'What's Past Is Past' : A Defiant Swaggart Returns to the Pulpit

Times Staff Writer

Jimmy Swaggart, defrocked but defiant, returned to the pulpit Sunday and sought to save his troubled ministry by unleashing the talent that once had made him and his operation the envy of television evangelism.

For more than two hours, the golden-haired preacher in the sharp black suit wept, shouted Scripture, spoke in tongues, sang, danced, groveled on his knees, played piano, wept, hugged his weeping wife and told in whispers of dark, prophetic dreams and desperate, late-night conversations with the Lord.

He also asked for money more than once, but on this, his triumphal return from the three months of penitence he deemed appropriate, Swaggart seemed less concerned with raising revenue than removing the paralysis that has clutched his $150-million-a-year ministry since his February confession to "moral failures."

Those among the crowd of 5,000 who came to the 7,500-seat Family Worship Center anticipating Swaggart would provide, as promised, the particulars of his fall were left unfulfilled. The preacher displayed a mastery of euphemism, referring obliquely to his "trying time" and his "burden" and "Satan" and "this leviathan." But he never specifically confirmed or elaborated upon reports that he has long struggled with a fascination for pornography and rendezvoused regularly with at least one prostitute in seedy motels outside New Orleans. And he made it clear that he probably never would.

"Guilt is not of God," Swaggart said at the close of the morning service, peering straight into one of three cameras that tracked his movements. "When Jesus took the sin away, he took the guilt away as well. . . . I lay the guilt at the foot of the cross. I will never again look at it. I will never again pick it up. I will never again look back."

This was his unrelenting theme. The past was past. There would be no more awkward apologies or explanations.

He quoted Old Testament Scripture, an epistle from St. Paul and lyrics from traditional Gospel songs to justify his decision to put his past behind him.

" 'Tears of joy will flow,' " Swaggart said at a midway point in the sermon, repeating a lyric, " 'because the old account is settled.'

"It's settled," he shouted, his chin again quivering as many in the crowd began to applaud. "It's settled. You can look God right in the eye, because Jesus has washed you. . . .

"I want to serve notice to the whole world: What's past is past. . . . I want to serve notice on demons and devils in hell: The best is yet to come."

Despite Swaggart's reluctance to divulge any details from the dark side, the 10 a.m. service did provide plenty of spectacle and, according to the church's attorney, enough good footage to fill two Sundays of television air time.

Geraldo Rivera Attended

For instance, even before Swaggart was summoned by a thunderous drum roll from behind a huge, gray stage curtain, an odd scene was played out in the front row of the balcony. Geraldo Rivera, here in an attempt to land Swaggart as a guest on his television talk show, was surrounded by a knot of autograph seekers, one of whom requested and received the television journalist's signature on the back of his Bible.

And, almost three hours later, after the sermon was finished and Swaggart was accepting personal congratulations from church members gathered on the octagonal altar, a private detective sidled up, embraced the preacher, whispered a few kindnesses in his ear and then served him with a subpoena. It appeared that Swaggart refused to take the document in hand, and the detective stuffed it in the preacher's suit coat.

$90-Million Lawsuit

The private investigator was Reed Bailey. He represents Marvin Gorman, a defrocked television preacher who is pressing a $90-million defamation suit against Swaggart. Gorman claims that Swaggart and other preachers conspired to ruin his ministry by accusing him of adultery.

It was Gorman who early this year sent leaders of the Assembly of God denomination photographs alleged to show Swaggart leaving a motel room with a known prostitute. After reports of the photographs surfaced, Swaggart confessed in late February to unspecified sins and stepped away from preaching. A prostitute came forward and said Swaggart hired her to pose nude, poses which she has repeated--for a fee--for Penthouse magazine.

Swaggart's scandal led to a dispute over terms of his punishment. The national elders of Assemblies of God wanted Swaggart to accept the same two-year suspension he himself had advocated for other fallen preachers, including Jim Bakker, of whom Swaggart was an outspoken critic. Swaggart refused, saying he would accept only a three-month exile, and subsequently he was defrocked by the Assemblies of God.

