This is probably the best biography I was able to find on Robert Tilton, the greedy televangelist who preys upon the larceny in the heats and minds of otherwise good, lw-abiding people who consider themselves to be find law-abiding, church -going Christians.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Robert Tilton (born June 7, 1946) is an American televangelist who achieved notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s through his paid television program Success-N-Life. At its peak, it aired in all 235 American TV markets. At the time the first investigations into Tilton's ministry occurred in 1991, his television ministry was airing daily in many of those 235 markets, and ABC's Primetime Live described it as "the fastest growing television ministry in America." Within two years after the investigations began, however, Tilton was completely off the airwaves. Tilton has since returned to the television airwaves via his new version of Success-N-Life airing on BET and other outlets catering to a largely African-American audience.
Biography and Early Years
According to Tilton's own autobiographical materials, Tilton had a conversion experience to Christianity in 1969 and began his ministry in 1974, taking his new family (including wife Martha "Marte" Phillips, whom he married in 1968) on the road to "preach this gospel of Jesus". Tilton "preach[ed] this gospel of Jesus" to small congregations and revivals throughout Texas and Oklahoma in the form of a "Word of Faith"-based ministry often preached by ministers like Kenneth Hagin, E.W. Kenyon, and Joel Osteen's father John, a Texas minister who was a contemporary of Tilton's and heavily influenced Tilton's own preaching style. Tilton and his family settled in Dallas, Texas and built a small church in Farmers Branch, Texas called the "Word Of Faith Family Church" in 1976. The church was growing steadily, but Tilton's many attempts to expand his televised ministry beyond local stations in the Dallas area were stalling until the aspiring minister went to Hawaii--his own self-described version of Jesus' forty days in the wilderness--and spent time fishing and watching an ever-growing new form of television called the "infomercial", particularly the successful ones made by real estate mogul Dave Del Dotto. Upon his return from Hawaii in 1981, Tilton--with the help of a $1.5M (US) loan from Dallas banker Herman Beebe--put together his new show, called Success-N-Life.
In Success-N-Life, Tilton regularly taught that all of life's trials, especially poverty, were a result of sin. Tilton's ministry revolved around the practice of making "vows", financial commitments to Tilton's ministry. When a person made a vow to Tilton (Tilton's preferred "vow", stressed frequently during his broadcasts, was $1,000), Tilton preached that God would recognize the vow and reward the donor with vast material riches. Though many televangelists spend significant time on their shows' broadcasts requesting money, a Dallas Morning News story published in 1992 observed that Tilton spent more than 84% of his shows' airtime for fundraising and promotions, as opposed to 5% from the television ministry of Billy Graham, and even more than the 22% for an average commercial television show. Other sources put the total time to closer to 68%, still high in comparison with many other prominent televangelist and even network television.
Thanks to Tilton's television success, the membership of the Word of Faith Family Church (by then renamed "Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center") grew to 8,000 members and was one of the most successful megachurches in the world at the time.
Tilton is the author of several self-help books about financial success, including The Power to Create Wealth, God's Laws of Success, How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally, and How to be Rich and Have Everything You Ever Wanted. Most of Tilton's books were published in the 1980s and distributed via promotion on Success-N-Life and through the many mailings Tilton's ministry sent his followers. The books were republished in the late 1990s and are now used as centerpieces of his current infomercial series.
Even before the ABC News investigation into his ministry, Tilton had controversy in his background. In a deposition video for a lawsuit that was taped August 18, 1992, Tilton admitted to having robbed a fruit stand as a teen and abused marijuana, LSD, and various barbituates as a young man prior to his conversion to Christianity in 1969. Tilton also admitted several times on Success-N-Life that he used to "drink lots of alcohol and use lots of drugs" before his conversion.
