Bakker, Faye, and Jim were among the most famous televangelists in America, living a life of luxury with multiple expensive cars and houses, when their empire came crashing down amidst financial and sex scandals.
However, the downfall of the Bakkers did not result in the imprisonment of the couple or the closure of their massively popular TV network, which was a significant financial loss for them. Instead, it became a joke on “Saturday Night Live,” making them the butt of many jokes and ultimately leading to their divorce and the ruin of their multimillion-dollar Christian version of Disneyland theme park.
Initially, the Bakkers owned and aired their TV show, “PTL Club,” on a small North Carolina station, which led to them becoming household names in the mid-70s, as people loved and praised them, calling them “Turner Ted” or “Lord Love That People.”
John Wigger, the writer of “PTL: The Ascend and Decline of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire,” expressed, “The evangelical talk show was indeed Bakker’s primary breakthrough, which aligned with his true intentions… To establish a Christian adaptation of ‘The Tonight Show’.”
In 1978, Jim Bakker created a satellite network to efficiently distribute his programming. Wigger stated that Bakker purchased airtime on TV stations in order to run their various programs.
To fund his enterprise, the Bakkers hosted telethons and asked viewers to sign up for monthly pledges to become “PTL Club” partners.
Former PTL security chief Don Hardister stated, “There is no distinction.” When you purchase their merchandise, all of your beloved programs are urging you to contribute financially. Instead of airing a commercial and receiving compensation for it, we simply approached our audience and requested, “If you appreciate our content, please assist us.”
The funds, as per Hardister, came flowing in.
He said, “I can envision. We definitely had more money at times in the office cash.” “People would send us deeds, diamond rings, and mink coats. We received all kinds of donations, I mean.”
In the mid-’80s, the Bakkers, who had two children at that time, had constructed a multimillion-dollar business.
Hardister said, “What we did not comprehend was that this would reach a conclusion.” “I never imagined that it would reach a conclusion.”
The Bakkers were permitted to use their satellite network’s income to purchase a total of 2,300 acres of land for a new venture called Heritage USA, which includes a 500-room hotel and a waterpark complex, situated in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
“He asked, ‘Why is it not possible to create a Christian adaptation of Disneyland?’ ‘Bakker had a long-standing admiration for Walt Disney,’ he commented. ‘He leaned back and expressed.'”
The Bakkers’ dominion had numerous flaws, but this would mark the beginning of a series of cracks. Bakker requested his supporters to contribute $1,000 for “enduring alliances” that would grant them an annual three-night accommodation at the Heritage Grand hotel.
Mark Becker, a journalist for WSOC-TV, an ABC affiliate based in Charlotte, reported on the Bakkers and commented, “The issue is that there were an excessive number of individuals contributing $1,000, but there was a significant shortage of available hotel accommodations.”
Wigger stated, “He sold more than 66,000 partnerships for the Grand Heritage, where the hotel occupancy percentage exceeded 100.”
Wigger stated that Tammy Faye experienced a mental collapse, as Jim Bakker had recently begun construction on a ministry center worth $100 million, which he named the Crystal Palace, in January 1987.
Hardister claimed that he was with Tammy Faye at the time of the incident.
He stated, “We were all aware that she had certain issues with prescription medication… And Tammy did not engage in such behavior in my presence, and she had undressed, and I couldn’t fathom being alone with this woman,” he expressed. “And that is when she began experiencing hallucinations, they abandoned me in the residence in the company of Tammy.”
Jim Bakker and Faye Tammy were once again shaken when their hometown newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, published an exposé uncovering a sexual encounter that occurred over 6 years ago between Bakker and Jessica Hahn, a young secretary from Long Island, New York. It was revealed in a videotaped message to their viewers that Faye Tammy was being treated for drug dependency.
Supposedly, Jim Bakker sexually violated her when she was 21 years old in December 1980, as Hahn later asserted. The ministry subsequently paid over $200,000 in quiet money. Jim Bakker contested her description of a sexual assault, and in his book “I Was Wrong,” he later wrote that the sexual encounter was consensual.
Wigger expressed, “However, she unmistakably did not have faith in the fact that it was consensual,” Wigger stated. “Subsequently, she confided in me that she does not genuinely feel at ease discussing it using those words, but the manner in which Jessica Hahn subsequently depicted her sexual interaction with Jim Bakker appears strikingly similar to sexual assault.”
The Hahn controversy subsided until another well-known minister and televangelist, Jerry Falwell, stepped in and took over the ministry, while Jim Bakker from PTL resigned, needing time to lay low.
Mark DeMoss, a previous spokesperson for Falwell, expressed, “I require some time to spend with my spouse and loved ones.” Bakker conveyed [to Falwell], “I would appreciate it if you could assume leadership of PTL and ensure its stability.”
However, what Falwell was unaware of at that moment, according to Wigger, was that PTL was “significantly in debt.”
He stated, “They’re losing two million dollars every month… Heavily borrowed to the extent of imminent failure.” “Another revelation is that [Jim] Bakker purportedly engaged in multiple homosexual relationships.”
