Evangelist Bob Harrington: It’s Fun Being Saved

its fun being saved bob harringtonDuring much of the 1970s, Evangelical crusades were all the rage. As  a young teenager, I attended crusades conducted by Billy GrahamBill GlassJack Van Impe (twice), and Bob Harrington. In the early 1970s, Jack Van Impe came to Findlay, Ohio, for a crusade held at Findlay High School. Thousands of people flocked to hear The Walking Bible preach on the soon-return of Jesus Christ. Van Impe even went so far as to predict that the Russian flag would be flying over the U.S. Capitol by 1976. He was right about the Russian flag flying over the White House. He just missed the date by forty years. Van Impe was/is what I call a newspaper preacher. He looked at the headlines and crafted his sermons to correspond with them. According to the Bible, false prophets are to be stoned to death. If that be the case, Van Impe would have died long before his wife Rexella had her first facial plastic surgery procedure. Van Impe has made countless predictions (prophecies) that have spectacularly failed to materialize. That said, as a recently saved, called-of-God preacher boy, I found Van Impe’s preaching thrilling and motivational, a call to win more souls for Christ before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords returned to earth.

When it came to pure entertainment, however, no evangelist could match the wit, humor, and oratory of the smooth-talking Chaplain of Bourbon, Bob Harrington. I was able to locate a quality recording of Harrington on YouTube. The following sermon was preached in 1966 at Landmark Baptist Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. At the time, Landmark, pastored by Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher John Rawlings, and was one of the largest churches in the country. Harrington, a Southern Baptist, frequently preached at large IFB churches, including Jerry Falwell’s church, Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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I owned many of Harrington’s recorded sermon albums. I played them over and over and over again. I loved how he effortlessly mixed humor into sermons. My favorite Harrington quote comes from a sermon of his on the second coming of Jesus. Harrington said, I’m not looking for the undertaker, I’m looking for the upper-taker. I remember telling my youth director, Bruce Turner, at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, about my fondness for Harrington. Bruce tried to steer me away from Harrington, warning that his kind of preaching wasn’t Biblical and that Harrington was a fad that would soon pass away. If you listened to the recording above, you know that Harrington played loose with the “facts” of his life. For Harrington, preaching was all about telling a good story, even if he exaggerated or fibbed a bit. During college, I remember Tom Malone, the chancellor of Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan, saying during a sermon, “I’m not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.” Malone was joking, but after preaching thousands of sermons and listening to hundreds more, I have concluded that Malone was right; that preaching is often an admixture of truth and exaggeration, especially when it comes to sermon illustrations. I remember reading that David Foster Wallace, when questioned about his penchant for exaggeration, said that as long as the basic facts were correct there was no harm in exaggerating a bit to tell a better story. Remember that the next time you hear a preacher use this or that sermon illustration, and if you’re thinking, this story seems to be exaggerated or too good to be true — it probably is. (Another big-name preacher who loved to tell fanciful, exaggerated illustrations was Jack Hyles.)

In the 1960s, Harrington moved to New Orleans to start a street ministry. Armed with a Bible and a microphone, Harrington preached at people as they passed by. According to the Baptist Standard, after several months of street preaching:

….deacons at First Baptist Church in New Orleans loaned him enough money for a few months’ rent to open a chapel on Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Harrington began witnessing and preaching in the bars and strip clubs of Bourbon Street.

In 1962, Mayor Victor Schiro proclaimed him “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street.”

Harrington’s street ministry message was bold and simple: “God loves you just as you are. He knows you are a sinner and wants to save you. Don’t figure it out. Faith it out!”

In 1968, he held a revival at Castle Hills First Baptist Church in San Antonio. During the revival, the owners of a burlesque club attended an evening service and became Christians. Guy and Evelyn Linton immediately closed the club and posted a sign: “Closed forever. See you in church.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Harrington was one of the most popular preachers in America. People thronged to his crusades. As a young teenager, I heard Harrington at a crusade in Pontiac, Michigan. I can still remember the excitement that filled the football stadium. Every seat was occupied, and come invitation time, scores of people came forward to be saved. It seemed to me, as a young teenager, that God was pouring out his spirit on Harrington and using him to saved thousands of people. In the late 70s, Harrington traveled the country with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, holding meetings that were purportedly a debate between an atheist and a Christian about the existence of God. What it turned into was a much-rehearsed circus sideshow that made a lot of money for both Harrington and O’Hair. Harrington said of the atheist, “Yes, many may say Madalyn knows the Scriptures better than I do, but I know the author.”

