The Rev. Billy James Hargis, a colorful and controversial evangelist and anti-communist crusader who launched the “Bible balloon barrage” to float Scripture behind the Iron Curtain and tangled with the IRS, the church that ordained him and the college he founded, has died. He was 79.
Hargis, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and a series of heart attacks, died Saturday at a nursing home in Tulsa, Okla., of unspecified causes.
Overflowing with words and big ideas, the 270-pound dynamo spewed them forth over 500 radio and 250 television stations, in films, books and gospel records, and from the pulpit and the rostrum in campaigns from the Holy Land to Los Angeles.
Haranguing “for Christ and against communism,” Hargis in his heyday in the 1960s and early ‘70s approached the fame and influence of such contemporary evangelists as Carl McIntire, Oral Roberts and even Billy Graham.
But unlike others, Hargis seemed to concentrate more on communism than Jesus Christ, which put him at odds with secular and religious leaders.
A poster boy for the old far right, Hargis unabashedly tongue-lashed such diverse names as President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the National Council of Churches and network news anchors Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite for encouraging, or at least ignoring, the threat of a communist takeover of the United States. Hargis also insisted that the assassinations of the Kennedys and King were a communist plot to discredit the conservative movement.
Among Hargis’ myriad books were “Communist America -- Must It Be?” in 1960, “The Total Lie” in 1961, “Facts About Communism and the Churches” in 1962, “The Real Extremists -- The Far Left” in 1964, “Distortion by Design” in 1965 and “Why I Fight for a Christian America” in 1974. Along with his church and missionary organizations, he launched the National Anti-Communist Leadership School.
Hargis’ Christian Crusade, which had a $2-billion budget in 1972 financed by the donations he solicited from a mailing list of 250,000 names, was once described by a Wyoming senator as “the best-heeled right-wing organization in the United States.”
The IRS agreed, revoking the organization’s income tax-exempt status in 1964, citing “political activities”; the exempt status was reinstated in court years later.
Born Aug. 3, 1925, in Texarkana, Texas, the future minister was adopted by Jimmie and Laura Hargis, who brought him up in “Christ-conscious” Depression-era poverty. Recreation consisted of daily Bible reading and weekly gospel singings.
Young Hargis, who first stepped into the pulpit at 17, had little formal college education. After briefly attending Ozark Bible College in Bentonville, Ark., he was ordained May 30, 1943, by the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant denomination.
The evolving evangelist served as pastor of churches in Sallisaw and Granby, Mo., and Sapulpa and Tulsa. He soon developed what Oklahomans call the “bawl and jump” style of preaching, shouting oratory at the top of his lungs to the point of hoarseness, while wildly flailing with his hands and arms.
In 1950, Hargis started his own Christian Crusade as an independent, interdenominational ministry. That same year, he became one of the first evangelists to address his flock over television.
Hargis first earned international fame in 1953 with the so-called Bible balloon barrage, which he launched from West Germany. In cooperation with McIntire’s International Council of Christian Churches, over the next four years, Hargis floated a million hydrogen balloons carrying Scripture toward Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany, “to succor the spiritually starved captives of communism.”
The Disciples of Christ, who became as concerned as the IRS that Hargis was concentrating more on communism than Christ, ousted him in 1966. He promptly organized the Church of the Christian Crusade and the David Livingston Missionary Foundation, which carried out missionary work and established medical clinics and orphanages overseas.
The Tulsa-based Hargis also started his own religious college -- despite the considerable presence of Oral Roberts University across town. Hargis laid the cornerstone Aug. 3, 1969, and in February 1971 welcomed the first 200 students to his American Christian College.
Urging a Chicago audience to contribute to his enterprises later that year, Hargis described his college as “conservative, fundamental, orthodox” and vowed it would never accept federal funds. What the college taught, he said, was “anticommunism, antisocialism, anti-welfare state, anti-Russia, anti-China, a literal interpretation of the Bible and states’ rights.”
But a few years after the college opened, allegations surfaced that Hargis had engaged in sexual acts with at least one male and three female students. The preacher vehemently denied the charges at the time and later in his 1986 autobiography, “My Great Mistake.” He told the Tulsa Tribune in 1985: “I was guilty of sin, but not the sin I was accused of.”
Nevertheless, college leaders forced him to resign as president. Without the financial support Hargis generated, the college closed in 1977.
Newsweek magazine, in a 1987 article about sex and religion scandals at the time of evangelist Jim Bakker’s downfall, cited Hargis as “the first televangelist brought down by allegations of sexual misconduct.” A University of Alabama historian, David E. Harrell Jr., said: “Never in history had a ministry been ruined in such a way.”
Hargis continued to operate his various organizations until early this year, when his son, Billy James Hargis II, assumed leadership. But he never regained the following he enjoyed before the campus scandal.
In addition to his son, Hargis is survived by his wife of 52 years, Betty Jane; three daughters, Bonnie Jane Choisnard, Becky Jean Frank and Brenda Jo Epperley; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.