Apocalypse Now(ish): Irvin Baxter's End Times Empire

Irvin Baxter doesn't dance.

It's a rainy fall night in Granbury, a small town about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth. On the stage inside the Calvary Church of Granbury, a young, clean-cut band is blasting a syrupy, guitar-driven ballad: "I'm gonna sing for You like nobody's listening, gonna dance for You like nobody's watching." The lyrics are projected onto a screen hanging behind the stage, so the audience of 250 or so can sing along. Everybody's elbow to elbow in the green pews. A row of folding chairs in the back accommodates the overflow.

It's barely five minutes into the evening, but nearly everyone is on their feet, many with their arms raised beseechingly, looking overcome. Pastor Jacob Stump, center stage, sways, his eyes closed, his head thrown back.

Baxter stands next to him. He's a big man in his late 60s, with a belly to match, a broad, acne-scarred face, a straight white smile and square silver-rimmed glasses. He's sort of shuffling to the music, arms by his sides, singing along and wearing a little half-smile. He has no rhythm. He looks like somebody's bashful uncle, perched on the edge of the dance floor at a wedding.

He's tonight's star, though, the reason all these people have packed Calvary on an inclement weekend night — to attend Baxter's "conference," as he calls it. It's obvious many of them aren't regular congregants. Calvary is a Pentecostal church, and its members are up front, the men in neat suits, the women in roomy dresses and high, stiff hairdos. Near the back, things get a little more disorderly: people in jeans, a pissed-off-looking guy in camo shorts and a "Stand With Israel" shirt, a biker-looking couple whose male half has a balding head of dreadlocks and what looks to be a homemade tattoo on his forehead. With the exception of an assistant pastor from Fiji, everyone in the room is white.

"It's an honor and a privilege to have you in Granbury," Stump tells Baxter, and the room erupts in applause and shouts. Baxter takes the podium, his awkwardness gone.

"It's my first time in Granbury," he tells the crowd. "Let's applaud three times as loud for Jesus Christ." Jesus gets a hearty round, and after a quick joke, Baxter gets down to business. He asks how many people subscribe to Endtime, his magazine. Not many hands go up.

"You probably should," he deadpans. "It's required to make the Rapture." Everyone giggles, slightly scandalized.

Out in the lobby, at a table manned by his adult daughter Jana, Baxter's DVDs await. There are more than a dozen titles, each going for $20. They've got cover art like something you'd see on a video game cover or a heavy metal album, and dramatic titles like World War III: Entrance Ramp for the Antichrist and Master Plan of the Dragon. As part of his four-step instructions to get ready for the collapse of human government and the return of Jesus Christ, Baxter recommends Understanding the Endtime, a 14-DVD set that costs $200. Tonight he's lecturing on "2012 in Bible Prophecy." There's a DVD for that too. Dedicated fans can also purchase Endtime University, a "six semester" set that contains 84 Bible lessons. It costs $595.

On stage, Baxter offers some good news: The world won't end in December 2012. All that stuff about the Mayan calendar or some "Planet X" hitting the Earth is wrong. He shows a few clips from apocalyptic movies; the audience watches tensely as L.A. and New York get wiped out repeatedly for several minutes by meteors, floods and nuclear bombs.

"You wonder why sleeping pill sales are up?" Baxter says, pausing the DVD.

Just because the Mayans were wrong doesn't mean big things aren't afoot. "We're just about in transition. That's what you feel. Even our president talks about a fundamental transition. I don't think he knows what he's talking about, but ..." Baxter starts to go on, but he's interrupted by whoops of approval and applause. He smiles.

"I didn't mean that quite how you took it," he tells them. "We got a loaded crowd here tonight."

How do we know what's really about to happen next? Easy, Baxter says. "It's in your Bible. You won't like it. It's the Battle of Armageddon." The audience doesn't seem fazed, though. Armageddon is what they came for.

Baxter looks around the room and smiles big. "I'm so glad I'm alive right now," he confides. They should be too, he says. They're privileged, special, a chosen generation. They won't be "asleep at the wheel" when the big things hit.

"God put me right where I want to be," he tells them. "To see this whole thing wrap up."

"If you're not ready when it comes, it will sweep you away," Baxter says one morning, about a week before the conference in Granbury. "And so we've been updating our structure. Our purpose is to reach the world with our message."

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan