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Jim Bakker

And the PTL Years

Jim & Tammy Bakker

by Dennis Pollock

Most people under thirty would not recognize the name of Jim Bakker. Even Christian young people would never guess that his imprint is all over most Christian television seen today, or that he was essentially the father of the mammoth TBN network, which reaches nearly all the world. At the time of this writing he is still a television minister, but he is largely ignored by the majority of Christian TV viewers. The voice is the same, but the boyish good looks are gone, and his once mainstream appeal has disintegrated, leaving him a small niche of faithful viewers.

His is a life worth studying. Not simply because it has all the ingredients of a soap opera, which it certainly does, but because in his day Jim and his wife Tammy Faye Bakker made an enormous impact upon the body of Christ. In their heyday they were a means of blessings to millions, and their ministry resulted in great numbers of men, women, and children finding salvation in Christ Jesus. In the demise of their ministry and their marriage they became a laughingstock to the world and a source of embarrassment and shame to believers everywhere, and provided much fuel for ridicule and derision to the professional haters of Christianity and the late night comedians.

Beginnings

Jim Bakker’s spiritual story begins accidentally – quite literally with a car accident. A little boy slid under the wheels of his car on a snowy day and the teenaged Bakker unknowingly ran over him. The boy miraculously survived, but Jim was so torn up by the incident he gave his life to Jesus. Within a year he was off to an Assemblies of God Bible college.

In his first year, living on the zeal of his recent conversion to Christ, Jim studied hard and worked at a part-time job. He was so diligent in his desire to please the Lord, that even among all the Christian students he became known as “holy joe.” But in his second year something came along to distract him from his strict and total devotion to studying for the ministry. Actually it wasn’t a something, it was a someone – a petite, tiny young lady named Tammy LaValley. Tammy had a pretty face and was packed with more vivaciousness than ten ordinary girls. And, true to the Assembly of God standards of those days, she wore no makeup (which would change drastically in a couple of years!).

Jim Bakker was smitten, big time, so much so that after their second date, he told Tammy he loved her and wanted to marry her. Tammy felt the same way, and before that school year was out they were married. After their marriage they continued with their meager jobs, Jim working as a busboy at a restaurant and Tammy at the local Woolworth’s store. Together they brought in around $80 a week, which was enough to live on but not by much. In those early days they were very much in love, but still, it didn’t take long for Tammy to see a side of Jim that troubled her. In her book Tammy, she wrote:

Jim showed me a side of himself that I would never in a million years have expected to see. Without reason he would suddenly become quiet and withdrawn, wouldn’t bother speaking to a soul… I had never been around such moody behavior before… “Jim, what’s wrong?” I would ask. “Please tell me, what’s wrong?” Of course I never realized how many thousands of times I would repeat those words during our thirty years of marriage.

It seems that one of the great ironies and mysteries that defined Jim Bakker, at least in his days with Tammy and the PTL Network, was how he could always be so “on,” so bubbly, so entirely positive on camera, and yet struggle so deeply with depression and moodiness in his private life.

Evangelist

But Jim was not always this way. Tammy admits he could be a tender and caring husband. Some months after leaving Bible college he was invited to preach a “revival meeting” at an Assembly of God church in North Carolina. Jim was terribly discouraged when his first “altar call” met with no responses whatsoever, and was ready to leave the ministry, but the pastor wisely counseled him to preach his best and leave the results with the Lord. Before the meetings concluded people were responding, and Jim Bakker was launched as an evangelist. The pastor of the church called other pastors and told them about the fiery young evangelist. Doors opened quickly and Jim and Tammy were soon preaching throughout Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Before long they were preaching in some of the largest churches of their denomination.

It became evident that the young evangelist had that intangible quality which no one can purchase and no amount of education can bestow – he had charisma. He wasn’t deep; he didn’t wow congregations with the breadth of his intellect or the depth of his Bible knowledge. But people liked him and the positive, cheerful, smiling persona that became his “stage presence.” This charisma would eventually raise him to one of the highest platforms in the history of the Christian church.

