Editor's Note: From 1962 to 1978, Bob Harrington, the "Chaplain of Bourbon Street," was arguably one of the best known, and inarguably one of the most flamboyant ministers in America. His decline and fall took him off the front pages of newspapers and the circuit of television talk shows into a life he freely acknowledges of a highly public backslider.
Bob Harrington has come home, and in this interview he candidly details how his highly publicized fall, and his less publicized return to the Lord came about.
We offer this to our readers as both a warning and as a testimony to the forgiveness and grace of our Lord.
SBC LIFE Tell us how you came to know the Lord.
BH I gave my heart to the Lord at the age of 30 the night the Holy Spirit let me see myself a sinner. I was a Methodist visiting a Baptist church in my little hometown of Sweetwater, Alabama with twenty-eight people in the crowd. I was the only one that made a decision that night.
SBC LIFE Most people may remember you as the Chaplain of Bourbon Street. Tell us about your New Orleans ministry.
BH Three days after I was saved the church asked me to come back and give my testimony. That's when I was called to preach, that night during the invitation. I was thrilled to death that He included me as a preacher. It's amazing who God calls to preach.
A year later I took my wife and my two daughters and moved to New Orleans to go to seminary. The first week I was there I met Dr. J.D. Grey, the pastor of New Orleans First Baptist. I said, "Dr., if you'll hire me here at the church to be a personal soul winner, I'll guarantee you seven people every Sunday coming forward." For six months I brought people by letter, or statement, or rededication, or on a profession of faith. I've always taken personal soul winning serious.
Dr. Grey was my mentor and my hero. I admired him. At the time he was the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, trying to clean up New Orleans. I told him, "Well, I'll help you with that." He was targeting Mafia chieftain Carlos Marcello at the time, so I made an appointment to go see Marcello and I had the joy of winning him to the Lord.
I also started a radio broadcast on Saturday nights. I was on the air from 12:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. with a speaker system outside on the street. I started drawing larger crowds on Saturday nights than the strip clubs. People would come to hear me preach and hear gospel music. The mayor of New Orleans was running for re-election, and he came by my office one Saturday night during my radio broadcast. I interviewed him, and he said, "You're kind of like the chaplain of Bourbon Street, aren't you Brother Bob?" I said, "Mayor, why don't you make this official as of right now." He said, "What?" I said, "Name me." He said, "I proclaim you Chaplain of Bourbon Street." That's how it started.
SBC LIFE Bob, your positive spirit and attitude are quite unusual.
BH Oh, yeah! He has refreshed it so beautifully here the last few years. I'm a totally different person than the person people knew back years ago. I've gone through the college of chastisement. I've had majors in purging, and pruning. I know what it's like to be cleaned out by the Lord and filled up with the Holy Spirit.
SBC LIFE Bob, you had a collapse of almost your whole life. What started your downfall?
BH Three things got me: fame, finance, and frolic. I was going strong with my little radio program there. Then after the mayor named me Chaplain of Bourbon Street the Governor of Louisiana named me Ambassador of Goodwill to America.
Early on I had trouble paying $500 a week rent for the office on Bourbon Street. But the next thing you know, $500 a week income was changing into $5,000 a week. The "kingdom of thing-dom" started getting more of my attention than the Kingdom of God. I was on nationwide television in four hundred and seventy cities. Everything was going good. Then, Phil Donahue had me on his pilot show. The other guest that day was Madeline O'Hare. That show took Donahue into nationwide syndication. He had us back eighteen times after that. She became a springboard toward my own national recognition, but also a witnessing tool for the Lord. Once people saw the condition of an atheist they wanted to become believers.
I challenged her to meet me in different cities. There were thirty-eight different cities where we would meet in the civic auditorium or the municipal auditorium, and have confrontations on the stage. It became quite popular. We were on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and The Merv Griffin Show.
I had fame, but when you get famous you start thinking, "Look at what I'm doing." After I got saved, I grew too fast — I didn't have a good, stable foundation. It's nobody's fault but mine, but when you get invitations to come give your testimony, you start adding more dates to it. I had to drop out of seminary because I was preaching two revivals a month. I was so caught up in being an evangelist. Money gets to flowing and you find yourself riding in a big customized bus, you find yourself flying in a Lear jet, and you find your staff members picking up your briefcases. Unless you've got a solid base, you can really fall into this. I started believing all my cockiness and all my press releases — and that precedes the fall.
Fame did that. And finance — you get money in your hand, and you're the president and the treasurer. Signatures are pretty easy to come by. The folks were just giving and giving.