In May 1987, during a press conference at the Bakkers’ conference, Falwell stated that Jim Bakker was no longer fit to lead PTL. He accused Tammy Faye Bakker of secretly being gay and claimed that Faye Tammy had made a long list of demands in order to come forward and reveal her plans. These demands included large annual salaries, two cars, a maid for one year, and a furnished house on a lake, among other things.
In May 1987, Faye Tammy, who appeared on “Nightline” with Ted Koppel, went on a media tour with the Bakkers, despite the refusal to comply with the demands of that list.
During that period, she informed Koppel, ‘And you know, when you’re engaged in bargaining -‘ he [Falwell] inquired about our desired possessions, what we believed we should possess, after devoting numerous years to the ministry, and then departing from it.”
“You begin at the pinnacle,” Jim Bakker concluded on her behalf.
In an interview today, Koppel stated, “Looking back, I conducted more than 6,000 episodes of ‘Nightline,’ which was the top-rated show. Although it may not have been my personal favorite, it had the broadest appeal to the largest audience. That was the reason for its success.”
The government started reviewing the compensation, spending, and finances of PTL officials, including the Bakkers. At one point, the Bakkers’ vast portfolio included several expensive homes, an air-conditioned doghouse, two Rolls Royces, a Mercedes Benz, and a private jet.
“According to former ABC News correspondent Rebecca Chase, the investigation into Jim Bakker and his associates resulted in substantial indictments. She mentioned that the investigation was extensive and time-consuming.”
Jessica Hahn, meanwhile, went on to pose for “Playboy” magazine multiple times and made several appearances on Howard Stern’s show years later.
Jim Bakker was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy.
Suzanne Stevens, a previous WSOC-TV anchor who reported on the Bakkers, expressed, “Tammy Faye was never charged. However, that was the main topic of discussion: How could she not have been aware? She was donning fur garments, she was adorning herself with rings.”
The trial of Bakker, which occurred in front of federal Judge Robert Potter, was tainted by theatricality.
Steve Nelson, the department head, testified as a witness for the prosecution and confirmed that Jim Bakker and Steve Nelson were aware that the program partnership lifetime was oversold. Steve Nelson had access to data on the lifetime partnerships at PTL and was aware of the charges being collected.
While giving his testimony, Nelson fainted on the witness stand and had to be transported to the hospital.
Jerry McJunkins, one of the many court sketch artists assigned to the trial, exclaimed, “Jim, Jim,” as though anticipating a miraculous resurrection, he could revive him,” and Bakker’s lawyer summoned him [Jim Bakker] on the phone, ‘Oh, he’s dedicating his life to God,’ … A member of the audience interjected, When he lost consciousness, an eerie hush fell over the room and…
“Jim genuinely believed [Nelson] had passed away,” stated Hardister.
Wigger expressed, “the journalists outside the legal chamber appeared to him as enormous insects,” envisioning that “the following day, Jim Bakker experienced a mental collapse.”
Hardister said, “Beneath his lawyer’s sofa, he was huddled,”. “Completely overwhelmed him, positively and negatively, all the actions he had taken and the burden of that legal case, the burden of,” he said.
Judge Potter ordered Bakker to be committed to a psychiatric ward in a federal prison and the trial was put on hold.
After six days, Jim Bakker appeared, prepared to testify in his own support.
On October 5, 1989, Bakker was found guilty on all 24 charges by a jury. As a result, he received a 45-year prison sentence and was also instructed to pay a $500,000 penalty.
Jim Bakker filed an appeal, arguing that his sentence for the crimes was too long. In 1991, the appellate court upheld his conviction, but granted him a hearing for sentence reduction. During the hearing, his sentence was reduced from eight years to almost five years in prison. He ended up serving almost five years of that sentence before being paroled in 1994.
Messner, the contractor who built USA Heritage and was married to Roe shortly thereafter, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud in 1996. Similarly, Jim Bakker was sent to prison for filing for divorce while Faye Tammy was still in prison.
“Faye and Tammy appeared on several TV shows, including daytime talk interviews and VH1’s “The Surreal Life” throughout the years.”
She announced on her website in May 2007 that she had stopped cancer treatments. She announced that it had spread to her lungs and that she had colon cancer in 2005. She also struggled with bouts of cancer.
BeBe Winans, a former singer for PTL and a recipient of six Grammy awards, expressed, “She not only gave something to smile about, but also courage. When she took her last breath, she cried, sang, talked, and loved – all of which she believed would be seen by the one who witnessed her final moments.”
After being released from prison, Jim Bakker went to work launching a new ministry called Morningside, nestled in the Ozarks of Missouri near Branson. In 2003, he began broadcasting a new daily TV show, starring himself, called “The show,” from the studios in Missouri.
Wigger said, “In order to prepare people for the apocalypse, the Bakkers are now raising money for their ministry by selling products such as freeze-dried food in five-gallon buckets and survival equipment.”
Reflecting on the remarkable ascent and downfall of the Bakkers, “It’s a captivating tale about American faith,” Wigger remarked.
“It’s a captivating narrative about American culture,” he persisted. “And I believe it possesses a sort of eternal quality.”