Encyclopedia of Religion
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Term first used by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Charles E. Swann in Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism (Addison-Wesley 1981) to describe a new form of religious broadcasting combining television and evangelism. Televangelism also is referred to as "the electric church" by religious broadcasters, especially Ben Armstrong (The Electric Church , Nelson 1979), or "the electronic church" by mainline Christian critics. As described by Armstrong, the term electric church encompasses all religious broadcasters with an evangelical Christian message, including radio and television programming. Electronic church was used pejoratively to describe members of the clergy who went on the air to raise money for their own use instead of emphasizing spiritual messages in the traditional denominational sense. The term televangelism gained widespread usage when scandals involving several of its most prominent personalities turned mass media attention on television evangelists (televangelists) and their multimillion-dollar organizations. In general usage, televangelism refers to evangelical religious television programming that depends upon viewers for direct financial support.

Televangelists are independent, entrepreneurial evangelists who use television marketing to build their ministries. In general, three beliefs are shared by these evangelicals: biblical inerrancy, acceptance of the Holy Spirit, and personal born-again redemption. The specific form and content of televangelists' ministries (teleministries), however, are grounded in their own personal interpretation of their calling.

History of the Medium

The early radio evangelists focused on saving souls. With the addition of television as a means of delivery, the emphasis and interpretations of individual callings were modified due to the need to develop financial and audience support. In general, appeals to individuals to become Christians ("bornagain" experiences), to reinforce Christian lifestyles, and to join in support of a particular evangelist's ministry have marked all televangelists. Individual programs showed a wide range of formats, from televised preaching to talk shows. Within these various formats, the televangelists' messages ranged from inspirational with little theology (Schuller, Roberts, Bakker) to overtly sociopolitical (Falwell and Robertson, for example).

Television as a mass media tool was introduced in the 1950s and, along with other electronic media, was used for evangelism and constituency building. By the 1980s, there were 1,370 religious radio stations and more than 220 religious television stations. Three Christian networks broadcast 24 hours a day to nationwide audiences. The Golden Age of televangelism, from approximately 1980 to 1987, brought religious broadcasting to national attention. During this period, Nielson and Arbitron rating services measured audience size. According to the results of the rating services, Oral Roberts lost the number one position to Robert Schuller (the Hour of Power ) and Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, who vied for the top rating. There were eight individual teleministries that began developing stable and large audiences and built complex organizations that became both part of the ministry and a rationale for viewer financial support. These organizations reflected different interests; however, the major televangelists had educational components, many of which continue to operate: Oral Roberts University, Liberty University, Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, and Regent University (formerly Christian Broadcasting Network University). These educational projects varied with the interests and the finances of the evangelist.

Social and Structural Origins of Televangelism

Televangelism is a hybrid institution derived from urban revivalism and television (see Frankl 1984, 1987). Urban revivalism assumes that the clergy influence an individual's choice of salvation, which previously rested only with God, and is responsible for the establishment of a message suitable for mass consumption. Both the high cost of paid airtime and the newly acquired ability of broadcasters to sell public service time determined religious broadcasting's organizational structure, contributed to its prevalence, and stimulated its popularity. The true impact of urban revivalism on religious practice can best be seen in an examination of the legacies of three great urban revivalists: Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight Moody, and Billy Sunday.

Charles Finney (1792-1875) articulated the ethos of urban revivalism upon which contemporary televangelism is based. Finney's 1860 Lectures: On Revivals of Religion explained to the clergy how to conduct revivals or, given the primary calling of the revivalists, how to win souls. Part of Finney's legacy was his preaching style, which relied on a sales strategy and the use of plain talk to appeal to audiences. Finney embedded biblical literalism into the revivalists' preaching style, a tradition that continues today among the evangelical-fundamentalist preachers. Finney favored the direct biblical words rather than sophisticated theological doctrines, just as he favored the grammar and rhetoric of plain people. Lectures provided the ideological justification for making revivalism a planned event instead of a mystical, spirit-filled happening. Furthermore, Finney exhorted ministers to use "any means" to produce powerful excitement and to play an active role as an agent of God.

