The God Biz, Part 1

The God Biz, Part 1 December 23, 2019

By James A. Haught

Gospel fervor gleamed in 3,000 faces at the $30 million city arena at Charleston, West Virginia. People around me, arms upraised, jerked in spasms as they loosed the unknown tongue: “Shend-a-la-goosh-a-ma. Dee-dee-dee-dee.” A young woman beside me leaped and squealed. Others wiped tears, swaying and rocking.

Evangelist Ernest Angley from Akron, a squat dynamo in a toupee, evoked the passion like a symphony conductor building a crescendo. He chanted faster into the transmitting microphone concealed in his elegant three-piece suit. His voice boomed from huge banks of speakers on each side of the stage:

“You’ve got to have the old-time power at this final hour. How many want to be blessed during the Ernest Angley program?” All hands rose. “Just open up to God. Say, ‘I’ll take the anointing, Lord.’ Say it: ‘Lord!'” The crowd shouted, “LORD!” “All of you that God has spoken to at some time, raise your hands.” Two thousand hands went up. “See, we’re not so crazy. We’re in touch with heaven. It doesn’t matter what people say, because we’re on our way to heaven. The Lord’s with us! The Lord’s with us! Come on, everyone: The Lord’s with us! The Lord’s with us!” The chant spread over the arena. Vaguely, I recalled Gott Mit Uns on Wehrmacht belt buckles.

While the fever was high, Angley launched a 40-minute collection: “Everyone say, ‘Lord, tell me what to give in this offering tonight.’ It’s good to make a covenant with God. I’d rather give my money to God than to doctors and drugstores. I know there are some here who could make a $1,000 covenant, or $500. Don’t be afraid. God will stand by you.”

He asked a show of hands by all who would make a $100 covenant. Barely a dozen hands rose. He exhorted and pleaded: “Not a penny goes to me or the singers. It all goes for TV time. Your money will reach new souls. Through TV, I preach to more people every weekend than Christ did in his whole time on earth. Isn’t that wonderful? And you’re part of it…. Don’t worry about your finances. Put it all in the hands of God.”

Then he called for $50 covenants. About 100 hands went up. “All right, everyone who can make a $25 covenant, stand up and say, ‘Lord, I love you.’ Stand up for Jesus. Stand and say, ‘I love you, Jesus’…. Now $10 covenants: Stand up and say, ‘I love Jesus. I love him. I love him. I love him’…. Now $5 covenants….”

Finally, after all had stood, the stocky preacher told the crowd to sit and write checks to insert in envelopes that had been distributed. While the people wrote, Angley’s gospel rock combo — with electric guitars, trap set, and grand piano — sang about going to heaven when the Rapture comes.

Afterward, the evangelist asked everyone to wave the filled envelopes over their heads. Then he called for a second offering of dollar bills to pay $1,000 arena rent and stagehand cost. Angley asked everyone to wave envelopes in one hand and dollars in the other. An ocean of fluttering mammon engulfed us. Ushers gathered the money in buckets and took it to a locked room under the bleachers.

The show concluded with a healing line. A mother presented her brain-damaged little boy. The preacher seized him with a shrieking “Heeeaaalllll!!!” and then chortled: “He felt that, all right.” Arthritic crones and hard-of-hearing laborers went through the line, many failing backward in a holy swoon when they were grabbed.

Angley also bestowed healing upon various cripples in wheelchairs in the front row. After the service, relatives wheeled them away.

In the arena lobby, assistants sold Angley books and magazines containing endless testimonial letters from followers saying their cancers or diabetes or rheumatism or warts had vanished at the healer’s touch. Angley’s columns say that God gave him the power to “discern spirits,” thus he can see ugly demons inside the ill. Likewise, he says, he can see an angel beside him onstage at every arena, while other angels move through crowds, plucking out demons and curing ailments.