The biggest scandal of Tilton's career came about through a 1991 ABC News investigation into a group of three televangelists, Tilton being the most famous name among them. The investigation, spearheaded by Trinity Foundation president Ole Anthony and broadcast on ABC's Primetime Live on November 21, 1991, found that Tilton's ministry threw away prayer requests without reading them, keeping only any money or valuables sent to them by viewers, to the tune of more than $80 million (U.S.) a year.
Ole Anthony, a Dallas-based minister whose Trinity Foundation church works with the homeless and the poor on the East side of Dallas, had taken an interest in Tilton's ministry after some of the down-on-their-luck people coming to the Trinity Foundation for help told him they had lost all of their money making donations to some of the higher-profile televangelists, especially fellow east Dallas minister Robert Tilton. Curious about the pervasiveness of the problem, the Trinity Foundation got on the mailing lists of several televangelists, including Tilton, and started keeping records of the many types of come-ons they'd receive almost daily from big-media ministries. When former Coca-Cola executive Harry Guetzlaff came to the Trinity Foundation for help and told Anthony that Guetzlaff had been turned away from Tilton's church when he found himself on hard times following a divorce--even though he'd been a long-time high-dollar donor, giving up his last $5,000 as a "vow of faith" just weeks earlier--Anthony, a former intelligence officer in the United States Air Force and licensed private investigator, started working on gathering details on Tilton's operation.
When ABC producers, who had started working on their own investigation into a number of televangelists in early 1991, contacted the Trinity Foundation for information on Tilton, the two groups pooled their efforts. Anthony agreed to portray himself--a Dallas-based minister with a small church looking into how big-media ministries were able to grow so quickly--in a hidden camera operation to get behind the scenes at Response Media, the group handling Tilton's mass mailings. The director of Response Media told Anthony and the hidden cameras everything they needed to know, including the major revelation that the prayer requests not only were never read by Tilton, but that they were never even intended to be read by him; they were mere advertising gimmicks to get the donor to respond to the plea for fundraising and were forwarded unopened to the many banks the ministry used in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Trinity Foundation members, acting on this information, started digging through garbage dumpsters outside Tilton's banks and the office of Tilton's lawyer, J.C. Joyce, and found tens of thousands of discarded prayer requests, bank statements, computer printouts containing the coding for how Tilton's "personalized" letters were generated, and more, all of which were shown in detail on the Primetime Live documentary. In a follow-up broadcast on November 28, 1991, Primetime Live host Diane Sawyer said that the Trinity Foundation and Primetime Live assistants found prayer requests in bank dumpsters on 14 separate occasions in a 30-day period.
Tilton vehemently denied the allegations and took to the airwaves on November 22, 1991 on a special episode of Success-N-Life entitled "Primetime Lies" to air his side of the story. Tilton also asserted that the prayer requests found in garbage bags shown on the Primetime Live investigation were stolen from the ministry and placed in the dumpster for a sensational camera shot. Tilton also had an unusual explanation for a plastic surgery operation revealed by Primetime Live: apparently, the chemicals from the prayer requests also got into his eyes and created bags under them, which only plastic surgery could remove.
Primetime Live's investigation included interviews with several former Tilton employees. One of Tilton's former prayer hotline operators claimed that the ministry cared little for desperate followers who called for prayer, saying that Tilton had a computer installed in July 1989 to make sure the phone operators were off the line by seven minutes. In follow-up segments, Primetime Live interviewed Tilton's former maid, who claimed that prayer requests were sent to Tilton's house and were routinely ignored until he told her to move them out of the house and into the garage; according to the maid, "they stacked up and stacked up" in Tilton's garage until he had them thrown away. In the same interview, Tilton's former secretary came forward and claimed that Tilton lifted excerpts from "get-rich-quick" books and used them in his sermons, and that she never saw him perform pastoral duties such as visiting with the sick and praying with members.
