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Marjoe Gortner

by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman

d Jim Siegelman

from their 1978 book

SNAPPING: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change

also by Conway and Siegelman: Holy Terror

hand-typed by Cliff Walker in 1995 for The Critical Thinker and this web site

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This book, Snapping, and particularly this interview with Marjoe Gortner (not to mention the chapters about cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick) had a profound influence on me while I was still wandering about in the intense fog known only to the Bible-believing Christian.
     The Marjoe interview reawakened in me the Materialist for which my brain was best suited, the very Materialist that I was raised to be by my atheistic parents.
     The chapters on Ted Patrick inspired me to simply pick up the phone and contact him. After spending two hours at Patrick's feet I was prepared to discover something that wouldn't dawn on me for some time to come. What Patrick groomed me to discover for myself is that it was entirely possible for me - even me — to voluntarily forfeit my own autonomy over the one domain to which only I have access, to give to others control over that part of me which I (and only I) have the right to control: my mind.
-- Cliff Walker, Publisher
Please note that we have no contact information for Marjoe Gortner: this is just an interview that we posted, and that's all he means to us at this point in time.
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     Index: Historical Writings (Biographies)
     Index: Atheism and Awareness (Interviews)
     Mentioned in: “The Tents Will Be With You Always” by Cliff Walker
     Home to Positive Atheism
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Religion claims to be in possession of an absolute truth; but its history is a history of errors and heresies. It gives us the promise and prospect of a transcendent world far beyond the limits of our humans experience and it remains human, all too human.
– Ernest Cassirer,
An Essay on Man 
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Marjoe Gortner was the first Evangelical preacher to blow the whistle on his profession. In his documentary film, Marjoe, made in the late sixties, he revealed age-old tricks of the trade and exposed some of the entertainment aspects of the popular movement that have made it big business.

If he lives forever, Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner will most likely always be "The World's Youngest Ordained Minister." Born January 14, 1944, Marjoe was almost strangled during delivery by his own umbilical cord. The obstetrician told his mother that it was a miracle the child survived, and thus "Marjoe" -- for Mary and Joseph -- the Miracle Child, took his place at the end of a long line of Evangelical ministers.

From the beginning, his preaching skills were meticulously cultivated. Before he learned to say "Mamma" or "Poppa," he was taught to sing "Hallelujah!" When he was nine months old his mother taught him the right way to shout "Glory!" into the microphone. At three, he could preach the gospel from memory, and he received drama coaching and instruction in every performing art from saxophone playing to baton twirling. On Halloween, 1948, at the age of four, Marjoe was officially ordained and thrust into a wildly successful career as the Shirley Temple of America's Bible Belt, the sprawling non-geographic community of strict adherents to the Christian scriptures. In the following decade he preached to packed tents and houses coast to coast, as enthusiastic audiences flocked to see the Miracle Child who allegedly received sermons from the Lord in his sleep. Owing to his mother's careful training, harsh discipline, and indomitable ambition, Marjoe's sermons were flawlessly memorized, right down to each perfectly timed pause and gesture. Frequent Hallelujahs and Amens punctuated his performances, which were cleverly promoted with titles such as "From Wheelchair to Pulpit" and "Heading for the Last Roundup," which Marjoe preached wearing a cowboy suit.

Marjoe's captivating sermons rarely failed to fill the church collection plate to the brim, and his renowned faith healings were miraculous even to him. In his teens, however, Marjoe grew disenchanted with the continued deception of his divine powers. He left the Evangelical movement in search of more legitimate means of employment. He spent some time in a rock band, trying to move with the changing times; then he returned to the Evangelical circuit to make his revealing motion picture. Marjoe is one of those frank films that delves deeply into sensitive areas of American morality that slip over the line into profiteering.

We found Marjoe in Hollywood last year, where he now resides on a secluded hilltop estate in Laurel Canyon. After we drove up the winding dirt road that leads to his lofty home, Marjoe greeted us cordially and ushered us into his sunken living room, where he pointed out some familiar features of the sprawling southern California landscape visible through his wall-sized picture window. We told him that we had come to hear about his miraculous powers of "saving" and "healing," trade secrets that neither his film nor his subsequent biography unraveled satisfactorily. Tall, handsome, with lion-colored curls and a penetrating stare, even in T-shirt and faded jeans Marjoe had an air of power about him. From the outset of our talk, however, he squashed all notions we might have had that his talents were in any way extraordinary.

"I don't have any power," he started off, just to set the record straight. "And neither do any of these other guys. Hundreds of people were healed at my crusades, but I know damn well it was nothing I was doing."

Yet, Marjoe admitted, he remained somewhat baffled by the thousands of souls he helped to "save" and the numerous illnesses he seemed to have cured. His own insight into his preaching skills was on a decidedly earthly level. Based on his years of training and experience, he located the source of his divine power squarely out among the flocks who assembled to receive his gifts.

