Book of Psalms, Swaggart pleaded, ”Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy loving kindness…. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” For a few moments, it seemed that if anyone could talk his way clear, it might be Swaggart. But the words and the tears were not enough – and that evening would mark the end of his reign as perhaps America’s most powerful televangelist.
At the height of his career, Swaggart pulled in nearly $150 million a year (thanks largely to donations from his huge TV audience), had three homes, traveled the world in a private jet, and was invited to policy briefings at the Reagan White House. This was a long way from the squalor of his upbringing in Ferriday, La.
Young Jimmy Lee Swaggart had found a way out through music, as did the cousins he grew up with – country singer Mickey Gilley and rocker Jerry Lee Lewis – and he brought the same wild flair to the pulpit that his kin brought to the stage.
What no minister should have in common with a rock star, however, is a raucous personal life. And Swaggart’s indiscretion might have remained hidden but for the fact that he had helped bring down a rival Louisiana televangelist, Marvin Gorman, two years earlier – with an allegation of adultery, no less. Gorman put a tail on his nemesis, and the investigator caught Swaggart entering a fleabag motel with Murphree – on film. (After the scandal broke, Murphree would pose for some more photographs, this time in Penthouse magazine.)
The Assemblies of God, Swaggart’s church, suspended him for a year. But Swaggart felt that three months was punishment enough. The church disagreed, and it expelled Swaggart, who set up an independent ministry of his own that continues to this day, but with a mere fraction of the followers.
”That man had a gift,” says lawyer Hunter Lundy, who got a $10 million verdict against Swaggart on Gorman’s behalf. ”But he also has an illness. If he had gotten treatment, he might have been fine. But Jimmy Swaggart always said that psychology was of the devil. So instead, he ranted about sins of the flesh from his pulpit. And you have to wonder if he wasn’t talking about himself.”