Book Review

The Demons & Jimmy Swaggart:
The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist

by Ann Rowe Seaman
Lindisfarne Press, Hudson, New York

Swaggart and wife Frances

SAY "TELEVANGELIST" OR "JIMMY SWAGGART" and most people's associations are not likely to be positive. The media was ablaze with the story of the born-again Fundamentalist preacher, the top televangelist of his time, whose weekly television audience was more than 2.1 million in the U.S. alone, caught with a prostitute at a sleazy motel west of New Orleans. The picture of Jimmy Swaggart as just another money-seeking, power-hungry, megalomaniacal sex addict masking himself as a minister is a common one. Another is of Swaggart as an anointed (albeit flawed) man of God who had and has a genuine desire and calling to preach the Gospel in order to bring millions to salvation in Christ. Ann Rowe Seaman's Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist, deftly moves between both images to give a deeper understanding of a story so rich in archetypal themes, drama and characters that Elmer Gantry pales beside it. Set against a southern backdrop during the rise of Holy Roller spiritual revivals and thumping rock-and-roll music, it is a captivating account of one of the most influential and conflicted men in the history of evangelical Christianity. He climbed to the temporal heights, but his dualistic split and inability to integrate the conflicting manifestations of his own sex energy, what Swaggart himself refers to as "demon oppression," ultimately led to his public humiliation and downfall.

Building an Organization

At its height, the Jimmy Swaggart Ministry included the 10,000-seat Family Worship Center, the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, video production buildings and numerous smaller ones that line Bluebonnet Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The organization employed 1,500 workers and received more than $500,000 a day from donations, tours to the Holy Land, subscriptions to his magazine The Evangelist and sale of his music and biblical merchandise. His weekly program was seen throughout America, as well as in 143 other countries. Millions of dollars from his crusades were pumped into third world countries for schools and outreach programs. With his popularity soaring, he thundered against Satan, prowling the stage, a large open Bible in one hand, a microphone in the other, sweating and hollering, quoting verses by heart and warning against the evil ways of a degenerate, materialistic culture of sex, drugs and money worship. Scrupulous in how his ministry accounted for money—other than Billy Graham, a failing of many evangelists—perhaps he felt he was above attack. He took to criticizing the Catholic Church, other Fundamentalist ministers, and openly denounced the sexual misconduct of rival televangelists Jim Bakker and the lesser-known Marvin Gorman. The ensuing power struggles give an insight into this little-understood but powerful world of Fundamentalist Christianity. Allegorical depictions of Swaggart's struggle for spiritual attainment were now replaced by backbiting attacks, deception and pitiful attempts to maintain personal status. Then poof! It all exploded when the Swaggart, who had been throwing stones, was caught with a $20-dollar-a-trick prostitute in a sleazy New Orleans motel. Vacillating at first, the Executive Presbytery of the Assemblies of God ordered him to stop preaching for three months and complete counseling treatment for sex addiction. Swaggart defied the ruling and left the Assemblies of God, proclaiming to his congregation (reduced now to 600) that he'd asked God to take his life that night, but that he was healed. "I do not deny that the wound was there.... But I proclaim it to demons, and devils, and hell, and Satan, and angels, and you: it is healed by the power of the Almighty God!" His congregation was moved and applauded him enthusiastically. However, shortly afterward near Palm Springs, in the grip of "demon oppression," Jimmy again was driven to seek comfort and release. Cruising in his big Lincoln Towncar, he picked up a street prostitute. Pulled over for a traffic violation, within minutes Jimmy and the girl were surrounded by police cars and reporters.

Swaggart holding bible Seaman gives an insightful commentary about the origin of Swaggart's sex addiction and provides support for her interpretations by experts. She cites Patrick Carnes, author of Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, who believes the most important dynamic in sex addiction is fear of abandonment, pointing out that as a child Jimmy was left at home for long periods of time while his mother and father were on the road preaching. Also, both his grandfathers were known carousers, and she provides sources who say that Jimmy was molested as a child. Perhaps the most influential factor, however, is the heavily dualistic nature of the Fundamentalist subculture in which Swaggart grew up. The body is "filth," and the Prince of Darkness is always knocking at the door.


Sex energy was a key ingredient in Jimmy's services, as it is the basis of transmutation in all spiritual paths. It was apparent in both his music and his preaching, and helped bring millions of people into a state of ecstasy and transcendence, allowing a surrender and an opening—but always within (like the Unification Church) a rigid context of good and evil. In All and Everything, Mr. Gurdjieff speaks about how Christianity degenerated over time, no longer taking into consideration the plurality of man, adopting fantastical beliefs bedded in a dualistic nature of reality with external forces of 'good' and 'evil.' 'Havatvernoni,' or religions based on the 'maleficent idea' of 'good' and 'evil,' Gurdjieff says, are the chief factor for the abnormality and gradual 'dilution' of the human psyche, and are "the fundamental impeding factor for the possibility...for the self-perfecting of their higher being parts." With its fire-and-brimstone approach, the Pentecostal religion embodies what Gurdjieff speaks of.

