Book Review

Varieties of Religious Experience


American Voudou: Journey Into a Hidden World

Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist

Rod Davis and Ann Rowe Seaman, both former Austin residents, each spent a decade researching their new books by traveling some of the back-est of back roads in the American South. And by going to church. But they likely would never have crossed paths on their journeys into the dark eddies of religious practice. Davis’ object of study is voudou: the religion whose very survival depends on its ability to dissemble and dissolve into shadow. Seaman’s, on the other hand, is televangelism, and one of its most phototropic leaders, Jimmy Swaggart. Voudou is secretive and cultish, bodily, even orgiastic; it welcomes darkness, makes deals, and negotiates truces with inevitable forces of evil. It comes from the old world but has deep roots in the new. And perhaps most important, it belongs to black people. Southern evangelical protestantism is white. It seeks the bright lights of the media, implores members to resist the urges of the body in favor of the rigors of the spirit. It believes that triumph over evil is possible. When you get right down to it, though, both religions are in the business of reckoning good with evil, and squaring the flesh with the spirit.

Davis’s American Voudou was a long time in the making. As he suggests in the preface, the gods took their time, but finally looked favorably upon the book’s publication. Having been orphaned by his original publisher after a merger, Davis has found a fortuitous home in University of North Texas Press, as the academic imprint both confers credibility and allows him to include extensive photographs, a glossary of voudou terms, and two appendices.

Davis defines voudou as the broad category of “any of the New World theologies emanating from the Yoruba religion and kingdoms” in Africa. He explains that he prefers the creole spelling to the more common “voodoo” because it’s less freighted with centuries of “racial falsities and perversions.” Unlike Haitian or Santería varieties, which are practiced fairly openly in some parts of the country, true American voudou has been driven underground by “centuries of its repression.” Despite concerted and protracted efforts, however, southern whites failed to exterminate the religion. Voudou proved both elusive and adaptable, taking on “as many guises as necessary to survive.” Its protean persistence proves to be the author’s greatest obstacle, and he recognizes that the search for the hidden world of voudou will take him down many paths: “hoodoo, root medicine, spiritual healing, ju-ju, black magic, and dozens of other euphemisms and forms.”

Consequently, Davis’ inquiry takes the shape of a journey with few fixed destinations. Perhaps taking a cue from his predecessors Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Deren, he adopts an ethnographic approach, and places his own perceptions at the center of his observations. He abandons the pretense of “objective” reporting and instead acts as guide, inviting readers to share his curiosity, skepticism, wonder, and fear.

Both informed and open-minded, scared enough to be credible and brave enough to be interesting, Davis is an ideal narrator. He’s at his best in passages such as this one:

I drove eastward across Louisiana toward the Mississippi border, passing deep green maize fields and thick stands of hardwoods. It was a rare dozen miles that I didn’t come across a church: small or grand, brick or wood – or aluminum siding – thrown up for Baptists or Methodists, Catholics or Pentecostals, blacks or whites. It was Sunday afternoon and each church was a godly beehive not only to services, but to wedding parties, prayer meetings, picnics and Bible study.

He brings the same convincingly sympathetic and keen eye to his visits with Cuban Santería priests in Miami, African separatists in New York City, and assorted root doctors, healers, and seers he meets along the back roads of the South.

Because it’s more than a travel narrative, Davis’ subject also demands a certain amount of exposition, and he delivers with confidence and economy. Citing primary as well as theoretical sources, he brings the scholarly work on American voudou to bear on his own observations. He clearly explains the process of syncretization, in which voudou gods become fused with Christian saints, thus providing voudou with safe camouflage and allowing both kinds of deities to preserve their own identities. Less convincing are his attempts to articulate a connection between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the practice of forbidden voudou:

Were not preachers the leaders of virtually every struggle for black liberation in American history? Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, even Malcolm X – all based their power on religious vision. Perhaps the religions they invoked were no longer called voudou, but their role among the people was the same: to bind society, to provide a forum for the spirit, to produce leaders, to lead in struggle if necessary.

