In the late 1950s, Jimmy Swaggart was roaming around the back roads of Louisiana in a broken-down Chevrolet, earning about $40 a week from his preaching and gospel singing.
He has come a long way since then.
The controversial evangelist now heads a tax-exempt enterprise that ranks, by almost any measure, as one of the most successful of its kind. Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries and its Bible college boasted revenues of $150 million in 1987--more than $500,000 each working day.
And Swaggart's vast revenues, interviews and documents here reveal, finance more than his nonprofit ministry. Behind a veil of secrecy, Swaggart and his family have adopted a life style that, had it not been achieved in pursuing what he is fond of calling "the work of the Lord," Swaggart himself might include in some of his public condemnations of secularism and materialism.
His two-story, high-columned "parsonage," as it is called by ministry officials, sits behind a tall fence to assure privacy and is situated on 20 landscaped acres, including a swimming pool. The highly polished parquet living room floor is partly covered with an Oriental carpet, and off the master bedroom is a step-up Jacuzzi with faucets in the shape of golden swans.
Swaggart and his wife, Frances, drive matching late-model Lincoln Town Cars and fly to appearances around the country in a private Gulfstream jet aircraft that once was owned by the Rockefeller family. The Swaggarts have accepted gifts from loyal members of his video flock that include a diamond-studded gold Rolex watch, fine clothes and a mink coat.
When asked about such a life style, Elizabeth Fuller of Chattanooga, Tenn., a board member of the ministry, told The Times: "After years of hardship and traveling in poor circumstances, if the Lord chooses to bless him in his latter days, I don't quarrel with that."
Swaggart's temporary suspension from preaching as of last month, a result of his self-confessed "moral lapse" with a prostitute, may have a devastating effect on his ministry's income. But ministry officials have enough taped broadcasts to keep his weekly show on the air for months to come--if local stations still want it.
Officials said Friday that because of a sudden drop-off in contributions, more than 100 employees had been laid off and construction of new ministry buildings had been halted. The organization said it would hold a telethon in an effort to revive donations.
Seen on 200 Stations
Of Swaggart's $150 million in 1987 revenues, fully $135 million came from voluntary contributions generated both by his television ministry--which appears on 200 stations in the United States and is beamed to 145 countries in English and 15 foreign languages--and by fund-raising letters that are mailed at a rate of 7 million pieces a day.
The rest represented proceeds from the sales of gospel records and tapes, Bibles, books and T-shirts by the largest mail-order business in Louisiana and one of the biggest in the country.
Officials of Swaggart's ministry insist they can account for the spending of every penny of the $150 million. Almost half, they say, paid television production costs, including the purchase of equipment, and bought air time for the broadcasts seen around the world. Other large shares were used to build schools and to run food programs for children overseas and to meet administrative expenses that include a payroll of 1,200 employees and teachers.
The rapid growth of Swaggart's ministry--just six years ago, revenues were only $60 million--has gone largely unnoticed because Swaggart, until his confessed indiscretion, has avoided national controversy and because his organization has maintained such financial secrecy.
Although nonprofit charitable organizations are exempt from taxation, most of them file with the Internal Revenue Service an annual information return that is open to public inspection. These returns, called Form 990s, show the amount of contributions received by the organization and for what purposes its funds were disbursed.
But according to IRS analyst Wilson Fadely, the Swaggart organization asked for and received official classification as a church in the late 1970s, and so it is not required to file any documents with any government agency, not even Form 990s. Congress, as part of the Internal Revenue Code, has long exempted churches from federal scrutiny.
Adding further to the ministry's financial secrecy is the fact that it is largely a family affair, with few outsiders in positions of influence.
The ministry's seven-member executive board was effectively controlled for many years by four Swaggarts--Jimmy, Frances, their only son, Donnie, and Donnie's wife, Debra. In recent months, however, the board has been expanded to 11 members with the addition of two more Assemblies of God preachers and two longtime Swaggart contributors.
Family members also hold important operating positions. Donnie, who like his father built a home in the fenced-in family compound with a loan from the ministry, is the organization's director of marketing and development. Frances' brother, Robert Anderson, is director of purchasing, and Anderson's wife is in charge of data processing.
Frances' mother is a department supervisor and her sister is Jimmy Swaggart's personal secretary. In all, 22 Swaggart relatives are on the payroll, accounting for more than $350,000 of the ministry's annual pay-out of $11.5 million to its 1,200 employees.
Paid Out of Sales
William D. Treeby, the ministry's general counsel, said the salaries of family members are taken out of the proceeds--$10 million last year--from the sales of Swaggart's best-selling gospel albums. "So it's a very small part of this," Treeby said.
