From the archive, 22 February 1988: TV preacher falls from grace

Originally published in the Guardian on 22 February 1988

Jimmy Swaggart, the American television evangelist who survived 1987 without either running for President or falling from grace, yesterday managed to astonish a world long inured to the antics of his profession.

Accused of adultery by a pulpit rival he went before his 7,000 strong congregation, confessed – and resigned from his $150m a year ministry until further notice. In the course of a comparatively short oration of only 20 minutes a weeping Mr Swaggart, aged 52, declined to make light of the lapse he has spent a profitable lifetime denouncing. At his Family Worship Centre, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he told supporters, many of whom were also sobbing: "I do not call it a mistake. I call it a sin. I do not lay the fault on anyone else, but at my own feet."

Though details of Mr Swaggart's "moral failure", with whom and how often, were conspicuously absent from yesterday's confession, the sin alluded to was plainly adultery or "immoral dalliances" as Mr Swaggart put it when he denounced his fellow pastor, Mr Martin Gorman, in 1986. Mr Gorman was defrocked and went bankrupt. And at the height of last year's sex scandal which overwhelmed the Praise The Lord TV ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, he sued Mr Swaggart for $90m – and joined those suggesting that the preacher had engineered similar charges in order to take over the Bakkers' then-thriving ministry.

It was Mr Gorman's claim that Brother Swaggart was the serious adulterer (compared with his own single lapse) that led to Friday's TV reports that photos exist showing Jimmy ministering to a prostitute. The Elders of the Assemblies of God, who claim 16 million members and 30,000 ministries worldwide, duly announced that Mr Swaggart was helping with their inquiries into "sexual moral charges … with other women" – not his wife, Frances.

Yesterday's resignation was the agreed result and Mr Swaggart appeared to satisfy most of his audience's acute sense of life's sinfulness by making a clean breast of it. He told them he had "asked myself 10,000 times" why he had done whatever it was he had done – and concluded that, after a lifetime "trying to be perfect", he now accepted that he was not.

Whether or not Mr Swaggart's resignation proves any more permanent than was Mr Gary Hart's retirement from the presidential campaign – in circumstances both culturally and sexually similar – remains to be seen. But it is another blow to white Southern Protestant fundamentalism's image.

The Swaggart empire, with its Gulfstream jet and homes and limos, much like the Bakkers', covers 257 acres, 145 countries and is tax exempt.

Michael White


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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