Under Finney's tutelage, the work and social relationships of the revivalist preacher were changed, as the preacher functioned as gatekeeper in the heavenly hierarchy. He became God's subcontractor, his tools being the Bible, a hymnal, and unique techniques to excite religious fervor. When Oral Roberts "speaks to God" and urges his viewers to contact him so that he can pray for them, for example, he is following Finney's precepts for being the "wise minister" whose special task is to kindle interest and enthusiasm for Jesus among sinners.

Whereas Finney profoundly altered the ethos, preaching style, and content of revivalism, Dwight Moody (1837-1899) rationalized and routinized the organization of revivalism and some of its rituals about 30 years later. Overall, Moody's major contribution to urban revivalism was to introduce a businesslike organizational structure into the religious realm and to institute managerial techniques to improve the operation and effectiveness of revivals. Moody also contributed to the social milieu of revivalism through the creation of an infrastructure for Bible schools and institutes. These schools, in particular the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, continue to educate and train students to carry on the work of Moody and other revivalists. When fundamentalism evolved as a social movement, some of these Bible schools became part of that movement. These Christian schools are major building blocks for many televangelists (Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell in particular). They also serve as successful vehicles for fund-raising.

Billy Sunday (1862-1935) characterized himself as a "businessman for the Lord." According to Weisberger (1958) and McLoughlin (1955), Sunday transformed urban revivals into "professional amusements" by his showmanship and commercialism and played down much of the religious connotation associated with revival meetings. In his emphasis on large-scale entertainment and his streamlining of Moody's churches, schools, and missions into one single-minded revivalist corporation, Sunday developed urban revivalism into an ideal organizational structure for entering into the business of broadcast programming at the dawn of radio and television (Frankl 1984).

Overview of the Largest Teleministries

Starting in Akron, Ohio, Rex Humbard was one of the first evangelists (1952) to build a ministry that incorporated radio and television programming. Humbard's Cathedral of Tomorrow , a church and weekly program by the same name, was designed specifically to accommodate television equipment, crew, and chorus as well as seating for 5,000 people (Armstrong 1979:83 ff.).

Humbard's programs consisted of popular and personalized religious messages; any personal attacks on social institutions or social morality were either nonspecific or not politically directed. His program format was entertainment—inspirational singing, with a strong family emphasis—he avoided taking political positions on the air (Liebman and Wuthnow 1983:41). He was aware of the effect his television ministry might have on local churches and worked together with local pastors to get recent converts involved in their local churches.

Humbard was the third-ranked televangelist in 1981 (Nielsen) and continued broadcasting with the 14 members of his family (including wife Maude Aimée) until 1988, when the televangelism scandals, in which his ministry was not directly involved, resulted in a serious reduction in viewer donations, forcing him to reduce broadcasting. The facilities were sold to Ernst Angley's healing ministry, while the Humbard program continued to air for several years from another site. The Humbard family no longer produces programs.

Granville Oral Roberts made the transition from tent crusader as the "King of Faith Healers" into radio and television broadcasting. His radio audience was larger than any other faith healer (Morris 1973). By 1955, Roberts was the national leader of paid religious television (Frankl 1987:74).

With the success of television, Roberts expanded his "Healing Waters" ministry into the Oral Roberts Evangelical Association (OREA) and purchased 175 acres of land in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A major component of OREA was Oral Roberts University (ORU) (1963), which included schools of arts and sciences, law, medicine, theology and missions, and the School for Lifelong Education (a correspondence school). ORU is a fully accredited "charismatic university" based on "God's authority and on the Holy Spirit." The City of Faith (COF) Hospital and Research Center were added to integrate medical science and religious healing (Harrell 1985:448). Roberts later closed the City of Faith, including the medical school. The law school and library holdings were donated to then CBN (now Regent) University when donations fell as a result of the televangelism scandals.

Set apart from many fundamentalist revivalists by his tolerance for theological diversity, Roberts has been willing to work with a wide range of Christians, thus separating himself from doctrinaire fundamentalists (Harrell 1985:442 ff). Roberts accepted biblical inerrancy as a living revelation perceived by experience; he believes in direct intervention of God (see Miracle of Seed Faith , Revell 1970). He abandoned the Pentecostal Holiness Church in the 1960s for the more inclusive Methodist Church. Friends with Billy Graham (who dedicated ORU in 1967) and Pat Robertson, he avoided involvement with the Moral Majority movement, eschewing the mixing of politics and religion. His upbeat message of hope was combined with promises of health, happiness, and prosperity. His son Richard shares the pulpit with him and is second president of ORU and the OREA.

Robert Schuller received his Bachelor of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary (Holland, Michigan) and was ordained by the Dutch Reformed Church of America. Schuller is the only televangelist from a mainline denomination. In 1955, with his wife Arvella (née DeHaan), he established a congregation in Garden Grove, California. From the snack bar roof of the Orange drive-in theater, he conducted Sunday Services.

Schuller's Hour of Power (1970) is derived from Norman Vincent Peale's "Power of Positive Thinking" and shares his positive theology of "possibility thinking" (i.e., management of ideas, lessening negative self-talk, and exploring ideas for the possibilities they present). Schuller (1983:109-124) has a "Ten Commandments of Possibility Thinking" addressed to individual Christians to change their lives. In 1980, the Crystal Cathedral, an all-glass church, was dedicated and fully paid for at a cost of $16 million by the viewers of The Hour of Power . During the 1980s, Schuller vied with Oral Roberts for the position of most watched televangelist. In 1994, Arbitron rated Hour of Power the most watched religious program in the United States. It is also seen in 44 foreign countries by an estimated 20 million viewers of special foreign-language versions. As part of his ministry, he founded the Institute for Successful Church Leadership (1970), which has more than 20,000 graduates; New Hope, a Christian 24-hour counseling center (1970); and the International School of Christian Communication, specializing in the art of preaching (1992). Schuller is the author of more than 30 books.

Jerry Falwell graduated from Baptist Bible College, Springfield, Michigan. In 1956, Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Virginia, which has a current membership of 22,000. From this church, Falwell broadcasts the Old-Time Gospel Hour , his television outreach program, and Listen America Radio , three minutes of radio news and commentary with conservative leaders addressing political issues. Falwell is the author of 12 books and founder of the Moral Majority (1979-1989), renamed Liberty Federation.

The Moral Majority and the Christian Voice, both established in 1979, were the principal umbrella organizations for the New Christian Right. The Moral Majority had "access to a national network of fundamentalists united by a common fellowship, a commitment to building great churches and Christian Schools" (Liebman and Wuthnow 1983:7, see Bromley and Shupe 1984:36). Preaching to congregations across the nation and establishing lengthy mailing lists for direct mail campaigns, Falwell registered thousands of voters united by the Moral Majority against abortion, pornography, the ERA, homosexuality, and the decline of moral and familial values. Through lobbying and distributing mass petitions to bring attention to conservative positions, Falwell saw the Moral Majority "as a means to a much broader social movement" (Hadden and Shupe 1988). The Christian Voice, although smaller than the Moral Majority, did campaign for conservative Christian viewpoints against homosexuality and pornography.

The Religious Roundtable, formed in 1979 by Ed McAteer under the umbrella of Moral Majority and Christian Voice, provided a forum for conservative political discussions. Falwell was seen as a spokesperson for the Religious Roundtable, which in 1980 held a large conference in Dallas with New Christian Right leaders, televangelists, and Ronald Reagan in attendance. Roundtable forums urged audiences to lobby for conservative issues, such as supporting prayer in schools and the teaching of creationism, through mass mail campaigns to Congress. In 1980, Falwell focused his message on the social and moral aspects of politics in his revivalist "I Love America" rallies held on steps of state capitol buildings across the nation. During these rallies, Christian ministers were invited to speak, as were politicians sympathetic to Falwell's message. In his book Listen, America! (Doubleday 1980:244), Falwell states his political objective: to "rally together the people of this country who still believe in decency, the home, the family, morality, the free enterprise system."

During the 1980 presidential elections, the New Christian Right supported Ronald Reagan. Political action committees, such as the Christian Voice's Moral Government Fund, set up the "Christians for Reagan" group, which sent endorsement letters to members of clergy during the presidential primaries. After the 1980 elections, Falwell took credit for helping to elect President Reagan and conservative members of Congress. Although the exact number of new voters who were registered through the Moral Majority's influence has been disputed, a reasonable estimate is nearly 2 million people registered (Liebman and Wuthnow 1983).

In 1986, Falwell dissolved the Moral Majority and created the Liberty Federation, "a new political arm." According to Hadden and Shupe (1988), Moral Majority needed to be dissolved as it had received much negative attention and was not as powerful as Falwell had stated. The 2 to 3 million following was disproved; the claim that the Moral Majority was a large grassroots group and suggestions that it had a religiously diverse following were disproved as well. His Moral Majority members were mostly southern Baptists (Wilcox 1986).

Falwell started the Lynchburg Christian Academy in 1967, with kindergarten through 12th grade. He is founder and Chancellor of Liberty University, formerly Liberty Baptist College (1971), with an enrollment of over 11,000 students from all 50 states and 48 countries in 1993-1994. Described as a comprehensive university, accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, it includes a College of Arts and Sciences, a School of Business and Government, School of Communications, School of Education, School of General Studies, School of Religion, and School of Life Long Learning, which uses videotapes for its innovative distance learning program. Falwell is founder and Chancellor of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary (1973) and the Liberty Home Bible Institute (1976).

Falwell played a brief role in the PTL bankruptcy scandal when Jim and Tammy Bakker left their ministry to be run by Falwell. He attempted to reform and stabilize the sinking PTL and Heritage Village, but his efforts were criticized by pentecostals who disapproved of his noncharismatic, fundamentalist Baptist message. When the Bakkers wished to return to PTL, Falwell refused them, fired Bakker's close associates within the ministry, and kept his fundamentalist board of directors while assuring that the ministry would be ecumenical (Hadden and Shupe 1988).

Jimmy Lee Swaggart was ordained in the Assemblies of God (AOG), a pentecostal denomination. Swaggart rose from poverty to lead one of the largest teleministries in the United States, with an estimated $141 million worldwide organization and 8 million viewers per week. The World Ministry Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, includes dormitories and a 7,500-seat Family Worship Center. Swaggart reached the pinnacle of his power in 1986-1988. Swaggart's open criticism of mainline denominations, especially Roman Catholicism, put him at odds with both leaders in the denomination and other, more tolerant television evangelists. At the height of his career, he was a leading figure in the AOG as a political benefactor, generous financial contributor, and media star (Poloma 1989:222).

Swaggart lost considerable credibility among his followers when it was revealed in 1987 that he regularly visited a prostitute. This led to Swaggart's public confession of sins and ultimate defrocking as an Assemblies of God minister because he would not submit to the AOG's recommendation to abstain from preaching for a year and to participate in a rehabilitation program. Swaggart returned to his own pulpit as an independent minister, decreasing his airtime and emphasizing his international evangelical activities. Swaggart is the author of Rape of the Nation , published in 1985 (Jimmy Swaggart Ministries), a treatise on what he saw as the moral decay of the United States.

Swaggart's television ministry is known for its exuberant, emotional preaching and singing service, which is attributed to his family and geographic upbringing in Ferriday, Louisiana. Cousin to Mickey Gilley of country music fame and Jerry Lee Lewis, rock music pioneer, Swaggart has 12 gold records of gospel music to his credit (Schaffer and Todd 1987:135).

Jim Bakker , prominent televangelist with his wife, Tammy Faye (née LaValley), developed the PTL (Praise the Lord or People That Love) Club into a multimillion-dollar television ministry composed of a cable network and a real estate venture known as Heritage USA.

The Bakkers began their careers as itinerant revivalists, ordained by Assemblies of God. In 1965, Bakker joined the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in Portsmouth, Virginia. Bakker is credited with originating the 700 Club talk-show format and was the first host. Bakker is also credited with creating the most successful on-air fund-raising shows, the proceeds of which established CBN as a well-financed entity. Bakker left CBN in November 1972 to join Paul Crouch at the Trinity Broadcasting System (TBS), where he started the Praise the Lord Show . Bakker resigned in 1973 as president of TBS. His interpretation of pentecostalism was described as the "gospel of prosperity" (Poloma 1989:219) because he claimed that material prosperity was a sign of God's love. Tammy Faye was an advocate for the right of Christian women to dress as they pleased without incurring disapproval from their congregations (Barnhart 1988:33). The Bakkers' personal lifestyle of extravagant spending, including multiple homes, expensive cars, and frequent home renovations, made them stereotypical targets in the secular popular media. The Bakkers' messages and appeals were ecumenical and interracial.

The Bakkers were not known for their involvement in politics and kept their political leanings to themselves. Jim Bakker did lend his name as a sponsor to the 1980 "One Nation Under God" rally in Washington, an ostensibly apolitical gathering that nonetheless had political pretensions (Hadden and Swann 1981:128).

Heritage USA, the Bakkers' "Christian Disneyland" in Fort Mill, South Carolina, included family vacation facilities, a Christian theme park, and the Heritage Grand Hotel. In March 1987, Bakker was accused of sexual misconduct with former church secretary Jessica Hahn and convicted in 1989 on federal wire and mail fraud charges in an attempt to finance Heritage USA, selling more time-shares in the hotel than were available to fund other building projects. He was subsequently defrocked by the Assemblies of God. His properties were taken in bankruptcy proceedings. While Jim was in prison, the Bakkers divorced and Tammy subsequently remarried. This scandal had major consequences for television ministries and televangelism. It led to a reduction in financial support for all televangelists and to major changes in televangelism as a whole.

At the present time, Pat Robertson has become the preeminent televangelist by transforming his early radio and television network into a major, publicly traded cable and satellite network known primarily for the Family Channel, which is owned by International Family Entertainment, Inc.

Televangelism Scandals of 1987-1988

The scandals involving Jim and Tammy Bakker, Marvin Gorman, and Jimmy Swaggart have roots in pentecostalism, its interpretations among practitioners, and the competition brought about by the growth of teleministries. The Bakkers and Marvin Gorman represent a more modern interpretation of charisma that accommodates materialism, while Swaggart represents the traditional charisma that shuns modernism and self-aggrandizement (at least for the laity).

According to Poloma (1989), the beginning of the fall of the televangelism stars in the Assemblies of God (all of the above-mentioned ministers belong to the denomination) came in 1986 when it was revealed by Swaggart that Marvin Gorman had been having extramarital affairs. Swaggart saw Gorman's small but growing ministry as a threat to his own and made Gorman's indiscretions public. This led to Gorman's downfall and subsequent defrocking by the Assemblies. Swaggart then turned his wrath on the Bakkers, whom he perceived to be his biggest rivals and who represented a threat in the form of "modernism." Whereas Swaggart was literal, the Bakkers were interpretive; whereas Swaggart adhered to the practices of speaking in tongues and the altar call, the Bakkers relied on personal testimonials in faith, particularly ones that spoke of financial triumphs in a talk-show format. Bakker was brought down when it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair with a church secretary, Jessica Hahn (although there were also financial mismanagement charges).

Swaggart, who initiated the complaints against Gorman, had the favor returned when Gorman hired a private detective to follow Swaggart and caught him on film leaving a cheap motel with a prostitute outside of New Orleans. Although the Assemblies of God voted to put him in therapy and relieve him of his ministry for one year, Swaggart refused this directive and demonstrated his staying power by continuing his ministry, claiming to retain his international audiences as well. Bakker spent five years in prison before being released in 1995. Although Gorman, Bakker, and Swaggart were defrocked by the Assemblies, Bakker alone remained without a pulpit by 1996.