Despite Tilton's repeated denials of misconduct, the state of Texas and the Federal government got involved in subsequent investigations, finding more causes for concern about Tilton's financial status with each new revelation. According to an October 1993 memorandum to Tilton's lawyer, J.C. Joyce, from Rev. James Eugene Ewing, Ewing used a computer demographics program that identifies and isolates some of America's poorest sub-ZIP codes to identify targets for Ewing's "St. Matthew's Churches" group clients--Tilton among them--to send mailings soliciting for new seed-faith "vows". The memo noted, among other details, that "[t]he size of each special area is about two to four city blocks[...][a]nd thank God there are tens of thousands of them across the nation." As each revelation became increasingly more damaging, viewership and donations declined dramatically, prompting Tilton to stop paying for television airtime for Success-N-Life in 1993, and the last episode aired nationally on October 30, 1993.
In 1992, Tilton sued ABC for libel because of its investigation and report, but the case was dismissed. Several donors to Tilton's television ministry sued Tilton himself in 1992 and 1993 charging various forms of fraud. One of the parties suing won $1.5M (US) in 1994 when it was discovered that a "family crisis center" for which they had made donations (and recorded an endorsement testimonial) was never built nor was ever intended to be built. The judgment was later reversed on appeal.
The decline of Success-N-Life also led to the end of Tilton's 25-year marriage to wife Marte, who had served as the administrative head of the Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center, in 1993.
Tilton returned to television in 1994 with a new show called Pastor Tilton, a show with an emphasis on the "demon blasting" practices of charismatic pastors Sam and Jane Whaley, whom Tilton credited for "casting out [his] own demons" in 1993. Tilton was introduced to the Whaleys by his new wife, televangelist Leigh Valentine, a former beauty queen who had her own "demon blasting" evangelical ministry; the couple were married in the Dominican Republic on February 10, 1994. Tilton installed Leigh as an associate pastor at Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center, and brought the "demon blasting" practice--shouting as loud as possible at demons possessing people suffering from pain and illness--to the church, a significant change from the Word-Faith prosperity doctrine that had defined the church since its founding.
Pastor Tilton was off the airwaves due to low ratings by the end of 1994. Tilton filed for divorce from Leigh in 1996 after a brief separation and reconciliation in November of 1995 and fired several Word of Faith Family Church employees brought in by Leigh. The Tiltons' divorce, marked by mutual acrimonious statements to each other through the media and courtroom claims by Leigh that she was verbally assaulted and physically abused by an often-drunk Tilton (along with alleged bizarre behavior by Tilton, such as proclaiming himself Pope and claiming that "rats were eating his brain"), was finalized in 1997.
Reviving Success 'N' Life
Robert and Maria Tilton, 2003
After moving to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1996, Tilton returned to the airwaves in 1997 with a new version of Success-N-Life, buying airtime on independent television stations primarily serving inner city areas. Gone were the "demon blasting" sessions; back again were the Word-Faith messages and calls for "vows". In 1998, the program began airing on cable channel BET as part of the late-night program BET Inspiration. As of 2006, Success-N-Life is still running as part of the BET Inspiration programming. Most of the episodes of Success-N-Life shown on BET Inspiration were taped in the late 1990s--with testimonials from 1980s-era episodes interspersed throughout the episodes--but Tilton has also recorded infomercials for his books at least once a year since 2003, often appearing with his third wife, Maria Rodriguez, and their four French poodles. These infomercials that also appear under the title of Success-N-Life on BET Inspiration.
Closing The Word of Faith Family Church
The Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center, whose membership had declined to fewer than 300 by 1996, was finally formally dissolved by Tilton. Though Tilton was still listed as the church's senior pastor, he had not preached at the church since March 16, 1996, when he named Chattanooga, Tennessee minister Bob Wright as senior associate pastor. The church building was purchased by the city of Farmers Branch in 1999 for use as a future civic center; however, the economy suffered a downturn and the plans were scrapped, and the building was finally demolished in 2003 to make room for a new youth hockey center.