Frolic — after a while you got those Bathsheba's, Delilah's, and Jezebel's out there in the church world – not the Bourbon Street world — that kind of temptation didn't bother me because I knew they were notoriously wicked. But these were sweet, little ol' church members. They start telling you how nice and neat you are, and how big and strong you are. Your wife isn't telling you that any more because she knows what you're turning into.
All those things — fame, finance, and frolic — led me to catch a pass that Satan threw at the peak of my success. And that pass — I caught that sucker, and ran for defeat. When you break that pass down, P. A. S. S., it's pride, arrogance, self-centeredness, and stubbornness. That stole my first love away from me, and that's when I fell.
SBC LIFE What did you do after your ministry was forfeited, Bob?
BH I gravitated into motivational speaking. I moved from the church world to the corporate world. I spoke to some 200 of the Fortune 500 group. They were paying me $2,500 a lick, and I was selling motivational tapes by the hundreds. I had money coming in. I became an evangelist/entrepreneur, a preacher for profit and pleasure. I did all the Century 21 and ReMax regions — I spoke everywhere. Doors kept on opening until the prodigal started to waste. You know you can make a few million a year, but if you spend a million more that year, it doesn't take long before you start going down. By that time, my wife had already filed for divorce against me.
SBC LIFE Bob, how long were you away from the Lord?
BH Too long. I was away about seventeen years. I regret every day of it.
SBC LIFE How did you make it through those days?
BH I made it through those days with the pleasure of "sin for a season," enduring life instead of enjoying life. Enduring is when you settle for less, and of course prodigals settle for less. They've lost all the joy of the salvation, they've lost the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they've lost all the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But when you have a good case of arrogance, you really don't give a hoot!
That's the problem with most Christians who are away from God today – they just don't care. That's one of the attitudes that Satan gives you. When someone has the pride and arrogance, he says, "I want what I want when I want it!" There's no human being more stubborn than a prodigal son. A prodigal is a problem causer for the Kingdom of God. The number one problem in America today is not unbelievers on the street, but Christians who are in the closet. What I hope to do with the future is help some of those back out, to get them back out in active duty.
SBC LIFE How did the Lord get your attention and finally bring you to repentance?
BH I continued in my backsliding and got myself to such a low level. I had pigs in my life. I was having to buy friends, to entertain friends, to do everything I could to get somebody to be friendly with me. I was living in and out of situations that were not spiritual, and things kept on going like that.
Then ten years ago I was at the Airport Hilton in Miami. I was wearing all this gaudy stuff that you have to wear as a successful sales person. I had a gold medal around my neck, an $18,000 Rolex watch, and a five-carat diamond ring. I was wearing ostrich boots and a $2,500 suit. Here's this boy from Sweetwater, Alabama who didn't have anything most of my life, and now I have all this money flowing and everything going like it should.
But that night when I checked into my room, somebody wanted all I had more than me, because they had made arrangements to rob me. They tipped the bellman enough to let them into my room before I got there. They must have been hiding out on the balcony. Later that night they came in and beat the tar out of me. I didn't wake up for three days. When I woke up it took me hours to be able to see again. I had blood all over me. They had taken the heel of my $1,800 ostrich boots and beat the slop out of my head.
I said, "God, if I've ever seen handwriting on a wall, that's the most vivid handwriting I've ever seen," and the Lord said, "I let them whip you up pretty good, but I didn't let them kill you because I've got plans for your future you don't even know about." That was an awful scene to go through. I went home to try and recuperate a little bit, and then flew out to Los Angeles where I took a Metropolitan Life job.
After Satan has strained you on pride and self-centeredness and stubbornness, he makes one final suggestion. You've pretty much lost all your former friends; all your good contacts are gone. Everybody's dropped you but your mother, and maybe your daughters and a few friends, and you can't even remember who they might be.
At the Sheraton Hotel on the seventh floor, Satan made his final suggestion to somebody he's ripped, and drained, and robbed, and stolen. After virtually everything I had was gone, he says, "Why don't you take your life now? Nobody wants you." I'd asked people to stop calling me Brother Bob, because that bothered me. I'd ride for blocks to keep from seeing a church steeple. First thing I would do in a motel room is put the Gideon Bible in the dresser drawer so I wouldn't have to face my conscience. So when he said, "Why don't you take your life?" it sounded tempting. I looked out that seventh floor window and thought a jump might do it.
Then the phone rang — God's timing is amazing — and I picked up the phone, not expecting a call. Someone said, "Hello, Brother Bob!" I said, "My God, Brother Bob sounds so good!" I said, "Who is this?" He said, "This is your friend, Rex Humbard. I'm just calling you to tell you how much I love you. I'm just calling to tell you that we miss you. I just want to ask you, don't you want to come back to the family of God? Don't you want to come back and be restored? Don't you want to do what David did? Don't you want to renew a right spirit?" He said, "I'm standing here by the 7-Eleven store in Monterey, California with my wife Maude Aimee, and God just put you on my heart so strongly, that I called to find out where you were. I located your phone number, and I'm talking to you. Is it all right?"