But Jim Bakker had more than charisma. He was also hard-working and innovative, constantly working on new sermons and creative ways to reach his audiences. Not content to minister only to adults and teens, he and Tammy developed a puppet ministry that children found fascinating. Soon it became a significant component of every meeting they did. All seemed to be going perfectly for the zealous young couple.

And then came Pat Robertson. While they were ministering in Portsmouth, Virginia, Robertson became aware of the young couple and begged them to come and work for him. He wanted them to develop a regular children’s television program, featuring their puppets. The salary would be small and the work would be hard, but Jim and Tammy felt that God was in the offer. They cancelled two years of scheduled meetings and went to work for Robertson and the fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network.

Television

The children’s program was a success, but it wasn’t the means by which Jim Bakker would be catapulted to the peak of Christian television. During their years in evangelism, Jim and Tammy would often come back to their motel late from a meeting and Jim would relax by putting on the television while Tammy prepared a snack. In those days there was little on at night, but a couple of movies and the Tonight Show. Watching Johnny Carson interviewing his guests gave Jim an idea – wouldn’t it be neat to have a Christian version of the program? He thought about the prospect of interviewing ministers and major figures in the body of Christ, and discussing the latest trends and issues of the church. In those days it seemed nothing more than an intriguing concept, but when Pat Robertson offered him a position with his TV station, Bakker put forth the idea immediately. Yes, he would do the children’s program if Robertson would allow him at some point to do a late night Christian talk show.

At that point, Christian television consisted almost entirely of singing and preaching. The idea of having Christians sit down on a couch and talk to a host was novel and untried. Robertson wasn’t convinced it would work, but since the station wasn’t airing anything at night anyway he had no problem with agreeing to Jim’s proposal. Thus was born The 700 Club, the program which has been heard nearly everywhere in the world. It was hosted, not by Pat Robertson, but by Jim Bakker, whose brainchild it was. It was called The 700 Club because Jim and Pat figured they needed 700 people to donate $100 each month to pay its expenses. Like Johnny Carson, Jim sat behind a desk and interviewed guests who sat on a couch.

The show quickly became popular and before long many of the biggest names in the Christian world were coming to Portsmouth and sitting on Jim’s couch. But before long a financial crisis threatened to sink not only the program but Robertson’s entire television ministry. Pat Roberson had been deeply influenced by the ministry of George Mueller, and like the German minister, he had determined never to reveal the ministry’s financial state to anyone, regardless of how dire the circumstances.

This didn’t make sense to Jim. He knew they were facing a total shutdown if they didn’t raise a lot of money in a hurry. One night on the show Jim Bakker broke Pat’s rules and appealed to their listeners. He told them just how critical their situation was and begged them to respond. As he spoke tears coursed down his cheeks. The people responded in a huge way. Jim writes:

Almost instantly the phones in the studio began ringing, and soon all ten lines were jammed. People had been touched by the Spirit of God. Very shortly after that the small studio began filling up with people who couldn’t reach us by telephone. Some were crying… Most of them had money in their hands. It was almost 2:30 a. m. before we signed off the air, our studio still packed with God’s people who had rallied to the cause.

Seeing the tremendous response to Jim’s honest and urgent appeal, Pat Roberson couldn’t very well criticize his young lieutenant, and dropped his attempts to be another George Mueller. The show and the station moved forward again.

Problems Surface

During his time at CBN Jim experienced something which revealed just how fragile was the personality of this zealous young minister – he had a nervous breakdown. He describes it in his book, Move That Mountain:

I could hardly lift my weary body out of the bed. My nerves were jangled and I felt as though I was losing all the restraints that held my life together. I couldn’t even bear to talk with anyone. I wanted only to be away from people… It seemed as if whatever little control I had over myself might snap any minute…

He saw a doctor who prescribed tranquilizers and told him that he was far too young to be having such a nervous condition. By forcing himself to rest more and put in fewer hours Bakker was able to get back to work and back to ministry.

