updated 11/29/2004 7:25:54 PM ET 2004-11-30T00:25:54

The Rev. Billy James Hargis, a radio and television evangelist and fervent anti-communist crusader who used balloons to send his message across the Iron Curtain, has died at age 79.

Hargis, who also battled with the Internal Revenue Service, died Saturday in Tulsa of natural causes, funeral director Rob Sandlin said Monday.

Hargis was ordained at age 17 in the Disciples of Christ denomination, and became known during the 1950s and ’60s for his worldwide crusade and for his friendships and meetings with heads of state.

In 1950, he founded the interdenominational Christian Crusade, with the message “for Christ and against communism.” His broadcast ministry spanned some 40 years on more than 500 radio stations and 250 television stations.

He went to West Germany in 1953 and launched the Bible Balloon Project — inserting scriptures in balloons and floating them over the Iron Curtain, aiming them at residents of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia and East Germany.

Hargis had a long-running fight with the IRS when it removed his ministry’s tax-exempt status, citing his mixture of religion and politics.

Louis Moore, a former religion editor for the Houston Chronicle, said Hargis was once among prominent televangelists like Garner Ted Armstrong and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

“He was a household name as much as the others were,” Moore said. “And he fell from grace.”

A 1976 scandal threatened to destroy his ministry. Time magazine reported that he had engaged in sexual acts with female and male students at his Tulsa-based American Christian College.

Hargis denied the charges. “I was guilty of sin, but not the sin I was accused of,” Hargis said in a 1985 Tulsa Tribune interview.

He also founded the David Livingstone Missionary Foundation, which operated hospitals, orphanages, leprosy villages, medical vans and mission services in Korea, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines and Africa.

He had continued working into early this year, when his son, Billy James Hargis II, stepped in to lead the ministry.

Hargis is survived by his wife, Betty Jean; three daughters; and two sons.

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