In an interview in his New Orleans law office, Treeby declined to say how much salary the organization pays Swaggart himself, although others have placed the figure at "less than $100,000." Treeby said Swaggart also receives an unspecified "housing allowance," which he said is "a customary thing."
"It enables a church to pay their ministers less money in salary," he said. "It's the same thing the government does for people in the military."
Secrecy also surrounds Swaggart's large fenced-in parsonage. Treeby said the homes of both Swaggart and his son were built partly with a loan of $1.8 million from Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries. He declined to give specific figures, saying the loan proceeds also were used to construct parsonages for some other ministers of the Assemblies of God Church.
He said the Swaggarts have made monthly payments on the loan, but he refused to give amounts.
Public records in Baton Rouge show the tax assessor values Jimmy Swaggart's home at $1.5 million and his son Donnie's home at $726,000. The courthouse records indicate that Jimmy and Frances Swaggart borrowed $650,000 from the ministry in May, 1980, apparently to buy land to build their home, which was completed in 1984. Donnie Swaggart and his wife similarly borrowed a total of $410,000, according to the records.
In each case, Treeby filed a statement with the county court asserting that these loans were paid off in June, 1985, but that the actual mortgage documents had been lost.
William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University who has made a study of television evangelists, said Swaggart's secrecy is "part of a pattern which some ministers have adopted not to let folks know how their money is being spent."
"An extraordinarily high percentage of their receipts goes for such things as television production costs, buying airplanes and paying the direct-mail costs of raising more money," Martin said. "This would be a shock to most contributors, who like to think their funds are going for evangelism and needy causes overseas."
Martin said Swaggart has sought to portray himself as a man of humble origins and a humble life style.
"I have heard him tell his television audience that a thought came to him while he was working in his small study," Martin laughed. "But he never says that his little study is in a great big mansion."
Jeffrey K. Hadden, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who has also studied television evangelists, says the sales and solicitation program of the Swaggart ministry is the most aggressive he has seen.
"Swaggart pitches his records, tapes, Bibles and study course with seriousness and aplomb," Hadden said in a recent book. "Viewers who get on his mailing list are asked to contribute to a variety of causes, like feeding children in India (and) building churches in Africa. They also get the chance to buy eight-track tapes or cassettes of 'Jimmy Swaggart's Greatest Hits.' "
Because many items are offered "for a donation of a specified amount," the purchasers can claim their purchases as a federal tax deduction, Hadden said.
But Hadden, in an interview, predicted that as a result of his confessed indiscretion, Swaggart "is going to be faced with some real problems" in continuing to raise funds.
"However it turns out," Hadden said, "some station managers are going to say, 'As a matter of policy, I don't want Jimmy Swaggart on here. We're not going to renew his contract.' Some people are deeply disillusioned."
Already, Swaggart's ministry has had to abandon one of its fund-raising methods in recent years as too controversial. Under the "stewardship program," ministry officials formerly showed elderly donors how they could make bequests by including the ministry in their wills.
In 1981, a court dispute resulted from just such a bequest. Zoe Vance, a wealthy reclusive widow of La Jolla, Calif., left a multimillion-dollar estate to Swaggart not long after Swaggart had baptized her and after other Swaggart aides had made repeated visits to her home.
A family member contested Vance's will, claiming Swaggart had "exploited" her. The suit was settled in 1984 with the Swaggart ministry receiving 70% of the estate, or a total of $7 million. The remainder went to a medical foundation named for Vance's son.
Swaggart used most of these funds to build the Zoe Vance teleproduction center, one of 12 buildings that have sprouted up at his 257-acre World Ministry Center and Jimmy Swaggart Bible College south of Baton Rouge.
Ministry officials said the Bible college, with 1,400 students who pay an average tuition of $1,000 a year, is being spun off as a separate entity. The college offers state-accredited bachelor of science and associate of science degrees, and is seeking state approval of its teacher-training department.
Another controversy erupted six years ago when charges were made by a former aide, George Jernigan, that only $2.1 million was given by the ministry to provide food assistance for starving children overseas, even though millions more had been collected. Ministry officials responded that Jernigan failed to understand that such funds had to be paid out to foreign missions more slowly than they were collected.
Jernigan was dismissed by the organization after a local television station broadcast his charges. His case received scant support, and the issue soon faded.
Sociologist Martin, however, predicts that Swaggart will be subjected to increasing pressure from his major contributors and from others to begin publishing a strict, audited statement of his ministry's income and expenses each year.
"He has never felt this pressure before," Martin said. "But he's wounded now, and I believe people will demand a more adequate accounting of his affairs."