BATON ROUGE, LA. -- The machines work relentlessly in this sterile room. Their razor edges slit open envelopes, and tiny suction cups pull them wide apart. Then workers extract the contents, placing them in neat little piles: checks here, cash there, letters and reply cards nearby.

This is the mailroom of Jimmy Swaggart's World Ministry Center, where envelopes poured in last year at an average rate of 16,261 a day, 81,305 a week, 4,227,860 a year. In 1985, they contained about $120 million, about 93 percent of the ministry's revenues. In 1986, Swaggart officials said, they carried more.

"Yes, Brother Swaggart, you can count on me to help you meet this critical need," read the donor reply card, mailed back in April with a $100 check. It was mailed in response to a Swaggart plea for money: appeal No. 72838 in the language of Swaggart's computers.

Swaggart -- gospel singer, Pentecostal minister and, by some measures, the most watched television evangelist in the nation -- runs a ministry that devours money: $600,000 a day now, $156 million a year, by his account.

Here in Baton Rouge, the millions have transformed a cow pasture into the 12-building World Ministry Center and the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College. They have financed foreign missions, purchased radio stations and transmitted Swaggart's message around the globe via television. They have helped forge a new form of worship and push the definition of a church to new frontiers.

Yet Swaggart, whose studio is his pulpit and whose audience is his congregation, is not strictly accountable, as a minister is to his parishioners, for the way he spends money. Having won classification as a church in 1982, his ministry, already tax-exempt as a religious organization, is no longer required to file financial reports with the Internal Revenue Service.

With the fall of PTL Club founders Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and IRS inquiries into their finances, however, television evangelists have found themselves under public scrutiny. And Swaggart, who initially played a role some have likened to "the grand inquisitor" in Bakker's ouster, has found the attention turned to him.

For Swaggart, a high-school dropout who preached his first sermon on a Louisiana sidewalk, much is at stake. When he wheels his beige Lincoln Town Car past the guarded gates of his family compound here and drives the seven miles to his headquarters, Swaggart confronts a complex so large that he says he is awed that God should have chosen him to control it.

The 257-acre development is bisected by Bluebonnet Boulevard. On the west is Minnie Bell Swaggart Hall, the 12-story dormitory named for his mother on the grounds of the new Bible College. On the east is the center, where the flags of 126 nations flutter in the sultry breezes, symbolizing Swaggart's television reach. In the distance, a construction crane looms over the skeleton of a college classroom hall.

Travels in Private Jet

Beyond Louisiana, ministry-owned radio stations carry the gospel message to cities in Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. Swaggart's Child Care International builds schools and sponsors feeding programs for children in dozens of impoverished countries, and his donations flow to missions run by his mother church, the Assemblies of God, the church with which Jim and Tammy Bakker were affiliated.

So farflung are Swaggart's holdings and activities that he has traded trailers and buses and his old DC3 for a sleek Gulfstream jet, once owned by the Rockefeller family. Last year, Swaggart logged more than 84,000 miles in the air.

Despite its size -- about $150 million in assets, according to his 1985 financial statement -- the ministry remains a family operation, run by Swaggart, his wife, Frances, and their only child, Donnie. Twenty-two family members are on the payroll of 1,500 employes, Swaggart said.

Frances Swaggart's brother is in charge of purchasing. Her sister-in-law directs data processing. Her mother is a department supervisor. Her sister is Jimmy Swaggart's secretary. Four Swaggarts -- Jimmy, Frances, Donnie and his wife, Debbie -- dominate the seven-member board of directors.

While the ministry has prospered, so have the Swaggarts.

Jimmy and Frances Swaggart's house, with its two-story columns and its swimming pool on 20 acres, is valued at $1.5 million by the local assessor's office. Their son's house and its four acres, assessed at $726,000, is in the same fenced compound. Swaggart's lawyer, William Treeby, said part of the land was purchased, and the houses built, with more than $1.8 million in loans from the ministry.

Next door, Frances Swaggart's brother, Robert Anderson, lives on 15 acres in a tax-exempt house purchased by the ministry in June 1985 for $750,000. Anderson, Treeby said, pays fair-market rent.His and Hers Lincolns

Jimmy and Frances Swaggart have driven his-and-hers Lincoln Town Cars since about 1983. They have use of the ministry's retreat, located in a community of Spanish-style stucco condominiums on a private golf course about 15 miles from Palm Springs, Calif. Frances Swaggart said they pay rent when they stay there.

No Sack Cloth and Ashes

The Swaggarts said their comfortable life style preoccupies only the news media.

"Our people in the church, all the people that we minister to, they don't take the position that when a person becomes a Christian . . . he moves into a tent and wears sack cloth and ashes," Swaggart said. "They believe that God blesses you, if you live for God and you serve God."

The house and land next to the Swaggarts' were purchased in June 1985, less than a month after Swaggart made a special appeal to contributors, according to a report by John Camp on Baton Rouge's WBRZ-TV. In a May 31, 1985, letter obtained by Camp, Swaggart wrote to supporters with "a heavy heart" saying losses were so severe the ministry might "cease to exist."

