Biography: Marvin Gorman, pt. 1

by Randall S. Frederick

Earlier this year, a “grandfather” of mine died. I didn’t find out for several weeks and when I finally did, I was disappointed in the obituaries printed about him. Marvin Gorman was a minister in New Orleans for several years and, in multiple accounts, was instrumental in translating the Crescent City from predominantly Catholic to Pentecostal in the Eighties and later Southern Baptist in the Nineties. The city, because of Gorman’s work, hosted the Pentecostal World Conference in 1987, which would have been unthinkable before he planted and developed an Assemblies of God church there. Despite his tireless efforts to change the spiritual climate of the South, it is significant that he was forgotten in the televangelism scandals of that same decade. Because of his role in the “fall” of Jimmy Swaggart, Gorman became a footnote to a story not his own. His death in January of 2017 revived fleeting interest in his work among Pentecostalism in Louisiana, but ultimately the scandal made for a better headline.

To correct, or perhaps “flesh out” inaccuracies, Theology & the City offers a different narrative of Gorman’s life, built entirely from his own words and those who knew him best. This is part 1.

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Like many Assembly of God ministers, Marvin Gorman lacked the benefits of advanced, formal education, though he had more than most. Gorman demonstrated, particularly when he was a youngster, a strong commitment toward bettering himself and his knowledge of theology, and he seemed to possess an instinctive ability to apply what he learned to his work for the maximum results in his ministerial career (Lundy 57). The most amazing revelation… was Gorman’s acumen and knowledge of a vast array of subjects. He was far more sophisticated and worldly than he might first appear; and, to contradict any lingering doubts I may have had, he proved he had a strong sense of when he was being deceived or flimflammed. He was not only well versed in theology and biblical studies, he also had a profound sense of business. He was a capable accountant, a canny marketer and product packager, and a shrewd salesman all rolled into one. For a man with limited education, he demonstrated a high level of understanding of the world of business and finance as well as the nature of human psychology; at the same time, he was street smart and had a great store of common sense. He also had a temper, and he wasn’t shy about revealing it (114).

The youngest of six children, Gorman was born November 3, 1933, in Hampton, Arkansas. His father was an alcoholic, but his mother maintained high moral standards for the family; it was she who also promoted the sense of traditional religious values to her children. He graduated from Hampton High School, but his subsequent education came through courses taken from correspondence schools specializing in Bible studies and theology. By the time he completed the last of these, he was already an important minister of the Assembly of God – and he was only twenty years old.

Gorman’s acknowledged conversion to Christianity took place when he was fifteen; a year later, he dedicated his life to the ministry; and two years later, he was pastor of his own small church in Hampton. After a year’s work there, he resigned from the tiny, thirty-member congregation, and accepted the pastorate of a church in Callion, Arkansas, which had an enrollment of approximately ninety members. It was a major step up. After World War II, Assembly of God churches often had no more than twenty to fifty members. Taking over a ninety-member congregation was a coup for any minister, particularly one of Gorman’s tender years.

During the 1950’s, Gorman’s reputation began to grow. He attracted the notice of the Assemblies of God leadership and was named Area Representative for youth ministry, a vital position in a now rapidly expanding denomination. He also began working as a traveling evangelist, preaching in numerous churches in the South. He was much in demand, and his popularity and financial status increased. He was rising quickly and surely towards the top of his calling, and many congregations were taken with the dynamics of this bright, young, handsome, well-spoken preacher.

In October 1955, he married Virginia Adams, whom he met during his work with the youth ministry. Virginia was born in Banks, Arkansas, in 1935; she married shortly after she graduated from high school, but when she was nineteen, her husband drowned in an incident that she never discussed, leaving her a widow with an infant. A capable and intelligent individual, she went to work as a bank teller in El Dorado, Arkansas. In 1955, she attended a religious youth rally in El Dorado one night when Marvin was preaching. Marvin claimed that he looked up when Virginia walked in, and God spoke to him and said that she was going to be his wife. A family friend, Pam Clemons, tells a different story. She claims that Gorman “was looking for a wife then. He dated almost any single woman, including my mom and everyone she knew! He was quite fond of women and everybody knew it.”