Here’s a low-quality video of Harrington’s and O’Hair’s appearance on the Phil Donahue Show:

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bob harrington marriage repair kit

Much as my youth pastor predicted, Harrington proved to be a fad. In the late 1970s Harrington spectacularly crashed and burned, admitting he had committed adultery. He later said, “the devil threw me a pass, and I caught it and ran for defeat.”  Harrington would divorce his first and second wives, marrying three times. In a 2000 SBC Life article, Harrington describes his moral failures this way:

Three things got me: fame, finance, and frolic. I was going strong with my little radio program there. Then after the mayor named me Chaplain of Bourbon Street the Governor of Louisiana named me Ambassador of Goodwill to America.

Early on I had trouble paying $500 a week rent for the office on Bourbon Street. But the next thing you know, $500 a week income was changing into $5,000 a week. The “kingdom of thing-dom” started getting more of my attention than the Kingdom of God. I was on nationwide television in four hundred and seventy cities. Everything was going good. Then, Phil Donahue had me on his pilot show. The other guest that day was Madeline O’Hare. That show took Donahue into nationwide syndication. He had us back eighteen times after that. She became a springboard toward my own national recognition, but also a witnessing tool for the Lord. Once people saw the condition of an atheist they wanted to become believers.

I challenged her to meet me in different cities. There were thirty-eight different cities where we would meet in the civic auditorium or the municipal auditorium, and have confrontations on the stage. It became quite popular. We were on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and The Merv Griffin Show.

I had fame, but when you get famous you start thinking, “Look at what I’m doing.” After I got saved, I grew too fast — I didn’t have a good, stable foundation. It’s nobody’s fault but mine, but when you get invitations to come give your testimony, you start adding more dates to it. I had to drop out of seminary because I was preaching two revivals a month. I was so caught up in being an evangelist. Money gets to flowing and you find yourself riding in a big customized bus, you find yourself flying in a Lear jet, and you find your staff members picking up your briefcases. Unless you’ve got a solid base, you can really fall into this. I started believing all my cockiness and all my press releases — and that precedes the fall.

Fame did that. And finance — you get money in your hand, and you’re the president and the treasurer. Signatures are pretty easy to come by. The folks were just giving and giving.

Frolic — after a while you got those Bathsheba’s, [sic] Delilah’s, [sic] and Jezebel’s [sic] out there in the church world – not the Bourbon Street world — that kind of temptation didn’t bother me because I knew they were notoriously wicked. But these were sweet, little ol’ church members. They start telling you how nice and neat you are, and how big and strong you are. Your wife isn’t telling you that any more because she knows what you’re turning into.

All those things — fame, finance, and frolic — led me to catch a pass that Satan threw at the peak of my success. And that pass — I caught that sucker, and ran for defeat. When you break that pass down, P. A. S. S., it’s pride, arrogance, self-centeredness, and stubbornness. That stole my first love away from me, and that’s when I fell.

After his “fall,” Harrington was out of the ministry for seventeen years. He credits Cathedral of Tomorrow pastor Rex Humbard for encouraging him to re-enter the ministry. During his time away from the Lord, Harrington was a salesman and a motivational speaker. Harrington was a once-saved, always-saved Baptist. This meant, regardless of what Harrington did during his time away from Jesus, he was still a born-again Christian.

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Harrington describes his return to the ministry this way:

After having served God for many years as Chaplain of Bourbon Street, I began to leave my “First Love” for the Lord. Fame, fortune and frolic got me off the track. I had been on all the major talk shows such as Donahue and Oprah, as well as having my own syndicated TV show across the country. Money got to be no object as the dollars flowed in, and the making of money began to be my focus. I began listening to the young women who bragged on how good I was and looked, and became addicted to their ego boosts. I finally left preaching altogether and went strictly into very successful years as a motivational speaker–finally leaving God completely out of my life. I was miserable; living (existing) on fun and thrills. Little happiness, no joy.

One night while in Los Angeles, CA, I was considering jumping out of a window, when the phone rang and my friend Rex Humbard asked me, “Bro. Bob, aren’t you ready to come back?” I cried, “Yes, I’m so ready!” He then lead [sic] me in reading the 51st Psalm and praying David’s prayer of restoration. Suddenly the burden of guilt was lifted and I knew that God had other plans for my life. These years since then have been a growing and rebuilding time for me, and I’m thrilled to say: “I’m back and It’s Still Fun Being Saved!”

December of 1998 was a particularly wonderful time in my life when God gave to my life a wonderful lady named Becky.  We had been acquaintances for nearly 30 years, but when we found each other in August of 1997 after many years, we were both excited as God seemed to draw us together.  We were married on December 5, 1998 at the Grand Palace in Branson, MO.  Now we headquarter on her miniature horse ranch just south of Ft. Worth, TX, from which we continue to travel across the country doing what God called me to do in 1958…preach the Word.