"The ministry is always in desperate need of money . . . due to our world outreach," Swaggart said in an interview. "If you're not going to do something because of that, then you'd never do anything."

The ministry, he said, was forced to buy the land behind his house because of death threats and the discovery of intruders on his grounds. "We felt . . . if the wrong people got that property, we would be in trouble," he said.

He described the California condominium as a gift. The ministry bought it for about $280,000 in 1986, according to state land records. Swaggart said the ministry is being reimbursed by Clyde Fuller, a Chattanooga, Tenn., businessman and longtime donor who also gave the Swaggarts their cars. There is no record of Fuller's financial participation in the house purchase.

"There would not be anything on record," Swaggart said of Fuller's pay-back plan, " . . . Whatever the man tells you, you can put in the bank."

Swaggart, who said he has never before revealed his salary, said he donates $30,000 of his $86,400 annual salary to the ministry. His wife and son would not say how much they are paid. "It's like undressing in front of the public all the time," Frances Swaggart said. " . . . Not that I care. I really don't care because it's not that much."

Informational tax returns from 1981, the most recent year the ministry filed, show that Frances Swaggart's salary was $50,526, and Donnie Swaggart's salary was $58,500 -- both more than double Jimmy Swaggart's salary of $19,142 that year.

The ministry also pays Jimmy and Donnie Swaggart housing allowances, which are exempt from federal income taxes under rules applying to ordained ministers. "I honestly don't know the amount," Swaggart said. He suggested asking Treeby.

"Jimmy said if we wanted to tell you, we could," Treeby said. "We don't want to."

Neither Swaggart nor Treeby would provide further details about the ministry's $1.8 million house loan to Jimmy and Donnie Swaggart, which Treeby said carries an 11.5 percent interest rate. Jimmy Swaggart said he believes his portion of the loan is for 15 years, and said he does not know what the monthly payments are. (For purposes of comparison, the principal and interest payments on a conventional $900,000 loan -- half the $1.8 million amount -- for 15 years at 11.5 percent would be $10,513 a month.)

The Swaggarts and their attorney said the immediate family's salaries and housing allowances do not come from donations, but from royalties on Swaggart's popular gospel albums, sold at crusades and by mail as part of the ministry's "religious materials." Years ago, Swaggart arranged to turn over all those proceeds to the ministry, they said.

"We could be millionaires {from the sale of records}," Frances Swaggart said. "That is fact . . . but we're not . . . . I could be dripping in luxury. I don't have to work here every day . . . . I do that because I love God and I want to do it."

Window Closed on Charity

The operations of many successful video evangelists are classified by the IRS as tax-exempt religious organizations. They pay no income taxes but file informational tax returns that are open to the public.

That small window on Swaggart's operation was closed in 1982 after his ministry sought and won reclassification as a church. Under a system as old as the tax code and rooted in the constitutional separation of church and state, churches are not required to file information with the IRS. They can be audited only if the IRS suspects "that something untoward has taken place," according to an IRS spokesman, and then only if a high IRS official approves.

Former internal revenue commissioner Sheldon Cohen said tax-exempt religious organizations, like business corporations, do not violate the tax code simply by purchasing property or automobiles.

"Whether they should own no car, a Chevrolet or a Mercedes is a moral, not a legal, question," he said.

According to Cohen, IRS regulations say that the funds of a tax-exempt organization may not "inure" to the benefit of any officer, director or employe of the organization.

"After you see the whole picture, you might say much of this exists for an officer's personal benefit," said Cohen, noting that he could not comment specifically on the Swaggart ministry or any other case. "If {an officer} gets so much personal benefit that any reasonable person would say it is illogical and an overpayment, then you may have the personal gain element. The code calls it inurement, and that violates the rules."

An IRS spokesman, who also refused to comment on specific cases, said tax-exempt religious organizations and churches can buy real estate if the property is used for "an exempt purpose," such as religious ceremonies or religious retreat. But an organization might jeopardize its tax exemption if there never were a plan to use the property for such purposes, if its use constituted a large part of the organization's activities or if, for instance, the property were a "shallowly disguised vacation" retreat.

The Parish {county} of East Baton Rouge has made the ministry's property here tax-exempt. But the state of California and the parish have challenged the ministry's refusal, claimed on constitutional grounds, to collect sales and use taxes on the millions of dollars in Bibles, books, records and other items it sells by mail and at its crusades.

In California, the ministry lost in a lower court and has appealed. The East Baton Rouge dispute ended with the ministry agreeing to pay taxes on items sold to local residents. Meanwhile, Texas and Ohio have sought to collect property taxes from the ministry's radio stations. Ohio prevailed, and the Texas case is pending.

There were no such legal complications when Swaggart preached his first public sermon in front of a grocery store in Mangham, La. He played an accordion and sang, knowing even then, as he likes to say, that "we got the crowds with the music." Then he preached to passersby about the sins of America.

