Billy James Hargis (1925–2004)
Billy James Hargis was a fundamentalist Christian minister who asserted that large segments of the American population were communists or had been infiltrated by communists. He may have been involved with the 1959 Labor Day bombings in Little Rock (Pulaski County), although this was never proven in a court of law. He was one of the first evangelicals to focus on abortion as an issue for Protestants. Scandal marked his later life after he coerced students at American Christian College, which he had founded, into sexual acts.
Born on August 3, 1925, in Texarkana (Miller County), Hargis was adopted by Jimmie Earsel Hargis, a railroad worker, and Laura Lucille Hargis. The family had little money, especially during the Great Depression. When his adopted mother became ill, he promised he would devote his life to Christ if her life were spared; she survived.
The family was fundamentalist Christian, and Hargis never deviated from that. He was ordained in the Disciples of Christ at the age of seventeen. He then went to Ozark Bible College in Bentonville (Benton County). After he graduated, he led a parish outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In 1947, Hargis came to the belief that communism was overtaking America. He considered the New Deal, organized labor, the Democratic Party, and even large sections of the Republican Party to be communists. His devotion to Christ and his hatred of communism had no tensions; for Hargis, Christ hated communists, too.
In 1950, Hargis established the Christian Crusade to push his combination of evangelicalism and far-right politics. For Hargis, the United States represented all that was good in the world, being literally God’s work incarnate. He inserted his beliefs into the Cold War. In 1953, Hargis went to the border between West Germany and East Germany, tied thousands of Bible verses to balloons, and sent them across the border in an effort to save the “heathens” from communism.
Hargis married Betty Jane Secrest in 1951, and they had three daughters and a son.
Hargis embarked on national tours to denounce the civil rights movement as a communist and Satanic plot, repeatedly saying that Martin Luther King Jr. was on the side of Satan. He claimed that desegregation violated the Eighth Amendment by being an unlawful taking of private property. In 1957, the Disciples of Christ revoked his ordination due to his extremism.
By 1960, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated Hargis for involvement in a coordinated set of explosions in Little Rock over integration the previous year, as well as plans to bomb Philander Smith College, one of two historically Black colleges in Little Rock. He was not charged in the crime due to a lack of evidence, but the FBI had tracked him meeting with bombing suspects at a Memphis, Tennessee, restaurant.
Thus, Bob Jones University, the far-right evangelical institution that supported segregation, granted Hargis an honorary doctorate in 1961.
By the late 1960s, Hargis was a full-fledged conspiracy theorist. He believed that the rise of pop culture, especially rock and roll, was part of a government plot to destroy American values. His underling, a preacher named David Noebel, wrote a 1965 essay titled, “Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles,” that soon became a full book.
Hargis felt that evangelist Billy Graham was a semi-communist fellow traveler of Satan because he was friends with Richard Nixon, who was too far to the political left for Hargis. Hargis was a fan of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, in part because they both agreed that the United States should leave the United Nations. He also saw sex education in schools as Satan incarnate and authored a book on why it should be banned from schools.
Yet Hargis had powerful supporters. He claimed that much of his money came from Texas oil tycoons, probably a true statement given the history of that industry and its leaders. In 1963, the Young Republicans of Los Angeles, California, named Hargis “the greatest living American.”
The IRS began investigating Hargis for using the Christian Crusade as a direct political mailing campaign. Richard Viguerie, who pioneered the use of the right-wing direct campaign mailer, advised Hargis on how to avoid the IRS and become a more effective fundraiser. This helped make both Hargis and Viguerie some of the most powerful people in the rise of the far right and the Republican Party. Hargis often visited Little Rock to hold a Sunday service at the Marion Hotel, at which he would sell merchandise and collect money from attendees.
In 1971, Hargis founded American Christian College in Tulsa. He said it would teach “anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-welfare state, anti-Russia, anti-China, a literal interpretation of the Bible, and states’ rights.” His anti-abortion activism presaged the uniting of the evangelical and Catholic movements by 1980. Like other right-wing preachers, he had his own television show, Billy James Hargis and His All-American Kids. The show featured a musical group from the college, which also recorded albums.
In 1974, Hargis was accused of forcing both male and female students to have sex with him. This ended his career, and his college closed in 1977 when he refused to hand over the reins to others. He denied the accusations for the rest of his life, but many students who had suffered at his hands corroborated the evidence. He retired to his farm and ran what was left of his ministry from there.
Hargis died on November 27, 2004, of Alzheimer’s. He is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa.
For additional information:
Billy James Hargis Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://uark.as.atlas-sys.com/repositories/2/resources/1073 (accessed July 27, 2023).
Chapman, Lee Roy. “The Strange Love of Billy James Hargis.” This Land, November 2, 2012. https://thislandpress.com/2012/11/02/the-strange-love-of-dr-billy-james-hargis/ (accessed July 27, 2023).
Dumas, Ernie. “Hargis Sees Reds Abounding, Lauds Faubus, Asks for Cash.” Arkansas Gazette, June 12, 1961, p. 2A.
Issenberg, Sasha. “The Wild Road Trip that Launched the Populist Conservative Movement.” Smithsonian, September 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/wild-road-trip-rallied-conservatives-180970033/ (accessed July 27, 2023).
Kazan, Chris. “Rightist Group to Establish University to Train Youth.” Arkansas Gazette, May 28, 1962, p. 3A.
McFadden, Robert D. “Billy James Hargis, 79, Pastor and Anticommunist Crusader, Dies.” New York Times, November 29, 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/29/obituaries/billy-james-hargis-79-pastor-and-anticommunist-crusader-dies.html (accessed July 27, 2023).
Williams, Daniel K. God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
University of Rhode Island
Billy James Hargis often came to Little Rock and did a Sunday afternoon service at the Marion Hotel, where he would preach and hawk books and phonograph records of his musicians and his sermons and collect money from just about every person there. I covered one of them one Sunday as a reporter for the Gazette in the 1960s and wrote a little bit about his trickery in getting people to give him cash or checks at the offering.
The trickery was this: When Hargis got ready for the offering, he would tell everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes. While someone sang or played some record, he would talk. “Every head bowed! Every eye closed! God is listening. Who will give a thousand dollars today, or pledge a thousand dollars to God’s mission?” As the music played on, he would say, “God bless you back there on the back row. You can put your hand down. Who else? Over there on my right, God bless you. Thank you.” And he would go on and on, and never a hand would be raised. Then it would be $750, then $500, and smaller and smaller down to $25. Until he got to $100, there would not have been a single hand raised. By then, people began to think, everybody here but me or my husband has given. And I’d see a woman grab her husband’s arm and thrust it into the air. And then as people left, they had to go along a line with his records, books, and pamphlets, with his aides encouraging people to buy them. You couldn’t get out of the room without passing through the shuttle. It was a spectacular scam. I thought, this is the crookedest guy I have ever known.
The next time he came to town after I wrote about him in the paper, the notice to the preachers in advance said there would be no press.
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