Heels in the Pulpit: Professional Wrestling in the Age of the 1980s Televangelism Scandals

By Charles Westmoreland, Jr.

If anything about professional wrestling can be called unusual, then the February 13, 1988 episode of Championship Wrestling fit that description. A one-hour production for the Memphis-based Continental Wrestling Association (CWA), Championship Wrestling aired every Saturday morning on WMC TV in Memphis and was syndicated in markets such as Nashville, Tupelo, Louisville, and Evansville. This particular episode featured a tag-team match involving Jim and Tommy Baker, also known as “The Choir Boys,” and their opponents, Ricky Nelson and Ron Nations.

Before the match started, a church organ played as The Choir Boys and their manager, Brother Ernest Angel, came out to the studio set for an interview with longtime Memphis wrestling announcer Lance Russell. Brother Ernest was dressed in a dark suit. He held a black, leather-bound book that looked strikingly similar to a Bible. His Choir Boys wore flashy robes and carried a podium that served as Brother Ernest’s pulpit. Russell looked back to his broadcast partner, Memphis weatherman Dave Brown, and asked jokingly, “Are we here for the wrong day? Is this the right program?” Speaking with the sounds and cadences of a southern evangelical preacher, Brother Ernest explained to “Brother Russell” that he had received a calling “to clean up professional wrestling in the Mid-South area.” Too many “backsliders” and cheaters had infiltrated the business, Brother Ernest noted, although he was not clear on what he meant by backsliding and who those backsliders actually were.

Jim and Tommy Baker cleaned up their opponents in short order by deploying several illegal double-team tactics and a flying elbow for the finishing move. Immediately following the match, Brother Ernest returned to the announcers’ table and elaborated on his calling. “We’ve had a calling to build Wrestling Village USA. This will be a place that will have time share condominiums, a 22 story hotel, a 24 hour restaurant,” Brother Ernest testified to Russell, the arena audience, and those watching at home. Wrestling Village USA, according to Brother Ernest, would be a safe haven for those who needed an escape from the terrible ways of wrestling cheaters and backsliders. Russell questioned the manager’s calling and exposed his rank hypocrisy by pointing out the dirty tactics used by the Choir Boys. Brother Ernest was determined to control the interview, so he pulled out a letter to demonstrate the devotion of his “followers.” An elderly couple informed Brother Ernest that “we have sold our home, our car, and all our furnishings and are moving to a county nursing home. Enclosed you will find a check for $176,000 for your wrestling cause.” Before the interview ended, wrestler Gorgeous Gary Young came out to join Brother Ernest’s flock. “I heard the calling,” said the mustachioed Young as Brother Ernest lifted his hands and began to clap mockingly toward the jeering fans. Wrestling fans in the Mid South area had found themselves a new “heel” (wrestling parlance for villain) to despise. He came in the form of a fake preacher ripped straight from the tawdry headlines of the late 1980s televangelism scandals.[1]

As French theorist Roland Barthes explained in his influential 1955 essay, “The World of Wrestling,” professional wrestling functions as a “spectacle of excess” by creating an exaggerated, symbolic platform for the struggle between good and evil. Here, the pursuit of justice and the quest for righteous punishment are played out artistically as sweaty men, as well as women, grapple inside and outside the ring. Good guys (often known as “baby faces” or simply “faces” in modern wrestling) and villains square off in a dramatic setting that, according to Barthes, “is no more ignoble to attend…than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.” That professional wrestling matches have predetermined outcomes holds little relevance for scholars of this “stage-managed sport.” What matters is that these scripted physical contests offer a window into certain social, cultural, and political contexts and values.[2]

In professional wrestling, various types of characters advance plots that highlight the battle between good and evil. Usually, these characters wrestle inside the ring. Many times, however, managers and other personalities who do not possess the strength, skill-sets, stamina, or desire to hop in the squared circle become pivotal to wrestling storylines. In From Wrestling to Rasslin’: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle, Gerald Morton and George O’Brien contend that the wrestling manager provided the best dramatic effect when playing the role of heel. The manager usually did plenty of talking and denigrated the good guys as a way to set up feuds and draw fan hatred, otherwise known as “heat.” The presence of the manager ensured “that there will be no fair fight before the match is through,” write Morton and O’Brien. Managers often injected themselves into matches by delivering foreign objects to their charges so that opponents can be defeated swiftly and decisively but never ethically. Wrestling managers, simply put, were “leeches who live off the blood and sweat of others. They are, therefore, contemptible creatures.”[3]

Throughout its history, modern professional wrestling has relied on cultural stereotypes and current events to create characters, develop plots, and connect with audiences in particular times and places. In the American South, for example, “the sport has been replete with hillbillies, rednecks, and good ol’ boys” whose appeal and popularity have been contingent upon changing notions of southern identity and national perceptions of the region. According to Louis Kyriakoudes and Peter Coclanis, wrestlers such as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, The Fabulous Freebirds, and The Honky Tonk Man spoke to stereotypes and values associated with the South and, as a result, were good fodder for wrestling characters in the 1970s and 1980s.[4] In an article on the Iron Sheik, Sina Rahmani has explored how the top wrestling villain of the early 1980s embodied tensions and hatreds surrounding the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Cold War, and longstanding problems of Orientalism.[5] Writing nearly fifty years ago, Barthes understood the symbolic importance of wrestling in Cold War America when he exclaimed that, in the “mythological fight between Good and Evil,” the heel was “supposed to be a Red.”[6]

Professional wrestling entered uncharted territory, first with the character of Brother Ernest Angel, and later through the more well-known Brother Love of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE). Although the charlatan preacher and scam artist had been a notable figure in twentieth-century American culture from the scandalous Aimee Semple McPherson to Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, the wrestling business had long erected a high wall separating church and ring. Religion was just too touchy of a subject to bring into the world of wrestling. The televangelism scandals of the late 1980s, more specifically, the financial corruption and sexual indiscretions plaguing the ministries of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, opened the door to creating characters out of prominent religious figures.

The connections between Brother Ernest’s character and the televangelists were clear and direct. The storyline of building Wrestling Village USA, for instance, came straight from Bakker’s Heritage USA amusement park in Rock Hill, South Carolina. During the 1970s and 1980s, Bakker and his wife, the colorful and charismatic Tammy Faye, became stars and innovators in the field of televangelism. Their Charlotte-based Praise the Lord ministry and television broadcasts brought them fame and fortune. With plenty of smiles, music, hokey skits, and pleas for donations, Bakker attempted to fund the elaborate theme park through a time share, or “partnership,” system of funding. A “Disneyland for the devout,” Heritage USA promised to deliver good, wholesome, Christian fun for families who felt alienated from the crassness of modern popular culture. Due to financial mismanagement and fraud, however, Heritage USA and the Bakker ministry became embroiled in a series of scandals that landed Bakker in prison for five years. If that were not enough, Bakker faced rape allegations from former PTL secretary, Jessica Hahn.[7] Jimmy Swaggart had his own problems. The popular Pentecostal minister from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had railed against sexual immorality in American culture only to be exposed as a hypocrite through his own liaisons with a New Orleans prostitute.[8] Like Swaggart, Brother Ernest was the ultimate hypocrite. He decried the cheaters and backsliders of wrestling yet was without peer when it come to employing illegal, underhanded tactics. His “Good Book,” it turned out, was used as a weapon of wrestling destruction. Brother Ernest’s Bible thumping enabled his heel wrestlers to win many matches.

Tom Sturdivant brought the character of Brother Ernest Angel to life several months after the Bakker and Swaggart scandals broke in 1987. The owner of a limousine business in Nashville, Sturdivant first caught the attention of CWA wrestling promoters Jerry Jarrett and Jerry “The King” Lawler in the 1980s. Sturdivant had a connection to Jarrett through his children, who went to school with Jeff Jarrett, a future wrestling star and promoter in his own right. The senior Jarrett informed Lawler, his business partner and Memphis wrestling legend, about Sturdivant’s ability to do “this great Evangelist rap.” According to Lawler, “The evangelism business is very much like the wrestling business” and Sturdivant sounded like a preacher who had the ability to “work the crowd” and draw heat from fans. Sturdivant admitted that he had a charismatic way of talking that prompted people to say, “You should have been a preacher.”[9]