That was in 1955. By the 1960s, Swaggart was criss-crossing the Southeast with his revivals -- services where Swaggart sang and preached, and listeners answered his altar call to become "born again" Christians. He began cutting gospel records, and later, according to his autobiography, the Lord told him to do a radio show. Swaggart obeyed.

His first show, a homemade, 15-minute production, was aired in 1969. When the Swaggarts ran out of money to buy air time, they discovered the power of listener appeals.

One radio station manager announced on the air that the show was being canceled. Within days, Frances Swaggart recalled, a letter carrier arrived at the Swaggarts' ranch house in Baton Rouge "dragging huge, long mail sacks." Each envelope contained money.

As Swaggart's radio audience grew, his record sales escalated and his crusades expanded. Then he made his move to television in 1973. He said he found it "the ideal attention-getter, made to order for spectacular evangelism . . . . The ministry probably quadrupled with radio. With TV it exploded."

In 1985, the ministry spent nearly $38 million -- about 30 percent of its total revenues of $128 million -- to put Swaggart into 193 of the nation's 212 television markets, even more cable systems and into 145 foreign countries, according to ministry officials. A ministry spokesman said that the cost of putting him on television now is "approaching 50 percent of our revenues."

Such expenditures have fueled the controversy over television ministries. Rice University sociology Prof. William Martin, who has studied television evangelists for two decades, said the rising cost of television air time sometimes makes it "hard to tell whether they are on televison to raise money or raising money to stay on television."

Swaggart said such critics miss the point. "I am a TV preacher, that is what I do," he said. " . . . We believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important thing . . . in the world today . . . the answer to all man's problems. So that's where most of our ministry goes."

He said his telecasts contain 56 minutes of message, four minutes of fund-raising appeals.

Donnie Swaggart has taken over what he calls the ministry's "marketing and development" arm, including the sale of religious materials, the planning of crusades and direct-mail campaigns. He has done market surveys and devised computer programs to target his appeals.

"I work on ROI, return on investment," he said. "The people we mail to are people who give regularly . . . . If you don't show an interest in our ministry, we won't mail to you."

In the mid-'70s, the Swaggart operation, like some other television evangelists, set up a "stewardship" department, which since has been curtailed, to help donors who wanted to make bequests or set up trusts for the ministry.

'Give Cash Gift in Future'

In 1981, this fund-raising technique was a factor in a court battle involving the estate of Zoe Vance, a wealthy, reclusive California widow. Swaggart said Vance came to the ministry's attention in the late 1970s after making a large donation and asking to meet Swaggart. He visited her at her La Jolla house, where the yard sweeps straight down to the Pacific, and baptized her there, he said.

Vance, who was dying of cancer, began attending crusades. The Swaggarts and the Rev. Dick Hepworth, the ministry's director of stewardship, dined with her several times. So did the ministry's West Coast representative, Ron McGregor, according to court records that contain his logs of his visits and phone calls.

"Good PR call," read an entry on April 30, 1979. "She said she intends to give cash gift in future. Plans to draw up new will." Other entries spoke of reading scriptures, sending get-well cards and encouraging Vance as her condition deteriorated.

When she died in 1981, she left her estate to the ministry. Her sister contested the will, charging that the lonely Vance had come under the influence of Swaggart, "a powerful, charistmatic" figure who was able to "brainwash . . . and exploit" Vance.

"Foolishness," Swaggart said. "In a suit you can accuse anybody of being Attila the Hun's grandson, and they generally do."

When the case was settled in 1984, the ministry received 70 percent -- worth more than $10 million, according to Swaggart's 1985 financial statement -- of Vance's estate; a medical foundation named for Vance's son received the rest.

Swaggart said the Vance case was not the reason for curtailing the stewardship program. For one thing, he said, he was uncomfortable with some of the fund-raisers in the field. For another, "when you get right down to the bottom line, it was costing us more money than we were getting. So it was not a paying proposition. So we just stopped it."

In the days since the Bakkers were turned out of the PTL Club and the Assemblies of God, television evangelists -- and Swaggart in particular -- have been called increasingly to account for their methods. Beyond the financial information he files with the Assemblies of God, he is not accustomed to doing so.

No State Regulation

Louisiana does not regulate charitable organizations' fund-raising or expenditures, and Swaggart, like many other evangelists, does not belong to the only voluntary association that oversees evangelical groups, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The council requires that no family members sit on an organization's board. "We will not change for them," Swaggart said.

Swaggart has responded guardedly to the recent barrage of questions, opening some financial records and parts of his operation to some reporters while hoping to refocus their attention on his ministry, rather than his money.

Frances Swaggart said her husband would be regarded differently if he were "in the world like his cousin" -- rock-and-roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis, who grew up with Swaggart in Ferriday, La.

She said, "We could live in a house three times the size {of ours} and . . . the community would be so thrilled to have us . . . . But it's a bad thing nowadays to be a Christian, and it's a bad thing to be successful in what God's called you to do."