"You start with a guy who obviously has a problem," he explained. "You've got to begin on that premise. Things haven't worked out for him, or he's looking for something, or whatever. So he goes to one of these revivals. He hears very regimented things. He sees a lot of people glowing around him -- people who seem very, very happy -- and they're all inviting him to come in and join the clique and it looks great. They say, 'Hey, my life was changed!' or 'Hey, I found a new job!' That's when he's ready to get saved, or Born Again; and once he's saved, they all pat him on the back. It's like he's been admitted to this very special elite little club."

Marjoe downplayed his own role in the proceedings. As he saw it, the real show was in the audience; he served primarily as a conductor.

"As a preacher," he said, "I'm working with the crowd, watching the crowd, trying to bring them to that high point at a certain time in the evening. I let everything build up to that moment when they're all in ecstasy. The crowd builds up and you have to watch it that you don't stop it. You start off saying you've heard that tonight's going to be a great night; then you begin the whole pitch and keep it rolling."

For Marjoe, who has seen it a million times, the divine moment of religious ecstasy has no mystical quality at all. It is a simple matter of group frenzy that has its counterpart in every crowd.

"It's the same at a rock-and-roll concert," he asserted. "You have an opening number with a strong entrance; then you go through a lot of the old standards, building up to your hit song at the end."

The hit song, however, is spiritual rebirth, the product of a time-tested recipe for religion to which the preacher and every member of the audience contribute some small but active ingredient. Then, according to Marjoe, the only fitting encore to the overwhelming moment of becoming saved is a personal demonstration of the power of that newfound faith. This is the motivating factor that prompts speaking in tongues, also known as the "receiving of the glossolalia." As Marjoe explained it, this well-known Evangelical tradition requires even greater audience participation on the part of the tongues recipient and the entire audience.

"After you've been saved," Marjoe continued, "the next step is what they call 'the infilling of the Holy Spirit.' They say to the new convert, 'Well, now you're saved, but you've got to get the Holy Ghost.' So you come back to get the tongues experience. Some people will get it the same night; others will go for weeks or years before they can speak in tongues. You hear it, you hear everyone at night talking in it in the church, and they're all saying, 'We love you and we hope you're going to get it by tonight.' Then one night you go down there and they all try to get you to get it, and you go into very much of a trance -- not quite a frenzy, but it is an incredible experience.

"During that moment the person forgets all about his problems. He is surrounded by people whom he trusts and they're all saying, 'We love you. It's okay. You're accepted in Christ. We're with you, let it go, relax.' And sooner or later, he starts to speak it out and go dut-dut-dut. Then everyone goes, 'That's it! You've got it!' and the button is pushed and he will in fact start to speak in tongues and just take off: dehan-dayelo-mosatay-leesaso ... and on and on."

Marjoe paused. Flo was dumbfounded by his demonstration, although he hadn't gone into the jerking, trance-like ecstasy that is commonly associated with the tongues movement. I'd seen the classic version in his movie, yet even in this restrained demonstration, Marjoe appeared to be triggering some internal releasing or babbling mechanism. I asked him how he brought it about.

"You'll never get with that attitude," he joked. Then he went on to explain the true nature of the experience. His perspective showed it to be a process that requires a great deal of effort to master.

"Tongues is something you learn," he emphasized. "It is a releasing that you teach yourself. You are told by your peers, the church, and the Bible -- if you accept it literally -- that the Holy Ghost spake in another tongue; you become convinced that it is the ultimate expression of the spirit flowing through you. The first time maybe you'll just go dut-dut-dut-dut, and that's about all that will get out. Then you'll hear other people and next night you may go dut-dut-dut-UM-dut-DEET-dut-dut, and it gets a little better. The next thing you know, it's ela-hando-satelay-eek-condele-mosandrey-aseya ... and it's a new language you've got down."

Except that, according to Marjoe, it's not a real language at all. Contrary to most religious understanding, speaking in tongues is by no means passive spiritual possession. It must be actively acquired and practiced. Although the "gift" of tongues is a product of human and not supernatural origin, Marjoe displayed tremendous respect for the experience as an expression of spirituality and fellowship.

"I really don't put it down," he said. "I never have. It's just that I analyze it and look at it from a very rational point of view. I don't see it as coming from God and say that at a certain point the Holy Spirit zaps you with a super whammy on the head and you've 'gone for tongues' and there is it. Tongues is a process that people build up to. Then, as you start to do something, just as when you practice the scales on the piano, you get better at it."

Already, we could see the difference between Marjoe and some of his modern-day fellow preachers and pretenders. Unlike many cult, group, and Evangelical leaders, Marjoe has always held his congregation in high regard. During his years on the Bible Belt circuit, he came to see the Evangelical experience as a form of popular entertainment, a kind of participatory divine theater that provides its audiences with profound emotional rewards. Marjoe realized that his perspective would not be shared by most Born Again Christians.

"The people who are out there don't see it as entertainment," he confessed, "although that is in fact the way it is. These people don't go to movies; they don't go to bars and drink; they don't go to rock-and-roll concerts -- but everyone has to have an emotional release. So they go to revivals and they dance around and talk in tongues. It's socially approved and that is their escape."

