The Mesmerizing Appeal of Jack Hyles

jack hyles 1973

Jack Hyles, 1973

Jack Hyles was pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana from 1959-2001. For many years, the church was the largest congregation in America. The church held a Pastor’s School and Youth Conference each year that brought thousands of people to Hammond to see first hand what God was doing through Dr. Jack Hyles. (See post The Legacy of Jack Hyles.)

In the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, no one was bigger than Jack Hyles. IFB churches and pastors measured success by:

  • Church attendance
  • Offerings
  • Souls saved

In these three areas Jack Hyles and First Baptist Church were the king of the hill.

jack and beverly hyles statute

Jack and Beverly Hyles statue

Like most IFB churches, First Baptist Church was owned and operated by Jack Hyles. No, Hyles didn’t literally own the church, but there was no doubt about one thing, this was the house Jack built. Hyles had unlimited power to rule the church as he saw fit, and even when caught in an inappropriate sexual relationship with his secretary, he was able to wiggle free, and remained pastor of First Baptist Church until he died on February 6, 2001.  A statute of Jack and Beverly Hyles can be found in the church courtyard, an ever-present reminder that First Baptist Church owes its existence to Jack Hyles.

People not raised, schooled, and indoctrinated in the IFB church movement often have a hard time understanding how Jack Hyles could wield such power over people.  It seems so “cultic” to them, and truth be told, there are elements of IFB belief and practice that are “cultic.” While the IFB church movement is not a cult in the classic sense, it does have beliefs and practices that are harmful to people emotionally and mentally. Because it is a movement built on a foundation of anti-intellectualism, pastors are given an inordinate amount of power over people. The pastor becomes the resident intellectual, even though he is likely no more educated than the people in the pew. The pastor is considered God’s chosen man, the man of God who speaks on God’s behalf. He is uniquely called by God to the ministry and he is to be obeyed. Failure to obey will bring judgment from God, at least according to IFB preachers. (Sermons on pastoral authority are quite common in IFB churches.)

Jack Hyles was considered a god in IFB church circles. He was also revered by many outside of the IFB church movement. People read his sermons in the Sword of the Lord, and cassette recordings of Hyles’ sermons made their way around the globe. He was the Big Kahuna, and when he spoke everybody listened. It is important to understand how popular Hyles was.  People would drive hours to hear him preach at a Sword of the Lord Conference. They would hang on his every word. After all, look at the size of his church. This is PROOF that Hyles and God were on a first name basis.  When it came time for the invitation, hundreds of penitent Baptists would stream down the aisle to the altar and prostrate themselves before Hyles, praying that God would forgive them of their sins and give them Holy Ghost power to do whatever Hyles was telling them to do.

It is hard for me to admit, even to this day, that I was a part of this; that the  churches I pastored participated in this. (I left the IFB church movement in the late 1980s.) It is hard to admit that I was caught up in a religion that encouraged worshiping men as gods. Hyles, like Bob Jones, even had a college named after him: Hyles-Anderson College.

Granted, any time a group of people gather together under a common belief or ideal, there is the tendency to elevate certain people to god-like status within the group. IFB churches do it, Evangelicals do it, and yes, even atheists do it. Look at the typical Atheist/Humanist conference and you see the same speakers over and over. To some degree, it is human nature to fawn over those we think are in some way unique, successful, or who have some sort of special insight.

It has been thirty years since I heard Jack Hyles preach. I heard him preach many times during the heyday of the IFB movement — the late 1960s to the late 1980s. I would attend Sword of the Lord conferences whenever I could . Sometimes, I drove several hours just so I could sit at the feet of great IFB luminaries such as Jack Hyles, Lee RobersonLester Roloff,  Bob Gray of FloridaCurtis HutsonJohn R. Rice and Tom Malone. (Malone was the President of Midwestern Baptist College, the college I attended from 1976-79. Lester Roloff was accused of promoting child abuse, and Bob Gray of Florida was arrested for molesting children.)

the captain of our team jack hyles

A poem written by a devoted follower of Jack Hyles

What was it about Jack Hyles that drew people to him (and God is not the right answer)?