In time another issue developed. Robertson, seeing the phenomenal success of the late night talk show, found it impossible to remain uninvolved. At first he asked to host one show per week himself. Then it became two. Rightly or wrongly Jim and Tammy began to feel that Robertson ultimately wanted to take over the program. In addition, Pat was now planning to air secular shows on the station like Gunsmoke, in the hope of attracting more viewers. Bakker thought this dead-wrong, and decided he had no choice but to offer his resignation. Robertson made no attempt to dissuade him, and the couple abruptly sold their house and moved to California to see what ministry opportunities might await them there.

California Days

Once in the Los Angeles area Jim and Tammy visited some friends from Jim’s days in Muskegon, Michigan, Paul Crouch and his wife Jan. Paul was now working for a Christian TV station in the area and was contemplating buying his own station. He was soon talking earnestly with Jim about going in with him on the venture. Paul told Jim, “I know the business end of TV and you know the creative part. Let’s pool our resources and get the show on the road… You be the power in front of the camera and I’ll be the power behind the camera.” After their experience and success at CBN Jim and Tammy couldn’t resist the offer. Soon they were at it again, attempting to raise up a Christian television station from scratch.

Jim had not lost his magic touch, and it didn’t take long for the station to gain an audience. Jim began syndicating his new PTL show (which stood for “Praise the Lord”) across the country. Tammy served as the cohost and featured singer. It looked like there was no stopping them this time.

But something did stop them. It was less than a year that the Crouches began to feel the need for more personal involvement and control, even in front of the cameras. Tammy felt this was mostly Jan’s doing, writing:

One time I overheard her insisting in a very loud voice, “Paul, you ought to be the president. Jim shouldn’t be the president. You ought to be on the air all the time!”

The Crouches were far more business-savvy than the Bakkers, and it was only a matter of time before Jim and Tammy would be on the move once more. In time the inevitable confrontation arose between Paul and Jim. Because most of the board members had been appointed by Paul, they sided with him, resulting in Jim and Tammy being summarily dismissed. A large number of the staff felt that Jim and Tammy had been mistreated and resigned in protest. As with CBN, the program and network that they helped to found in California, now known as the Trinity Broadcasting Network, would rise to have a worldwide presence, and would touch millions. But they would not be there to enjoy the success.

By now Jim and Tammy Bakker were well-known in the Christian world, especially among those believers who watched Christian television. A new station in Charlotte, North Carolina contacted them only a few months after he was dismissed from TBN, and asked them to come and host a telethon for them. Jim and Tammy agreed.

Charlotte, North Carolina and the PTL Club

People from the area began begging them to come and set up a ministry in Charlotte, and God’s blessings were so apparent, they felt this must surely be the will of God. Jim, Tammy, and many of the staff that had resigned from TBN all moved to the Charlotte area to once again attempt to raise up a Christian television network. Jim seemed like a beach ball pressed under the water: he could be pushed down for a while, but sooner or later he would bob back up to the surface. In Charlotte he would experience his biggest rebound of all.

This time he was not working for someone as he had with Pat Roberson. Nor was he working in partnership with anyone, as with Paul Crouch. Jim would be the undisputed leader of the ministry. There would be no one to shut him down or send him on his way just as he began experiencing success.

The charisma, the drive, and the magic were still there. Jim Bakker did the same thing he had been doing for nearly a decade. He hosted a talk show for Christians. He smiled, he encouraged, he told people they were going to make it, that God loved them, and that everything was going to be OK. And they believed him.

Jim called his new program “The PTL Club” and soon he was leaving the Crouches in the dust and giving Pat Robertson a run for his money. Jim wasn’t as intellectual and sophisticated as Pat and didn’t have the business savvy that Paul Crouch had, but he had that charisma. Now in his thirties he looked younger than his years, and had a face and a smile you instinctively trusted.