Marvin and Virginia began dating a week after they were introduced. Three-and-a-half months later they were married. Marvin adopted Virginia’s child, Randy; they had two more children, Mark and Beverly. Virginia continued her work in the bank while her young evangelist husband built his reputation and sought a more permanent and substantial position. It didn’t take long. Less than a year after they were married, Gorman accepted the position of associate pastor of the First Assembly of God in Crowley, Louisiana. It was a major step up from the tiny congregations with which he had previously worked; as it turned out, it was a fortuitous decision. Within five weeks after he arrived in Crowley, the senior pastor, the Reverend D. W. Jolley, died of a heart attack, and Gorman was immediately elected to the position. Over the next eighteen months, Gorman’s work in the church won him the recognition of the Louisiana District Council of the Assemblies of God; they were impressed enough to elect him to serve as director of both the Youth Department and the Christian Education Department for the District. This meant another move. He and his new family relocated to the district’s headquarters in Alexandria, Louisiana, where they remained for eight years.

As a handsome and energetic young man, Gorman was naturally inclined toward youth work. He had more education than many Assembly of God ministers and youth directors, so he was also advantaged in his work with Christian education. He was successful in navigating the denomination toward a balanced and younger audience who, unlike their parents, were more educated and gravitated toward larger cities. His accomplishments mounted rapidly and ruing his tenure with the district offices he found himself in great demand, not merely on a regional but also on a national basis. He traveled all over the country to speak at major Assembly of God functions, and his advise and counsel were sought by many churches seeking to enlarge their youth ministry and to expand and improve their Christian education programs. Under his leadership, youth participation and enrollment in Assemblies of God grew enormously. Gorman evolved from a competent and able functionary in the church to a celebrity, one who had an instinct for organizing various outreach programs designed to attract and keep new members – particularly young members – faithful to their churches.

In 1965, the years of hard work and extended travel began to pay off in a more substantive way. By this time, he and Virginia were eager to settle down and find a permanent home away from the bureaucratic work in Alexandria. Accordingly, he applied for and was elected as senior pastor of the First Assembly of God Church in New Orleans. On the surface, this did not appear to be a great honor or reward for his accomplishments on both regional and national levels. The First Assembly of God in New Orleans was a comparatively small congregation of only about a hundred members. Gorman, however, saw potential in the sin-rich fields of one of America’s most wide-open cities. He was the right man in the right church at the right time.

Gorman hit New Orleans precisely when a charismatic religious movement had a ripe opportunity to take hold. The Civil Rights struggle, which was growing to a crescendo in the late sixties, combined with other social unrest centered on an adult (and Conservative Christian) distressing “counterculture” among the young to create an environment both hungry for reform and assistance (and assurance) from established religious forms. Traditionally, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists were prominent in Orleans Parish, with some good number of Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians as well; but there was a growing interest in charismatic movements, particularly those which reached out to the urban poor and socially discontented in the city. Gorman went to work. He discovered that his personality and preaching style translated well through television, and he employed that medium as well as radio to begin to build a strong base in New Orleans and its environs. Within a short time, the humble hundred-member congregation of the First Assembly of God had grown to more than 5,000 members, and it prospered. Within a decade after his arrival, he was managing a budget of more than eight million dollars a year. His television ministry was now broadcast throughout the region, and he took steps to broaden it to encompass a national market. By the end of the seventies, his program was seen in all fifty states as well as in Canada on a daily basis.

As Gorman’s personal reputation as a competent and valuable local minister grew along with his national reputation as a dynamic and effective televangelist, his professional status also elevated. In addition to his local ministry and television broadcasts, he found the time to serve on a number of boards and committees for the Louisiana District Council of the Assemblies of God, and he also was called on for service by the National Organization of the Assemblies of God, whose headquarters were in Springfield, Missouri. In 1981, he was elected as one of the eight nonresident Executive Presbyters for the Assemblies of God, one of the highest governing boards of the International Assemblies of God Ministries. His name was also being bandied about as a candidate for National Superintendent. Marvin Gorman had arrived.

Joining the ranks of such well-known preachers as Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, and, of course, Jimmy Swaggart in nearby Baton Rouge, Gorman was rapidly making himself into a household name on par with the best and brightest stars in America’s religious pantheon. He seemed to be a tireless worker, an innovative and widely respected social reformer who was among the first in his city or even region to embrace a black constituency and welcome the integration of his congregation on Airline Highway in New Orleans. He also was instrumental in supporting young ministers and in establishing missionary-style churches in districts, which heretofore had no religious centers. One such church was the Canal Street Assembly of God.

