Biography of Religious Con-Man Marjoe Gortner

About the famous religious con-man Marjoe Gortner, history and biography of the man who exposed his scams.


Marjoe Gortner was not the 1st person to turn religion into a con game. But he was the 1st to expose himself, and all the tawdry tricks of his trade, in a feature-length movie.

His cinematic confessional, released in mid-1972, was a momentary cause celebre of the new film journalism. But in the larger tradition of American Protestant revivalism, Marjoe will probably be best remembered for his scandalizing departure from the salvation circuit.

His early ministry was bizarre enough. His parents were California evangelists who knew from the beginning they had a potential preaching superstar on their hands. They named their infant son Marjoe: a contraction of Mary and Joseph. At 3 he was ordained in the Church of the Old Time Faith, in Long Beach. At 4 1/2 he performed his 1st marriage, causing a legal flap and eventually a change in California law to require marrying ministers to be at least 21.

According to the filmed self-expose, Marjoe's parents relentlessly drove him toward even more garish success. For the next 10 years he was carried around to independent Pentecostal churches and tent meetings throughout the South and Midwest. On stage he was a costumed, blue-eyed, pipe-voiced marionette animated by divine inspiration--or so his rapt country audiences fervently believed. Backstage he was a small, frightened boy, carefully coached by parents who sometimes held his head under water to discipline him to learn his lines.

At 14 he ran away and was taken in by an older woman who became both substitute mother and his mistress. She gave him a home while he attended high school in Santa Cruz and worked as a boardwalk hawker, auctioneer, and small-time rock musician. At San Jose State College he was baptized in civil rights, the youth revolution, and psychedelics.

He resolved to return to preaching. This time, however, he would sermonize on the God within. The fabulous Marjoe would return to his vulnerable backwoods Christians, using the pulpit to turn them on to social change and the new consciousness of the late 1960s.

It was a colossal bust. The faithful sat unmoved beneath the canvas tent. Crowds dwindled. Host pastors asked: "When are you going to preach of the blood, Marjoe? When are you gonna preach on the fire?" Frustrated by the flop of his radical revivals, Marjoe grimly decided to give them the show they wanted.

Calculating the effect of his body and voice on the emotions, he would strut, leap, and twitch himself into religious frenzy. Frankly copying the hand-on-hip swagger of Rolling Stone singer Mick Jagger, Marjoe thrilled worshipers, many of whom no doubt believed rock 'n' roll to be the work of the devil. As a hip Elmer Gantry, he was the soul of hypocrisy. Hard-earned dollars were heaped on the stage. Brother Marjoe, beaming with heavenly grace, raked them in.

Four and a half years later he wanted out. He also wanted to be a movie star. He achieved both desires by starring in an 83-minute cinema verite expose of himself and his racket. In 1972-1973 Marjoe, the movie, played to tens of thousands of Americans, most of whom would never dream of attending a revival. Fundamentalist preachers said the man who had deceived them was obviously controlled by Satan. Sophisticates pointed out that they had said all along that such people are usually charlatans.

As for Marjoe, he began to wonder about the long-term value of being the newest centerpiece at chic Eastern parties; he wondered, too, whether his fledgling career as an actor would ever get him away from roles that typecast him as a wayward clergyman.

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