Christian ministers and artists loved to be on his program, partly because it reached a wide audience, but also because they knew he would treat them well, ask them easy questions, and make them look good. In that respect Jim Bakker became the Larry King of the Christian world. Corrie Ten Boom, Colonel Sanders, Billy Graham, Pat Boone, Oral Roberts, and David Wilkerson were just a few of the Christian mega-celebrities who appeared with Jim on the PTL program.

In a few years what began as a single program on a single station became a worldwide Christian television network. Bakker was able to lease an entire communications satellite and broadcast live shows across the nation. Overnight the stations carrying the PTL Club multiplied exponentially. This phenomenal growth was unprecedented in the history of Christian ministry. Jim Bakker sat on top of a rocket that was shooting skyward at a phenomenal speed.

Personal Issues

But all was not well at home. Jim and Tammy Bakker’s marriage was falling apart. In a sense it was the classic case of a driven, workaholic husband unable or unwilling to see the loneliness and pain in the eyes of his wife, who feels ignored and unappreciated. Although Tammy often appeared on the show and took pleasure in singing and performing, her drive and ambition did not approach the obsession of her husband. And when his constant attention to the ministry took away his time with her, Tammy revolted. Actually she went through a series of revolts, including prescription drug addiction, leaving Jim and the TV show for a season, and falling in love with a man who helped produce her music. She claimed that the affair was never sexual, but admits that she was in love with him, and that there was “hugging and kissing.”

Jim tried different things in an effort to resolve Tammy’s issues, but seemed unable to slacken the pace of his involvement in the ever-growing ministry. Things became worse when he announced the building of a Christian theme park which he named Heritage, USA. It was an enormous project, and required the raising of millions and millions of dollars to build, and millions more every year to sustain.

Perhaps a no more telling statement exists regarding the nature of Jim Bakker than the one Tammy relates in her biography where, after she questioned him about the wisdom of this project, he told her, “Tam, I just have to build.” Of course he didn’t have to build. The truth was, Jim Bakker had become addicted to growth, and the thought of slowing down was in his mind unthinkable. There had to be a new project, a new cause, a new reason for raising funds and seeing goals met.

Portrait of the Man

Just what kind of man was Jim Bakker during those heady, phenomenal PTL days? It is enlightening to read the book The Edge of Disaster by his former bodyguard Michael Richardson. The book is poorly written, about what you might expect from a simple man with no writing background and minimal writing skills. But it seems honest. Richardson was with Bakker almost nonstop throughout his waking hours during his service as his personal bodyguard. The book is neither a hatchet job nor a gushing piece of flattery. Still, the Jim Bakker that Richardson describes is not exactly likeable.

He calls his former boss a “hugely convincing, greedy, insecure, visionary, hard driving, hard driven man.” He declares in all his time with the television host, he never saw him study the Bible, other than to look up a quick quote for a sermon or talk he was going to give. From his perspective, both Jim and his wife Tammy were hugely insecure and fragile personalities, moody and easily angered. He describes Jim as the ultimate micromanager, upset at a light bulb being out or a bathroom showing the least amount of clutter, and pouring over architectural plans, making changes on an almost daily basis.

On the other hand, Richardson gives the Bakkers credit for the good works that they did, supporting missions, giving a helping hand to evangelists that were struggling, and creating food and clothing distribution centers. During much of his tenure, Richardson had alternating admiration and loathing for Jim Bakker. He admits that through his television program, his various outreaches to the hurting, and his financial gifts, many, many people were blessed and helped. But the disconnect between their ministry personas and their personal lives began to take a toll on Richardson’s conscience, eventually leading him to quit his job.

