Billy James Hargis (August 3, 1925 – November 27, 2004) was an American Christian evangelist. At the height of his popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, his Christian Crusade ministry was broadcast on more than 500 radio stations and 250 television stations. He promoted an anti-Communist, segregationist message as well as evangelizing, and founded a radio station, monthly newspaper, and a college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to support his ministries. In 1974, several students at his American Christian College accused Hargis of sexual misconduct; however, the Tulsa district attorney found no evidence or wrongdoing. Hargis went into partial retirement, and the college closed in 1977. He continued to publish his newspaper and write books.
Hargis was adopted by a railroad employee, Billy James Hargis, Sr., and his wife. By the time the boy was ten, his adoptive mother was in poor health and close to death. The boy had been baptized, and had few pleasures other than the family's daily Bible readings because his family was too poor during the Great Depression to own a radio. When his mother was hospitalized, Hargis promised to devote himself to God if she were spared from death. She recovered and, at age 17, Hargis was ordained in the Disciples of Christ denomination, even before his completing Bible college. After a few years, he left his pastorate for a ministry of radio preaching.
In 1943, Hargis entered Ozark Bible College in Bentonville, Arkansas, and studied there for one year. By 1947, when he became concerned about Communism, he was pastor of the First Christian Church in Sapulpa, a city west of Tulsa. He later received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Pikes Peak Bible Seminary in 1957 and a theology degree from Burton College and Seminary in Colorado in 1958.
In 1950, he established an organization called the Christian Crusade. In the mid-1950s, Hargis was closely associated with the evangelist Carl McIntire and in the early 1960s Hargis had developed a close relationship with the resigned United States Army Major General Edwin Walker, but he increasingly went his own way in preaching anti-Communism. His targets included government and popular singers. In 1957, the Disciples of Christ denomination withdrew his ordination because he was attacking other churches in his anti-Communist crusade, but by then Hargis' radio program was bringing in $1 million annually and he had established a degree of both financial and theological independence. In 1960, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated Hargis, suspecting him of being linked to recent bombing attacks on Little Rock public schools and of planning to bomb Philander Smith College. No evidence was found and no charges were filed. On May 31, 1961, Bob Jones University honored Hargis with an honorary Doctor of Laws.
In 1966, Dr. Hargis founded a congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, called the Church of the Christian Crusade. This was part of a complex of organizations which he founded in Tulsa, including the American Christian College in 1971, and the Christian Crusade monthly newspaper.
Marriage and family
Hargis married Betty Jane Secrest in 1952. They had three daughters and a son, Billy James Hargis, II, who died on September 9, 2013. His grandson, Billy James Hargis III, was born on May 10, 1989 and currently resides in Houston, TX.
Hargis' motto was "All I want to do is preach Jesus and save America." Drawing on premillennialist theology, Hargis believed national and world events were part of a cosmic struggle, where the ultimate actors were Christ and Satan. While communism represented the latter, the United States represented the former. He used this as justification for why the United States should return to what he believed were its founding Christian ideals.
Positions and activities
Hargis preached on cultural issues: against sex education and Communism, and for the return of prayer and Bible reading to public schools, long before the rise of the late 20th century Religious Right. His belief in conspiracy theories led to a belief that the government, the media, and pop culture figures were promoting "communism" in the late 1960s. (His subordinate, Rev. David Noebel, wrote the short work, "Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles" (1965), which he expanded into "Rhythm, Riots and Revolution" the following year. Both pamphlets were published by the Christian Crusade.) Hargis claimed to have written a speech for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, notable for his anti-Communist crusade.
Hargis was a member of the John Birch Society and strongly favored segregation, arguing that desegregation violated the Eighth Commandment by allowing the government to steal from one's property. He also accused Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of being Communist-educated, and published Dr. James D. Bales' anti-King book, The Martin Luther King Story. Like many other Americans on the hard right, he said that the United States should get out of the United Nations and get the United Nations out of the U.S. He was also opposed to the crusades of rival evangelicalist Billy Graham and endorsed George Wallace in the 1968 Presidential election in part due to Republican nominee Richard Nixon's relationship with Graham. Along with his friend Carl McIntire, who was staunchly anti-Catholic, Hargis was one of the most influential people in a movement later known as the "Old Christian Right." However, both Hargis and McIntire would soon lose influence by failing to capitalize on the fact that most Catholics in America were staunchly anti-communist.
