John Oliver on Televangelists and My Brief Introduction

by Scott Creighton

I’m not a huge fan of John Oliver as many of you already know, but when he’s allowed to do something he cares about as opposed to the propaganda his show now routinely produces, he’s a scathing joy to watch. Such is the case with his video below on televangelism.

I only wish to add a little personal history of mine related to the topic.

I grew up in Lynchburg, Virgina a town where Jerry Falwell (the son of a bootlegger and father of a young man it was widely known used to hang out in city parks after hours looking for gay hook-ups) praised his way to turning little Thomas Road Baptist Church into the biggest megachurch the country had ever seen at the time. He was also the founder of the Moral Majority, a faith-based political party mechanism that brought us the likes of Reaganomics and George H. W. Bush.

Not only did I grow up in Lynchburg, but my childhood home was literally resting in the shadows of Thomas Road Baptist Church.

memory lane

handy visual aid

So I have a long history of exposure to Big Religion. Possibly helped shape my lifelong atheist tendencies.

Anyway, when I was in college I used to be up late watching cable TV and this guy would come on looking like he just drug himself away from the bar, selling “healing” and faith over the airwaves. He was a clown quite literally, sitting on a set that looked like a public access studio.

He would speak in ridiculous, made-up tongues, holding his hands up in the air telling people he could heal them through their TV screens. He used to take envelopes which he claimed were those of viewers who sent in “seed” money for various cures and place his hands purposefully on them, blessing the money they sent with his eyes closed in a fevered pitch like his life or his next drink depended on it.

Of course, you could tell the envelopes were empty as he had already spent the loot. And those prayer requests desperate, lonely people sent in?

In 1991, Diane Sawyer and ABC News conducted an investigation of Tilton (as well as two other Dallas-area televangelists, W.V. Grant and Larry Lea). The investigation, assisted by Trinity Foundation president Ole Anthony and broadcast on ABC’s Primetime Live on November 21, 1991, alleged that Tilton’s ministry threw away prayer requests without reading them, keeping only the accompanying money or valuables sent to the ministry by viewers, garnering his ministry an estimated US$80 million a year.[1]

… Tilton vehemently denied the allegations and took to the airwaves on November 22, 1991, on a special episode of Success-N-Life entitled “Primetime Lies” to air his side of the story. Tilton asserted that the prayer requests found in garbage bags shown on the Primetime Live investigation were stolen from the ministry and placed in the dumpster for a sensational camera shot, and that he prayed over every prayer request received, to the point that he “laid on top of those prayer requests so much that ‘the chemicals actually got into my bloodstream, and… I had two small strokes in my brain.”[14] Tilton remained defiant on claims regarding his use of donations to his ministry to fund various purchases, asking, “Ain’t I allowed to have nothing?” with regards to his ownership of multiple multimillion-dollar estates. Tilton also claimed that he needed plastic surgery to repair capillary damage to his lower eyelids from ink that seeped into his skin from the prayer requests.[15]

He was a sickening, desperate sounding, snake-oil selling POS and I used to marvel at his freakish sideshow of a church every night when I got home from work at some restaurant or bar.

His name was indeed Robert Tilton, I’ll never forget that. And he ended up being prominently featured in John Oliver’s segment on televangelism.

The video below reminded me of one night I was sitting there, winding down from work, watching this asshole make a fool of himself. That night he looked particularly hungover and the first time he held his hand up to the TV screen for “healing” I knew why. He still had a stamp from the previous night’s bar on his palm and he never noticed it during the show so it was there for all his flock to witness all night long.

Well, apparently he’s got a couple new suits and a more respectable haircut, but he’s still doing the same, snake-oil selling thing.

Just a little tidbit of info for you guys while you watch John decimate the lecherous evangelist. Food for thought as they say.

7 Responses

  1. One summer afternoon, I heard a commotion coming from my front yard…. I went to my front door and looked out: …there, penned against the tall hedges were my two sons, ages about 10 and 8, Two tall rough looking teenagers were standing over my sons…. glaring at them and screaming that my sons were going to hell if they didn’t go to Jerry Farwell’s church.
    Mad… was I mad… I get mad thinking about it….. I rushed out in to the yard and told those hateful kids to get out of my yard and never come back…. … they went rather quickly… guess the expression on my face was a little scary.
    That’s how some of Jerry’s kids recruited children for the church… not sure if Jerry approved the method or not.

    • I went to a youth thing they used to do one Sunday because the Goode brothers invited me. It was right after my brother had left to go live in Hawaii. They had this gym outfitted with steel folding chairs and a bunch of local youths were brought in by their “sponsors” and seated. The younger brother, my friend, changed seats with me for some reason and I ended up between the two of them. At some point the speaker/preacher/youth leader/whatever told us all to look under our chairs for the little piece of red tape to see who won a prize. Mine had it. I “won” a whole box of Three Musketeer bars. Clearly the church member brothers knew the score when we sat down and Bob (I think that is right) checked his seat and saw the tape and made sure a visiting kid (me) “won”. Because that, I’m sure, is what they are told to do.

      The next day, Monday, I took the box to school (Dunbar Middle) and gave away the candy. Never went back to Thomas Road Baptist Church. The thought of someone sitting around figuring out they would bribe new kids to the congregation with a box of candy bars every week just creeped me the fuck out even back then. I’m not sure what bothered me more. the fact that they would use candy to entice children or that they were so cheap, they would only offer it to one?

    • My mom sent me and my brother, probably at around the same ages your boys were, to the Salvation Army’s Sunday Service, down on Brewery Gulch. It was a small, hard-to-find, hole-in-the-wall place.

      There we sat, the two of us and a few winos, all of us wondering what the hell …

      I don’t remember anything about the services, or how long we went. No more than a few weeks, at most. I still remember Major Knuth, though—a dedicated woman, doing her best.

      I believe she’s up there right now, maybe right next to my mom, smiling down on what’s left of us, enjoying her reward

  2. Classic sketch from 1980’s Byner Bizarre says it all about televangelists:


  3. Or, this one which televangelist has a double diploma, one as Pet Whisperer!:


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