For Richardson, the worst part was the excessive, personal spending. In those days the Bakkers were making over a million dollars a year, and were spending it like teenagers on spring break. He describes a trip to California where they bought a Rolls Royce, a second car, and many thousands of dollars of other toys and clothes, including a number of $900 suits for Jim. Richardson heard an aid declare that the price tag on that short outing came to about $120,000. Once when their son Jamie asked for a tree house, Jim gave the order for what had to have been the most elaborate tree house in the nation. It had two stories, air-conditioning, and a TV, and stood on piers, eight feet tall on the uphill side and twenty feet on the downhill. Richardson wrote: “It was nicer than houses many people live in.” And all the while, Jim was constantly talking to TV viewers about PTL’s financial needs and crises, and constantly urging them to give to the ministry.

Downfall

Eventually it all came crashing down. The story is so complex it would take too long to tell all the details, but in summary it goes like this:

Jim Bakker, in response to his wife’s affair, decided to even the score and engaged in a one-time sexual experience with a lady named Jessica Hahn. He felt guilty about it afterwards and told a few friends what he had done. They advised him to keep quiet. He followed this advice, but several years later Jessica began demanding money to keep her mouth shut. Bakker caved and gave her over $200,000. Word of this eventually leaked out, and The Charlotte Observer began preparing a story for publication.

Enter Jerry Falwell, one of the most puzzling characters in this entire business. He came to Bakker and convinced him to resign from the board and place himself (Falwell) in charge. He told Jim that he would handle the press, allow a few weeks to pass, and then return the ministry to him. By this point Bakker, never known for steadiness under pressure, was in a state of sheer panic. Somehow he believed Falwell, and did exactly as he suggested, despite Tammy’s vigorous and repeated objections.

Jim Bakker’s days of leadership over PTL were over. He would never again appear on the flagship program. After losing their ministry Jim and Tammy both came to believe that Falwell had no intentions of ever releasing the reigns of the ministry back to Bakker, and essentially orchestrated a Christian version of a “hostile takeover” of the PTL network and assets. And Falwell did get them for a brief period. But Jerry Falwell was no Jim Bakker and didn’t stand a chance of maintaining the enormously expensive ministry. He soon got into trouble with the government over some of his own fund-raising efforts and had to let it go. In 1989, just three years after Bakker left, Hurricane Hugo devastated the theme park and many of its buildings. It closed for good not long afterwards.

As for Jim Bakker, all the negative attention and the scandal provoked the U. S. government to look a little more closely at the way he had operated his ministry. It was determined that Bakker had oversold shares in his grand hotel on the PTL grounds, and he was charged with fraud. Being found guilty he ended up serving five years in prison.

While in prison, Tammy divorced him, and shortly thereafter married Roe Messner, who had been the ministry’s major building contractor for many years. In the years since then Jim Bakker has remarried, and sure enough, like the beach ball, has bobbed back to the surface once again and has a Christian television program. It is far more modest however. But a better word to describe it would be… bizarre. Bakker has become convinced that Christians will soon enter the tribulation and will be forced to live through it – that is, if they are not killed by the antichrist. His guest are no longer Christian celebrities; nearly all of them are unknowns, who have bought into his post-tribulation, store-up-all-the-food-you-can theory. On a recent program he featured a guest who encouraged viewers to hide their stored food, so it will not be confiscated by the government. He also encouraged the building of fake walls. While he rambled on, you would see advertisements to buy one or more years’ worth of dried foods, to be kept as emergency rations when the ultimate disaster comes.

Summary

Jim Baker has been called every name in the book by both Christians and non-Christians. Many consider him a huckster and a con man, and he has been mockingly called Jim “Faker.” But from what I have learned of him I would not classify him as any of those things. A con man is someone who knowingly deceives others for the purpose of his own gain. Jim Bakker may have been self-deceived, and certainly has made some terrible judgment calls, but as far as I can see, he always believed in the ministries and the causes he promoted.