After the show, Angley’s troupe boarded two vista-dome buses and two tractor-trailers for the next city, and the next convention arena. On weekends the evangelist returns to his home base: a garish Akron cathedral that cost his followers $2.5 million. It has imported chandeliers, Italian statues, 24-karat gold veneer on the pulpit and piano, a red-lit “fountain of blood,” and side-by-side pictures of Angley and Jesus. The cathedral is dedicated to the healer’s late wife, who died of ulcerative colitis despite his demon-extracting powers. Her tomb is under a 23-foot-high, 20-ton marble angel on the church lawn.

The day after the Charleston revival, I interviewed several people who had been healed onstage. A retired roofer with only four teeth claimed that he had been cured of hardening of the arteries, diabetes and myriad other ailments. He lapsed into the unknown tongue while telling me about it. As for a deaf-mute young man, his mother said his condition was unchanged. A plump matron mistakenly thought I worked for the Angley organization. She said her nerve and stomach trouble was improved, and “an inch-long thing that flopped in my ear is gone, praise the Lord!” She promised to begin mailing money soon. She asked if Angley’s staff would pray for “my boy Jack, who has a demon in him.” When I asked the nature of the demon, she said: “Well, Jack got sent back to prison because he couldn’t stay out of fights while he was on parole.”

That’s one glimpse into the gospel gold mine that is producing billions — billions — of dollars in America. Angley keeps his revenue tightly secret, but the scope of his national tours and 100-station telecasts indicates a gross between $10 and $20 million a year.

Here’s a look down a different shaft of the gold mine:

A young Californian, Timothy Goodwin of Long Beach, was paralyzed in a car wreck that wasn’t his fault. That was his first tragedy. His second was religious. He later filed a fraud suit in Auglaize County Court in Ohio, telling this pathetic story:

He was convinced by leaders of “The Way” Bible society, a talking-in-tongues outfit, that his paralysis would be cured in a year if he moved to the sect’s headquarters in Ohio and donated large sums from his accident settlement. He gave $210,000 — and later paid $10,000 more for a Cadillac for a Way leader, and $11,000 for a BMW auto for another Way chief, and $13,000 for extraneous gifts requested by Way officials. The healing didn’t work, and Goodwin felt “took.”

After he sued, The Way countersued him for slander. The case was settled out of court in secret, and the quadriplegic moved back to California. Goodwin’s attorney, Craig Spangenberg of Cleveland, told me that the sect refunded all of Goodwin’s money on the condition that he never discuss the matter. “He has kept his promise,” Spangenberg said. “Tim’s a decent young man. He didn’t want people to know he had been such a fool.”

Another vein of the gold mine was worked by Bishop John W. Barber of Alabama, a dazzler who wore white tuxedos and drove luxury cars. He persuaded believers to buy $1,000 bonds in his Apostolic Faith Church of God Live Forever, Inc. Oldsters paid $100 down and sent installments to the Christian Credit Corporation of Nashville. His operation spread over eight states and then abruptly folded, and Barber moved to North Carolina. Lawyer Henry Haile of Nashville was appointed U.S. receiver. Haile told me:

“It’s unbelievable. He sold $1.5 million in worthless bonds and also borrowed from 20 banks, but I can’t imagine why anyone trusted him. He testified under oath he didn’t file income tax returns for six years; yet he always had a new Lincoln and a big home.”

Among Barber’s victims were members of Highway Church of Christ at Marion, S.C., who lost $57,000. Their pastor, Raymond Davis, told me: “He sounded like an angel of the Lord, and my people thought he was rich. He told us the bonds would be worth twice what we paid for them. We trusted him to open us a bank account at Huntsville, and we sent our money to it. Later I flew to Huntsville, and there wasn’t a dime left.” Highway Church filed a fraud suit.

The Ernest Angley television miracle crusade, The Way International, and the Apostolic Faith Church of God Live Forever, Inc., are three eddies in the much-publicized gospel flood swirling over America.

