Preachers, faith healers, and other conmen: The story of Marjoe


I watched a fascinating Academy Award-winning 1972 documentary called Marjoe, that follows the ‘farewell tour’ of Marjoe Gortner, a Pentecostal evangelical revivalist preacher. Marjoe (named after Mary and Joseph) was born in 1944 to Pentecostal preacher parents. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were also evangelists and his parents noticed early in his life that he had a precocious self-confidence and good mimicry skills. They had the idea of making him a child preacher, publicizing a story of him at the age of three being visited by the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues while having a bath.

Whether this story was made up out of whole cloth or whether the clearly playful Marjoe was merely mimicking what he had seen others do at revival meetings was not clear. What Marjoe does admit is that he himself never ever believed, even as a child, that he had any special spiritual experience or that god was speaking to him, despite all the adulation he received as some kind of child prophet. Instead his parents had to relentlessly coach him and made him, under threat of punishment, memorize his lines and worked out codes and signals for him to use as cues while he was preaching. He was ordained soon after.

The parents took this show on the road in the Midwest and the South when Marjoe was four, and the child evangelist was a sensation. The sight of a little boy, with blue eyes and hair consisting of tight golden curls dressed in a suit, preaching hellfire, damnation, and salvation grabbed the attention of the public and the media, and his parents milked the attention for all it was worth, even arranging for him to officiate at a wedding before he was even five. This caused a bit of a stir legally and eventually led to California requiring marriage officiators to be at least 21.

This lucrative racket went on until Marjoe was fourteen by which time the novelty was beginning to wear off. His father absconded with all their money and Marjoe himself ran away to California and became a bit of a drifter until he was befriended by an older woman and got back to a somewhat steadier life.

In the mid 1960s, he decided to return to preaching to the same audiences as before but with a new message of civil rights and social justice. But the audiences did not want to hear that. Needing money, he returned to his roots, becoming once again a hellfire and damnation Pentecostal preacher, using his still considerable reputation as the boy preacher to gain access to the revival circuit. Using many of the stage techniques of the rock stars (particularly Mick Jagger) he aspired to be, he put on quite a show for the faithful, and he soon had people speaking in tongues, going into seizure-like trances, and being ‘cured’ of their illnesses again. He made enough money doing this to have to work only for six months of each year, spending the other six loafing on the beaches.

In this book excerpt he explains in detail how he operated, how he got people ‘speaking in tongues’ and ‘healed’. He also explained some of the appeal that these revival meetings had.

During his years on the Bible Belt circuit, he came to see the Evangelical experience as a form of popular entertainment, a kind of participatory divine theater that provides its audiences with profound emotional rewards.

“The people who are out there don’t see it as entertainment,” he confessed, “although that is in fact the way it is. These people don’t go to movies; they don’t go to bars and drink; they don’t go to rock-and-roll concerts — but everyone has to have an emotional release. So they go to revivals and they dance around and talk in tongues. It’s socially approved and that is their escape.”

But after four years of this, he did not have the stomach anymore for this charade and he explains what turned him off. “I’d see someone who wanted to get saved in one of my meetings, and he was so open and bubbly in his desire to get the Holy Ghost. It was wonderful and very fresh, but four years later I’d return and that person might be a hard-nosed intolerant Christian because he had Christ. That’s when the danger comes in.”

So at the age of 26, he went on a farewell tour for two years, but this time to create an expose of the revivalist preacher racket which he knew so intimately from the inside. He was accompanied by a film crew with whom he shared, in confidence, the tricks of the trade: how you get people worked up, how you ‘cure’ them, how you know when to hit them up for money. The documentary was the end the result and it is quite gripping.

I had mixed feelings while watching the film. I despise the so-called preachers who shamelessly fleece poor people, calling on them to ‘sacrifice for Jesus’ and to show their ‘love for Jesus’ by giving money they cannot spare in order that the preachers can live well, buying expensive cars and extensive properties around the world. Behind the scenes, it is pure business, these sharks greedily counting the day’s takings, coldly calculating what would sell, what would make people give more, devising gimmicks to gain market share from their competitors, and developing techniques to increase revenue.

But at the same time one cannot but help feel pity for the people who attend these meetings and get caught up in the emotions, so much so that they cannot see that they are being played for fools and suckers, and to be exposed as such in the documentary. These are clearly desperately needy people, looking for hope and meaning in their lives, emotionally vulnerable and ripe for plucking by con-men and women. To watch them be so easily convinced that Marjoe, who does not believe any of this stuff, is god’s conduit through which the ‘Holy Ghost’ passes to them, and as a result to hear them ‘speak in tongues’ and collapse on the floor shaking in the grip of the ‘Holy Ghost’, is to be amazed at the power of delusion, at the ability of people to believe what they want to and need to believe.

It seems to me that there are only two kinds of people involved in this phenomenon. A few cynical money loving preaching and faith healing exploiters and their support teams, and the vast number of gullible saps who do not realize that it is not their souls these preachers seek to lift but their wallets.

It is worthwhile to note that Sarah Palin comes from this world. I wonder which part.

POST SCRIPT: Praise the Lord and pass the collection plate

Here is the opening segment of the documentary Marjoe, where you can see the child Marjoe do his stuff.

Comments

  1. Chris says

    On a sort of related note – there was a fascinating story on This American Life this week about Carlton Pearson, an evangelical pastor in Tulsa who basically lost his congregation of 5000+ when he stopped believing in hell. Similar to Marjoe, he had an epiphany one day while watching a news report about the Rwandan genocide and could no longer rationalize the idea of a god that would allow such suffering and send the survivors to hell just because they had not been introduced to the Christianity.

    You can find it here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=304

  2. says

    Very interesting. I hate to say this, but could faith be all about that – emotional release? From a rational perspective it most certainly can, at least today (the initial temptation of a new faith would also have involved the promise of social reform). Therefore, we can’t really do anything to prevent this capitalistic aspect of faith – spend (time and/or money) and be happy – and accounts like Marjoe’s will forever be isolated ripples on the social surface.

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