Several weeks back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.
Hi Bruce .. what do you think of the Marjoe story?
Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner (generally known as Marjoe Gortner; born January 14, 1944 in Long Beach, California) is a controversial former evangelist preacher and actor. He first gained public attention during the late 1940s when his parents arranged for him at age four to be ordained as a preacher, due to his extraordinary speaking ability; he was the youngest known in that position. As a young man, he preached on the revival circuit and bought celebrity to the revival movement.
He became a celebrity during the 1970s when he starred in Marjoe (1972), a behind-the-scenes documentary about the lucrative business of Pentecostal preaching. This won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. This documentary is now noted as one of the most vehement criticisms of Pentecostal praxis…
…Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner was born in 1944 in Long Beach, California, into a long evangelical heritage. The name “Marjoe” is a portmanteau of the biblical names “Mary” and “Joseph”. His father Vernon was a third-generation Christian evangelical minister who preached at revivals. His mother, who has been labelled as “exuberant”, was the person who introduced him as a preacher and is notable for his success as a child. Vernon noticed his son’s talent for mimicry and his fearlessness of strangers and public settings. His parents claimed that the boy had received a vision from God during a bath, and started preaching. Marjoe later said this was a fictional story that his parents forced him to repeat. He claimed they compelled him to do this by using mock-drowning episodes; they did not beat him as they did not want to leave bruises that might be noticed during his many public appearances.
They trained him to deliver sermons, complete with dramatic gestures and emphatic lunges. When he was four, his parents arranged for him to perform a marriage ceremony attended by the press, including photographers from Life and Paramount studios.Until his teenage years, Gortner and his parents traveled throughout the United States holding revival meetings, and by 1951 his younger brother Vernoe had been incorporated into the act. As well as teaching Marjoe scriptural passages, his parents also taught him several money-raising tactics, including the sale of supposedly “holy” articles at revivals. He would promise that such items could be used to heal the sick and dying. He was however for the majority of his childhood unknown and “relatively insignificant” as an evangelist, as he found fame much later from his documentary…
…Gortner spent the remainder of his teenage years as an itinerant hippie until his early twenties. Hard-pressed for money, he decided to put his old skills to work and re-emerged on the preaching circuit with a charismatic stage-show modeled after those of contemporary rock stars, most notably Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. He made enough to take six months off every year, during which he returned to California and lived off his earnings before returning to the circuit.
In the late 1960s, Gortner experienced a crisis of conscience about his double life. He decided his performing talents might be put to better use as an actor or singer. When approached by documentarians Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, he agreed to let their film crew follow him during 1971 on a final tour of revival meetings in California, Texas, and Michigan. Unbeknownst to everyone involved – including, at one point, his father – he gave “backstage” interviews to the filmmakers between sermons and revivals, explaining intimate details of how he and other ministers operated. The filmmakers also shot his counting the money he had collected during the day later in his hotel room. The resulting film, Marjoe, won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary…
If you have not watched the documentary Marjoe, I encourage you to do so. While it is over forty years old, it still provides a behind the scenes look at what goes on in pentecostal and charismatic tent meetings, revivals, and healing services.
As a Baptist, I had a healthy mistrust and hate for all things pentecostal and charismatic. I saw their preachers as charlatans and false prophets. A good friend of mine and fellow non-believer was a charismatic pastor for twenty years. We never could have been friends while we were in the ministry because I thought people like him were being used by Satan to deceive the masses.
When it comes to stories like Marjoe, the question I have is whether the person was sincere. Were they a true blue believer? Did they really believe they could heal people? Did they really believe God used them to work miracles? In Marjoe’s case, he was conditioned and indoctrinated by his parents to believe that he really had these gifts. Were his parents true blue believers? That’s the bigger question. Were they just passing on the gifts to their talented, precocious son or were they con artists, Elmer Gantry-like hustlers for God?
Thanks to modern technology and dogged investigative reporters, we now know that many of the pentecostal and charismatic evangelists are frauds. People like Peter Popoff, Ernest Angley, Robert Tilton, WV Grant, Leroy Jenkins,Bob Larson, and Benny Hinn are hustlers out to fleece the flock of God. Many of the prosperity gospel preachers are con-artists who have found a way to become fabulously rich off the pain, suffering, and poverty of others. One quick way to judge an evangelist or ministry is to look at their checkbook. Where’s the money going? Whose being enriched by the “ministry” of Bro Heal Them All? In the case of Marjoe, not only did he make quite a bit of money, so did his parents. The family business was hustling for Jesus and it paid quite well. In the end, Marjoe’s father ran off with the cash and left his son and wife behind.
