November 29, 2004
Billy James Hargis, 79, Pastor and Anticommunist Crusader, Dies
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
The Rev. Billy James Hargis, a fiery evangelist and anticommunist preacher who founded the Christian Crusade and reached millions in an international ministry that used radio, television, books, pamphlets and personal appearances, died on Saturday at a nursing home in Tulsa, Okla. He was 79.
Mr. Hargis, who had Alzheimer's disease, died at St. Simeon's Episcopal Home, where he had lived since last July, said his daughter, Becky Jean Frank. No cause of death was listed, Ms. Frank said.
At the height of his popularity in the 1960's and 1970's, Mr. Hargis - a shouting, arm-waving, 270-pound elemental force whom Oklahomans called a "bawl and jump" preacher - broadcast sermons daily or weekly on 500 radio stations and 250 television stations, mainly in the South, and in other countries. He traveled almost constantly to deliver his Christian and anticommunist messages, wrote 100 books and thousands of articles and pamphlets, and published a monthly newspaper.
Mr. Hargis, who began preaching as a teenager and later abandoned life as a pastor to engage in what became a lifelong crusade against communism, first gained international prominence in 1953, when he went to West Germany and sent aloft thousands of balloons bearing Biblical passages in hopes of reaching the people of Eastern Europe.
Throughout the 1950's and 1960's, he organized and spoke at rallies across America, allying himself with the Rev. Carl McIntire, retired Gen. Edwin A. Walker and other anticommunist crusaders. In 1966, he established the David Livingston Missionary Foundation, which ran medical clinics and orphanages in Asia and Africa, and in 1970 he founded and became president of the American Christian Crusade College in Tulsa.
Mr. Hargis appeared to be on his way to rivaling the Rev. Billy Graham and other major evangelists of his time. But his ministry and his following began to diminish after a series of reverses, including a long fight with the Internal Revenue Service that led in 1964 to the cancellation of tax-exempt status for his $1 million-a-year anticommunist Christian Crusade, for "political activities."
Another case produced a landmark court decision and sharply cut Mr. Hargis's broadcasting empire. He was accused by Fred J. Cook, a journalist, of unfairly maligning him in a radio broadcast. Mr. Cook sought free air time to reply under the Federal Communications Commission's fairness doctrine. A radio station in Red Lion, Pa., sued, saying its First Amendment rights would be violated. But the Supreme Court in 1969 upheld the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine, and many stations thereafter were less inclined to broadcast controversial programs.
In 1974, after Mr. Hargis was accused of having sexual relations with students of both sexes, he resigned as president of the college he had founded. He denied the accusations at the time and in a 1986 autobiography, "My Great Mistake," which was published by the Christian Crusade.
Billy James Hargis was born on Aug. 3, 1925, in Texarkana, Tex., and was adopted by Jimmie Earsel Hargis and Laura Lucille Hargis. He graduated from Texarkana High School and attended the Ozark Bible College in Bentonville, Ark., but dropped out to become a preacher. At 18, he was ordained a minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination, and became a pastor at several churches in Oklahoma and Missouri.
But in the early 1950's, he gave that up to become a radio preacher, and soon developed a passion for anticommunism that blended easily with his Christian sermons. As his charges of harboring communists widened to include government, business, labor, entertainment, cultural and charitable institutions and religious organizations, the Disciples of Christ dropped him as an accredited minister in 1957. By then, however, his crusade had grown into print and television media and was thriving.
While his audience later faded, his message essentially remained unchanged. He continued to serve as the director of the Christian Crusade Ministries until last summer, when his son, Billy James Hargis II, took over.
Besides his son, a Houston resident, and his daughter, Becky, of Tulsa, Mr. Hargis is survived by his wife, Betty Jane, whom he married in 1951; two daughters, Bonnie Jane Choisnard and Brenda Jo Epperley, both of Tulsa; 11 grandchildren; and 4 great-grandchildren.
Genealogy is the great unknown of the JFK assassination.....