Jack Hyles was a superb orator. He knew how to use words, cadence, volume, and inflection to deliver sermons that most preachers could never deliver. As oratorical specimens, his sermons were flawless.  His sermons rarely had much Bible in them since he typically preached textual or topical sermons, but his sermons were perfectly scripted, with each point and sub point in perfect harmony. When Hyles chased a rabbit down the rabbit trail, he did it on purpose. He was methodical and disciplined in his preaching.

Hyles told a lot of stories about himself, his mother, and his feats as a pastor-god. His stories often made up the bulk of his sermon. Young preachers such as myself hung on every word, every story. Here was a man mightily used by God. It was many years before I could divorce myself from my worship of Jack Hyles enough to see his sermons for what they really were; grandiose brag sessions of a narcissist. I also came to see that the stories Hyles told were often lies or distortions of the truth, though I am inclined to think that Hyles really believed his own narrative.

The IFB church movement prides itself on being anti-cultural. The movement is known for what it is against and not for what it is for. In his sermons, Hyles would rail against Southern Baptists, The National Council of Churches, Evangelicals, pants on women, alcohol drinking, sex, and any other ill he deemed “worldly” or contrary to the received truth of the IFB church movement.

hyles baptist church

Yes, there really is a Hyles Baptist Church in Chesterfield, Virginia, pastored by Ron Talley.

When Hyles would preach against these things, his words elicited deep emotional and physical response. People would shout or say Amen or Preach it, Brother Hyles. People would stream down the aisles to confess their sin, their disobedience to God. The Sword of Lord would report the “number” of people  who came forward. (The IFB follows a corporate model, dominated by numbers.) If you want to see how the numbers racket works, read Bob Gray of Texas’s blog. A Hyles disciple, trained at Hyles-Anderson College, he knows exactly how many souls have been saved under his ministry. He is the ultimate IFB bean-counter.

When preaching at a conference, Hyles would often have an afternoon Question and Answer time for preachers. Young, aspiring preachers, along with old struggling preachers, could ask Hyles questions about building a great church. I can’t tell you the number of times I saw Hyles eviscerate a preacher because he asked the wrong question. One time, a young preacher asked a question about how to choose a good youth director — not that Hyles would know since his son, serial adulterer, David Hyles was the youth director at First Baptist. Hyles asked the young man how big his church was and after the young preacher told him, Hyles belittled him and accused him of being lazy. The young preacher should have felt humiliated, but he more likely felt that “God” was speaking to him through Brother Hyles. Hyles, like many top shelf IFB preachers, could be a bully.

Hyles liked to give off an air of invincibility. His illustrations made him seem like a man who could charge into the flames of hell and come out without one hair singed on his head. He told illustrations such as:

There were two men playing tennis and at the end of the game, the loser graciously shook the hand of the winner.

Bro. Hyles, how do you handle losing (code for failure)?

Hyles would thunder, I don’t know, I’ve never lost.

And then he would preach forcefully and loudly about not being a loser, a quitter.

When you take all these things together, it is easy to see why Jack Hyles was, and still is, worshiped. Some consider him the greatest preacher since the Apostle Paul. I understand how people become mesmerized by the Hyles mystique. However, when a person puts some distance between himself and the IFB church moment, he starts to see that the movement is a man-centered, man-worshiping religion. Are their good, decent people in IFB churches? Sure. For whatever reason, they cannot or will not take off their blinders so they can see things as they really are. IFB-preachers-turned-atheists such as myself have little influence over them because they see us as traitors and God haters.

I wonder what it will take to finally bring the IFB house crashing to the ground? Evidently, sexual scandal won’t do it. Maybe it is too much to ask for. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has pedophiles running amok, yet faithful Catholics still show up for mass and give their money to the church.  It seems that we as humans quite easily ignore what is right in front of us.

Shrine built after Jack Hyles died, as always bigger than life.

Shrine built after Jack Hyles died, as always bigger than life.

For further information:

Read Andrew Himes’ book, The Sword of the Lord, The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family.

Read Bryan Smith’s Chicago Magazine article, Let Us Prey: Big Trouble at First Baptist Church

Read the Legacy of Jack Hyles

Read the 1980s Biblical Evangelist story on the Jack Hyles scandal

During the uproar over Hyles’ illicit affair, loyal Hyles followers wore “100% Hyles” buttons to show their support for Hyles.

