Televangelists Who Were Anything But Holy

Televangelism. What is there to say about it that hasn't already been said in countless documentaries, exposés, and depositions? In theory, it's a beautiful way to spread a message of faith to the masses. In practice, it seems to end disproportionately in hand-tailored suits that cost as much as a down payment on a mortgage and, in more than a few cases, prison. What's the deal?

It's true. If you're looking for a celebrity figure that's going to get hit with a scandal, you'd do alright perusing the ranks of televangelists. Some people will call it dumb luck. The more skeptical would probably point to how easy it is to take advantage of a position of power. If you're one of the people on this list, you're almost definitely going to say the devil made you do it. What did he make you do? Let's take a look and find out.

Moves like Swaggart

Jimmy Swaggart is notable for a number of reasons, but none so important as the fact that his plastic-faced visage is the first thing that pops up if you Google image search "televangelist crying."

The story goes like this. Back in the '70s and '80s, Swaggart was one of the most influential evangelical preachers in America. He was producing shows nearly every day and being broadcast on hundreds of channels across the world. When he talked, the people in his community listened. When he exposed fellow TV preacher Marvin Gorman for having extramarital affairs, that guy wound up out of a job. Unfortunately for Swaggart, hell hath no fury like a minor television celebrity scorned, and Gorman had Swaggart followed and photographed during a rendezvous with a local prostitute.

What followed was a House of Cards-worthy circle of blackmail that saw Gorman reinstated and Swaggart taken off the air for a spell. Soon afterward, he gave the speech where he cried a lot and asked for forgiveness. It was a touching moment of humility from atop a pillar normally reserved for moral superiority. Truly, we are all human, and even the best among us must strive to be better.

Anyway, then he did it all again three years later and lost everything. And by "lost everything," we mean he's now back on TV and has his own network again.

Haggard the horrible

Ted Haggard was the Chiclet-toothed face of evangelism for three years as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Life was a hoot and a holler for Haggard. He had everything. A loving wife. Five adoring children. Regular meth-fueled hookups with a male prostitute named Mike Jones. Unfortunately for the reverend, that last part brought everything tumbling down.

Jones figured out who Ted was during his non-meth-and-solicitation hours and blabbed to the press. Haggard's responses to the accusations varied over the next few months, running the gamut from "I don't know who that guy is" to "I bought meth from that guy but I threw it away" to, eventually, "yeah, I did all that stuff."

Haggard wound up disgraced and ejected from his church. He was poised for a comeback in 2009 when HBO produced a documentary on his return to the righteous path, but wouldn't you know it, more allegations of the abusive variety popped up.

Oh, and in 2012, he was on Celebrity Wife Swap. He switched lady friends with Gary Busey. So that's fun.

Jesse Duplantis wants a plane

You know how it is. Every year, you take the kids shopping for new shoes. A month later, they've outgrown the darned things, and you have to ask your parishioners for $54 million to buy new ones. Well, Jesse Duplantis feels your pain. The same thing happened to him, but with a private jet instead of new kicks.

In May 2018, the famed television minister put out a call to action. His old jet (not to be confused with his other two old jets) was wearing a little thin at the seams, and he just knew his followers would help him, a humble servant of Jesus. (You remember Jesus. He's the guy that eschewed material wealth and said it was easier to thread a needle with a whole camel than it was for a rich dude to get into heaven.) He only needed a small tithing of millions and millions of dollars to buy a sweet new Falcon 7X passenger jet. According to Duplantis, God personally told him that He wants him flying in that particular plane, presumably because the Good Lord would never expect his followers to fly Southwest.

No, for real, why doesn't God want televangelists flying business class? In a broadcast from 2015, Duplantis and fellow preacher Kenneth Copeland said it was because regular airliners are filled with people who would constantly be asking them to pray. Yeah, praying for people would be a bummer.

Remember the Alamos

It all started in 1969 with a small ministry an hour outside Hollywood run by married couple Tony and Susan Alamo (ah-LAH-mo, but who cares). Their methods were questionable and their message was a horror show, but otherwise, it was an unspectacular enterprise.

Cut to the mid-'70s. Susan and Tony are broadcasting their gospel and living in a 14,000-square-foot mansion in Arkansas on a compound staffed by their followers, who are paid $5 a week and get food when they're good. When Susan died in 1982, Tony had her body on display for six months, with his congregants performing a constant vigil over the corpse so it would come back to life.

Things get creepier the more you read about the Alamos. Their ministry fell pretty clearly under the umbrella of "that's absolutely a cult" when it was discovered that they had followers working in a sweatshop, producing high-end denim jackets that were sold for hundreds of dollars. The government started taking action in the early '90s, and Tony found himself on the wrong side of the law. He'd been operating his businesses as tax-free nonprofits, which the IRS called bull on pretty hard. Oh, also, he stole his wife's body from the compound after it was shut down. The kicker was his conviction on 10 counts of transporting girls as young as 8 across state lines for the obvious, evil reason. His shining quote: "Consent is puberty." Yeah, he died in jail.

