The Baton Rouge 30

Fall from grace

Fall from grace

Apparently, God speaks to Jimmy Swaggart. Not in an inspirational, feeling-His-presence-while-watching-the-sunset sort of way. Directly.

In 1991, after Swaggart was caught with a prostitute for the second time, God was rather blunt, and Swaggart shared His message with the flock at Family Worship Center.

“The Lord told me it's flat none of your business,” Swaggart said. His son Donnie then announced that Swaggart temporarily would be stepping down as head of Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries for “a time of healing and counseling.” Swaggart would return, but his ministry would never be the same.

The scene was much different three years earlier, after photos of him leaving a prostitute's Metairie hotel room surfaced. Then, his tearful, self-flagellating speech “I have sinned!” became one of the most enduring (and widely parodied) moments of 1988.

Swaggart was born in Ferriday, and is the cousin of that northeastern Louisiana town's most famous son, Jerry Lee Lewis. He began his career as an evangelist in the mid-1950s, preaching from a donated flatbed trailer.

By the mid-1980s, Swaggart had become the nation's top-rated televangelist, with a ministry bringing in a reported $142 million annually. His thriving church complex along Bluebonnet Boulevard consisted of more than a dozen buildings, including dormitories, television production studios, warehouses, a print shop and a health club.

The 1988 scandal was a serious blow, but one from which Swaggart might have recovered. But the second fall, just as his ministry was starting to recover, probably ended his superstar days for good. But even years after his Sunday morning audience had dwindled from thousands to a few hundred, Swaggart could still deliver an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone speech about the dangers of sin, a 2007 Business Report cover story found.

That same story related a side of Swaggart his worldwide audience never knew: the real estate tycoon. In 1979, before Bluebonnet Boulevard was even completely built, Swaggart began buying property in the area. He once owned the land where the Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe now stand, and he still controls some 156 acres between those two developments.

“That takes a lot of work and business acumen,” developer Mike Wampold says. “How that's been developed out there, that's one of the finest parts of the city.” In 2004, Wampold purchased a half-built dorm and eight acres from Swaggart's Family Worship Center. That building now is the Renaissance Hotel by Marriott.

While Swaggart is nowhere near the public figure in Baton Rouge he once was, other charismatic evangelical leaders have taken his place. Bethany World Prayer Center, best known for the three giant crosses that tower over the Interstate 10-Siegen Lane intersection near Bethany's south campus, is led by third-generation pastor Jonathan Stockstill. The Rev. Dino Rizzo, the face of the multicampus Healing Place Church, recently announced that he would be taking a sabbatical for “healing, reflection and restoration,” but the church he and his wife DeLynn started in 1993 remains one of the most prominent in the Capital Region.

Modern charismatic churches typically strive to be upbeat, even fun, and often deliver their message through guitar-based pop music. Swaggart, who has recorded over 50 traditional gospel albums and once wrote that Christian rock music is “a wolf in sheep's clothing,” likely isn't a fan of these newfangled churches.

But according to his website, the weekly “Jimmy Swaggart Telecast” and “A Study in the Word” are seen on 78 channels in 104 countries and online. So for those souls looking for that old time religion, Swaggart, now 77, still delivers.

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