Seaman notes that someone savvy about unconscious marital bargains might conclude that Jimmy was expected to deal with sex as best he could—as long as he delivered onstage. Perhaps his wife Frances, a childhood sweetheart, unwittingly knew early on that Jimmy was drawn to an essential contact with what he abhorred, and needed it regularly, in order to get up and do what he did onstage at the pace he did it—a pace largely set by her. Writes Seaman: "If sexual tension was a big part of that, then let there be sexual tension. If that tension had to come from wickedness—prostitutes or pornography or working out some issues over childhood sexual trauma, then let that happen—but keep up appearances. Tension, after all, was the constant companion of a sexual addict, from fear of being found out." Indeed, Jimmy would later write in puzzlement about a three-month period when "there was absolutely no attack by the powers of darkness. At the same time, there was no anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was uncanny. It was as if Satan had left, but it was as if the Holy Spirit had left as well." Unaware of the power of this energy and the danger of summoning it up in his own psyche, a psyche that had been forged in dualism, Jimmy rendered himself unable to control its "dark side" and refused when given the opportunity to heal this split.

Swaggart's Roots

In her attempt to understand Swaggart and his Fundamentalism, Seaman begins with the 1888 wedding of Jimmy's great grandfather, Leroy Milton Lewis, to his thirteen-year-old first cousin, Arilla Hampton (an event later emulated by great grandson, rock-and-roll star Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy's first cousin). She tells of the Swaggart-Lewis-Gilley families, all descending from Leroy Milton Lewis, and all influential in the rise of Holy Roller spiritual revivals, rock-and-roll music, Pentecostalism, bootlegging and glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. She weaves together these chronologies of mid-century, southern social movements with genuine human experiences of suffering, struggle, success and loss, spiritual transcendence and sexual tension.

The Swaggart family played an influential part in the establishment of the Pentecostal Church in Jimmy's hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana. In 1936, 17-year-old Leona Sumrall and her mother, both members of the Assemblies of God, came to Ferriday, cleared a field and started a Holy Roller Pentecostal church. Jimmy's mother and father, Sun and Minnie Bell Swaggart, began to attend, primarily as a venue for Sun to play his fiddle. However, Ada, Jimmy's grandmother, was the first in the family to be filled with the Holy Spirit and receive the gift of tongues. Later, she would be the inspiration for Jimmy to become a preacher, Jimmy becoming enamored by the tales of her "infilling" by the Holy Spirit. Seaman provides an historical account of glossolalia, from its Biblical inception in the story of the Apostles at Pentecost, to its modern resurgence in 1900 by Holiness preacher Charles Fox Parham, who founded the Bethel Bible School after studying glossolalia for several years. Parham's school prayed all night on New Year's Eve 1901, and the next evening a 30-year-old woman spoke out in tongues, followed by others in the following days. In 1906, William Seymour, a black student of Parham's, opened a Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, which would give birth to the Assemblies of God.

In 1944, eight-year-old Jimmy Swaggart "gets the Holy Ghost" at a church service. He entered a state of transcendence lasting several days, going in and out of tongues speech. For the next three days during sessions of intense, sweaty mass praying, Jimmy moved into the state he later described as "standing outside my body... I didn't know what was happening...then I began to describe exactly what I saw." News of the young boy speaking in tongues and 'prophesying'—weeks ahead of Hiroshima he warned of a gigantic bomb that was to explode—swept through Ferriday making Jimmy the talk of the little town. Seaman portrays these occurrences not as hysterical pretentiousness but of genuine transcendence, with testimonies from several witnesses who vouch for their credibility.

Jerry Lee Lewis At the same time that Jimmy was becoming known, Jerry Lee Lewis was beginning to establish himself musically. (The Gilley family also produced an influential cousin, Micky Gilley, citybilly country music pioneer and founder of Houston's Gilley's nightclub, featured in the movie Urban Cowboy). The close but difficult relationship between Jimmy and his first cousin provides Seaman with a natural vehicle to develop the theme of dualism. Jimmy, trying to be the embodiment of the Christian preacher, and Jerry Lee, personification of the adversarial rock-and-roll star, occupy opposite ends of the same stick. Unfortunately, both fail to realize it is the same stick.

Close as children, both Jimmy and Jerry Lee are also gifted piano players, learning the sexy, walking-left-hand rhythm of the boogie-woogie piano from black musicians. Jerry Lee used his sexual energy and boogie-woogie piano sound to become a rock-and-roll legend, while Jimmy's sexual energy and 'Holy Ghost boogie' piano style helped work his congregation into states of ecstasy, opening them to receive the Holy Spirit. "Jimmy's boogie touch on the piano," writes Seaman, "melted girls and women alike, just as his father's violin had done a generation earlier. He began to see that even in church there was a whiff of that devil's anointing when he played the music that would be called rock-and-roll." Unknowingly, Jimmy brought about a contact with the instinctual/sexual center in the members of his congregation. Their intellectual center not awakened, they had no control, no discrimination, and thus were opened to what was low as well as high.

As their twin paths of ministry and rock-and-roll unfolded, the effects of their dualistically split sexuality became more evident. Jerry Lee married his thirteen-year-old cousin, later going through five more adulterous and abuse-filled marriages. Jimmy, suppressing his sexuality, sublimated the energy into charismatic sermons and the building of his vast Christian empire. For many years this worked for Jimmy (though there is talk that he was seeing prostitutes all along) and his congregation, but eventually the energy became more than he could handle.

In general, Seaman keeps her commentary and interpretation to a minimum and allows the facts and the characters to speak for themselves, providing a relatively impartial and well-rounded portrayal of Jimmy Swaggart that is both endearing and tragic. When she does interject, her interpretations are reasonable and well supported, although sometimes distracting. Her true gifts, her capacities as historian and storyteller, have enabled Seaman to succeed in presenting Jimmy Lee Swaggart in a biography with universal appeal.

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