Robert Tilton's ministry was actual trash

Fans of Robert Tilton know him as the host of Success-N-Life. Early frequenters of YouTube know him as The Farting Preacher. Pretty much everyone else knows him as a giant fraud.

Tilton's message has been clear from the start: Poverty is the result of sin, and also please send money. His ministry became so popular that he attracted between 8,000 and 10,000 worshipers to his megachurch every week, and his broadcasts brought in scores of letters with personal requests for prayer and (naturally!) donations.

During an undercover investigation, ABC discovered that prayer letters sent to Robert Tilton's television ministry were sent straight to the bank, where their donations were marked and their prayers were thrown in the dumpster. Tilton's rebuttal? Nuh uh. He said he prayed so hard over the letters that the ink leaked into his bloodstream, and by the way that's why he needed plastic surgery, paid for by aforementioned donations.

Hargis the also horrible

Billy James Hargis was the grandpappy of many televangelist trends, like mail fraud and swearing that the broadcast would go off the air if people didn't send money ASAP. His church, the Church of the Christian Crusade, spread a staunchly conservative interpretation of Christianity. God hated Communists, he said, presumably explaining why Jesus accepted Venmo for all of those loaves and fishes. Hargis even went so far as to write a speech for Joseph McCarthy, the famous Communist witch hunter.

It wouldn't be his political views that would bring him down. Not his anti-labor union manifestos or the fact that he'd light up a room with his smile when you brought up segregation or his connection to a series of bombings in the 1960s. He was made of stuff too stern for something as trifling as a complete lack of moral fiber to knock him out of the box.

Yes, Billy James Hargis was steadfast. Billy James Hargis was resolute. Billy James Hargis ran into some trouble when two members of his congregation got married and, surprise, revealed that neither of them were virgins on account of Billy James Hargis.

Marcus Lamb gets sheepish

If you've ever been at a cheap hotel, flipping through channels in the middle of the night, you've probably seen Marcus Lamb's work. He's the founder of the Daystar Television Network, the second-largest Christian TV network on Earth.

Lamb's story is a familiar one. He found the church at a young age and started preaching as a teenager. His whole life was all about spreading the news. It turns out that some news just gets spread faster when you're being blackmailed for $7.5 million.

During a stunning sermon in 2010, Lamb admitted to having had an affair a few years earlier. According to him, three women who had previously worked for him had threatened to go public with the information if they weren't paid $7.5 million. Taking the high ground (anything is high ground once you get low enough), Lamb repented, asked his congregation for forgiveness, and naturally went on Doctor Phil. His wife stuck with him, even after he was sued for allegedly going all "bad touch" on employees during mandated "quiet time."

Peter Popoff will sell you salvation

If you learn one thing today, let it be this: America is the land of second chances, and televangelism is the seedy island territory just offshore where we house third, fourth, and fifth chances.

The personification of this phenomenon might well be Peter Popoff. With his grinning California charm, charismatic preaching methods, and Mother Goosian alliterative name, Popoff was the man to see in the '80s for revival services and quick-as-a-bunny faith healing. Attendees of his sermons were amazed when he'd call out strangers by name, knowing exactly what afflicted them through the divine providence of God.

In a roundabout way, it was true. If God created man and man created the small two-way radios that Popoff and an assistant used to have secretly communicate while Popoff was performing, then hallelujah. Prestigious debunker James Randi exposed the trick on national television, and Popoff was never heard from again.

Sorry, that was a typo. He kept going, and now does infomercials selling his patented Miracle Manna™, a guaranteed cure for, according to Popoff, basically everything.

Mike Warnke ain't got the devil in him

Everybody's known that one dude that can't stop himself from one-upping. You just got a dog? He just got a bald eagle. You've been to Europe? He's an archduke, and his armies march on Luxembourg this very night. To most people, it's exhausting. To fans of Mike Warnke, it's Sunday morning.

Warnke was sort of a big deal back in the day. Though he didn't focus on TV, he lived the good life as a minister and Christian comedian, traveling the world spreading his message that the devil is coming for you and you'd better be ready to fight him. How did he know? Because he totally used to be a satanist. No, not just a satanist. A satanic preacher. With a whole cult. Like, 1,500 people followed him. They made blood sacrifices. He absolutely claimed all of that.

Among his other supposed accomplishments: his doctorate in philosophy, his two bachelor's degrees, and the somewhere-between-two-and-five wounds he accumulated in Vietnam. Was any of it true? Negative, captain.

What makes Warnke's case all the more fascinating is that he was actually outed as a fraud by a Christian publication, Cornerstone Magazine, in an exposé in 1991. The resulting backlash was split. Some were angry at Warnke for his deception, others were upset at the magazine for calling out a man who was bringing the word of God to the people. It's so hard to focus your anger sometimes!