Old-time magical religion became a chief cultural phenomenon in the 1980s. Celebrity evangelists in lavish hairdos have won followings that alarm mainline churches. The Gallup Poll says 45 million Americans now consider themselves “born again,” and they shell out enough money to support a booming fundamentalist industry. Sales of gospel books, magazines and records have soared to $1 billion a year. A million families have removed their children from public schools and pay for them to attend 5,000 new evangelical schools. A consortium of born-again businessmen has joined with the Campus Crusade for Christ to raise $1 billion for the world’s biggest advertising campaign to prepare everyone for the Second Coming.

Revival tents of yesteryear are forgotten relics. Now the action is in astrodomes and multi-million-dollar gospel television studios. Four fundamentalist “networks” keep broadcast dishes aimed at fixed-orbit satellites, bouncing programs over the continent 24 hours a day. Competing evangelists buy $600 million worth of radio and television time a year, paid for by their followers. At last count, the United States had 1,400 all-gospel radio stations and about 30 gospel television stations, some operated by born-again folk, some run by shrewd businessmen who know where the money is.

The boom has political power. Coalitions are trying to mobilize fundamentalists into the nation’s strongest voter bloc to pass “moral” laws and elect “moral” candidates. In March, Anita Bryant and revivalist Jerry Falwell launched a “Clean Up America” drive against pornography, abortion and homosexuals.

Other gospel big guns summoned 200,000 born-again believers to a “Washington for Jesus” demonstration to back “pro-God” legislation. Evangelist Pat Robertson declared: “We have enough votes to run the country. And when the people say, ‘We’ve had enough,’ we are going to take over.” Anti-abortion groups defeated U.S. senators Dick Clark of Iowa and Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire, and have targeted others for elimination. And fundamentalist uprisings against “ungodly” textbooks have forced several school systems around the United States to change books.

The gospel boom is under intense study by pundits. Author Jeremy Rifkin says it’s “the single most important cultural force in American life” and might lead to fascism. Some sociologists think it’s a backlash to the radicalism of the 1960s. Some say it’s a breakaway from insipid conventional churches. Some say it’s a search for security as the economy worsens. Some say it’s part of the “me generation,” in which people focus on themselves.

But one aspect has hardly been mentioned: rip-off. Part of the billion-dollar industry is cunning fraud, or bald opportunism, or exploitation of the superstitious, or tyrannical misuse of donated money by weirdo leaders. In my job as newspaperman and religion writer, I’ve covered the territory for 20 years and watched it grow.

While the born-again bandwagon gathered momentum through the 1970s, gospel scams and abuses surfaced with increasing frequency. Now they’ve become an epidemic. For instance:

• Dapper Oklahoma evangelist James Roy Whitby was known in the gospel world for saving Anita Bryant when she was a Tulsa schoolgirl. In 1978 he was convicted of swindling an 83-year-old religious widow out of $25,000. In 1979 he was charged with selling $4 million in worthless Gospel Outreach bonds. Accused with him the second time were three convicted swindlers, including the Rev. Tillman Sherron Jackson of Los Angeles, who had previously bilked the born-again in the Baptist Foundation of America — a $26 million fraud that caused a congressional probe in 1973. In the widow case, Whitby’s appeals ran out in 1980, and he’s in prison. The Gospel Outreach case ended in acquittals, but U.S. attorney John Osgood took it philosophically. “Their kind usually show up again,” he told me.

• America’s all-time champion evangelist was Garner Ted Armstrong, whose national broadcasts drew $75 million a year to the Worldwide Church of God run by Garner and his father, Herbert W. Armstrong. (That’s double the amount collected by Billy Graham.) Money poured in from followers, many of whom met in secret groups and donated 30 percent of their incomes. Garner lived like a maharaja in a California mansion with his own private jet, elegant sports cars — and, allegedly, female believers in bed. Trouble hit in 1976 when some members published a protest. They accused Garner of sex and Herbert of self-enrichment. Chess champion Bobby Fischer said the elder Armstrong had used “mind control” to take nearly $100,000 from him. In 1978 the father fired the son, who started a new television religion.