By the mid-eighties, Gorman seemed poised to challenge Swaggart’s burgeoning religious empire to the west in Baton Rouge. He was making moves that could be construed as challenging to Swaggart’s monolithic organization. Among these moves was a deal he struck with Jim Bakker for a regular spot on the PTL Network’s broadcasts. Bakker and Gorman were natural allies, both appealing strongly to younger viewers, and both centering their religious messages on “family values.” Indeed, Gorman’s appeal to youth – always a strong part of his ministry – as well as to blacks, Hispanics, discontented and backsliding Roman Catholics, and also to those who found his apparent sincerity and high integrity appealing threatened to encroach on if not erode Swaggart’s regional support base. It also, and not incidentally, bit deeply into Swaggart’s ministry’s earnings. Swaggart was still king in the Assemblies of God realm, at least in Louisiana if not throughout the South, and Gorman openly admired him. But Gorman’s own star was rising fast, and his move to expand his television ministry by purchasing bankrupt stations in Lake Charles and Houma, Louisiana, connecting them with his New Orleans studios and then broadcasting via a satellite uplink to the entire world had Swaggart worried.

In my view, the Lake Charles television station deal may well have been the precipitating cause behind Swaggart’s entire attack on Gorman. It was an attempt to nip in the bud Gorman’s bid to expand his ministry and challenge Swaggart’s position in Louisiana and the greater South. To that extent, it worked, of course.

I was sitting in my office one day when I received a telephone call from Randy Roach, another Lake Charles attorney; Roach represented The American Bank of Commerce, the largest creditor of a local television station, KVHP, Channel 29, which was in receivership. Previously owned by a syndicate that included a former district attorney and a former Baptist minister, the station had gone under because of a small broadcast tower and lack of managers experienced in the communications industry. Roach told me that a mutual friend, Winfield Little, an attorney representing the management company serving as receiver to the station, had recommended that I be contacted about representing the Reverend Marvin Gorman from New Orleans.

Gorman, a popular televangelist, had made an offer to purchase the station and rescue it from its indebtedness to the American Bank of Commerce. Roach and Little agreed that Gorman would make an excellent choice as buyer for the station; but the legal details would be difficult to work out, as both the Federal Communications Commission and federal bank examiners would be scrutinizing the transaction… At the time, I had never before represented a minister, certainly not a televangelist; indeed, I had never met one, and I had doubts about the wisdom of becoming involved. In the first place, I was skeptical that any single individual – particularly a preacher – could afford to buy a [11] television station, so I asked Roach for references that could vouch for Gorman’s background and financial resources. Roach suggested I call an attorney with the Hones, Walker firm in New Orleans and ask him about his past experiences with the Reverend Gorman.
From that inquiry, I learned that Reverend Gorman was an important and well-known Assemblies of God minister who was frequently involved in six- and seven-figure transactions; he also had a reputation for honest dealings and prompt payment of attorney’s fees. Indeed, Jones, Walker’s standard fees were almost twice as high on a per-hour rate as our firm’s, and since it was a smart move to use local counsel to handle a local transaction of this nature, it looked like a bird’s nest on the ground for us.

Even with those matters settled, I still had doubts as to my suitability to handle this matter, but Roach assured me that my religious background (Southern Baptist) and familiarity with the local court scene made me an ideal choice. With all of this in mind, I agreed to meet with the Reverend Gorman and do whatever legal work was required in connection with the purchase of the station.
That same day, I was told that the minister and one of his sons, Randy, and their pilot would be flying in to Lake Charles in Reverend Gorman’s private King Air plane to attend the hearing. I was instantly impressed. I had heard about ministers with The World Wide Church of God who flew around in jets, but I knew of no local ministers who owned their own airplanes and commanded their own pilots. I picked up the party at Transit Aviation in Lake Charles and drove them to the hearing.

The Reverend Marvin Gorman was a well-groomed man who looked much younger than his fifty-four years, above average in height and solidly built. His brown hair was styled and neat, worn in a straight-back style, allowing his facial features and soft brown eyes to stand out behind rose-tinted glasses. He also was well-dressed – he wore an Armani suit and what appeared to be custom-main Italian shoes. I noticed that his fingernails were immaculately manicured and cut a little longer than the average man’s. He came across as a very sure but not particularly vain or arrogant individual, his appearance not at all unlike that of many successful business or professional men of about the same age. In short, he cut an imposing figure, one that suggested strength, charm, and personal charisma. By contrast, Randy Gorman was balding, slender with completely different facial features. It was not until some time later that I learned that he was Gorman’s adopted son from his wife, Virginia’s, first marriage. Energetic and enthusiastic, the Reverend Gorman greeted me robustly, as a friend might. I was taken with his tact and polite manner and also with his expert knowledge of the transaction we were undertaking on behalf of his ministry.