When Tilton returned to television in 1997, he established his ministry's headquarters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his lawyer J.C. Joyce's offices were located, and set up a Post Office box as its mailing address. A woman employed by Mail Services, Inc., a Tulsa-area clearinghouse handling mail sent to Tilton's ministry, said that when she worked for Mail Services, Inc. in 2001, prayer requests were still routinely thrown away after donations, pledges, etc. were removed.
Founding a New Church
In March 2005, Tilton started a new church in Hallandale, Florida, not far from his home in Miami Beach. The church, Christ The Good Shepherd Worldwide Church, has approximately 150 members as of 2006. Tilton has also renamed his televangelist ministry "Christ The Good Shepherd Worldwide Church", though the old name ("Word Of Faith") is used alongside it. Tilton is also listed as the pastor and overseer of a smaller church of the same name in Las Vegas, whose resident pastor is Danny Rodriguez.
The Ongoing Trinity Foundation Investigation
As of 2006, the Trinity Foundation still monitors Tilton's television ministry as part of Trinity's ongoing televangelist watchdog efforts. In a 2003 interview published in Tulsa World, Ole Anthony estimated that with none of the Word of Faith Family Church overhead and television production costs at a fraction of the original Success-N-Life program, Tilton's current ministry was likely grossing more than $24M (U.S.) per year tax-free.
In 1985, two American men began distributing a video they compiled lampooning Tilton and his ostensible conversations with God. The video exploits Tilton's facial expressions and preaching style. Entitled Pastor Gas, the video featured a medley of footage from Success-N-Life, overdubbed with sound effects of well-timed flatulence. Unofficial VHS copies of the video circulated in the United States through the late 1980s, under such titles as Heaven Only Knows, The Joyful Noise, and The Farting Preacher. After the hosts of The Mark and Brian Show, a radio program in Los Angeles, mentioned the video on the air, the video's authors saw the market potential and began selling official copies of their creation. The video distribution (including digital bootlegs distributed online) expanded public awareness of Robert Tilton and his controversial "television ministry".
The stand-up comedy material of Ron White also includes mention of Robert Tilton. In the opening to White's act in the first Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie, Ron claims that "while sitting in a beanbag chair naked eating Cheetos," he finds Tilton on TV and believes Tilton is talking specifically to him: "Are you lonely?" "Yeah." "Have you spent half your life in bars pursuing sins of the flesh?" "Man, this guy's good..." "Are you sitting naked in a beanbag chair naked eating Cheetos?" Ron gapes in horror before squeaking, "...Yes sir!" "Are you going to get up and send me a thousand dollars?" (#pause for effect#) "Close! Thought he was talking about me for a second."
In the early 2000s, the Trinity Foundation put together a number of news broadcasts, including the initial Primetime Live piece, from the years surrounding the investigations into Tilton's ministry on a DVD entitled The Prophet of Prosperity: Robert Tilton and the Gospel of Greed. The DVD also includes segments from The Daily Show's "God Stuff" (hosted by Trinity Foundation member John Bloom, a.k.a. Joe Bob Briggs), excerpts from the "Pastor Gas" videos, and a number of mocking music videos, as well as moments from Success-N-Life showing Tilton's more outrageous claims of "visions from God
AND FROM ROTTEN.COM : A page devoted entry to Robert Tilton:
"Take the enclosed poster of me and put it up on your refrigerator or mirror, somewhere so you'll see it every day. Then for the next 21 days, lay your hand on top of mine and agree with me that you deserve a miracle."
In the late eighties and early nineties, television pastor Robert Tilton and his World Outreach Center Church perfected the half-hour religious infomercial. His "Success-N-Life" advertisements, which never actually subscribed to any specific faith, could be seen in all two hundred and fifty three U.S. television markets. For a good long while he managed to avoid the same media scrutiny responsible for bringing down Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and numerous others.