In 1979 the California attorney general filed a receivership suit accusing Herbert and treasurer Stanley Rader of “pilfering” at least $1 million a year for themselves. Gold bullion owned by the sect was reported missing. Financial records indicated that Herbert and Rader each got salaries of $200,000 plus fabulous expense accounts. Garner accused Rader of taking $700,000 from the church in one year. Garner’s sister said Rader had three homes, a horse stable, a Maserati, a Mercedes and a limousine. On June 2 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the attorney general’s right to investigate the church. Meanwhile, little is left of perhaps $1 billion of believers’ money that was squandered over the years.

• Handsome, tuxedo-clad, faith healer LeRoy Jenkins of South Carolina grossed $3 million a year by selling miracle water and prayer cloths and healing T-shirts to believers who watched him on 67 television stations. He made an emergency appeal for $300,000 to pay church debts and then bought himself a $250,000 home two weeks later. He heavily insured a vacant cathedral just before it was hit by a mysterious explosion.

In 1979 Jenkins was sentenced to a 12-year prison term for conspiring to (1) burn the home of a state trooper who had given his daughter a speeding ticket, (2) burn the home of a creditor, and (3) mug a newspaperman who had exposed his money abuses and drug arrests. Evidence came from a police undercover agent in the evangelist’s staff. (The reporter, Rick Ricks, told me that police had warned him in advance he was to be “set up” by an anonymous telephone offer of information; so when the call came, he didn’t go to meet the informant.) After Jenkins entered a South Carolina state prison, his staff distributed rerun tapes of his “Revival of America” show. For several months in 1979, the preacher still looked out of television screens around the United States and begged “love offerings,” although he actually was in a cell.

• The Justice Department filed suit to force the PTL (“Praise the Lord”) Club of Charlotte, N.C., to open its books. The suit said the FCC wants to know whether the gospel television show broadcast “fraudulent and misleading” appeals by begging money for overseas missions but spending it on overhead. During a 1978 crisis, PTL leader Jim Bakker announced that he and his singer wife were “giving every penny of our life savings to PTL,” but they soon bought a $24,000 houseboat, and their salaries and benefits rose to $90,000 a year. Because of PTL’s enormous cash intake, a Charlotte radio station mockingly advertised a “Pass the Loot” Club.

(PTL attracts all varieties of fundamentalists because the show’s superslick production conveys clean-cut, happy, old-time faith. But I spent a week at PTL’s $20 million national headquarters last year and saw bizarreness not revealed on-camera. A worship leader gave incantations to “bind demons” and bind a “prince” devil in charge of Charlotte. She also sang in the unknown tongue and distributed written incantations to exorcise demons through miracle anointing oil. A distraught young man leaped down a stairway beside me, yelling “I’m Jesus Christ!”)

• The Rev. Hakeem Abdul Rasheed (alias Clifford Jones) and a young woman aide were convicted of mail fraud in California in February 1980. They had operated a $20-million-a-year church in an Oakland movie theater. Members who donated $500 became “ministers of increase.” Then, periodically, the pastor called them forward to receive $2,000 “increases from God,” while the congregation cheered. Bigger gifts drew bigger returns. Spreading excitement caused joiners to donate as much as $30,000 each. The church collected up to $350,000 a night. Rasheed-Jones had ankle-length mink coats, diamonds, a $100,000 Rolls-Royce, and a million-dollar yacht. His downfall came after he reported to police that four armed robbers took more than $300,000 from him aboard his 100-foot boat, and detectives began wondering why a minister had so much money. It turned out that his church was a Ponzi scheme, using new donations to pay former donors.

• The Rev. Robert Carr of Durham, N.C., was sentenced to 10 years in prison in April for taking paychecks, food stamps, and welfare checks from members of his Church of God and True Holiness. He and other church leaders kept believers like slaves in a dormitory, forced them to work in a poultry plant, and pocketed their earnings. Carr’s daughter and son-in-law also got prison terms, and a fourth church official is a fugitive. U.S. attorney H.M. Michaux Jr., told me that Carr was arrested by state police, but the case was turned over to him for prosecution under a federal slavery law.

• Bethesda Christian Center at Wenatchee, Wash. — a gospel church, radio station, school, magazine publishing house, college, and gasoline station — was jolted in January 1980, when more than $1 million was reported missing and administrator James Eyre was jailed on embezzlement charges. About $340,000 that members lent to the church has vanished, authorities said. So has nearly $1 million that members put into deals such as diamond investments.

• American Consumer Inc. was indicted on 1,000 counts of mail fraud for selling the “Cross of Lourdes” at $15.95 each, falsely claiming that the crosses had been dipped in France’s miracle pool and blessed by the pope in Rome. The company was fined $25,000 in 1979 in U.S. District Court at Philadelphia and ordered to refund $103,000 to buyers.

• Frost Brothers Gospel Quartet of Columbus, Ohio, launched Consumer Companies of America, a 20-state chain. Born-again families who paid $534 for orders of merchandise were entitled to enlist others and collect commissions on their orders. When enough were signed up, CCA was to build discount stores and give each member a share of the earnings. Evangelist Bob Harrington, “the chaplain of Bourbon Street,” boosted the plan, saying, “God wants his people to succeed… and I thank God I’m identified with CCA.” (I interviewed several CCA leaders — ex-gospel singers in flashy suits and high-rise hairdos.) The Frost Brothers lived like kings. President Alvin Frost bought a $1 million mansion. But they were convicted of stock violations, sued for fraud, slapped with a $370,000 tax lien, and charged with running a pyramid scheme. CCA collapsed in 1979 with losses for all.

• The Rev. Jerry Duckett of Williamson Church of God in West Virginia was indicted on charges of stealing $40,000 from his church’s building fund. (His denominational superior swore out the embezzlement warrant and then was chagrined when I made the theft public.) Earlier, Duckett was fined $100 for pulling a pistol on a service station aftendant who wouldn’t put leaded gasoline into his unleaded-only car.

• Before the Rev. Jim Jones went entirely nuts, his People’s Temple was a money machine. He required members to give 40 percent of their income and sign over their homes, insurance policies, savings accounts, welfare checks, and Social Security checks. To hook the credulous, he staged cancer cures, dramatically seizing the ill, who were stooges in disguise, and pulling out tumors — chicken gizzards. While his Temple still was in San Francisco, two disillusioned members, Al and Jeanie Mills, led defectors in leaking to New West magazine that Jones’s cures were fake and he was milking followers. After Jones moved to Guyana — and led 900 believers in the cyanide horror that stunned the world — troves of money were found. More than $7 million was discovered in two Panama banks, $3 million was in Guyana banks, and $200,000 was in other Caribbean banks, while $700,000 cash and $2 million in real estate were still in California.

In 1978 Al and Jeanie Mills started a refugee center for Jonestown survivors, amid reports that Jones had left behind a “hit squad” to kill defectors. In 1979 the Millses published a book about the minister’s abuses. On Feb. 26, 1980, the couple and their 15-year-old daughter were executed by being shot in the head.

• The Rev. Roland Gray of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago was convicted in 1979 of theft, fraud and conspiracy. He reported his income was only $20 a week so he could falsely collect $43,000 in welfare checks and food stamps — while he concealed that he had $46,000 in cash, several luxury automobiles, expensive furs, and three homes. He also engaged in insurance fraud, collecting $56,000 from 73 bogus insurance claims. He’s serving two years in prison.

• Marjoe Gortner, an aging boy evangelist, confessed in 1972 that his exuberant revivals were a moneymaking fraud, carefully rehearsed and timed to suck big offerings from the yokels. He said his parents pocketed $3 million from his boyhood tours. To expose the racket, Gortner made a documentary movie of himself milking congregations and gleefully counting piles of money in motel rooms, whooping, “Thank you, Jesus!” Gortner went on to be an actor, and fundamentalism went on unfazed.