Hargis addressed audiences with his revival style. He was the author of at least 100 books, including The Far Left, and Why I Fight for a Christian America. In addition, his organization published a pamphlet on sex education, entitled "Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?", by Gordon V. Drake, the Christian Crusade's educational director.
In 1964, Hargis supported Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in that year's presidential race. Hargis also supported the late conservative Democratic Louisiana State Senator Harold Montgomery of Doyline, whom he often mentioned on his programs. However, Goldwater would suffer a significant defeat in the election and the Old Christian Right soon began an irreversible downward spiral. A movement known as the New Christian Right, which sought to capitalize on the mistakes of the Old Christian Right by embracing the Catholic Church, would eventually form in the late 1970s following the loss of the Vietnam War, as many feared this loss would help revive the Counterculture of the 1960s.
Founding of institutions
Hargis founded the Christian Crusade in 1950, an interdenominational movement. In 1964 the IRS alleged that Hargis' involvement in political matters violated the terms of the Internal Revenue Code for religious institutions and withdrew the tax-exempt status of the Christian Crusade. At the time, Hargis had reported that the average contribution to his movement was $4, from a constituency of 250,000 donors, and it was receiving $1 million annually. He was the publisher of the monthly Christian Crusade Newspaper, with a circulation of 55,000, and Weekly Crusade.
He founded the David Livingstone Missionary Foundation, which operated hospitals, orphanages, leprosy villages, medical vans, and mission services in South Korea, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, and Africa. The direct-mail entrepreneur Richard Viguerie began his career working for Hargis.
Hargis founded American Christian College in Tulsa during 1971, to teach Christian principles and provide an alternative to perceived left-wing and counterculture influences. When asked what was taught there, Hargis said, "anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-welfare state, anti-Russia, anti-China, a literal interpretation of the Bible, and states' rights."
Concerned with the liberalization of abortion laws following the United States Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, Hargis launched Americans Against Abortion in 1973 with David Noebel as its leader. Noebel went on to author his book Slaughter of the Innocents that was published by the American Christian College within months of the Roe v. Wade decision, and wrote many provocative articles for fundamentalist publications on the abortion issue.
He also started a television show Billy James Hargis and his All-American Kids. It was sold to independent television stations. Students from the college performed in the musical group.
In 1974, when Hargis was nearly fifty, he was forced to resign as president of American Christian College because of allegations that he had seduced college students. Two of his students claimed that they had had sex with Hargis — one was female, one was male. Other students corroborated the story. Hargis denied the sexual allegations until his death, both publicly and in his autobiography, My Great Mistake (1985). The account was reported by Time in 1976, along with other alleged incidents at Hargis' farm in the Ozarks, and while on tour with his All American Kids musical group. The Tulsa district attorney investigated but never brought charges against Hargis. The local newspapers, the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune, declined to publish the accusations.
When Hargis stepped down as president of American Christian College, he was succeeded by former vice-president David Noebel. In February 1975, Hargis tried to regain control of the college, but was rejected by its board. By September he returned to his other ministries. They were said to welcome him after he repented. As Jess Pedigo, president of the David Livingstone Society said, "There was a danger of bankruptcy." Hargis did not give the deed to the property to the college for months after leaving, which prevented it from gaining regional accreditation. In addition, he withheld the fundraising lists, which previously all the organizations had shared. With declining enrollment after the scandal became public, the college closed in 1977.
In 1985 Hargis told a Tulsa reporter, "I was guilty of sin, but not the sin I was accused of." He eventually retreated to his farm in Neosho, Missouri, where he continued to work, issuing daily and weekly radio broadcasts. He continued to publish the monthly newspaper, The Christian Crusade Newspaper, and wrote numerous books.
In his final years, he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and died in 2004 at the age of seventy-nine in Tulsa.
His son, Billy James Hargis, II, continued his ministry until his own death. Hargis' organization and college also started the radio station KBJH (FM 98.5) in Tulsa in the early 1970s. After the college's closing and the demise of his ministry, the station was sold to Epperson Broadcasting.
Hargis and his church owned and operated a small AM radio station in Port Neches, Texas from 1980 up until the early 1990s. KDLF radio (so named after the David Livingston Foundation) played Southern Gospel Music and religious programming until it was sold around 1993. In the latter days of Hargis' ownership, the radio station was LMAed to others, but required to play Hargis' hour-long program daily.
His papers, described as "a goldmine for students of American politics," are stored at the special collections department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.