Setting aside this political speculation, American Voudou is a marvelous road trip and a fascinating and painstaking piece of research. Davis, with persistence, preparation, and an amazing ability to inspire trust and confidence, takes us places few of us will ever go, and shows us a shadowy and fiercely defiant subculture whose rituals and beliefs–and sacrifices–outlasted all the considerable ammunition white Southerners could throw at them under the rule of slavery and beyond. Scrupulously avoiding sensationalism and regarding voudou with the respect and historical gravity it deserves, Davis earns the spectacular drama achieved later in the book when he finally “makes ebo,” or animal sacrifice, and touches his tongue to the severed neck muscle of a freshly killed rooster. Feeling “as though [he] had been baptized,” Davis describes the conclusion of the ceremony:

Orite picked up the rooster bodies and told me to pluck feathers from each, then scatter the tufts over the altar for each of the three orisha. When I finished, she wiped my head, hands and feet with feathers. I finally swallowed the blood that had been on my tongue. Then I knelt and repeated a Yoruba chant she recited for me.

You won’t get blood sacrifice in Ann Rowe Seaman’s Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist, but you do get a hooker, a famous preacher, and a tacky motel. Swaggart also takes us to the remote eddies off the mainstream of Southern religion, but it’s as white as voudou is black, as fond of the spotlight as voudou is suspicious. According to the accompanying press materials, Seaman spent ten years researching and writing this first biography of fallen televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. What she gains in thoroughness, however, she may lose in timeliness. Many readers will have trouble remembering that it was Swaggart, not any number of holy men who took big public falls in the Eighties, who was caught with the hooker in the motor court out on Airline Highway, the road from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Some may simply wonder why they should care. But by framing her story of the rise and fall of the televangelist with scenes in the parking lot of the seamy motel on the highway, Seaman makes it clear that she’s interested in exploring the reasons behind Swaggart’s ambitions and weaknesses, and not just the sordid details.

With exhaustive documentation from published sources and interviews with a surprising number of remarkably candid family members, Seaman searches for explanations. The guiding question for her seems to be: How could a man who had accumulated so much wealth and power as a religious figure risk it all for tawdry sex with a prostitute? Why? What desperate needs was he expressing when he asked her to “put on a dress with no underwear and ride around” town with him? For Seaman, ultimately the answer has to do with a combination of some unspecified childhood sexual trauma and the flesh-mortifying orthodoxy of pentecostalism.

Jimmy Swaggart, son of Minnie and Sun, grew up in and around Ferriday, Louisiana, playing with his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, whose own notorious antics dwarf Jimmy’s in the grand scheme of things. But Jerry Lee was a rock’n’roll piano player, not a minister, so misbehaving was expected of him. Jimmy, on the other hand, had the power of the holy spirit in him (so they thought) and was expected to behave accordingly. In 1944, when he was nine years old, little Jimmy had an episode of speaking in tongues – some speculated that it was German and Japanese – and made several prophecies so specific that, according to Seaman, even the skeptics present were convinced. He predicted the floods that would nearly wash away Ferriday, and then predicted a massive bomb. Around the time that Jimmy’s prophecy appeared to come true in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Jimmy began to feel the first stirrings of what he came to call “demon oppression,” a “secret interest in the forbidden.” Combine the boy’s gift for speaking the holy spirit with a stern and unaffectionate father, a saintly if distant mother, and a deeply religious grandmother who doted on him: Jimmy’s path to the pulpit – and to the prostitute – was determined early in his life.