Apart from his frosted pompadour and Howdy-Doody dimples, what really set Mr. Tilton apart from the rest were his insane facial contortions, pregnant pauses, indecipherable babblings, and overarching hyperventilated enthusiasm for collecting money under the auspices of serving the Lord. The only thing more insane than his coke-induced, schizophrenic body language was his ridiculous collection of marketing materials, many of which have secured their rightful place in history as perhaps the most entertaining and curious novelties in the world of faith-based brand identity.
These trinkets were snatched up in the early 1990s by prank-calling teenagers or junk mail enthusiasts who had never seen anything like what Tilton would send to their house for free -- gifts given ostensibly for the purposes of instilling in the recipient an obligation to reciprocate financially. The mailings were often accompanied by testimonials: letters from former sufferers of peptic ulcers, layoffs, cigarette addiction, deadly spider bites, rebellious children, infertility, insomnia, and AIDS. They describe (in impish, hand-lettered fonts) how their lives were "turned around" after sending money to Tilton. Inevitably, these people find the act of telling their stories so profoundly moving that by the last paragraph, the caps lock has been fully deployed.
My two best friends had just sued me. My landlord had served me with an eviction notice. I was jobless and flat broke. I wouldn't answer the telephone because I knew it would be a bill collector. I was cowering in a chair with all my curtains closed. Heartbreaking love songs gushed from the stereo. I lit a joint. Robert Tilton was praying on TV. I can't explain it, but I heard him say, 'You. Right there. You're smoking a joint.' I dropped the joint and he said, 'You just dropped it.' I started crying. I KNEW IT WAS GOD TALKING TO ME.
Envelopes from Tilton were colorful inside and out, and plenty thick. They were described as "redemption packets," containing nearly ten back-to-back pages of typed and scribbled notations resembling the discarded napkin doodlings of a mental patient. Sometimes they contained "magic" pennies, cheap metal crosses on neck chains, rubber bands, complimentary stickers or vegetable seeds, packets of salt, lengths of yarn, swatches of carpet samples, even brown grass lawn clippings in plastic sandwich bags. Each was part and parcel of an intimate religious ceremony the recipient could conduct in the privacy of his or her own home.
"Right now this cloth is plain fabric," one fold-out poster reads. A swiftly scribbled arrow sweeps down the page, pointing to a 2-inch square of nylon-cotton blended silk, Scotch taped to a 3x5 index card. "But after you send it back with a $1000 vow, it will be a Miracle Cloth saturated with the presence of God. Open the enclosed package of special oil and anoint the point of your need. Let the Holy Spirit lead you in applying this Miracle Anointing Oil and Miracle Cloth in faith to pictures of your loved ones, to your billfold, to the doorposts of your home, to your body. However he shows you, apply this Miracle Cloth and Anointing Oil in faith for special miracles."
At his peak, Tilton was purchasing 5,000 hours of air time each month. His mass-market ministry pulled in an estimated $80 million per year, and his church drew as many as 5,000 worshippers to Sunday service. Tilton gleaned the donations by pitching a narrow, well-oiled version of the Pentecostal prosperity gospel: in exchange for a $1,000 vow, Tilton promised to lobby God for miraculous improvements to your health and finances. According to one survey, he spent 68 percent of his air time asking for money."If Jesus Christ were alive today and walking around, he wouldn't want his people driving Volkswagens and living in apartments," he was quoted as saying.
The Trinity Foundation, an aggressive televangelism watchdog group, took notice of Tilton's antics. Armed with a team of private investigators, the Foundation conducted trash sweeps of the dumpsters behind his ministry headquarters, and turned over their findings to Diane Sawyer and ABC Television's PrimeTime Live. ABC broadcast their report in November of 1991, including an interview with a woman who spent two days opening mail for Tilton. She told reporters that she and other workers were instructed to remove any cash, checks, or jewelry from the returned mailers, and throw the prayer requests written to Tilton (caution: spoilers) into the trash can.