Sturdivant was able to work the evangelist angle for good reason. He spent time as fundraiser for a prominent televangelist during the 1970s. In an interview conducted in 2002, Sturdivant claimed that this person was a “very strong televangelist” but did not want to disclose the name.[10] Lawler, however, revealed that person’s identity in his autobiography, It’s Good to Be The King…Sometimes. It was Jimmy Swaggart. Sturdivant gave credit to “The King” for mentoring him and helping him apply his “evangelistic ways” to professional wrestling. Lawler, recalled Sturdivant, was responsible for “putting me in the ring and showing me what to do” and giving Sturdivant his wrestling moniker, which was inspired by the TV preacher Reverend Ernest Angley[11]. As for The Choir Boys, the names Jim and Tommy Baker were not coincidental.

Years later in an interview, Sturdivant remained adamant that this character was merely a gimmick. He insisted that neither he nor anyone in the CWA intended to “lambaste or make fun of any religion or anything.” Sturdivant’s intentions notwithstanding, “the switchboard would light up at WMC” with offended viewers claiming that Brother Ernest was mocking religion. Russell confronted Brother Ernest about these complaints in an on-air interview. Disingenuously and in almost comical fashion, Brother Ernest tried to act like his character had nothing to do with religion. He said he never claimed to be a pastor. The podium he used was a mere podium, not a pulpit. The black book he carried around was a “Good Book” and not the Bible. Brother Ernest never mentioned God or Jesus throughout his tenure with CWA, but the metaphors and symbolism were obvious.[12]

For the next three months, Brother Ernest became well known throughout the Mid South territory. Along with Young and the Choir Boys, Max Pain, the Great Samu, Giant Kokina (later known as the WWF wrestler Yokozuna), the Cuban Assassins (later known as the Cuban Choir Boys), Brickhouse Brown, and Don Bass were managed by Brother Ernest. Pain and Young got the greatest push from the CWA promotion team while other members of Brother Ernest’s “coalition” wrestled in relative obscurity. Pain was a towering behemoth who possessed great agility and speed for a man of his large size. Prior to joining forces with Brother Ernest and teaming with Young, Pain had recently defeated the Mid South fan-favorite Jerry Lawler for the CWA heavyweight championship, something that helped draw heat to the character of Brother Ernest. During their time with Brother Ernest, Pain and Young became embroiled in a feud with Ron and Don Harris, identical twins known as the Bruise Brothers. On several occasions, Brother Ernest helped Pain and Young hold onto their championship belts by walloping the Bruise Brothers with the “Good Book,” which was weighted down with a foreign object. Eventually, though, the good guys won the belts in a plotline that involved Mark Miller, lead singer of the country music group Sawyer Brown.[13]

In addition to his literal Bible-thumping tactics, Brother Ernest also played the annoying antagonist to the lead announcers of Championship Wrestling. He often accused Russell and Brown of being biased toward his stable of wrestlers. When Russell and Brown called out Brother Ernest’s wrestlers for cheating, the evangelist manager grew noticeably offended and angry on the set. On one occasion, he even accused Russell and Brown of being “heathens” while Russell referred to him as “Moneybags.” Brother Ernest used his air time to complain about poor refereeing and trade barbs with booing members of the studio audience, which strengthened his credentials as a heel who could draw heat.[14]

Brother Ernest also conducted sporadic segments called “Quiet Time with Brother Ernest.” These appearances were designed to boost Brother Ernest’s status as a fraudulent heel by promoting the building of Wrestling Village USA. Like any good televangelist, Brother Ernest closed “Quiet Time” by reminding his viewers to send their checks his way. These segments proved to be disjointed and, most importantly within the wrestling business, devoid of purpose. On several occasions, Brother Ernest mentioned the troubles of Swaggart and Bakker, mainly as a way to proclaim that he was the genuine article and not a fraud like the people for whom his character was based. Wrestling fans, however, could see right through Brother Ernest’s charades. “Quiet Time” did help lead to a farcical match between Lawler and Brother Ernest with Max Pain as special guest referee; Lawler won when Pain accidentally knocked out Brother Ernest.[15] Other than that, Brother Ernest’s special segment failed to create compelling storylines or develop the personas of actual wrestlers. To the wrestling fan, these segments likely appeared to have no rhyme or reason other than to promote Brother Ernest.[16]