The Regulatory Environment

While religious broadcasting has developed along with the radio and television industries, access for the evangelical Christians was limited for many years by the mainline denominations, who had a "gentlemen's agreement" with the networks, in effect, to select only mainline broadcasters. It was not until stations were able to sell their public service times (required for licensing renewals) that the evangelicals could purchase airtime (Frankl 1987). The National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) was founded in response to the evangelicals' limited access, and it is for this reason that the National Religious Broadcasters is critical for these broadcasters in protecting access to the airways. As stated in their membership guide,

NRB was founded to safeguard free and complete access to the broadcast media for religious broadcasting. NRB supports the rights to purchase airtime and to use sustaining time on radio and television by retaining a former Federal Communications Commissioner as their counsel and maintaining close relationships with the FCC through lobbying activities.

The NRB is an important professional organization, publishing Religious Broadcasting , a trade periodical that reflects the policy and philosophy of the NRB Board of Trustees. Annual and regional meetings, which educate members and showcase the latest technology and Christian support services, are important social and political events for these broadcasters. Membership in the NRB means that the broadcasters have agreed to standards of financial accountability (enforced after the 1987 scandals) that are essential to retaining legitimacy in the broadcasting industry.


In the 1980s, eight televangelists, according to Nielsen and Arbitron audience data, were watched by 85% of the total national religious television audience. These televangelists were Robert Schuller, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and James Robison. During this period, these televangelists competed with each other for larger shares of the religious market. Serious disagreement ensued between the televangelists and the mainstream religious broadcasters regarding the exact number of viewers and who these viewers were. A historic research collaboration, funded by both the evangelicals and the mainline federation, was commissioned to answer these questions. The results did not settle the argument. The evangelical broadcasters preferred the Gallup data, which claimed that "approximately one in three adults (60 million) had watched religious television in the past 30 days," while the mainline opponents argued for the more conservative Arbitron figures of "between 7.3 and 9.2 million persons." It should be noted that these figures are based on radically different research methods and therefore cannot be compared (see Frankl and Hadden 1987).

The scandals in spring 1987 ended this debate. As the funding for the major teleministries dropped substantially, they were all forced to scale back their organizations and the amount of airtime they purchased.

Religion and Politics

From the beginning, documenting and understanding the financial and political linkages between the growth of the religious right and the growth of the televangelists have involved debate. Not all observers of televangelism have understood that there is a link between televangelism and the development of the religious right. Hadden, Frankl, and Shupe, to name a few, believe that the televangelists were part of a new social movement, with mass media, especially television, used as a critical resource to mobilize financial and political support for conservative politics.

By far the implications of the rise of televangelism transcend concerns of interdenominational competition. The use of mass broadcasting, the altering of the religious message to popularize and sell religion, and the link between the religious right and the resurgence of neoconservatism, although initially discredited, now seem clear.

See also Christian Right, Pat Robertson

Razelle Frankl


J. Barnhart, Jim and Tammy (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1988)

D. G. Bromley and A. D. Shupe, New Christian Politics (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984)

R. Frankl, "Television and Popular Religion," in Bromley and Shupe, q.v . (1984): 129-138

R. Frankl, Televangelism (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987)

R. Frankl, "Transformation of Televangelism," in Culture, Media and the Religious Right , ed. J. Lesage and L. Kintz (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)

R. Frankl and J. K. Hadden, "A Critical Review of the Religion and Television Research Report," Review of Religious Research 29(1987): 111-124

J. K. Hadden and A. D. Shupe, Televangelism (New York: Holt, 1988)

D. Harrell, Jr., Oral Roberts (San Francisco: Harper, 1985)

D. Harrell, Jr., Pat Robertson (San Francisco: Harper, 1987)

R. Liebman and R. Wuthnow, The New Christian Right (New York: Aldine, 1983)

W. McLoughlin, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955)

J. Morris, The Preachers (New York: St. Martin's, 1973)

J. Peck, The Gods of Televangelism (Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton, 1993)

M. Poloma, The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989)

J. Schaffer and C. Todd, Christian Wives (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987)

R. Schuller, Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do ! (Nashville: Nelson 1983)

C. Shepard, Forgiven (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989)

B. Weisberger, They Gathered at the River (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958)

C. Wilcox, "Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in the New Christian Right," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25(1986):355-363.

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