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Before The Fall

May 2024
1min read


I was a young pastor in Michigan serving in my first church when the clergy of nearby Saginaw organized a citywide revival featuring the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart. It was the summer of 1973, and Swaggart’s evangelistic crusades and television ministry were flourishing. The scandals that would rock conservative Christian evangelists, including Jim Bakker (sent to prison for bilking his followers out of millions of dollars) and Swaggart himself (caught with a prostitute in a Louisiana motel room), still lay in the future.

When I volunteered to help plan the Michigan event, I had my own agenda. My mother lay in a Saginaw hospital, dying of cancer, and although she had never really embraced Swaggart’s theology, she did take comfort in his recordings of gospel music. My goal was to persuade Swaggart to visit her.

At the pre-crusade luncheon I was introduced to the evangelist and then took a seat at the far end of the table, as was appropriate for a junior clergyman. I didn’t have another chance to talk to him until after a noon rally on Sunday. He was perspiring heavily from his exertions during the long, emotional service, and his manager was toweling him dry as I approached. Screwing up my courage, I told him about my mother and asked if he had half an hour to visit her. His manager interrupted, saying that Jimmy needed his rest before the evening meeting, but Swaggart cut him short. In his finest Southern drawl he said he would be pleased to come.

Despite her pain, my mother’s face lit up when I ushered the evangelist into her hospital room. Swaggart talked amiably with her for a few moments, while my father, my sisters, and my wife and I looked on. Then he asked if we all would step outside while he spent a few minutes alone with my mother. I was very grateful that he took the time to see her.

As I drove him back to his motel in my old Chevy Vega, Reverend Swaggart gave me some hints on how to have an effective pastorate. Maybe with a little prescience I might have glimpsed the weakness that would one day topple him from grace: As he left my car, he said, “You have a very pretty wife.”

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