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7 Comments

  1. April G

    Just wow…funny how guys like Hyles, no doubt HATED the Catholic church. I know my ex-fundamentalist pastor hates it and did sermons on ALL the things they are doing wrong. A couple came to mind with this, 1-Catholics don’t study the bible, only doing what the church says. Yet my xpastard used to preach for his flock to not to worry about studying the bible, that was HIS job. huh?? (in other words just take his word for it and turn off your brain) — 2-the Catholics worship the “Pope”. Well, I’m not a Catholic anymore, but at least they have a hierarchy. Unlike Hyles and those of his ilk, a fundy dictator preacher. I eventually called them Protestant Popes. YES, those fundamentalists certainly worship their pastors. Makes me sick 🙁

    Reply
  2. Karen the rock whisperer

    I grew up Catholic. We never worshipped the pope, though he was certainly deferred to as someone who knew what he was talking about in terms of theology. It is true that we didn’t study the bible, but used sections of it as lessons. The Catholic service always has two readings, one from anywhere in the bible BUT the gospels, and one from the gospels. And the readings are always presented in context — Catholics don’t quote out-of-context bible verses at you. The priest or guest preacher is expected to address the readings in his sermon. I guess your experience was different.

    The only semi-deity I was taught to revere other than the trinitarian God was Mary, and that was by my mother. But the official church line is that all the Saints (including her) accomplish works on this earth by interceding with God on the behalf of a prayerful believer. Older Catholics like my mother were raised to believe that they were unworthy of addressing God directly, and must funnel prayer requests through saints. Sounds so Medieval-court-ish, doesn’t it? You don’t get in to talk to the king/queen directly, but if you can chat up the right courtier you can get your issue resolved.

    But unworthiness is unworthiness. The Catholics say you can arrange for an intermediary; the Protestant fundagelicals emphasize that you’re a dirty rag but God will listen anyhow… and he’ll even send you a wonderful preacher to help make you feel like crap!

    As one Dark Ages king must have said to another, you make your peasants miserable your way, I’ll make my peasants miserable my way.

    Reply
  3. April G

    Hi KarenTRW, apparently I didn’t make myself clear… I got the impression from your comment that you think I believe that stuff about the Catholics?? No, I said those were things my expastor taught and believed about the Catholic church. I never believed my family or myself ever worshiped the pope. I was trying to explain that many fundamentalists (like Jack Hyles) point out supposed errors in doctrine, and calling the Catholics as being deceived, when they themselves teach the exact same things, with their own demented twist to it. My experience with fundamentalists is that they like to point out how every xian group is doing bible religion wrong, except for their particular group.

    Actually my experience being a Catholic was quite benign & I actually have some pleasant memories of it compared to the abuse of the Calvinist/Primitive Baptist Fundamentalist KJV only bible cult.

    Reply
    1. Karen the rock whisperer

      I did misunderstand. Sorry! Glad your experience of Catholicism was as relatively benign as mine.

      Reply
  4. Monty

    Ha ha! I was a member of Hyles Baptist Church from 2002-2008. Of course, the church was lined with pics of Roloff, Rice and nother heroes of the IFB faith, and of course a HUGE pic of Jack. Talley is alright tho…very indoctrinated but still somewhat decent.

    Reply
  5. JoAr

    Hah! So many IFB Pastors STILL make such ridiculous claims to this very day! Just recently I have heard one from Charleston, WV say he got the entire insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield to stop decorating for Halloween and he was able to do this by speaking to 1 employee at a local branch. He also claimed he was at a large Manufacturing Factory and was the only person there who wasn’t an atheist. Unless he was there after hours, I can’t see the probability of that being true. Knowing it very well could be a policy of Blue Cross not to decorate for any holiday, I went one step farther and asked my father who retired from Blue Cross. Needless to say that claim was also false.
    I can’t help but wonder if there were as many IFB churches, Pastors, and “Boarding Schools” in the Hyles and Roloff times as there are today. There are so many today that the ones that do get shut down for child molestation or any other reason do not effect their continuation, and that’s pretty scary, for me at least.

    Reply
  6. JR

    That poem to Jack Hyles (picture in the post) is awful. Laughably bad.

    The cult of personality is a powerful thing. I used to think that Jesus must have been God otherwise why were so many taken in? Posts like these show humans are blind to the truth about people they worship.

    Reply

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