“Hello my name is Marjoe Gortner and I’m here to give the devil two black eyes.” Before he learned to say “Mama” or “Poppa,” he was taught to sing “Hallelujah!” At nine months, his mother taught him the proper way to shout “glory” into the microphone. By the age of three, he could preach the gospel by memory. His name is Marjoe Gortner, and he is known as the youngest preacher in American history, ordained at the age of four. Born on January 14th, 1944 in Long Beach California, Marjoe was the son of Vernon Gortner a third generation minister who guided his son’s career as a preacher. Nearly strangled to death by his own umbilical chord during his birth, doctors told his mother it was a miracle that he survived, and thus, “Marjoe” was born; a combination of the biblical names Mary and Joseph.
Sacred Since Birth
Ordained on Halloween at the age of four, the young preacher was set on his divine course by believing parents. Claiming their son received a vision from God while taking a bath, they soon thrust Marjoe into the world of the ministry. Relishing their son’s knack for mimicry and public speaking, his parents soon pushed Marjoe into intensive training in the art of oration.
In his later years, Marjoe recalled his mother’s unique methods of discipline. Careful not to mark her son with bruises that would mar his public appearances, his mother resorted to mock-drownings, holding her son’s head under water for a period of time to discipline the child.
By the age of four, Marjoe’s parents had taught him how to deliver charismatic sermons. They arranged for him to perform a marriage ceremony before a film crew from Paramount studios. The act served as Marjoe’s introduction to the ministry. Following that ceremony, the young boy was referred to as “the youngest ordained minister in history.”
The Rise of Marjoe
With his sermons memorized and his routines nearly flawless, Marjoe and his parents traveled throughout the U.S., holding revival meetings in towns across the country. Quickly gaining notoriety for his passionate sermons and acts of healing, he was thrust into the spotlight and soon began to generate considerable revenue for the family coffers.
“I really supported [my parents] when I was a child,” remembers Marjoe. I remember how they used to send me down into the aisles, and I wore these little velvet pants, and Lord Fauntleroy suits, with satin shirts. My mother would sew extra pockets into the suits so I could stuff money.”
Amassing a small fortune for themselves by the time he was fourteen, the family was wealthy from the boy’s talents although he never saw any of the rewards. “I don’t know how much came in,” said Marjoe. “As far as I can guess maybe about three million dollars from the time I was four to fourteen. I have no idea what happened to that money. I know that I never saw it.”
By age fourteen, Marjoe had grown disillusioned with his life work as a preacher. Eager to live on his own terms, he left the practice. “The novelty was wearing off of a child preaching,” he recalls. “Our money had run out. We were living from meeting to meeting. We were in a meeting in Los Angeles when I told my mother this is going to be the last time I preach.”
Departing from the church, Marjoe spent the following years living on his own. With his family’s money run out, and his tenure as a preacher nearing its end, he left his mother for San Francisco, and there, found love in an older woman.
He stayed with his lover for nearly two years, and spent the rest of his teenage years as a pseudo-hippie. Strapped for cash into his early twenties, Marjoe returned to his first profession, developing a new stage show that utilized his charisma and knowledge of rhetoric. Once again praised for his “healing abilities” Marjoe earned enough to take six months off each year. He’d return to rest in California, annually, before embarking on another preaching tour.
Unveiling the Myth
In the late 60’s Marjoe was approached by filmmakers Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan. Eager to document the preacher’s experiences, the couple followed Marjoe on his final tour across the country. Filming revival meetings in California, Texas and Michigan throughout 1971, the filmmakers documented the preacher’s life on the road.
However, unbeknownst to many, he also used the documentary to reveal many of the myths that sustained his profession. The resulting film, entitled Marjoe, offered an unabashedly honest portrayal of the evangelism industry. Filming in depth interviews in which he revealed his methods of persuasion, the documentary offered a rare glimpse into the sometimes manipulative practices of evangelism. Candid scenes of Marjoe counting piles of collection bills served to unmask the ulterior motives of faith healing. Celebrated for its depiction of reality, the film won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1972.
Following this second stint on the revival circuit, Marjoe embarked on a mildly successful acting career. Consisting of small roles in films such as the 1974 disaster flick, Earthquake and the television series Kojak, Marjoe’s acting career never brought the acclaim he had once received for preaching. Retreating back into a shell of his former fame, Marjoe spent much of the ’80s and ’90s filling B-rate film rolls and producing charity events. In 2010 Marjoe retired completely from event production.
Schooled in public speaking from the age of four, Marjoe’s legacy is notable for his distinction as the youngest “ordained” preacher in American history. However, his greatest contribution to society may lie in his deconstruction of evangelism’s holy façade. Falling in and out of belief in his celebrated practice, it’s difficult to know if Marjoe was ever truly satisfied with his career. “I don’t have any power,” Marjoe once stated in an interview following the release of the film. “And neither do any of these other guys. Hundreds of people were healed at my crusades, but I know damn well it was from nothing I was doing.”
“The Confessions of Marjoe.” Life Magazine. 8 September 1972
Conway, Flo and Jim Siefelman. “Marjoe Gortner.” Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change. 1978.
Ebert, Roger. “Interview with Marjoe Gortner.” 25 September 1972.