I said, "You don't know how alright it is!" Boy, if I had ever reached a point of no return, and wanted somebody to love on me, that was the time.
He said, "I'm looking at the 51st Psalm right here, that David wanted the joy of his salvation restored." He said, "You're the one that came out with that phrase, 'It's fun being saved.' Don't you want that back?"
I said, "Rex, you don't know how much I want it back! You suppose God would take me back? Would God forgive me?"
He said "Oh yeah! He wants you back! We want you back!"
I said, "Pray with me, help me do what I need to do." He was able to lead me in a prayer of restoration, a prayer of forgiveness, a prayer of holy, righteous cleansing, and right there on my knees of that hotel room in the Los Angeles Airport, with Rex Humbard standing by the phone outside of the 7-Eleven store, God brought me back to a restored life.
SBC LIFE Amen! Praise God!
BH Oh, I do! People need to get that phone call. Sometimes there's somebody we could just call. They might be in their arrogant stage, and may not be ready right then, but they'll never forget it. They'll never forget that people love them and care for them. Sometimes we get so excited about reaching the lost in our churches today, we forget the left. Those who have left can bring back hundreds of lost people, if we can get them back where they ought to be. We want to judge them instead of love them. We want to kick them instead of lift them up. If I've ever seen a time where we need an epidemic of Good Samaritans loving the hurting, it's now, like never before.
SBC LIFE What are the great lessons you've learned through this sojourn?
BH Don't sin! Cut out your sinning! Walk with the Lord daily. Keep that armor on even when you're asleep. Be sure your sword is always sharp with your Bible study and prayer. I'm closer to the Lord than I've ever been. I didn't even know you could be as saved as I am right now. I never knew that joy could be as clean and pure and holy as it is right now because I never preached on holiness, or righteousness. I've learned that I've got to walk daily with the Lord.
SBC LIFE You were not just a Christian, but a very well known Christian leader. What advice would you give to pastors or other Christian leaders to help them protect their relationships with their family and the Lord?
BH Surround yourself with righteous people. Never be anywhere without righteous people knowing who you are, where you're going, and what you're doing. Fellowship with those kinds of people. Keep yourself surrounded with people who can lift up your arms when you are weak, and keep you closer to God. Be around people you can encourage, and who can encourage you. Avoid anything that might lead to something wrong.
And don't laugh at backsliders. I had a pastor tell me the other day about a member of his church, "Oh, he's just a back-slider." I said, "Man, don't laugh at that person, that's the loneliest person around." Learn to love.
Another thing that will keep pastors close to God is this: a witness a day will keep backsliding away. When you witness for Jesus every day, it will help keep your heart clean. So many times we get to counting noses and we get into the building program. We've got to do that too, but sometimes we get too professional. Don't become so professional that you don't need the power of God in you every day life.
SBC LIFE Tell us about your desire to work with churches and the Christian public.
BH I want to go to as many of our churches across the Convention as I can. I plan to do as much as I can to stir our churches, encourage our pastors, and strengthen our deacon leadership in churches. I want to take boldness and courage into God's family in the local churches across America. I want Sunday School teachers to know that an empty chair in a Sunday School class is a red-light witnessing tool. They need to know some daddy needs to be in that chair, some mama, some son, some daughter needs to be in that chair. I have an empty-chair-phobia. When I see an empty chair, it frightens me. This is the emphasis I want to bring to the leadership of these churches.
SBC LIFE You said Christians must protect their testimony with their life. Is that your message now?
BH That's it! I want my hearers and readers to know the value of a personal testimony. It's the most valuable possession a human being can have, way above house, home, education, health, and family. When you lose your testimony, there's so much more that you've lost. I want to warn the people that when you start the down road, there are so many things that you're going to lose — things that you don't know about. Family is just one part, money is just one part, you also lose character and integrity, love and appreciation, happiness and joy.
Get it off the back burner! Bring it out and use it. Get it out of the closet. There are family members who have never heard their dad's testimony, or their sister's or their brother's testimony. There should be testimony times within the homes. There should be testimony times when you have friends to come and visit. Every Christian's home should be a testimony site. The neighbors should know that that family loves the Lord. They should know when they were saved, where they were saved, how they were saved.
Do you know how much professional athletes train to keep in shape, to keep their image and keep their job? People should take the same care with their testimony, it's more important than your health or your wealth. That's the focus of my direction the rest of my life — helping people protect their personal testimony with their lives.