During the discussion on yesterday’s post, the topic of Marjoe Gortner, the “world’s youngest ordained preacher”, came up as an example of a young, bright child who was trained by his parents to spout biblical passages and gospel-tent sermons. Marjoe’s story is an extraordinary one, which contains some fascinating parallels to the way in which the Hampstead SRA hoax children were coerced into spouting descriptions of what Abe imagined a “satanic orgy” might involve.
In his book Holy Sinner: 15 Preachers Who Fell from Grace and Became Criminals, William Webb introduces little Marjoe, who earned his parents an estimated $3 million with his act:
Marjoe, named indecisively with a combination of Mary and Joseph, was born to the shamelessly opportunistic Rev. and Mrs. Vernon Gortner in January of 1944 and they almost immediately took note of his total incapacity to feel embarrassment. The proud parents set about a rigorous advanced education structured around memorizing biblical passages and religious ceremonies gently supported by rudimentary waterboarding in the toilet. By the age of three Marjoe was ordained into the Church of the Old Time Faith and began preaching to his father’s Long Beach (California) congregation in the traditional ministerial garb of adorable little cowboy boots and a white suit with extra pockets for cash contributions.
Marjoe surpassed his parents’ twisted expectations and drew crowds from church to church, town to town, where his father, already a reasonably accomplished third-generation con man, would precede him garnering that essential ingredient to quality spirituality: free publicity. Vernon Gortner would visit newspaper offices in sleepy towns and offer them the story of this miracle child, complete with a choice of legends: God came to little Marjoe while he slept or, when that proved a little tame, while he was taking a bath.
The show was top quality child exploitation. Marjoe would exhort the congregation to give and give deep with memorized passages and entirely fictional accounts of healings and conversions, punctuated by rote gestures. “JESUS” was accompanied by a hand thrust in the air and “GOD” with two hands. When America’s littlest swindler would lose his way his parents would issue stage directions like “Hallelujah”, meaning “pick up the pace”; “Glory!” to slow things down a touch; and “Praise God!” meant “they’re hooked, now reel ’em in”.
Though no film footage exists of Marjoe doing his preacherly thing, we do have access to the audio version. Keep in mind that this is a very young child, speaking of concepts he cannot possibly fully understand:
As an adult, Marjoe confessed that he had never believed any of what he was saying; he merely went along with what his parents told him to say and do.
In the 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary film Marjoe, he demonstrated for a film crew exactly how he managed to separate worshippers from their hard-earned cash. It’s a remarkable film, in part because of the honest forthrightness of Marjoe himself, who’d grown weary of his role and decided to blow the lid off the evangelist biz.
In an article on the Dangerous Minds website, Jason Schafer says of the film,
Before you know it, film is being shot in a church and all of the above happens on camera. A lot of the “tent revival” footage throughout would be relatively unremarkable, except that you know the guy doesn’t really buy into one singular goddamned thing the he’s saying to the shouting crowds of gullible hayseeds and proto mega-churchers. You see how adept Gortner has become at getting people to hand over the “largest bill they have,” while behind the scenes we find him literally counting a pile of cash on a hotel room bed, shaking his head about how easy it is to get the money flowing. He knows he’s a business man, and he even has merch in the form of a record. He talks about how he used some kind of water-activated powder that made a cross show up on his head when he started sweating during one his “crusades.” People ate it up and, more importantly, ponied up the cash.
In this excerpt from the film Marjoe, we can see how the evangelical scam artist operates:
At the age of four, Marjoe performed an actual wedding, which you can view at the end of the Dangerous Minds post. Recalling the preparations for that wedding, the adult Marjoe says,
I remember my mother going through very, well, uh, correctional activities, you might say, to get me prepared to say the wedding ceremony, ’cause I had to recite the whole Episcopal ceremony verbatim and write my name on the certificate. I’m not sure but I think they had, you know, a preaching number planned for me, coming from such a long background of preachers, and my mother, being a very flamboyant evangelist…as I child I’d want to go out and play, but I had to spend hours and hours memorising, you know, and my mind would slip and finally my mother would begin to lose her patience with me and she would put a pillow over my head maybe, smother me for a little bit. Other times she’d hold me under the water faucet but she never wanted to put any marks on my body because she knew I had to be in front of the press, so she never hit me or anything.
Oh, well then. Waterboarding and suffocation are fine and dandy, so long as she never actually hit him and left a bruise. [Bit like hitting yer victims on the elbows with a spoon, Abe? —Ed.]
At the most basic level, Marjoe demonstrates how easy it is to coach, prompt, and threaten two bright, articulate children into saying…well, whatever their abusers wanted them to say. Marjoe’s parents just happened to have the idea when he was younger than RD’s children were.
What we find fascinating about Marjoe’s story is that if Belinda, Abraham, and Ella had had their way, RD’s children would be well on their way to becoming mini-Marjoes, performing their “child-raping, baby-eating cult members walk among us!” act in video after video. Would RD’s children have been able to rake in cash on the same scale Marjoe did? Fortunately we’ll never know.
We wonder, too, what will happen when RD’s children are old enough to blow the lid off the conspiritainment industry. Will they, like so many alleged “SRA survivors” before them, come out publicly with statements about how they were coerced into making false claims about almost everyone they knew? And if they do, will they be received much as Marjoe Gortner was when his documentary film was released?
As William Webb says,
Of course the real impact of this watershed documentary should have been a complete breakdown of the God-fraud industry and of course it was nothing of the sort. Those who wanted to keep believing were told that Marjoe was in league with the devil and the rest, obviously, didn’t need to be told anything at all.
So all the Hoaxtead mobsters who shriek “We believe the children!” now will no doubt reverse that claim if those self-same children ever publicly assert what was done to them in the name of turning them into little anti-SRA cult evangelists for cash.