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Europe: Obituary -- U.S. Balloon Evangelist Fought Communism With Bibles

  • Don Hill

Billy James Hargis, a U.S. evangelist who attracted international attention for sending thousands of Bible tracts from West Germany into Russia, Czechoslovakia, and other communist nations during the early Cold War, has died at the age of 79. Hargis leaped over German objections and numerous organizational hurdles to get his balloon ministry off the ground. He built a nationwide evangelical ministry and kept it going for half a century through personal scandal, organizational problems and -- in recent years -- disabling Alzheimer's disease.

Prague, 3 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It was 1953. The Cold War was young.

Hargis -- an eloquent, some said "glib" -- evangelist from the United States arrived in occupied West Germany with an extravagant idea. He planned to help save the world from Godless communism by sending excerpts from the Christian Bible across the Iron Curtain in helium-filled balloons.

A big man both in physique and personality, Hargis began preaching as a teenager. Over his lifetime he wrote 100 books and thousands of articles and pamphlets and published a monthly newspaper.

Hargis' son, Bill Hargis Jr., says that when his father died on 27 November, his "Christian Crusade" ministry still was seeking to improve the world by spreading the Biblical message.

"He had the 'Christian Crusade' newspaper at the end. But it used to be a magazine before that and a newsletter before that. So it's gone through various permutations. But that's been the main outreach of the ministry. We've also been in recent years ...We've been sending Bibles to Africa," Hargis said.
"President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower had personally intervened and given him permission to launch these balloons."

But the singular activity that first focused world attention on Hargis was the balloon ministry in the 1950s.

Radio Free Europe in those days was using balloons to float information into the Eastern bloc about broadcast schedules and radio program content. Hargis says the publicity this received may have prompted the idea of using the same method to spread the Biblical message.

"Well, Reverend Carl McIntyre had an organization up in the Northeast that my father became associated with. And McIntyre was extremely impressed by my father. And he asked him to take command of this mission to get Bible tracts into the Eastern bloc nations," Hargis said.

Hargis said his father eagerly took up the challenge.

"[He] went to Germany and acquired the balloons. Found out what-all was involved in the way of...found out what was involved in the way of what would be needed for the helium and the wind currents and so forth and, actually, it was two workers from Radio Free Europe that helped him acquire a lot of this information that he needed," Hargis said.

But the government of West Germany, preoccupied with reconstruction after the ravages of war, was not so pleased. It refused to allow Hargis to use its territory as a base for wafting the Bible eastward. Hargis vented his frustration at a press conference. Then he boarded a ship to return to the United States, planning to petition the State Department for help.

But, as his son recalls, that move was preempted by good news in New York.

"Well, when he arrived in New York City, the press was there to meet him. I mean he had a full contingent of press that was there to inform him that [U.S.] President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower had personally intervened and given him permission to launch these balloons. So the launch took place and many, many subsequent launches," Hargis said.

Over four years, Hargis floated a million balloons over the Iron Curtain with scripture "to succor the spiritually starved captives of communism."

Yet few people today remember his balloon ministry. A book was written about it. And it was mentioned in some newspaper obituaries after his death.

Hargis himself later turned to radio and revivalist preaching in the United States. He built a large evangelical -- that is, Bible-oriented -- organization in that country. More than 500 radio and 250 television stations carried his broadcast ministry at its peak.

A poster boy for the old American right, Hargis boldly criticized big-name liberals of his day such as President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He accused the television networks of ignoring the communist threat and insisted that the assassinations of the Kennedys and King were a communist plot to smear American conservatives.

The minister was involved in a widely publicized sex scandal in 1976. Also, he was embroiled in a long battle with U.S. tax authorities, who charged that his multi-million dollar organization was not entitled to tax-free status because it combined politics with religious activities.

These setbacks weakened Hargis' ministries. But he continued to seek to spread the Christian Bible message internationally. He founded the David Livingstone Missionary Foundation, which operated hospitals, orphanages, leprosy villages, medical vans and missions in Korea, Hong Kong India, the Philippines and Africa. He continued to the end to combine patriotic fervor with his religious fervor.

Over the last decade, Alzheimer's disease progressively weakened and disoriented the evangelist. He spent the last few months of his life in a church hospice near his home in Tulsa, in the Midwestern U.S. state of Oklahoma. Hargis says that as his father hovered near death in recent weeks, he still could be aroused by a patriotic call.

"One day he was sitting there -- and he would kind of sit with his eyes closed in the wheelchair -- and they would bring different groups in to entertain [the hospice patients]. And somebody began to play 'The Star Spangled Banner.' And my father lifted himself out of that chair without assistance. And he recognized that 'Star Spangled Banner.' And he wanted to stand up for the national anthem," Hargis said.

Hargis was buried in Tulsa. He is survived by his wife, Betty Jean, three daughters and two sons.