Morjoe Gortner

 

The story of Marjoe Gortner is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of Pentecostal showmanship interlaced with hypocrisy, greed, and evangelistic gimmicks.  In 1972, the one-time child evangelist took to the revival circuit to produce a self-titled exposé on the “big business” of religion, duping church after church, posing as a prodigal son and restored revivalist.  The scenes in the film alternate between Gortner sweating out sermons in crusades and tent meetings and off-stage interviews where he parodies Pentecostals and gleefully caricatures their widespread gullibility.  The documentary is at once disturbing and didactic and reminds us of the ever-growing need for spiritual discernment and integrity.

Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner was born in 1944 to Vernon and Marjorie Gortner.  “Marjoe” is an amalgamation of Mary and Joseph and served as an apt sobriquet for the precocious boy.  Marjoe’s paternal grandfather, J. Narver Gortner, left Methodism in 1914 to join the Pentecostal ranks.  In 1919, Gortner joined the Assemblies of God and became an influential pastor, Bible teacher, and president of Glad Tidings Bible Institute in California (Warner 13).  Continuing the preaching legacy, Marjoe’s parents recognized his extraordinary talents at a young age.  Marjoe purportedly received the baptism of the Holy Ghost at the age of three and was ordained to preach at the age of four by Old Time Faith, Incorporated (Smith).

As an adult, Marjoe admitted that his messages were less about revelation than recitation.  His “flamboyant” mother was his constant coach, teaching Marjoe to deliver sermons trimmed with popular pulpit antics, including wild gesticulations and trilled R’s.  Marge Gortner also worked out a complex signal system using conventional worship phrases such as “Thank you, Jesus” or “Hallelujah!” to direct Marjoe’s pace and performance from her front-row seat at each revival meeting.  Marge was a hard taskmaster and sometimes placed a pillow over Marjoe’s face or ran his head under a cold faucet if he refused to cooperate in the constant memorization regimen.  According to Marjoe’s testimony, his parents capitalized on his curly-headed cuteness.  On the itinerant trail, his father would take him directly to the newspaper audience to create publicity around his meetings. Marjoe appeared in the January 17, 1949 issue of Life for performing a wedding ceremony by rote in Long Beach, California (“Marjoe the Minister” 40).  With Marge as drillmaster and Vernon as publicist, Marjoe’s parents raised a skilled performer adept at manipulating congregations and crowds.  Gortner says:

I guess I was sort of precocious, and I had an ego . . . I can’t really think of a time when I ever believed in God or ever thought it was a miracle of God that Ipreached.  I don’t think even with all the people gathering around me, you know, thousands of people saying, “This has to be a miracle, surely,” you know, “God has called you” and all that, I don’t think with all that—I just knew, you know, that I could do it well, and my parents had trained me.  But, I never tripped out and thought that I was any real miracle child of any kind. (Smith)

His rousing sermons on hell and conversion moved audiences, who gave liberally to support the child’s ministry.  Between the ages of 4 and 15, Marjoe raised an estimated $3 million in offerings, which were confiscated by his parents.  In the end, the Gortners, who may have sincerely believed in their son’s calling and capabilities, produced a charlatan with a very jaded view of Pentecostalism.  What should have been passed to him as an important spiritual heritage was demented into a lucrative occupation.  Talent was replaced with anointing, and the boy’s charisma was a substitute for Pentecostal power.

This may explain Marjoe, the documentary, which chronicles Gortner’s return to the revival circuit.  Gortner instructs his “hippie” film crew in the finer points of Pentecostal behavior and etiquette to divert suspicion away from his true motives in filming the services.  He carefully documents his performances at a number of independent, Trinity Pentecostal meetings.  In each meeting, Marjoe Gortner brings to bear his childhood training, delivering “powerful” sermons peppered with Pentecostal phrases and praises.  He skillfully mimics the behaviors of the traditional Spirit-filled preacher, mopping his face with his handkerchief, laying hands on the sick, and even “speaking in tongues.”  Fraternizing with preachers and pastors, he is jocular and uses a familiar, even gossipy, parlance, swapping news about other ministries.  This man has learned the “shibboleth” of Pentecostalism and easily draws his hosts and hearers into the intricate web of deception.

In each of the churches, the documentary reveals how trusting and easily-influenced Pentecostal saints can be.  The faithful quake and shout at the touch of his hand.  They weep as he speaks words of faith in their ears.  Host ministers make over his sincerity and trustworthiness; and in one case, Gortner is even invited to cover services while the pastor and his wife make a missions trip to Brazil.  All said, not one of the shepherds or sheep seem to suspect Marjoe’s grand charade.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the errant evangelist.  From a child, he likely never tasted the goodness of God or the true power of the Pentecostal blessing.  His blasphemies require the context of his upbringing.  Though he is not excused, he is explained in Marjoe.  In a day when many ministries ape Pentecostalism, we must be increasingly careful to “try the spirits” (I Jn. 4.1).  Deception is the devil’s business, and the uninitiated viewer of Gortner’s film undoubtedly sees the victims of this farce as emotionally vulnerable, excitable, and naïve.  Marjoe Gortner summarizes his aim:  “I’m hoping that they’ll see that it’s not necessary to look to some person . . . to put your belief in” (Smith).  For me, the real lesson of the documentary is Pauline:  “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you . . . “ (I Th. 5.2).  Despite its reprehensibility, Gortner’s experience and experiment calls us to a deeper level of discernment, a higher standard of fellowship, and a greater commitment to apostolic integrity.

Sources:

Gortner, Marjoe, narr.  Marjoe.

“Marjoe the Minister.”Life.17 Jan 1949, pg. 40.

Smith, Howard, Sarah Kernochan, Lynn Appelle, Marjoe Gortner, and Thoth.Marjoe. New York, NY: Docurama, 1972.

Warner, Wayne.  “J. Narver Gortner, part 1:  the early life of a key figure in the Assemblies of God.”  Heritage.1 March 1998, pg. 13.

Matthew Shaw is a librarian at Ball State University. He lives in Muncie, Indiana with his wife, Brandi, and his four sons. He attends River of Life Church.

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