Friday, February 25, 2011

35 years ago: The fall of Billy James Hargis becomes public knowledge

Oral Roberts isn’t the only televangelist to have been based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the 1950s and ‘60s there was a man named Billy James Hargis, who stood 6’ 6" and weighed almost 280 pounds. For several years in the ‘50s he collaborated with fundamentalist leader Dr. Carl McIntire in publicly opposing Communism, most famously sending 100,000 balloons containing Bible passages across the Iron Curtain into Communist countries. Mr. Hargis eventually went his own way, and at his peak his broadcasts were carried on more than 500 radio stations and 250 television stations, although he reached an audience that was mostly rural.

Mr. Hargis gradually receded from prominence after the 1960s, and he founded American Christian College in 1971 in Tulsa. In the mid-’70s he resigned the presidency of ACC after allegations of sexual misconduct, which became public knowledge when reported by Time magazine in an article titled The Sins of Billy James (February 16, 1976):

TIME Correspondent Anne Constable and Reporters Richard Walker and Tom Carter have learned that five students—four of them men—at his American Christian College in Tulsa have come forward and said that President Hargis has had sexual relations with them. Asked about the charges, Hargis declined to give any specific reply. Through a lawyer, he stated: "I have made more than my share of mistakes. I'm not proud of them. Even the Apostle Paul said, 'Christ died to save sinners, of whom I am chief.' Long ago, I made my peace with God, and my ministry continues."

That ministry centers on the Christian Crusade, which was founded by Hargis in 1950 to promote far-right political and religious causes, and includes radio and TV programs and the Christian Crusade Weekly...Though originally ordained in the Disciples of Christ, Hargis in 1966 organized his own independent Tulsa congregation, The Church of the Christian Crusade. It provided tax deductibility for Hargis contributors after the vocal Christian Crusade lost its tax exemption. Four years later, Hargis founded American Christian College to teach "antiCommunist patriotic Americanism..."

...It was at the college that Hargis' sexual troubles surfaced in October 1974, when the first of the five students confessed to then Vice President David Noebel. Noebel's account: Not long before, Hargis had conducted a wedding for the student; on the honeymoon, the groom and his bride discovered that both of them had slept with Hargis. Later, Noebel says, three more male students told him of having had sexual relations with Hargis over a period of three years. They said the trysts had taken place in Hargis' office, at his farm in the Ozarks, even during his tours with the college choir, the "All-American Kids." Noebel was told that Hargis justified his homosexual acts by citing the Old Testament friendship between David and Jonathan and threatened to blacklist the youths for life if they talked.

Noebel, a Hargis aide for twelve years, described how he felt when he first heard the students' accounts: "For two weeks, I couldn't sleep. I knew we had to get Hargis off campus or we were going to lose the whole school." Finally, on Oct. 25, 1974, Noebel and two other college officials confronted Hargis and two of his lawyers. According to two of those present, Hargis, who has a wife, three daughters and a son, admitted his guilt and blamed his behavior on "genes and chromosomes."

Two days later, Hargis preached a farewell sermon to his Tulsa congregation, then turned the presidency of the college over to Noebel. But Hargis stayed around the campus for weeks before he officially severed ties with the Christian Crusade and allied groups.

The Tulsa district attorney’s office found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing regarding the allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Hargis, although I wonder how much of an effort they put in. Deprived of Mr. Hargis’ contacts and fund-raising ability, American Christian College closed in 1977. Mr. Hargis continued to produce radio broadcasts and publications, including an autobiography titled My Great Mistake (1985). Like Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard after him, he admitted to sin, but never admitted to what he was actually accused of. Mr. Hargis developed Alzheimer’s Disease, had several heart attacks, and died in Tulsa on November 27, 2004 at the age of 79. An entertaining--if unflattering--obituary was published in The Economist on December 16, 2004.

Additional articles from Time regarding Billy James Hargis are The Ultras (December 8, 1961); Heavyweight Champ (August 17, 1962); Confrontation in Tulsa (February 7, 1969); The New Crusader (August 29, 1969); and Tidings (January 22, 1973).

Here’s a YouTube clip of Billy James Hargis from the early 1960s, when he was in his prime:

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