"You're sat down in a cubicle and given a letter opener," she began. "You have bundles and bundles of mail and a trash bin beside you. You slice open the envelope, take the money out and throw the letter away in the bin. You cannot help but read them. All these letters were like, 'Pray for me,' because they were terminal or their son is terminal or there was no money for food. Desperate situations. There would be like $17, and the letter would say, 'I realize I have to give $2 more than I usually give'. You open enough envelopes to generate $1,000 an hour. It was unbelievable, literally unbelievable."
PrimeTime's ratings, which had been low, improved following the Tilton broadcast. Tilton's ministry suffered measurably from the fallout of videotaped evidence depicting thousands of torn-up prayer requests in Hefty-brand garbage sacks slogged away in the dumpsters.
In April of 1994, Tilton and his ministry were sued successfully for $1.5 million by Vivian Elliott, a woman who suffered from depression relating to childhood abuse. Vivian had attended a barbecue at her parents' house, after which she went home and wrote a suicide note to her husband and children. She drove to a wooded area and contemplated taking her own life, but while sitting in her car, she heard God tell her to return home -- which she did. The next morning, Vivian saw Tilton's Success-N-Life commercial, during which Tilton announced that he felt someone "depressed" was watching, and he instructed this unidentified person to call the Word of Faith prayer line immediately.
Mrs. Elliott felt as though Tilton was speaking directly to her, and that he had been sent by God to reinforce her religious experience from the night before. She called, and in addition to making a large monetary vow, Vivian was eventually persuaded to make a video testimonial for use on Tilton's television program. Although Tilton's representatives later denied any such representation, Mrs. Elliott testified that she was told that any money generated by the use of her testimonial would be used to set up a crisis center to help people who had suffered the same kind of abuse she had.
When Vivian finally saw the edited testimonial, she became very upset. Dramatic recreations meant to depict the type of abuse she suffered as a child had been exaggerated to cartoonish, embarrassing levels -- and despite her calls and letters to Word of Faith asking that the testimonial not be shown, Mrs. Elliott received no response.
The September 30, 1993 edition of the San Jose Mercury News reported that Tilton was finally going off the air, blaming damage done to his ministry by the information brought to light by PrimeTime Live. According to the article, "the ABC report alleged that Tilton never prayed personally over each letter as promised, and that a processing company in Tulsa threw out prayer requests after contributions were deposited in the bank." Tilton's lawyer insisted those allegations were incorrect.
Tilton's Word of Faith church was sold to the city of Farmers Branch, Texas, for $6.1 million in 1999. The Branch made plans to convert the 13-acre property into a convention center. Tilton used a portion of the money to settle a million-dollar fraud lawsuit filed by his first wife, Marte, in 1996.
After he and Marte divorced in 1993, Tilton married evangelist and former beauty queen Leigh Valentine. Valentine then turned around and divorced him two years later, citing constant abuse. He would throw her down stairs, slam her against walls, hurl cordless telephones at her head, drink himself into blind rages (often declaring he was the Pope) and wake up in the night screaming that rats were eating his brain. During divorce proceedings, she cited his constant paranoia and "disguise kits" (fake moustaches, $1200 custom-made wigs) which he'd wear frequently during their first year of marriage.
Tilton has since married a Florida woman, Maria Rodriguez. More than ten years after the collapse of his ministry, he's still reaching millions of television viewers from his mailing list -- and several years ago his televised informercials were picked up by Black Entertainment Television.
Since then, he's formed two companies, bought a 50-foot yacht, and nabbed a piece of oceanfront property in Miami Beach valued at $1.3 million. To this day, Tilton is universally recognized as the unwitting star of the "Pastor Gas" or "Farting Preacher" series of underground videotapes -- a montage of scenes from his insane television broadcasts, with funny fart noises layered into the soundtrack and synchronized with his constipated facial expressions.
WOULD YOU GIVE YOUR HARD-EARNED MONEY TO THIS MAN?
Farmers Branch, Texas