Harrington died on July 4, 2017. He was eighty-nine years old. He, indeed, had fun being saved.

Did you ever attend a crusade back in the day? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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7 Comments

  1. Andrew

    Bob Harrington came to our church when I was a kid. I remember laughing a lot.

    Reply
  2. LadySunami

    I still hate it when Christians use “Bathsheba” as one of their examples of temptresses.
    They are so resistant to the idea of men engaged in “sexual immorality” being solely responsible for their own behavior (and fail so badly at actually researching Hebrew customs) that they end up completely inventing a story of Bathsheba bathing on her roof specifically to catch David’s eye. Meanwhile, in the actual Bible, Bathsheba “was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness” (2 Samuel 11:4) in a bath open to the sky so that it could collect rainwater, as instructed by her religion.
    David was the one spying on her from above like some creeper, and who then used his position as king to take advantage the woman.

    Now that I think about it, they way Christains read the David and Bathsheba story, as opposed to the way the story actually goes, is a very fitting analogy.
    Pastors use their position of power to creep on and take advantage of women, only for their dedicated followers to somehow twist things around and blame the women involved when the truth comes out, even as all the facts make it clear said women were just trying to act as their religious instruction taught them to.

    Reply
  3. Ian for a long time

    I had heard some of those pithy quotes before, but never knew where they came from. I even had the “faith it out” quote written in my Old Scholfield KJV.

    That is an interesting story. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  4. Kittybrat

    Oh, man!
    Yes, VanImpe preached many crusades at Canton Baptist Temple, and I have at least 3 of his full-length vinyl albums, along with Bob Harrington’s “The Chaplin of Bourbon St” album.
    Charlatans!
    Boy, they could shame people while smiling and set the pews on fire!
    Thanks for the memories… looking back on these people and times makes me wonder about this mass delusion.
    Madalyn Murray O’Hair surely held her own with that con man. I’d have gone to see their road show, no doubt!
    I love that woman!
    Never could hate her as I was instructed.

    Reply
  5. Brian

    O’Hair did not have good fortune in her hiring a dangerously damaged man but I am sure he was no match for her at all when found to be dishonest. She was a strong person and I can’t help but admire her control while dealing with the the endless little quips of Harrington that he clearly memorized to be used as weapons in ‘argument’. Like all evangelical, whacked out entertainers, he loves harming others with his ‘biblical’ offerings. Quite a charmer, in hi own way, I guess, taking women on a joy-ride of spiritual joy till everything was unzipped and ever so human. It really is a shame, too bad that he couldn’t have had sex with women for fun and not as a Satanic actor for Jeeezus! O’Hair had him pinned very early on but it made no difference to people who were looking for suffering, the joy of giving up on themselves, the self-hating salvation of Christianity.
    I wish I was not so blind back then to everything but Fellowship Baptist and was able to see through the bullshit and enjoy people like O’Hair, When Charles Templeton turned away from hurting himself, I remember my father’s misery around him but I was still too young to know the ins and outs of it all and was busy moving into puberty in the early sixties. The only real mass-communicatin’ I was witness to was Billy Graham’s television crusade carnival. It made we want to be on the team! Shame and self-loathing was set like cement in me as a child. Dear Jesus tried his best to help me, getting tortured for me and getting the whole Mel Gibson nine yards while I continued to see the word, ‘fuck’ in my brain and torture him further, while I took candy that wasn’t mine and ate it while poor Jesus was whipped and stabbed.

    Reply
    1. Becky

      Brian, it’s amazing what we felt guilty about. Stealing a little candy = horrible, bad evil person. While all the bad stuff was baked in: racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia = all good!

      Reply
      1. Bran

        Yes, amazing is one word worthy of note; also tragic. Thinking of the ways we learned to harm ourselves is almost a mini-series with popcorn for all. It can’t be real that parents actually tell their children they are born in sin and need redemption…! That must be a joke, a sick tease, right? My older brother has told me with utmost sin-cerity that he is sure he would be in prison if he did not have Jesus. Fact is, he has lived a careful, fretful lfe, was a shitty bully to his younger siblings but never did anything worthy of lockup! Still, it pleases him to speak of himself as evil and no good, redeemed by baby Jesus. As I see it, the biggest crime he has achieved is completely indoctrinating his children into born-again self-hatred. War is peace: Orwell.
        “Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.” -Orwell
        Praise Jeebers….

        Reply

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