From his youthful years in Bible college throughout his ministry attempts at CBN, TBN, and the early days of PTL his goal was to present Jesus through a Christian talk show format. He was the first to see the value of this and his foresight and his ebullient personality proved a winning combination. For all their mistakes and failures, I don’t have any doubt that Jim and Tammy Bakker were born again Christians whose initial motivation was to glorify God through the medium of television.

Jim experienced a phenomenon and a danger that few ministers of the gospel ever face – he knew almost nothing but success during most of his television ministry. He seemed to have a golden touch in his work in all three television stations / networks that he helped to launch. This kind of success is certainly exciting, but it carries with it both a delusion and a snare. It can give one the impression that God will always grant such success regardless of the projects attempted or the motivation behind them. And the constant growth and popular acclaim that accompanies highly successful ministers can be so addictive that they can never stop looking for a new project, each one larger and more grandiose than the previous. The problem is, sooner or later they will launch into something that they have no ability to sustain. And they will experience major failure for the first time. If they are wise they will learn an invaluable lesson: that even highly gifted men and women have their limits. But if the failure is too large and especially if it results in public humiliation, it can sink their ministries altogether.

Had Jim Bakker taken more time off, lived more conservatively, and been content to sit behind a desk interviewing Christian guests, he might still be doing it as president of PTL to this day. But his determination to create a mammoth, multi-million-dollar theme park on the hard-earned dollars of his supporters took a terrible toll. He had enough support and fund-raising ability to get the thing built, but he could never sustain the monthly financial drain on his ministry. The herculean efforts he made toward its success destroyed his marriage, and eventually cost him his ministry, all his savings, and brought the federal government looking into his affairs with a fine-tooth comb, until they discovered enough impropriety (in their minds) to send him to jail for five years. He emerged from prison without a ministry, without a wife, broke, and with his reputation forever stained.

Distraction

But Jim’s problem was not merely that he bit off more than he could chew. The theme park was questionable from the very beginning. To spend huge sums of money raised from ministry donations on roller coasters, water slides, and pretty little cafes and shops seemed to most observers, myself included, a great waste of kingdom funds. God had called him to proclaim Jesus Christ through television, not to furnish Americans one more place to vacation. It would seem that Jim’s greatest sin was the sin of distraction – somewhere along the line he had become so enamored with building and fund-raising that he found it impossible to ever apply the brakes and return to first principles: “But Tam, I just have to build.”

After prison he wrote a book titled: “I Was Wrong.” He repented of preaching a gospel of prosperity and of his own excessive lifestyle. But he seems to be blind to his greatest error – the sin of pushing Jesus off to a corner. As the years passed he evolved toward his present ministry of preaching doomsday and disaster – and hawking survival foods. Rather than preach Christ, he now primarily preaches ten gallon buckets of flour, five gallon bins of tomato flakes, and huge containers of dried macaroni and cheese. I don’t doubt that he really believes he is doing the body of Christ a favor, but in truth he is simply one more preacher who has been turned aside from simple devotion to Jesus, whose ministry has become diluted and impotent.

Young Christians, seeing the old guy with the white beard talking about buying food supplies and hoarding them in preparation for the coming tribulation, might shake their heads and say to themselves, “What a silly old guy!” And in a way they would be right. But we must not forget the tremendous role Jim Bakker played in the development and rise of Christian television. While we may have serious reservations about his present ministry, and many of his decisions and his lifestyle during the PTL years, it is right that we should acknowledge the way God used him to lift Jesus up in those exciting 70’s and 80’s, as evangelical Christians began to claim television as a means of reaching millions with the message of Jesus Christ. TBN and CBN, while not growing at the dizzying pace of PTL’s early days, have become colossal worldwide ministries, broadcasting to a potential of billions of people. Nearly every existing Christian station and network has followed their model. And if you trace them back to their roots, you will find smiling, effervescent, boyish Jim Bakker telling people: “God loves you – He really does.”


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