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FALL FROM GRACE LEFT SWAGGART'S EMPIRE IN RUIN

FALL FROM GRACE LEFT SWAGGART'S EMPIRE IN RUIN

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In the halcyon days, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart would ask for $25, $50, even $100 from followers and he would get it, even if it meant the donors would have to do without.

These days, Swaggart begs for pennies.His age is showing, perhaps the strain from all the scandal. But the 59-year-old Swaggart still plays the piano with that almost boogie-woogie style that is so akin to that of his famous and controversial cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis.

The crowds still stand, their arms raised, singing and swaying to the gospel music.

But the crowds, like the donations, are smaller - much smaller.

On a recent Sunday, his 7,000-seat Family Worship Center was two-thirds empty as Swaggart started his pitch.

``Start giving if you have to give pennies to start with and then start increasing it as he increases his blessing on you,' Swaggart said, giving a thumbs up as people came forward and placed their money in several large, wooden boxes.

``It would be very amazing to the Lord if you danced down these aisles and gave your gift shouting 'Alleluia' all the way.'

Swaggart is one of the most gifted television preachers, but even his enormous talent isn't enough to rebuild an empire he lost after his highly publicized meetings with prostitutes, televangelism scholars say.

The viewing audience that financially feeds his ministry also is vastly smaller. Where Swaggart's extensive network of cable and satellite feeds once covered the globe and reached 3 million Americans, only 100,000 U.S. households watch his weekly sermon today, according to Arbitron, the rating agency.

At one time, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's tax-exempt ministry earned $150 million a year.

These days, after his highly publicized meetings with prostitutes, the story is much different.

Swaggart's ministry was $4.5 million in the red in 1991, the latest year for which tax records were available.

Ministry officials won't say how many students still attend Swaggart's Bible college at his $100 million complex in Baton Rouge. But a planned 12-story dormitory sits abandoned, its windows void of glass, weeds crowding its entryway.

The ministry was recently ordered to pay more than $1.4 million for Bibles and other religious publications delivered but never paid for.

Swaggart also agreed to pay rival Marvin Gorman $1.8 million last month in an out-of-court settlement. Gorman sued Swaggart for $90 million after the two swapped allegations of sexual misconduct.

``For all practical purposes, his career is over,' said Bill Martin, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston.

Where does that leave him?

Swaggart will not say because he does not grant interviews. He has called news reporters ``devils.'

Born to poverty in a Mississippi River Delta area in northeast Louisiana, Swaggart got his start in 1958, hitting the revival circuit with his wife, Frances, in a beat-up old Plymouth and living hand to mouth.

By the 1980s, Swaggart had built a televangelism empire. His Family Worship Center overflowed with attendance, and 15,000 students attended his Bible college.

He spread his message through books and records. But his main instrument was his weekly telecast. He was the most-watched televangelist in the country for much of the last decade, surveys show.

Swaggart fell from grace in 1988 after Gorman had pictures taken of him outside a seedy New Orleans-area motel with a prostitute. Swaggart lost his Assembly of God affiliation and much of the viewing audience that financially fed his ministries.

In 1991, he was stopped with a prostitute in his car in California.

His viewing audience fell to 400,000 households. His ministries complex, which once employed 1,500, was at half staff. His Bible college lost 70 percent of its students.

Last year, Swaggart's viewing audience dwindled to 113,000.

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