Swaggart, Jimmy Lee (1935– ), Radio and Television Evangelist

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Swaggart, Jimmy Lee
(1935– ), radio and television evangelist.

Jimmy Swaggart was perhaps the most celebrated evangelist in the world in the 1980s, both because of huge revival campaigns he conducted in auditoriums and stadiums in the United States and overseas and also because of his popular radio and television programs. Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, Swaggart often attended church with two cousins who had highly successful musical careers, Jerry Lee Lewis, a rock'n'roll legend, and Mickey Gilley, a famous country music star. In later years Swaggart often used his relationship with Lewis to impress audiences. Reared in a pentecostal home, at an early age he had a conversion experience and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and at age twenty-three he became an itinerant evangelist. Ordained to the ministry by the Assemblies of God in 1964, Swaggart quickly became one of that denomination's most successful revivalists.

Swaggart was an exuberant and talented preacher, but he was even more gifted as a piano player and singer. In the 1960s he recorded a number of gospel record albums that were highly successful. In 1969 he launched a radio program, The Camp Meeting Hour, that was soon aired on hundreds of religious radio stations. In 1973 Swaggart's booming ministry began producing a television program that featured his musical talents and his dynamic preaching; by the 1980s he was seen on more than two hundred stations. By the early 1980s the Jimmy Swaggart Ministerial Association, headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sponsored an active crusade schedule that crammed auditoriums in the United States and stadiums overseas; a monthly magazine, The Evangelist, which reached a circulation of nearly a million; the Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge that would seat seven thousand people; a small training school known as Jimmy Swaggart Bible College; and a direct mail department that distributed millions of records and books. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the Swaggart ministry in the 1970s and 1980s, and in addition to funding his own wide range of programs, he supported pentecostal missions abroad. Swaggart was particularly influential in Latin American countries, where he staged a series of huge crusades and regularly aired his television program in Spanish and Portuguese translation.

Swaggart was a part of a booming pentecostal/charismatic revival that was sweeping the world by the 1970s. Journalists often linked him with other television preachers such as Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts, and to some extent they were all part of the same worldwide revival. However, while most independent charismatic ministers were theologically tolerant and ecumenical, Swaggart remained strongly tied to his denomination, the Assemblies of God, and he preached an "old-time Holy Ghost" message. He was harshly critical of Roman Catholicism and of Protestant liberals, and he preached a strict code of personal morality. When Jim Bakker was accused of sexual misconduct in the spring of 1987, Swaggart strongly condemned his fellow evangelist's sexual indiscretions. Swaggart was not a central figure in the formation of the politically conservative religious coalition that first emerged under the leadership of Jerry Falwell in the late 1970s. Like many other pentecostal preachers, Swaggart was more or less apolitical, although he did back Pat Robertson's bid for the Republican nomination for president in 1988.

Only a few months after his attack on Bakker, Swaggart was himself accused of having liaisons with a prostitute in a seamy New Orleans motel. Swaggart's tearful confession of his sexual indiscretions, which received international press attention, effectively ended his career as a prominent evangelist. His ordination was withdrawn by the Assemblies of God in 1988, but he continued to preach in camp meetings held in Baton Rouge, and the ministry supported a limited television schedule. The post-1988 decline of the Swaggart ministry should not obscure the fact that for nearly two decades he exerted a massive influence on the musical and preaching techniques used by pentecostal evangelists around the world.

See alsoEvangelical Christianity; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Revivalism; Robertson, Pat; Televangelism.


Swaggart, Jimmy, and R. P. Lamb. ToCrossaRiver. 1977.

Harrell, David Edwin, Jr. All ThingsAre Possible: TheHealing and CharismaticRevivals inModern America. 1975.

Razelle, Frank. Religious Television:ControversiesandConclusions. 1990.

David Edwin Harrell, Jr.

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