Board Members Resigned

Ministry attorney William Treeby said Swaggart was able to resume preaching under the auspices of the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College here, which has authority to credential independent ministers.

Nonetheless, his defrocking has prompted at least three of the ministry's 12 board members to resign, and several members of the Bible College faculty have also departed. Three cable networks have canceled Swaggart's shows. Attendance at the Family Worship Center's twice-weekly services has been paltry over the last three months, and in his absence Swaggart's wife and son have gone on the air regularly to plead for emergency donations to keep the ministry afloat.

And so it was with a sense of urgency that Swaggart bounded up to the pulpit Sunday morning, shouting "hallelujah!" as he approached the microphone. He already had broken down crying in the midst of the second introductory hymn by the choir--the first of several breakdowns--but now Swaggart's face was aglow.

Choking on Tears

He summoned his wife, Frances, and son, Donnie, to the pulpit, and they stood beside him as he thanked them and talked about "their hurt." Each then said a few words, Frances choking on tears as she spoke.

One of the first things Swaggart did was petition for money.

"CNN (Cable News Network) stated this morning that the Jimmy Swaggart ministries was about to financially go under," the preacher said. Then he paused a beat, for dramatic effect.

"CNN is right!"

He went on: "If you have a good offering to give, we would appreciate it. . . . And we'll take it any way you want to do it."

From there, Swaggart left the temporal needs of his empire and launched into a long sermon about guilt, and why he should no longer feel it.

"Guilt is one of Satan's greatest weapons," he thundered in one flourish. "It eats away at the vitals."

Frances sat with her legs crossed, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief and occasionally waving her hand toward the ceiling.

The people in the congregation seemed most captivated by Swaggart's detailed description of two dreams he experienced a year ago, in what he described as a single, fitful night. They sat still and silent as Swaggart, his voice dropping to a husky stage whisper, told of how he had dreamed of struggling with monsters "100 feet long." The preacher said his only weapon was a small wooden club. And the conflict was engaged in the aisle of a church he didn't know.

He awoke, Swaggart said, with the battle unfinished.

"The dream ended," he said, "and I did not know what it meant. But today I do know what it means. . . . I could not fight the leviathan. I could not overcome him within myself. But Jesus Christ overcame him for me."

Shouts of Glory

Swaggart sprinkled theatrics throughout the sermon. At one point, he dropped to his knees, after carefully hitching up his black trousers, and crawled across the floor, preaching all the while. At times he broke into capella singing, and on a few occasions drifted into tongues, the incoherent form of speech pentacostals believe is a heavenly language inspired by the Holy Spirit in them. The congregation seemed moved by it all; shouts of glory and hand waving to the heavens punctuated much of Swaggart's sermon.

In one of his more contrite moments, Swaggart said that God had told him that " 'You'll be a cripple the rest of your life.' But he said, 'I can use cripples better than I can use anybody else.' "

The preacher then went a couple rows into the audience and brought forward a 32-year-old graduate of the bible college, a man named Brud Coy. He was lame in one leg and walked with a cane, a result of multiple sceloris, Coy would explain later.

Coy had written Swaggart regularly since the scandal broke, expressing his support.

Now Swaggart stood with his arm draped around Coy, signifying that they were one and the same.

The congregation rose in ovation.

When the service ended, the congregation and Swaggart both did not seem anxious to leave the spacious church. He and Frances stood at the front, greeting individual members of the congregations. Many pressed checks into Swaggart's hands.

"Do you want some money?" one woman asked.

"I sure do," Swaggart said with a wide grin, and several check-bearing hands shot at him at once.

Hissed at Reporters

There was a large number of news reporters at the service, and as the crowd thinned they became more obvious. "You're leeches," Swaggart's son hissed at one group of reporters.

Frances Swaggart buttonholed a Washington Post reporter and began to complain bitterly about a story describing Swaggart's alleged missions to seedy motels. When Donnie Swaggart sought to stop the exchange, grabbing his mother brusquely on the arm, she shoved him back and said: "Don't push me." He stood and glowered.

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