Within that context of social entertainment, Marjoe took pride in his starring role as a traveling evangelist.

"It was my duty to give them the best show possible," he said. "Say you've got a timid little preacher in North Carolina or somewhere. He'll bring in visiting evangelists to keep his church going. We'd come in and hit the crowd up and we were superstars. It's the charisma of the evangelist that the audience believes in and comes to see."

What got to Marjoe, he explained, and eventually drove him out of the business were many of the same disturbing aspects of the Evangelical movement we had noticed in our own travels and interviews.

"When I was traveling," he said, looking back on the old days, "I'd see someone who wanted to get saved in one of my meetings, and he was so open and bubbly in his desire to get the Holy Ghost. It was wonderful and very fresh, but four years later I'd return and that person might be a hard-nosed intolerant Christian because he had Christ. That's when the danger comes in. People want an experience. They want to feel good, and their lives can be helped by it. But then as you start moving into the operation of the thing, you get into controlling people and power and money."

Marjoe shook his head sadly. Indeed, he didn't strike us as the type of person who would be comfortable in that role. In the sixties, while he was exploring new outlets for his talents, he watched his former profession grow to vast international dimensions. Since then, he has followed the curious rise of America's religious cults, among them Reverend Moon's Unification Church.

"Moon is doing the same thing I do," said Marjoe, "only he's taken it one step further. He's suggesting to people that he is the Messiah. In my religion, the old-time religion, it's total blasphemy to suggest that. Moon has gone too far, but that's a heavy number on people, because everyone wants to meet a Messiah."

Marjoe was quick to point out that Moon's preaching powers, like his own, are by no means divine or even innate. Marjoe acknowledges that his power over an audience derives primarily from the skills of rhetoric and public speaking that have been passed down to us from the Greeks. Those tools have long been in the public domain, and they make up the stock-in-trade of everyone whose work involves personal contact with other individuals and groups.

"It's the same whether you're a preacher, a lawyer, or a salesman," he told us. "You start off with a person's thought processes and then gradually sway him around to another way of thinking in a very short time."

Although Marjoe no longer consciences the use of his preaching talents for evangelical purposes, he still uses his skills in areas that have nothing to do with religion.

"I was campaigning for Jerry Brown when he was running for governor," he said. "I gave speeches when he couldn't show up. This was a whole different kind of speech for me, because I didn't know the people and the whole thing was political. One time I was supposed to go to a rally for a thousand AFL-CIO workers in San Francisco, and I thought, Oh, no, how am I going to talk to these guys? I needed a hook to get the audience, because I knew a person's mind is usually made up within the first minute or so. If they like you and you say the right things at first, then you can take them on to other things they might not ordinarily agree with. But all I had to go on was that, and structures of speech I knew from preaching."

He paused again, allowing us a moment to consider his predicament.

"When I got there they were a little hostile," he continued, "and I was very nervous about it. There was a podium with two flags on it, an American flag and a California state flag. I walked up -- it was very quiet -- and as I was walking up there it came to me, I don't know from where. I grabbed the American flag and I crinkled it in my hand. I looked at it and sort of gave it a little toss back against the wall and said, 'I remember when Betsy Ross made that flag. Today it's made in Japan.' Well, a roar went up as that struck a chord in those workers, and I was God from that moment on."

Today Marjoe restricts the use of his talents to his acting career and to social causes he deeply believes in. Foremost among those causes is informing the public about some of the rhetorical techniques that are being used to manipulate their thoughts and emotions. Most techniques Marjoe is in command of are simple and age-old, but so effective that they can be equally powerful even when and audience has been explicitly forewarned of their use. Toward the end of our conversation, Marjoe told us a story that revealed the fineness of his rhetorical skills. In contrast to the massive physical experiences such as intense group rituals and intimate personal crises that have been recognized as major contributors to the snapping moment, Marjoe demonstrated how words alone, artfully manipulated, may be used to influence groups and individuals, even to the point of evoking the overwhelming emotional response of being "saved."

"I lecture in about twenty colleges a year," he began, "and I do a faith-healing demonstration -- but I always make them ask for it. I tell them that I don't believe in it, that I use a lot of tricks; the title of the lecture is 'Rhetoric and Charisma,' so I've already told them the whole rap explaining how it's done, but they still want to see it. So I throw it all right back at them. I say, 'No, you don't really want to see it.' And they say, 'Oh, yes. We do. We do!' And I say, 'But you don't believe in it anyway, so I can't do it.' And they say, 'We believe. We believe!' So after about twenty minutes of this I ask for a volunteer, and I have a girl come up and I say, 'So you want to feel better?' And I say, 'You're lying to me! You're just up here for a good time and you want to impress all these people and you want to make an ass out of me and an ass out of this whole thing, so why don't you just go back and sit down?' I get really hard on her, and she says, 'No, no, I believe!' And I keep going back and forth until she's almost in tears. And then, even though this is in a college crowd and I'm only doing it as a joke, I just say my same old line, In the name of Jesus! and touch them on the head, and wham, they fall down flat every time."

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