Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery

Jimmy Swaggart was an internationally known Pentecostal preacher ordained through the Assemblies of God when church officials received photographs from a rival televangelist, Marvin Gorman, showing Swaggart entering and leaving a motel with a prostitute. After Swaggart made a vague confession to his congregation and begged forgiveness, the prostitute went public and described Swaggart’s unconventional sexual tastes. Despite this and a later public debacle involving a prostitute, Swaggart continued to preach.

Summary of Event

During the middle of the so-called holy wars between the multimillion dollar televangelists of the 1980’s, Jimmy Swaggart seemed to the one, straight-shooting preacher who was above the fray. He was the one televangelist who was respected by the media, as he seemed to practice the strict Pentecostal dogma that he preached on The Jimmy Swaggart Telecast. Swaggart’s blend of old-fashioned Pentecostal revival-meeting and rock-star pathos was netting his ministry millions of dollars in donations. Television made him a multimillionaire. The entire time, too, Swaggart was busy tearing down those televangelists whom he felt were not worthy of being anointed by God. [kw]Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery, Evangelist Jimmy (Feb. 21, 1988)
Swaggart, Jimmy
Evangelists;Jimmy Swaggart[Swaggart]
Gorman, Marvin
Swaggart, Jimmy
Evangelists;Jimmy Swaggart[Swaggart]
Gorman, Marvin
[g]United States;Feb. 21, 1988: Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery[02340]
[c]Prostitution;Feb. 21, 1988: Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery[02340]
[c]Sex;Feb. 21, 1988: Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery[02340]
[c]Religion;Feb. 21, 1988: Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery[02340]
[c]Public morals;Feb. 21, 1988: Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery[02340]
[c]Radio and television;Feb. 21, 1988: Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart Tearfully Confesses His Adultery[02340]
Murphree, Debra

In 1986, Swaggart crushed up-and-coming rival televangelist Marvin Gorman by revealing that Gorman was having an extramarital affair with another pastor’s wife. In 1987, Swaggart turned on one of his main competitors, Jim Bakker, exposing Bakker’s infidelities to the Assemblies of God’s executive presbytery and then calling him a “cancer in the body of Christ” on CNN’s King, Larry (talk show host)
Larry King Live. Swaggart’s exposé of both Gorman and Bakker effectively destroyed their ministries. Gorman, not Bakker, would be the architect of Swaggart’s downfall.

Gorman hired a private detective to follow Swaggart, tracking him and a local prostitute, Debra Murphree, to a seedy motel in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. The private detective took photos of the couple entering and leaving the motel, providing Gorman with the proof he needed to crucify Swaggart. Gorman first attempted to blackmail Swaggart with the photos, but after he failed to do so, he took the photos to the leadership of the Assemblies of God. Swaggart was forced to apologize to his flock and family, and to God, after his tryst became known to church leadership.

Swaggart, first cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley, was born to Pentecostal evangelists in Ferriday, Louisiana, in 1935. As a child, Swaggart brought attention to himself by uttering prophecy and speaking in tongues at a local Pentecostal church. In 1958, he began a successful traveling revival ministry, which he followed with a successful gospel music recording career and, by 1969, a syndicated radio program, The Camp Meeting Hour, which had made him a household name in much of the Bible Belt.

After receiving his ordination from the Assemblies of God Church, Swaggart made the move to televangelism. By 1980, The Jimmy Swaggart Telecast was a staple on two hundred stations and seen in two million homes. Jimmy Swaggart Ministries grew to a $100-million-per-year business and built its headquarters and a Bible college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Swaggart took a simple message: the average person is miserable and distracted by desire, and Swaggart could offer a means of escaping that misery. Naturally, that escape begins with a small monetary offering. Swaggart paired this with the dominant media of the day and became a media juggernaut. However, he was not content with the niche he had created; he took it upon himself to attack those whom he saw as rivals.

The Swaggart sex scandal erupted on February 18, 1988, three days before Swaggart made his public confession. He flew to the Assemblies of God international headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, to meet with the members of the executive presbytery, before whom he was supposed to confess his moral failures and receive his punishment. Instead, he was reportedly argumentative and said that he, rather than the church, spoke for God.

Three days later, on February 21, without providing details of the “sins” he had committed, Swaggart took the stage in front of about seven thousand of his flock at his Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge to deliver his sermon of apology. With tears streaming down his face, Swaggart apologized to his wife and family but still condemned the Assemblies of God when he said, “Yes, the ministry will continue. . . . I step out of the pulpit at the moment for an indeterminate period of time and we will leave that in the hands of the Lord.”