The appeal of Brother Ernest was clearly waning by late April and early May. New wrestling and managerial talent flowed into CWA from other wrestling territories. During this time, it was common for wrestlers and managers to come into an area for several months and then leave for another territory. This pattern of sharing and recycling talent through the territories was on the decline by the late 1980s as Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation and Jim Crockett’s World Championship Wrestling became locked in a struggle for control of the national wrestling market. The CWA, however, still had agreements with other territories to share talent on a regular basis. With new stables and feuds emerging, Brother Ernest and his wrestlers found themselves on the outside looking in. In particular, the arrival of Robert Fuller’s “Stud Stable” from Alabama’s Continental Wrestling Federation signaled the end of Brother Ernest and his flock.[17] Pain and Young eventually separated from each other and Brother Ernest. By early May, Brother Ernest’s flock consisted of also-rans Brickhouse Brown and the Cuban Choir Boys. Before leaving CWA for a brief stint in another territory, Brother Ernest’s final storyline was a bizarre one in which the audience and the Bruise Brothers alleged that Brother Ernest had contracted AIDS. The allegations were false and led to rude and offensive chants from the audience.[18]

As Brother Ernest finished out his brief time in wrestling and returned full-time to his own limousine business back in Nashville, the character of Brother Love became a household name. Developed and played by WWF promoter Bruce Prichard, Brother Love broke through several months after Brother Ernest’s debut in Memphis. Unlike Brother Ernest, Brother Love established a stable presence within professional wrestling thanks largely to a more effective character development and use of the character by WWF writers. The WWF had a large creative team and higher-quality production values in their telecasts than the regional territories. For most of his time in the WWF, Brother Love was not a manager but instead hosted a weekly segment called “The Brother Love Show.” Unlike “Quiet Time,” this segment had a clear focus and purpose. WWF writers, including Prichard himself, made brilliant use of the annoying, fraudulent Brother Love to promote feuds featuring top WWF talent. During the interview segments, Brother Love antagonized the good guys and cheered on the heels, especially if the heels decided to sneak attack the good guys on Brother Love’s set. With the WWF’s major pay-per-view productions, the Brother Love Show became indispensible in hyping the most important wrestlers and matches. An effective heel personality, Bruce Prichard’s character knew how to draw heat.[19]

Brother Love was an obvious parody of Swaggart, Bakker, Robert Tilton, and other televangelists. Prichard admitted that he found the televangelists of the 1980s to be equally appalling, entertaining, and inspirational for a wrestling persona.[20] Each segment of the Brother Love Show began with the red-faced Brother Love wearing a white suit, donning a phony smile, and shouting a disingenuous “I love you!” straight into the TV camera. Brother Love carried his own “Book of Love,” although it was an insignificant prop unlike Brother Ernest’s “Good Book.” His weekly segment, “The Brother Love Show,” was accompanied by a gospel instrumental over the arena’s loudspeakers. The connections with televangelism were obvious. Nevertheless, Brother Love shied away from the more explicit religious metaphors and symbolism employed by Brother Ernest. The character of Brother Love ran its course by the early 1990s as new storylines developed and the televangelism scandals subsided. Bruce Prichard’s creation, though, demonstrated that religion and wrestling could mix and achieve long-term success. As long as the religious elements were subtle and used cleverly for the purpose of advancing storylines and feuds, religion had a place in profession wrestling. The subject had to be treated delicately, but if done right, it could provide for great entertainment and commercial success. Brother Love, after all, appeared on the cover of WWF Magazine, a spot reserved for the wrestlers themselves. He also achieved enough notoriety to have his own action figure.

Despite their different career trajectories, Tom Sturdivant and Bruce Prichard understood that a high wall of separation between religion and wrestling was unnecessary, at least for this particular historical moment. The charismatic, entertaining world of televangelism had much to offer professional wrestling. And, at that time, the heels were found in the pulpit.

Chuck Westmoreland is Assistant Professor of History at Delta University where he teaches a variety of courses in modern U.S. and southern history, including a course on sport and the American experience. He is currently completing a book manuscript on religion and politics in the South from the era of the modern civil rights movement through the rise of the New Christian Right. You can contact him at cwestmoreland@deltastate.edu.

