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

May 23, 1988|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. — 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.

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