I was also impressed with how well-known he was. Like many people, particularly Southern Baptists, I paid scant attention to televangelism; truly, my closest experience with the entire world of television ministries centered more on parodies and comedians’ remarks than on any serious study or observation. Like many people, what encounters I’d had with them came while “channel surfing” on late-night television; and, again like many people, I quickly moved past their broadcasts when I came across them. Prior to Roach’s call to me, however, if I had ever heard of Marvin Gorman, I couldn’t recall when or in what context. He was simply one of the figures who flicked across my TV screen, a mere name more than any sort of personal presence. I soon discovered though, that Gorman was well-known in my hometown. While attending the first hearing, the Clerk of Court as well as other courthouse employees came over to greet Marvin Gorman in person, to shake his hand and exchange pleasantries with him. It was obvious that he enjoyed a wide popularity among many churchgoers, especially those from charismatic sects. I observed that several who approached him gave him the sort of deferential treatment usually reserved for sports figures, movie stars, recording artists, or famous politicians. After numerous courtroom appearances by counsel, the judge finally approved the buy-sell agreement as well as the financing plan offered by Marvin Gorman Ministries, Inc. The closing of the deal was initially set for August 1986. I assumed my work was nearly done.

In early June, I asked Ray Guillory, my personal certified public accountant, ski buddy and close friend, to drive with me to New Orleans to visit Reverend Gorman. I wanted him to meet the head of the First Assembly of God Church of New Orleans, as well as Gorman’s manager, his family, and other members of his staff. It was my hope that after the meeting, Gorman would ask Guillory to continue providing the accounting services for the television station after it was sold, but I also had grown curious about Gorman and his church. I wanted to see his operation for myself.

The assumptions I made during my initial association with Gorman were substantiated by the physical facilities I saw and by the facts presented to me during my tour. The complex on Airline Highway consisted of a large building that contained a huge sanctuary, a school, administrative offices, as well as a television production studio. I discovered that The First Assembly of God of New Orleans had a congregation numbering in excess of five thousand members. Services were conducted five times on Sunday, once each on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday nights; all were well attended. The parochial school enrolled more than five hundred students in kindergarten through the twelfth grade, and had established a presence both academically and athletically in the New Orleans community. Clearly, Marvin Gorman Ministries was a force to be reckoned with, not only in Orleans Parish but also in the entire state and region. I could immediately see what value a television station would bring to Gorman’s work and reputation. It was a wise move – a power play – but it also was the next logical step in the advancement of Gorman’s non-profit corporation, Marvin Gorman Ministries.

During our meeting, Guillory and I learned that Marvin Gorman Ministries had not only signed an agreement to purchase Channel 29 in Lake Charles, the corporation also had signed an agreement to purchase the communications permit and facilities of Channel 11 in Houma, Louisiana, a matter being handled by another firm. This was a bit surprising to me, at first, but when I considered it further, it also made sense. It additionally impressed me with the depth of his backers’ pockets. There was obviously big money involved here, much bigger money than I had imagined.

Gorman explained to us that his dream was to spread the Gospel from Mobile, Alabama, to Houston, Texas, from production facilities at his home in Metarie, Louisiana. The two television stations – with a satellite uplink from the church – would enable him to conduct Bible studies and talk shows from his home, spreading the Word of God across the Gulf Coast, then to the entire nation, and ultimately throughout the world. It was an ambitious prospect, but at that meeting, I became convinced that if anyone could do it, Marvin Gorman could.

After seeing the First Assembly of God production facilities and touring Channel 29 and knowing its capability, I was frankly in awe of the intelligence of Gorman and his support personnel. Their expertise and talents far exceeded the average pulpit ministries with which I was familiar from my Southern Baptist upbringing. Gorman’s organization and complexity of operation matched his ambition and also matched easily any corporate client in my legal experience. But at the same time, I harbored serious doubts as to whether Gorman was as interested in the “Great Commission” -his calling and his mission- as he was in the intricate workings of the Federal Communications Commission. As his attorney, though, I was committed to handling matters legal; I was content to allow matters spiritual to remain between Gorman and whomever he consulted on those issues.