Notes:


 

[1] “Brother Ernest Angel Debuts on Memphis Wrestling TV,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diStiYhmneQ. A series of videos from YouTube have been indispensible to this research, which is part of a broader work on religion and professional wrestling in the 1980s. YouTube user “TraderJack641” has posted numerous episodes of CWA Championship Wrestling that originally appeared on television in Evansville, Indiana, which was part of the CWA territory. Brother Ernest Angel first appeared on Championship Wrestling on February 13, 1988. His last appearance was on the May 14, 1988 episode. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRuqo7TC7Jg&

[2] Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” Mythologies, http://www.amazon.com/Mythologies-Roland-Barthes/dp/0374521506; Sharon Mazer’s Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle is a more recent interpretation of the spectacle nature of pro wrestling. http://www.amazon.com/Professional-Wrestling-Spectacle-Performance-Studies/dp/1578060214

[3] Gerald Morton and Gerald O’Brien, From Wrestling to Rasslin’: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle , http://www.amazon.com/Wrestling-Rasslin-Ancient-American-Spectacle/dp/0879723246

[4] Louis Kyriakoudes and Peter Coclanis, “The ‘Tennessee Test of Manhood’”: Professional Wrestling and Southern Cultural Stereotypes,” Southern Cultures, Volume 3, Number 3, 1997, 8-27.

[5] Sina Rahmani, “Wrestling with the Revolution: The Iron Sheik and the American Cultural Response to the 1979 Iranian Revolution,” Iranian Studies, Volume 40, number 1, February 2007, 87-108.

[6] Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” 25.

[7] Darren Grem, “Selling a ‘Disneyland for the Devout’: Religious Marketing at Jim Bakker’s Heritage USA” in Dominic James, ed., Shopping for Jesus: Faith and Marketing in the USA, http://www.amazon.com/Shopping-Jesus-Faith-Marketing-USA/dp/0980081432

[8] Ann Rowe Seaman, Swaggart: An Unauthorized Biography, http://www.amazon.com/Swaggart-Unauthorized-Biography-American-Evangelist/dp/0826412904

[9] Interview with Tom Sturdivant, August 3, 2002, http://www.infinitecore.ca/superstar/index.php?threadid=7591; Jerry Lawler, It’s Good to Be King…Sometimes, http://www.amazon.com/Its-Good-Be-King-Sometimes/dp/0743457676. The character of Brother Ernest Angel is also discussed in Missy Hyatt’s memoir, Missy Hyatt: First Lady of Wrestling, http://www.amazon.com/Missy-Hyatt-First-Lady-Wrestling/dp/1550224980.

[10] Interview with Tom Sturdivant.

[11] Lawler, It’s Good to Be King…Sometimes.

[12] Interview with Tom Sturdivant; February 20, 1988 episode of Championship Wrestling, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7-Bn2M4qZE&.

[13] The feud with the Bruise Brothers began on the February 27, 1988 episode of Championship Wrestling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nms4LyALANo&.

[14] March 19, 1988 episode of Championship Wrestling, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZK9KgNaEnw&.

[15] Video of Jerry Lawler vs. Brother Ernest Angel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPOcCw5iVJw.

[16] The first segment of “Quiet Time” appeared on March 19, 1988. The other segments occurred on March 26, April 9, and April 23. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZK9KgNaEnw&.

[17] Tim Hornbaker’s history of the National Wrestling Alliance explores the influence of regional territories in professional wrestling after World War II. Tim Hornbaker, The National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Professional Wrestling, http://www.amazon.com/National-Wrestling-Alliance-Strangled-Professional/dp/B0092GHDLW. The Stud Stable first appeared on the April 30, 1988 episode of Championship Wrestling, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzKaTPodebA&.

[18] The AIDS angle, which appears to have begun spontaneously from members of the audience, ran on May 7 and May 14, 1988, which was the last appearance for Brother Ernest, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szB9J8CTVlg&. Interview with Tom Sturdivant.

[19] “The Brother Love Show,” October 22, 1988, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK3Rveztcjk.

[20] Bruce Prichard interview on The Steve Austin Show-Unleashed, http://podcastone.com/pg/jsp/program/episode.jsp?programID=436&pid=348938.

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