When I was in college, I cleaned a local Sweden House restaurant. One night, a couple of pentecostal evangelists had rented one of the banquet rooms for a healing service. After the service, not knowing I was standing around the corner, I heard the evangelists bitterly complaining about how poor the offering was. This was my first taste of money driven Christianity. As I would learn later, Baptists had their own problem with money-grubbing con-artists, men who preached up a storm only so it would rain twenty-dollar bills. I think the average Christian would be shocked to find out how many of the preachers they love, trust, and support are in it for fame and money. I know of several well known IFB preachers who retired from the ministry as millionaires. Ain’t God good?
In the mid 1970’s, I lived in Sierra Vista, Arizona. I worked for a local grocery store. Every week, several van loads of Pentecostals would come into Food Giant to shop. They were from Miracle Valley, Arizona, the home of evangelist AA Allen. Allen, an alcoholic died in 1970 after a heavy drinking binge. He was 59. The van loads of long dressed women were from one of the Miracle Valley pentecostal ministries or colleges. This was my first exposure to Pentecostals. At the time, I thought, nice looking women, too much clothing. My girlfriend, at the time, wore skirts and dresses that were in keeping with style of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s In other words, I could see her legs.
As I was doing some research for this post, I came upon an interesting story on Wikipedia about one of the pentecostal groups that took up residence in Miracle Valley:
In 1978-80 approximately 300 members of the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church (CMHCC) moved from Mississippi and Chicago. They purchased property in the subdivision on the north side of Highway 92 across from the bible college. Thomas was a former disciple of Allen’s at MVBC and attempted to purchase it after his death. Over the following two years numerous conflicts arose between the church and its members, and the local community and law enforcement on the other. Tensions escalated when it was discovered that five young children of church members had died over the previous year, with one and possibly four due to the church’s refusal to seek medical attention. Faith healing was a major component of the church’s teachings. Conflicts also arose when the church refused access to parents and law enforcement in retrieving he children of at least two families who had been illegally transported to the Valley against their parents’ wishes. Racial tensions arose between the African American church members and the mostly white residents. In late 1982 a variety of incidents with law enforcement culminated when local sheriff deputies, with backup by state law enforcement, attempted to serve bench warrants for the arrest of 3 members of the church. A large group of church members confronted the officials and in the ensuing “shootout” two church members were killed and seven law enforcement officers were injured. One church member and one sheriff’s deputy would later die of their injuries. The church and its members departed Miracle Valley in early 1983.
My brother lives near Miracle Valley in Tombstone. He was, at one time, the marshal of Tombstone. He can tell all kinds of stories about all kinds of crazy that went on in out-of-the-way places in Cochise County, Arizona.
I attended a charismatic healing service in the mid 1980’s at the Somerset Elementary School in Somerset, Ohio. At the time, I was pastor of the Baptist church and I want to see firsthand what went on at a healing service. The show was quite intense and towards the end the evangelist started going down the rows laying hands on people. Next to me was an old scruffy woman with dirty and greasy hair. When the evangelist came to her, he looked at her head and kept his hand a few inches above it. Right then and there I knew that this guy was a con artist. What, a bit of greasy hair going to keep you from healing someone? When he came to me, I gave him my keep on moving look. I wonder, did I miss out on God healing me? Am I cursed with sickness to this day because I didn’t let Elmer Gantry’s cousin lay hands on me?
Here’s my take on Marjoe, pentecostal evangelists, and faith healers. I think some of them are true blue believers. Indoctrinated from an early age, they sincerely believe what they are preaching. When it comes to the money they make, they view it as God blessing them. But, I also think that a large number of preachers, evangelists, and faith healers are scam artists, frauds who have found a way to make lots of money without doing much work. They are, at best, entertainers, at worst they are predators who prey an ignorant, gullible Christians.
Marjoe Gortner by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman
If you happened to watch the videos above and see the emotional craziness that went on at Marjoe’s meetings, I should let you know that I saw similar behavior at Baptist revival meetings, preacher’s meetings, camp meetings; especially those held south of the Mason-Dixon line. The only difference? Everyone spoke in English. I’ve seen aisle running, pew jumping, flag waving, shouting, and screaming at countless old-fashioned revivals or camp meetings. I’ve seen churches and preachers collect Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets of cash; thousands of dollars collected for “the Lord”,