Following this initial meeting and tour, we drove farther down Airline Highway to a shopping center where the First Assembly of God of New Orleans was building a new facility. This was located in a shopping center that had been purchased by Gorman’s church. At one end of the shopping center, the church was building a new auditorium that would seat twenty-five hundred to three thousand people, almost twice the number that could be accommodated at the older building. The shopping center parking lot would be ample for the congregation during the Sunday morning services, when most of the retail businesses would be closed, and even during the week, it would offer substantial parking for those involved with the education program of the church.

At first, I found it incongruous that a church would buy a shopping center and then build a church auditorium on one end of it, but then I realized that the remainder of the retail facilities would remain under lease and the First Assembly of God would be the beneficiary of the revenues.

We then visited Gorman’s home in Metarie. Although by no means ostentatious, particularly from the outside, the interior of the house was well-appointed and approached opulence. There was no less than five-thousand square feet of living area, all well-designed for comfort. Gorman gave us a tour of the house, and by far the most impressive room was the master bedroom which doubled as his study. The room was created in a wing of its own, the result of a twenty-thousand dollar gift from someone in his congregation. It contained an enormous big-screen television, a large jacuzzi, and comfortable furniture. It was from here that Gorman planned to conduct his talk shows via satellite.

While walking through the kitchen, we were met by his wife, Virginia Gorman, a pleasant woman in her early fifties with brown hair, hazel eyes, and an attractive figure. She greeted us with a pleasant handshake and a bright smile. Although she was not the sort of woman who would dominate a room either by virtue of her personality or good looks, she was a pretty woman and in many ways the very picture of a successful preacher’s wife. (Lundy, 11-16)

In spite of her husband’s celebrity, Virgina Gorman was a very private person, very quiet in her manner. She was very much a homemaker, the supportive wife of a famous and powerful husband. After Gorman’s ministry grew within the Assemblies of God, the family moved from Gentilley to a lakefront house on North Cullen Drive in Metarie; they lost this house in the 1987 bankruptcy, but throughout the entire ordeal, Virgina was never anything less than supportive of her husband in both their public and their private lives.

Six weeks later, a letter written by the Louisiana District Council of the Assemblies of God to a number of ministers statewide indicated that Marvin Gorman had resigned his church and had been dismissed by the Assemblies of God because of unspecified “moral conduct.” The letter read as follows:

Dear Friend of the Gospel,

This letter is to inform you of action taken by the District Board on August 4, 1986, regarding Marvin E. Gorman.

On July 16, 1986, the superintendent and secretary-treasurer went to the Gorman residence in Metarie, along with Brother Carl Miller and Brother Daniel Flanagan of First Assembly of God in New Orleans. In our presence Brother Gorman confessed that he was guilty of conduct unbecoming to a minister and indiscretions involving morals. (see 1986-87 Yearbook, Page 46 of Bylaws, ARTICLE XI, Section 2, Paragraph 1.) He then presented his fellowship card to the superintendent. After expressing our deepest sorrow and disappointment, and our love for Brother Gorman and his family, we had prayer with them and left.

With this type of violation there is only two possible decisions the Board could make: (1) dismissal or (2) two-year rehabilitation program. (See 1986-87 Yearbook, Pages 48, 49, 50 of Bylaws, ARTICLE XI, Section 7, 8, and 9) Brother Gorman indicated to the superintendent and secretary-treasurer that he planned to continue his television ministry and pulpit ministry. Therefore a rehabilitation program would not be feasible. Final decision by the Board was for dismissal.
Please be reminded of your ethical responsibilities as outlined in the 1985 General Council Bylaws, ARTICLE VIII, Section 10, Page 139.

We trust that you will be in prayer for Brother Gorman and his family, and the many people affected by these circumstances.

In His love and grace,
Forrest H. Hall
Secretary-Treasurer

What happened between Gorman’s private admission on July 16th and August 4th of 1986? For starters, his office was broken into, file cabinets emptied, and all their contents burned including personal files, family photos, sermon notes accumulated over the previous two decades, travel itinerary, and paperwork related to the ministry’s expansion. Next, the assistant pastor, Dan Flanagan, locked Gorman out of First Assembly, and an exorcism was performed at Canal Street Assembly of God of a demon claiming to be none other than Marvin Gorman.

But if any of that seems strange, it was just the beginning of an exceptionally bizarre summer.

Continued in part 2

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