As an orphan, Billy James Hargis was an outsider from birth. Imagining the first time his adoptive mother saw him in the hospital, he described himself as “unknown, unwanted, unloved.” Children taunted him and he felt rejected by his adopted grandparents.
“Bill James, you are a bastard. You don’t have a mother and daddy. Nobody loves you,” he remembers a schoolmate saying.
Hargis’ memoir, My Great Mistake, carries no account of any joy as a child except that which he associates with his mother and father. No friends are mentioned. No romance. It’s easy to imagine that he carried this loss with him through his life. And that he tried to recapture it all too late—and the consequence was nearly his downfall.
Hargis spent most of his youth working. At age 12, Billy James started cooking and serving at the drug store counter, quickly moving up to be the front man for the drug department. By the age of 18, Hargis had become a travelling evangelist—spending just one semester in Bible college. During his late 20s, Hargis achieved global fame preaching the gospel and fighting communism.
Over the course of his ministry, Billy James Hargis amassed thousands of clippings from papers around the country in his quest to root out the communism he believed was infiltrating America’s churches, government, and the minds of its youth. The United Nations, homosexuals, hippies, the Kennedys, and the National Council of Churches were closely watched.
The Beatles caught Hargis’ eye as early as 1964. Margin notes on an article speculating on the dissolution of the Beatles reads, “Working for Satan naturally makes people nervous. Peace is found only in God. I believe opposition is forcing them on the shelf. I can’t see them doing it on their own.”
His fascination spread from the Beatles to the burgeoning youth culture of the late 1960s. Through the daily papers and news magazines, he followed closely the inevitable march to the Summer of Love in 1967. He saw American youth culture of the 1960s as enmeshed with the rise of “Satanic communism.”
Hargis wrote that he was called by God in 1969 to establish a college to provide a “conservative, evangelical, fundamental, anti-communist, anti-socialist, and pro-American curriculum.” By May 1970, the Oklahoma State Regents of Higher Education had approved a curriculum and, soon thereafter, the American Christian College was established in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In his memoir, Hargis lays out the warning signs preceding his removal from the American Christian College: hyper-Calvinists, ungrateful student assistants, power hungry deans. He even confesses his sins of “pride, unforgiveness, hatred, gossip, and the competitive urge to promote to make me a star in the religious world.” In October 1974, short articles in the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune reported that Hargis had suffered two strokes and had stepped down from the college to focus on his health.
It wasn’t until February 1976, that a different story emerged. The February 16 issue of Time magazine, reported that five students had stepped forward claiming to have had affairs with Hargis. Four of the students were men.
In the Time article, Hargis’ successor at American Christian College, David Noebel claimed that Hargis at a meeting in October 1974 had admitted to the indiscretions with the students and had blamed “genes and chromosomes” for his behavior. The article cited other anonymous witnesses to corroborate this claim. An investigation into the students’ accusations by the district attorney resulted in no complaint.
Hargis withdrew—but he took his immense donor lists with him. Efforts by Hargis to regain control of the college were fruitless. Without his leadership and connections, the college quickly fell apart. American Christian College closed its doors in 1977.
Of his travels in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with the musical production, An Evening with Billy James Hargis and His All American Kids, Hargis writes:
“While travelling with those young people, I really thought I had become one of them. Today, I wish that I had never ridden the bus with them, never laughed at their jokes, never heard their confessions, and never related to them on a one-on-one basis.
I thought I was winning their confidence, gaining their friendship and that this ‘closeness’ was the way to gain their loyalty. As it turned out, after years of travelling with me in ‘personal appearances,; I became so common that I lost my glamour and they lost their respect for me.
Those of us who suddenly become aware of getting older, need fellowship with youth. We want to be young, and we do feel young when we’re around young people. I ask God almost daily to forgive me for allowing a familiarity to exist that nearly ruined my life and my ministry.”
From a young age, Billy James Hargis was the minister—above the congregation; leading and teaching. Hargis preached the gospel. He believed in the salvation of man through the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The extents and influence of stardom explored by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones must have been magnetic—a stardom that far surpassed his own—and, in his eyes, a deliberate attempt to supplant Jesus Christ in the lives of youth. After a lifetime of being a star and pursuing the love of congregations—Billy James Hargis made an attempt to connect personally with the young people with whom he had never had a connection. He took a great risk stepping down from the pulpit and mingling with college students. The aura of the superstar was dispelled—and the real Billy James Hargis—the orphan—the unknown, the unwanted, the unloved—was once again rejected.
Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 21. Nov. 1, 2012.