Do Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker signal the end of a forgettable era?
MCD Staff

MCD Staff

It was a crazy time in TV evangelism. Perhaps a forgettable era. The infamous televangelists blew into town, and with their big budget spending on TV, had big budget donor campaigns to match.

Christians, naturally keen to see the Gospel spread throughout the earth, gave generously to these ministries. Only to end up being very let down. There are some televangelists that we’d probably all rather forget, and one of them was Jim Bakker.

A new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire, has recently hit the market, documenting in detail, well, the rise and fall, of their ministry.

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Jimmy Bakker was a prominent American televangelist, a former Assemblies of God minister and a former host (with his then-wife Tammy Faye Bakker) of The PTL Club, an evangelical Christian television program.

An accusation of rape made by his secretary led to his resignation from the ministry. Subsequent revelations of accounting fraud brought about his imprisonment and divorce. He later remarried and returned to televangelism.

In 1966, the Bakkers began working at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, which at the time barely reached an audience of thousands. The Bakkers greatly contributed to the growth of the network, and their success with a variety show format (including interviews and puppets) helped make The 700 Club one of the longest-running and most successful televangelism programs.

The Jim and Tammy Show was broadcast for a few years from their Portsmouth, Virginia, studio and was aimed at young children. The Bakkers then left for California in the early 1970s.

By the early 1980s, the Bakkers had built Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina (south of Charlotte), then the third most successful theme park in the U.S., and a satellite system to distribute their network 24 hours a day across the country. Contributions requested from viewers were estimated to exceed $1,000,000 a week, with proceeds to go to expanding the theme park and mission of PTL.

In their success, the Bakkers took conspicuous consumption to an unusual level for a nonprofit organization. In an April 23, 1990 New Yorker article, Frances FitzGerald quoted Dave Barry, who wrote “they personified the most characteristic excesses of the nineteen-eighties—the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness—which in their case were so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence.” [8]

Jim Bakker was dismissed as a minister of the Assemblies of God on May 6, 1987.

Below is the synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly on this new book:

“Professor of History at the University of Missouri Wigger (American Saint) starts this captivating exploration of the rise, stumble, and fall of the PTL evangelical empire founded in 1973 by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—one of the first major televangelist operations in the United States—with a brief review of the Pentecostal evangelical religion in America and the early biographies of both Bakkers before plunging into the development of the PTL business empire.

“The scandal-ridden downfall of the Bakkers was front-page news in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but the story starts in the early ’60s with the just-married Bakkers setting off to travel by car as evangelical preachers. The Bakkers started on television with a children’s show on a network headlined by Pat Robertson, the Bakkers’ expansion to owning studios and stations came quickly.

“Jim Bakker’s spin on what is broadly known as “the prosperity gospel,” a particularly American evangelical take on the relationship between God and money, was what led both to the couple’s spectacular success and, eventually, ruin. Wigger does an outstanding job of untangling and following the various threads of the PTL, only briefly allowing himself a moment of ahistorical judgment when discussing the 45-year prison term eventually passed on Jim Bakker.

“Anyone interested in the theological underpinnings of certain contemporary strains of right-wing American politics, as well as those more particularly interested in the Bakkers or televangelism, should find this book rewarding.”

Has the church learned its lesson? Is this the end of such ministries? One thing is for sure and that is that as media has moved online, it has become harder for ministries to dominate the landscape the way these televangelists did. There are now thousands of churches and ministries that can film and stream their own shows, meaning we don’t have as many ‘tent pole’ ministries as we once did. Online media has leveled the playing field somewhat.

Sure, we still have Joel Osteen, Hillsong, T.D. Jakes and the like, but even those ministries would be well aware of their predecessors, and also mindful of the sort of media scrutiny that would await them if they dared venture down a similar path. Aside from that, no doubt the IRS keeps a much more watchful eye on ministries these days.

Potentially all the work these televangelists did in spreading the name of Jesus to the masses was undone by all of the unsavory media attention they then received. I for one am glad that era is over.

 

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