Bob Harrington, Popular Evangelist 'Chaplain of Bourbon Street,' Dies Leaving Cautionary Tale

(Photo: Music Stack)Cover art for one of Bob Harrington's records from his heyday.

Bob Harrington, one of America's most popular and flamboyant preachers during the 1960s and 1970s, has died. Popularly known as the "Chaplain of Bourbon Street," Harrington publicly fell from grace and lived as a backslider for years before quietly being restored and returning to ministry. He was 89.

"Our sweet dad went to heaven at 2:00am this morning (July 4th). He's celebrating with fireworks in heaven! ....Thanks for praying him home! Love, Rhonda and Mitzi," Harrington's daughters announced on Facebook last Tuesday.

Harrington, who turned to God at the age of 30 at a Baptist church in his hometown of Sweetwater, Alabama, attracted national attention for his work as an evangelist crusading inside and outside French Quarter nightclubs in Louisiana. He also gained fame from debating atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair on Phil Donahue's then popular TV talk show.

Dr. Charles S. (Chuck) Kelley, Jr., president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary who worked with Harrington and also married his daughter Rhonda on June 21, 1974, said Harrington was "second only to Billy Graham" as an evangelist at the time.

"I began working with Bob on the streets of the French Quarter and across the nation. By now he was one of the best known Christians in the nation, and he had a phenomenal ministry unlike any other. No evangelism program could ever teach what I learned at his side. As an evangelist he was second only to Billy Graham," Kelley wrote in a remembrance.

In an SBC Life interview in 2000, Harrington talked about his highly publicized fall away from the church which involved money, Christian women and pride.

"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," he explained.

"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," he said. "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."

He further noted that the women who became his temptation weren't the women of the world but women inside the church.

"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," he said. "All those things — fame, finance, and frolic — led me to catch a pass that Satan threw at the peak of my success."

Harrington lost his family and caused significant pain as his life spiraled out of control because of "some horrible choices," Kelley explained.

"I had to confront him about those choices. Devastating does not begin to describe the experience of those days, especially when he looked me in the eye and chose rebellion and sin over repentance. He blew up our family. He lost his ministry. He became a completely different man," Kelley explained.

"For a long time all Rhonda and I could do was hug each other and cry. No words can describe the ache of the soul. But God carried us through. I became an evangelist. I entered the NOBTS doctoral program and joined the NOBTS faculty after graduation as a professor of evangelism. Bob Harrington kept rebelling and breaking our hearts."

His father-in-law kept the family in pain and shame for 18 years, Kelley said, until "one day Bob showed up on the doorstep of our faculty home on the seminary campus."

"Literally. We took him in for several months, and God gave us the privilege of being there for his repentance and restoration. No words for those days, but deep joy. Rhonda, who kept reaching out with relentless love through all those years, finally experienced seeing that love returned. Wow!" Kelley wrote.

"Bob found an apartment, and began ministry again, but on a much smaller scale. As he realized this was his new reality, he embraced it and became 'happy in the Lord,' a statement he would make over and over until he could no longer communicate more than twenty years later," Kelly noted.

The reformed evangelist also remarried "a fine Christian woman" and settled things with his ex-wife.

Life was going well until his health started failing significantly in the spring.

"Dementia was already there, but other issues began. At 2am on July 4th, hours after Rhonda and I returned from an overseas trip, it happened. Bob Harrington, born and then born again, finished his journey. He did not die. To use his words: he was 'transferred from earth to heaven,'" Kelley wrote.

Some lessons Harrington said he learned during his colorful life include avoiding sin.

"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," a reclaimed Harrington told SBC Life. "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."

When it comes to pastors and other Christian leaders, he warned them to surround themselves 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," he said.

He also warned them not to laugh at backsliders and try witnessing to someone everyday.

"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 your everyday life," he said.

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