Beginning as an itinerant revival preacher, young Swaggart knew how to use music (he was nearly as good a piano player as his cousin Jerry Lee) and rhetorical flair to attract and sway listeners. But the life of the traveling preacher was hard, and Jimmy, his wife Frances (whom he had married when they were both teenagers), and their small son Donnie “had no money, no guarantees of anything beyond a few days’ subsistence.” At the end of each day, they “took whatever accommodations were available – cold water, beds with springs sticking out.” Motivated as much by a determination to create a more rooted life for his son as by ambition and envy for his cousin’s huge success and lavish lifestyle, Jimmy, who had used radio effectively in the past, turned his attention to the new media of television as a means to deliver God’s message to the world. And to make more money. Swaggart already had the top-rated daily gospel radio show in the world:

But it was television that would make his name. By 1975, his Jimmy Swaggart telecast was on 200 television stations with 2,000 cable outlets. Record and tape sales were topping a million each year. The $500-a-day budget that had caused him such anguish in 1969 had ballooned to $35,000. The ministry was receiving more mail than any other entity in Louisiana.

In Seaman’s account, Swaggart’s ascent to the top of the televangelist heap is the story of genuine pastoral zeal, as well as considerable guile and enormous amounts of sheer work. Jimmy and Frances built their successful ministry with ambition, drive, and vision, but they didn’t succeed without the kind of ruthless tactics more associated with for-profit ventures. Competing for airtime and the checkbook loyalty of millions of followers, the Swaggarts often undermined and even launched full scale attacks on other missions. Critical of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s gaudy personal styles and their television show’s pandering to the world of entertainment, the Swaggarts kept a file on them, and took every opportunity to speak ill of them, according to Seaman. But it was a far less visible figure in the evangelical world, New Orleans preacher Marvin Gorman, whose history with Swaggart was instrumental in his eventual defrocking.

Gorman, who was a friend of Jim Bakker, had been a rising star in the televangelist world until 1986, when he was summoned by the Assemblies of God hierarchy to answer charges of adultery. Though he confessed to a moment of weakness with a distraught female parishioner and denied having intercourse, Gorman received extremely harsh treatment and suffered catastrophic professional and financial losses. He didn’t forget that Jimmy Swaggart had been instrumental both in making sure the church leaders heard about his lapse, and in handing down the punishment. A little over a year later, in the fall of 1987, it was Gorman who set up the camera in the room across the courtyard from the one where Jimmy was meeting Debra Murphree. Seaman reports that Gorman was willing to make a deal with Swaggart (essentially blackmailing him) but ultimately Swaggart was too arrogant, spurred on by his steely wife Frances, to keep his end of the deal. Gorman took his information to the church brethren, thereby assuring Swaggart’s defrocking and financial collapse.

Seaman’s theory is that Jimmy Swaggart is at least partly a victim, that his weakness for prostitutes is the inevitable result of a loveless childhood, the sexually repressive doctrines of the church, and a domineering wife. I suspect many readers will, like me, find this thesis less than convincing, for a couple of reasons. First, even if we were inclined to accept a “victim” excuse, there is insufficient evidence. Why does some unspecified childhood interest in pornography (which could hardly be unusual), called “demon oppression,” account for his behavior with a prostitute decades later? And second, it’s inconsistent with Seaman’s overall characterization of Swaggart as autocratic, charismatic, and relentlessly ambitious. His acts with Murphree seem to be simply about power, domination, and sexual acting-out – all pretty ordinary forms of human misbehavior.

Together, Ann Seaman’s Swaggart and Rod Davis’s American Voudou offer a rare view of two sets of religious practices and beliefs that at first glance couldn’t be more different, but which, paradoxically, also seem to grow from some common – and uniquely Southern – roots. Swaggart’s “demon obsession” would have made perfect sense to the priests and priestesses in the world Davis conjures. Perhaps if the Reverend Swaggart had simply made ebo more often, he never would have found himself in a pitiful Baton Rouge motel room, asking Debra Murphree to dance naked for him.

Austin writer Elisabeth H. Piedmont-Marton last appeared in these pages with an essay on Rachel P. Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm.