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Jimmy Lee Swaggart (born March 15, 1935) is an American Pentecostal evangelist. Swaggart's TV ministry, which began in 1971, has a viewing audience both in the U.S. and internationally.
The weekly Jimmy Swaggart Telecast and A Study in the Word programs are broadcast throughout the U.S. and on 78 channels in 104 other countries, and over the Internet.
At its height in the 1980s, his telecast was transmitted to over 3,000 stations and cable systems each week.
He currently owns and operates the SonLife Broadcasting Network. Sexual scandals with prostitutes in the late 1980s and early 1990s led the Assemblies of God to defrock him.
As a result of the scandals, Swaggart temporarily stepped down as the head of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries.
Jimmy Lee Swaggart was born on March 15, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, to fiddle player and Pentecostal preacher Willie Leon (known as "Sun" or "Son") Swaggart and Minnie Bell Herron, daughter of sharecropper William Herron. They were related by marriage, as Son's maternal uncle was Elmo Lewis, who was married to Minnie's sister Mamie. The extended family had a complex network of interrelationships: "cousins and in-laws and other relatives married each other until the clan was entwined like a big, tight ball of rubber bands."
He is the cousin of rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis and country music star Mickey Gilley. He also had a sister, Jeanette Ensminger (1942–1999). With his parents, Swaggart attended small Assemblies of God churches in Ferriday and Wisner.
In 1952, aged 17, Swaggart married 15-year-old Frances Anderson, whom he met in church in Wisner, Louisiana while he was playing music with his father, who pastored the Assembly of God Church there. They have a son named Donnie. Swaggart worked several part-time odd jobs to support his young family and also began singing Southern Gospel music at various churches.
According to his autobiography “To Cross a River”, Swaggart, along with his wife and son, lived in poverty during the 1950s as he preached throughout rural Louisiana, struggling to survive on an income of $30 a week (equivalent to $290 in 2021). Being too poor to own a home, the Swaggarts lived in church basements, homes of pastors, and small motels. Sun Records producer Sam Phillips wanted to start a gospel line of music for the label (perhaps to remain in competition with RCA Victor and Columbia, who also had gospel lines at the time) and wanted Swaggart for Sun as the first gospel artist for the label.
His cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, who had previously signed with Sun, was reportedly earning $20,000 per week at the time. Although the offer meant a promise for significant income for him and his family, Swaggart turned Phillips down, stating that he was called to preach the gospel.
Ordination and early career
Preaching from a flatbed trailer donated to him, Swaggart began full-time evangelistic work in 1955. He began developing a revival-meeting following throughout the American South. In 1960, he began recording gospel music record albums and transmitting on Christian radio stations. In 1961, Swaggart was ordained by the Assemblies of God; a year later he began his radio ministry. In the late 1960s, Swaggart founded what was then a small church named the Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the church eventually became district-affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
In 1971, Swaggart began transmitting a weekly 30-minute telecast over various local television stations in Baton Rouge and also purchased a local AM radio station, WLUX (now WPFC). The station broadcast Christian feature stories, preaching and teaching to various fundamentalist and Pentecostal denominations and playing black gospel, Southern gospel, and inspirational music. As Contemporary Christian music (CCM) became more prevalent, the station avoided playing it. However, Swaggart did cover Chuck Girard's CCM song "Sometimes Alleluia", using this as the theme to his weekly and flagship namesake program. Swaggart sold many of his radio stations gradually throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Jimmy Swaggart Ministries still operates several radio stations that operate under the name Sonlife Radio.
Swaggart wrote a book, Religious Rock n Roll: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, in 1987.
In his monthly periodical known as "The Evangelist", he wrote against worldliness in worship music, particularly referring to a Carman concert.
He also mentioned in the article that Christian leaders were in "terrible opposition" with him for preaching the truth against contemporary Christian music and its artists.
Swaggart has often preached that God does not borrow from the world to reach the youth, but has since changed his position on contemporary Christian music and has integrated its sound and style in his worship services such as Hillsong.