BATON ROUGE, La. — 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.