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Tom Lappin charts the rise and fall ofTV

salvation, as British

churches prepare for a

Decade of Evangelism.

You can‘t really picture it can you? Harry Secombe on High way strolls down Coupar Angus High Street, and breaks offin mid-verse of There Is A G reen Hill FarA way to announce that unless viewers send in five million quid before next Sunday‘s episode (Arbroath). God will kill him.

But it happened in the States. Four years ago, Methodist preacher Oral Roberts told much the same message to his 1.1 million viewers and raised the cash inside a week (at which point a rather surprised Roberts announced that God had upped the ransom and to keep signin‘ the cheques, folks). Roberts was just the latest and most blatant example of the American TV evangelist

phenomenon on US cable television, where there was a distinct blur between savin‘ souls and buyin’ a Rolls.

At their height in the mid 805, the TV evangelists led by Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson,

. Jerry Falwell. and Jim and Tammy

Bakker were reaching audiences of more than 60 million people across the country with their blend of fundamentalist Bible stories, brimstone and hellfire sermons, plenty ofgood old country and western and gospel singing, and above all the regular promises of salvation , although it’s gonna cost you. A willing audience lapped it up, especially in the close-knit rural communities ofthe Bible Belt. It


might seem strange for such an advanced Western democracy. but religious commitment in the US is at about the same per capita level as in Bangladesh; and a healthy percentage of these people were contributing at least 10 per cent of their income to the 'IV evangelists. Selling salvation has been frowned upon since Martin Luther nailed up his 95 suggestions on the church door at Wittenburg in 1517, but if Luther had been around in the 805. he‘d have run out of nails pretty rapidly as ' the cable channel preachers made hay while the sun shone or at least before the Internal Revenue Service took too close an interest. The money began to run dry when Roberts was damaged by satirical

The List ll - 24January 199163