• At the start of the 1970s, America’s top faith-healer was pugnacious A.A. Allen, who toured the land with his miracle tent. He displayed jars of small embalmed bodies he said were demons he had removed from the ill. Some observers said they were frogs. A California newspaper said he should be prosecuted for running a racket. Time magazine said he grossed $2.7 million a year plus personal “love offerings.” Allen vanished during a tour, then rejoined it at Wheeling, W.Va., then vanished again. He was found dead in a San Francisco hotel room, with $2,300 in his pocket. Cause of death: acute alcoholism. (Gortner said that Allen once advised him how to know when a revival is finished and it’s time to move to the next city: “When you can turn people on their head and shake them and no money falls out, then you know God’s saying ‘Move on, son.'”)

• The Rev. DeVernon LeGrand, who headed St. John’s Pentecostal Church of Our Lord in Brooklyn, recruited many teenage “nuns” who solicited money for his church. In 1975 the pastor, age 50, was convicted of raping one of the 17-year-old nuns. In 1976 the bodies of two more of the girls were found in a pond at LeGrand’s farm in the Catskills. He and a son were convicted of murdering them. In 1977 the pastor was found guilty of murdering his former wives, who died in 1963 and 1970. He’s serving life in prison.

• Bishop Lucius Cartwright and Pastor Albert Hamrick of St. Phillip’s Pentecostal Church in Washington, D.C., were sent to jail in 1976 for embezzling $250,000 while administering food stamp distribution. They used the money to buy a car, an ice cream parlor, and a bank building.

• A white revivalist, the Rev. James Eugene Ewing of Los Angeles, acquired thousands of black followers around the United States through an odd promise: If they sent him monthly donations, God would bless them with Cadillacs, color televisions, Mark IV Continentals, new homes, etc. “God’s Gold Book Plan for Financial Blessings,” it was called. Those who mailed their Gold Book pledges faithfully could expect “power to get wealth,” Ewing said. His monthly newsletter was filled with photos of pledge-payers beaming over new Eldorados or stereos. Followers were also urged to buy “miracle billfolds” and “golden horn-of-plenty neck charms.” (An architect friend of mine sent a fake name to Ewing and collected his mailings to pass around the office as funny-sad reading.) The Los Angeles Times said Ewing grossed $4 million a year. Newsweek said he spent only 1 percent of it on charitable work. Even so, his church filed bankruptcy in 1977, and he moved to Atlanta.

• The Children of God enlisted 5,000 teenagers to testify for Jesus in city streets. Members were required to give the sect all their income for life. New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz issued a report in 1974 accusing the group’s leaders of fraud, tax evasion and bizarre forced sex.

• Dr. Billy James Hargis was the king of the anti-Communist preachers after the McCarthy era. He denounced socialism, sex and satanism — and drew millions from right-wing supporters. He lived in a $500,000 Tulsa mansion, had a farm in the Ozarks, and enjoyed the national spotlight. But he was ruined in 1976 when Time magazine revealed that he sodomized male and female students at his tiny fundamentalist college. (The truth leaked out after Hargis performed a wedding of two students and on their honeymoon each told the other of going to bed with their spiritual leader.)

• The Rev. Guido John Carcich was convicted in 1978 of embezzling $2.2 million from the Pallottine Fathers in Baltimore. The Catholic group collected $20 million in donations to help “the starving, sick and naked,” but only 3 percent of the money reached charitable work. Incoming contributions were handled at a secret warehouse, where Carcich told workers to throw away prayer-request letters unless they contained money. He was sentenced to a year of prison counseling work.

• Flamboyant “Reverend Ike” Eikerenkoetter of New York wears $1,000 suits, his fingers drip with diamonds, he has 16 Rolls-Royces, and he enjoys luxury homes on both coasts. From his palatial church, a converted Broadway theater, and over 85 radio stations, he tells a million black believers to “do what the rich do: start thinking big.” He demands “silent offerings” of paper money and chides his adoring flock: “Be proud of the way I look, because you spend $1,000 a week to buy my clothes.” His United Church and Science of Living Institute keeps its income secret, but it has been estimated at $6 to $15 million a year.

(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. This essay originally appeared in Penthouse, December 1980. Part 2 will be published next week.)

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