Bob Harrington, the colorful and crusading evangelist who in the 1960s led religious services inside and outside of French Quarter nightclubs, earning him national attention and the nickname the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street," died Tuesday. He was 89.
Harrington died of kidney failure in Stigler, Oklahoma, where he had been living with relatives.
The son of two ministers, Harrington came to New Orleans in the early 1960s. He attended the Baptist Theological Seminary, was ordained a minister here and served as assistant pastor of First Baptist Church.
His flamboyant personality and booming voice were a perfect fit for a ministry in the French Quarter, where “Brother Bob” became best known for leading weekly religious services in nightclubs, outside on Bourbon Street and at his own chapel. “His chapel bells tolled every hour on Bourbon Street,” writer James Perry said in a 1982 Times-Picayune article. “‘It’s heavenly music in a hellish atmosphere,’ Harrington said, ‘but this is where people need me.’”
Former Times-Picayune writer David Cuthbert once recalled Harrington’s Bourbon Street preaching style.
“As flashbulbs popped around him, he'd cry, 'I see the light! Only I'm glad mine's not plugged into a 110-volt outlet . . . You don't need 80-proof booze in your blood when you've got 100-proof Lord in your heart!’”
In 1962, Mayor Vic Schiro dubbed him “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street.' That also became the title of Harrington’s 1969 autobiography. The book, written with Walter Wagner, featured a photo of the preacher on the cover, holding his bible and standing next to a Bourbon Street lightpole and street sign.
“His church is a stripper’s emporium,” reads the book jacket. “His parishioners include dope addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics, homosexuals and gangsters…. His parish is Bourbon Street – the place Billy Graham has called ‘the middle of hell.’
The book, which featured stories of those Harrington was said to have converted, “is inspiring reading,” an advertisement proclaimed, “but it is not for the easily shocked. Because Bob Harrington is not a minister for the easily saved.”
In addition to preaching outside nightclubs, Harrington’s Bourbon Street tactics included playing gospel music through loudspeakers. "I've always thought that Bourbon Street was kind of a pulse-beat of America, of the degradation of society. It's not beyond redemption, but you have to want redemption, you have to ask to be redeemed,” he said in 1996.
Harrington soon gained national attention, preaching in New York’s Greenwich Village, in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Paris and even Vietnam during the war. As his fame spread, he frequently on radio and television and went on to write seven more books and produce 30 records.
Harrington made headlines for tussling with national figures, including Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (who profiled Harrington in his magazine) and atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (who debated him on Phil Donahue’s TV talk show). “Yes, many may say Madalyn knows the Scriptures better than I do, but I know the author,”
Harrington once said. The unlikely duo toured 38 cities debating the existence of God. Harrington was also a popular guest on Johnny Carson’s and Merv Griffin’s nationally-televised talk shows.
"Sure, I'm a show-off," he told Cuthbert. "I have been ever since I found something to show off. But God's something of a showman Himself. Walking on water: that was a pretty heavy show, don't you think? Or the parting of the Red Sea; that got some front-page attention. If He was here today, He'd be tabloid material.”
After some 20 years in New Orleans, Harrington struggled with his fame and the ego and excess that followed. "I got too commercial. It was too much 'My Way,' and not enough 'Thy Way.' I was, in effect, flipping the bird to God,” he said.
Harrington divorced, remarried and then relocated to Florida where he founded a motivational coaching business. He divorced again, and moved with his third wife to Texas.
One of Harrington's daughters, Rhonda Kelley, is an adjunct professor at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where his son-in-law, Dr. Chuck Kelley, is the current president.
A native of Coxheath, Alabama, Harrington was a cadet in the U.S. Navy, a professional photographer and life insurance salesman before entering the ministry. In addition to the New Orleans seminary, he also attended the University of Alabama and Marion Military Institute.
Survivors include two daughters: Rhonda Harrington Kelley, of New Orleans, and Mitzi Harrington Ramsey Woodson, of Stigler, Oklahoma. He is also survived by a brother, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held Saturday in Sweet Water, Alabama, followed by a memorial service July 29 in Stigler, Oklahoma. A memorial service in New Orleans is planned for a later date.
Memorial donations are encouraged to the Bob Harrington Evangelism Scholarship Fund, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 3939 Gentilly Boulevard, New Orleans, LA 70126.