Following Swaggart’s televised apology, the representative of the Louisiana district of the Assemblies of God explained that Swaggart showed true humility in blaming only himself for his actions after confessing to specific incidents of moral failure. The Louisiana district recommended that Swaggart be barred from the pulpit for a period of three months after this public confession and display of humility. It was somewhat of a surprise, however, when the executive presbytery accepted the sanctions suggested by the Louisiana regional leadership body that Swaggart not be allowed to preach for three months.

Just four days later, Murphree came forward on a New Orleans television news program and provided more details regarding Swaggart’s unusual predilections. She said that while Swaggart was a regular customer, the two never had intercourse; rather, he paid her to pose in the nude.

Swaggart found he could not wait three months to preach again. After claiming that millions would go to Hell otherwise, he returned to the pulpit. On March 30, the executive presbytery defrocked Swaggart, banned him from the pulpit for a year, and demanded he seek two years of rehabilitation and counseling. Swaggart also was to be banned from distributing videotapes of his evangelical services, a practice that had enabled him to build both an enormous amount of wealth and an enormous worldwide audience. The church also removed Swaggart’s ministerial license; yet, they consistently refused to make the details of Swaggart’s confessions public.

Jimmy Swaggart breaks down crying while confessing his sins to his congregation.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1991, a highway patrol officer stopped Swaggart’s car in Southern California. The preacher had yet another prostitute, Rosemary Garcia, in his vehicle. In 2004, Swaggart said during a broadcast sermon on gay Marriage;and homosexuality[homosexuality] marriage, “if one [a gay man] ever looks at me like that I’m gonna kill him and tell God he died.” Nevertheless, Swaggart continued to preach. By 1995, after the legal battles had ended, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries had been reduced to approximately 85 percent of its size before the scandal, when broadcasts brought in an estimated $140 million from viewer donations.


Swaggart’s fall from grace marked the beginning of the end of the glory days of the so-called holy-roller television evangelists and their multimillion dollar crusades. Despite Swaggart, Bakker, Gorman, and the others returning to the pulpit following their well-publicized sins, Swaggart’s fall seemed to be the one that broke the public’s mass desire to send in their money to keep this message on the air.

At the time of the Swaggart scandal, Robertson, Pat
Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1988
Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Pat Robertson Pat Robertson, another televangelist, ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign. After the Swaggart scandal, audience size and generosity shrank to the point that televangelist Oral Roberts could not convince his viewers to donate enough money to keep God from taking his life. This new skeptical view of televangelists reduced a major media market to a tiny trickle that struggled to purchase air time on a handful of local stations, turning instead mostly to late-night television, the World Wide Web, and direct mail to solicit donations.

Swaggart’s defrocking also played a major role in the deflation of the political power of the Moral Majority and similar evangelical Christian political action groups. His actions tarred the credibility of all evangelical Christian leaders. Swaggart, Jimmy
Evangelists;Jimmy Swaggart[Swaggart]
Gorman, Marvin

Further Reading

  • Balmer, Randall. “Still Wrestling with the Devil: A Visit with Jimmy Swaggart Ten Years After His Fall.” Christianity Today, March 2, 1998. A retrospective look at Swaggart’s life, one decade after his tearful confession and downfall.
  • Lundy, Hunter. Let Us Prey: The Public Trial of Jimmy Swaggart. Columbus, Miss.: Genesis Press, 1999. Lundy, Gorman’s attorney, recounts “Swaggart versus Gorman” from an insider’s vantage point.
  • Miller, Brett A. Divine Apology: The Discourse of Religious Image Restoration. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. Analyzes religious figures accused of sexual misconduct. Includes a section on Swaggart, whose scandalous dalliance with prostitute Debra Murphree was covered closely by the national media.
  • “Reviewing the Fundamentals.” Christianity Today, January, 2007. Focuses on the biblical teachings of the New Testament on sex and sexuality. Cites the book of James, which states that Christian leaders are placed under strict moral standards.
  • Seaman, Ann Rowe. Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist. New York: Continuum, 2001. An excellent unauthorized biography of Swaggart that covers many details following his tearful fall from grace.
  • Swaggart, Jimmy, with Robert Paul Lamb. To Cross A River. Baton Rouge, La.: Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, 1984. Swaggart’s authorized biography, which tells of, among other things, his “healing” an automobile. Also provides a unique look at Swaggart’s self-perception.

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