Jim Bakker at it (again)

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted that "there are no second acts in American lives." There's no way of knowing if this actually happened, but it just feels right to imagine that Jim Bakker responded by saying, "Hold my miracle cure."

Quick recap: in 1973, Jim and his then-wife Tammy Bakker co-founded the Trinity Broadcasting Network, home of their program The PTL Club. Small screen success led to high-minded ambitions, and the Bakkers soon began construction on Heritage USA, a Christian theme park with water slides, a 500-room hotel, and the staple of all amusement parks, tax exemption. The $1.3 million in church funds that an IRS investigation found redirected to the Bakkers' personal accounts couldn't take Jim down, but CNN reports the alleged hush money payment of $279,000 to cover up the rape of his secretary certainly pushed the "pause" button on his success story. In 1989, Bakker was convicted on 29 counts including mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy, and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

A sentence reduction later, Bakker was paroled in 1994, and it wasn't long before his cherubic face was once again warmed by studio lighting and the liberal application of pancake makeup. His latest puckish misadventure: getting sued by the state of Missouri for selling a fake coronavirus cure.

Paula White and wrong

Donald Trump's presidency will be, with any luck, the most polarizing point in American history that we'll live to experience. The decisions that have been made and the tweets that have been tweeted have led to deeply divided public opinion and celebrity impersonations being hammered so far into the ground that they could be used to secure a subterranean mole people transcontinental railroad.

One star player has been Paula White, President Trump's spiritual advisor. Among other things, she's a hard and fast believer in the prosperity gospel, and also claims that all world leaders are put in power by divine grace and that to disagree with them is to disagree with the will of God, shining a whole new light on the place of pharaohs in society.

There's plenty of behavior to throw stones at here, but the Bible takes a pretty firm stance on that. Interestingly, it also states in Matthew that Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Paula White, as quoted by Newsweek, doesn't seem to agree with that, saying, "Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan." Awkward.

Jerry Falwell couldn't take a joke

As reported by UPI, when Jim Bakker bounced out of PTL in 1987, he became concerned that his ministry was about to be the subject of a hostile takeover by Jimmy Swaggart, who initiated the investigation into the Bakker clan. To avoid Swaggart's potential power grab, he handed Jerry Falwell Sr. the keys to the kingdom. Televangelism feels a lot like Game of Thrones once you read enough about it. Falwell certainly had the resume to back up the job. In the previous decade, he'd founded the Moral Majority PAC shortly after an all-white Christian academy that he founded was threatened with losing its tax exempt status due to new legislation regarding segregated schools.

There's a lot of ground to cover with Jerry Falwell. He once sued Hustler for $45 million because they ran a parody piece making fun of him, and took the case all the way to the supreme court. He lost. He also stated that a gay-friendly church was a satanic cult and that its inevitable annihilation would cause a celebration in heaven.

Then there was the time that he said the September 11th attacks happened because God was angry at America's acceptance of, among others, "the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle." He referred to the attacks as "what we deserve." He was also the guy who got really upset about the purple Teletubby back in the '90s. He had a lot of feelings.

Ernest Angley: God heals, man snips

Ernest Angley has been having a rough go of things lately. A Christian Post piece from late 2019 outlined some of his current financial struggles: his Boeing 747 has been on blocks for two years, since the six-figure repairs that it needs are currently out of Angley's reach, financially speaking.

A lot of that has to do with the minister's legal troubles and fall from public grace. The accusations are numerous and diverse. According to Forbes, one man who began working for Angley at 18 claims that he would regularly be called to the preacher's house for "special anointings" involving personal massages and a marked lack of clothing. Angley has previously been accused of operating a cult where followers are taught that enough prayer can heal HIV and "childless men are encouraged to have vasectomies and Angley — who preaches vehemently against the 'sin' of homosexuality — is himself a gay man who personally examines the genitals of the male parishioners before and after their surgeries."

Paul and Jan Crouch turned on their family

Paul and Jan Crouch got into the televangelism game during its early days, buying up television stations across the country and forming the Trinity Broadcasting Network, best known as the only television station that the TV in your Motel 6 room seems capable of playing. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, more than 40 years later, their media empire has an estimated value of $750 million.

It's also extra-strength shady, according to allegations made by Jan and Paul's granddaughter Brittany Koper. According to her, the network serves as a personal bank account for the Crouch family, who aren't above zany shenanigans like having their chauffeurs ordained to avoid having to pay taxes on their salaries. Speaking to the New York Times after being fired from the company, Koper stated that her "job as finance director was to find ways to label extravagant personal spending as ministry expenses."

In 2012, another of the Crouches' granddaughters sued the couple, claiming that she had been sexually assaulted by a TBN employee when she was 13 and that Jan had turned a blind eye and blamed the child for the attack.