Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, evangelists who ran an empire that centered around the PTL television network, were enmeshed in personal problems that led to their fall from grace. Tammy Faye admitted to an addiction to painkillers and Jim admitted to having an affair with a church secretary and paying for her silence. This latter incident led to Jim’s resignation and eventually a financial investigation of the ministry. Jim was imprisoned and the couple divorced.

Summary of Event

Married evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker began their television career in 1966 when working with evangelist Pat Robertson at his Christian Broadcasting Network. The burgeoning ministers first found fame via The 700 Club, a variety show focused on various conservative Christian topics. After spearheading the program through 1973, the couple joined Christian broadcasters Paul and Jan Crouch and founded Trinity Broadcasting Systems (now Trinity Broadcasting Network, or TBN) in Costa Mesa, California, beginning their on-air ministry with the show Praise the Lord on a local television station with rented airtime. [kw]Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network, Jim (Mar. 19, 1987) [kw]PTL Television Network, Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of (Mar. 19, 1987) PTL Television Network Bakker, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Evangelists;Jim Bakker[Bakker] PTL Television Network Bakker, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Evangelists;Jim Bakker[Bakker] [g]United States;Mar. 19, 1987: Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network[02270] [c]Public morals;Mar. 19, 1987: Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network[02270] [c]Religion;Mar. 19, 1987: Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network[02270] [c]Radio and television;Mar. 19, 1987: Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network[02270] [c]Sex;Mar. 19, 1987: Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network[02270] [c]Law and the courts;Mar. 19, 1987: Jim Bakker Resigns as Head of PTL Television Network[02270] Hahn, Jessica Falwell, Jerry

Jim Bakker is escorted from his lawyer’s office by U.S. marshals on August 31, 1989, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bakker was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation to determine if he was competent to continue standing trial.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Even though the partnership with TBN lasted only one year, the Bakkers’ success would continue. They moved from Southern California to Charlotte, North Carolina, and after securing the rights to the acronym PTL, formed Praise the Lord Network (also known as the PTL Network) and began their flagship show The PTL Club. Between the pair’s surging popularity and ability to reach nearly one hundred stations around the globe, the program, in a talk-show format, earned tremendous traction throughout the late 1970’s into the 1980’s.

In addition to television outreach (which welcomed a diversity of people from all denominations), the couple unveiled Heritage USA Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre theme park (complete with a resort atmosphere and residences) in Fort Mill, South Carolina, in 1978. The park drew more visitors than any other park in the United States except Disneyland and Disney World. Though all appeared well at face value and PTL finances were strong (backed by over one million dollars per week in viewer donations), the cracks started to surface during the mid-1980’s. The media became particularly suspicious of what skeptics claimed was an excessive empire (including reports that Jim and Tammy Faye’s home included an air-conditioned doghouse and gold-plated bathroom fixtures, which the couple later denied).

Additional fuel was added to the fire in 1987, a year that included Tammy Faye’s public admission of being addicted to prescription painkillers (and subsequent treatment at the Betty Ford Center) and Jim’s looming sex scandal. Jim had sexual relations with one-time church secretary Jessica Hahn, and his staff paid her a reported $279,000 to keep the secret hidden from the media. On March 19, Bakker personally broke the silence, tearfully admitting of the affair (which happened in 1980) but denying allegations of rape. Rape;and Jimmy Bakker[Bakker] With this admission, Jim also resigned from PTL and turned over the organization to fellow televangelist (and longtime rival) Jerry Falwell in hopes of rebuilding trust within the religious community.

Initially, the plan was for Falwell to maintain the ministry until Jim could be restored to a position of leadership following a time steeped in personal prayer. However, Falwell quickly turned against the couple, calling Jim a hypocrite, accusing him of homosexual leanings (which were never substantiated), and scorned him for the shame surrounding the ministry’s downfall. With the change in command at PTL, Falwell now had control of the station’s satellite and Heritage USA, but the negative publicity surrounding the circumstances led to a sharp decline in viewership and park attendance. To make matters worse for the Bakker legacy and for Falwell’s attempt to regenerate the brand name, the Internal Revenue Internal Revenue Service;and Heritage USA[Heritage USA] Internal Revenue Service;and churches[churches] Service revoked Heritage USA’s tax-exempt status, leading to the organization’s filing for bankruptcy protection.

Additional turmoil set in when The Charlotte Observer published reports of potential financial wrongdoings during the Bakker reign of PTL. The paper claimed that, most notably, the organization sold lifetime memberships that gave donors of one thousand dollars or more an extended weekend vacation at Heritage USA every year. Approximately 165,000 people contributed to the program, but at the time of Jim’s descent, only one five-hundred-room hotel had been constructed to accommodate the tens of thousands of donors.

As a result of subsequent bookkeeping discrepancies, Jim was tried in a well-publicized case that continued as tabloid fodder into 1988. In December of that year, he was indicted for fraud and conspiracy to defraud, resulting in a conviction on twenty-four counts and a forty-five-year prison sentence. The Bakkers would never return as a couple to television nor to Heritage USA, which officially closed its doors in 1989 (lifetime donors each received $6.54 in legal compensation).

The Bakkers continued to make headlines even during the prison term, as Jim appealed his case and was sentenced to eighteen years in 1991 (though he would serve only five). The next year, Tammy Faye filed for divorce and married Roe Messner, the builder of Heritage USA, in 1993. In prison, Jim wrote in his autobiography I Was Wrong (1996) about his theological and sexual mistakes, though he maintained his innocence when it came to issues of financial fraud. (An epilogue written after he finished the text reveals a 1996 federal jury ruling that Bakker was not selling securities through his partnership offers at Heritage USA.)

Though much less publicity was granted to the epilogue and Jim’s subsequent career moves, he regained some exposure by marrying Lori Graham in 1998. The pair sought to recapture his original television audience in 2003 with the variety-styled Jim Bakker Show (television) Jim Bakker Show (also broadcast throughout various satellite networks). Tammy Faye turned to secular television in 1996 with The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show (a talk show with costar Jim J. Bullock, a gay comic), followed by VH1’s reality show Surreal Life, The (television) The Surreal Life in 2004. Despite Jim and Tammy Faye’s split, they remained friends until Tammy Faye’s death from cancer in 2007.

Impact

Though televangelists were sometimes viewed with skepticism prior to this scandal (either because of sexual or financial indiscretions), Jim’s resignation marked the pinnacle of poor publicity for the television genre. The consequences of the resignation were particularly heavy because of Jim’s and Tammy Faye’s larger than life personalities, plus the massive amount of fame they accumulated through their television shows and their amusement park (perhaps more than anyone else within the Christian ministry at the time). Even with throngs of supporters, however, a more secular-minded public considered their lifestyles lavish, their methods deceptive, and their intentions deceitful. The entire episode leaves many lingering questions, ranging from Falwell’s motives in his takeover of PTL and Heritage USA to whether or not the media focus on Jim’s trial affected the outcome of the case, to Jim’s detriment. It is clear from the Bakkers-PTL scandal that the public holds religious figures of any affiliation to high moral standards.

Even though triumph was followed by a fall from grace, the Bakkers proved they still had faithful followers. Jim and Tammy Faye both returned separately to television—albeit with a fraction of their previous viewers—but nonetheless resumed their careers. For admitting to some past mistakes they were greeted with some forgiveness. PTL Television Network Bakker, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Evangelists;Jim Bakker[Bakker]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albert, James A. Jim Bakker: Miscarriage of Justice? Chicago: Open Court, 1998. A legal analyst presents all sides to the story, while suggesting Jim’s financial trial could have been hindered by endless media sensationalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bakker, Jay, with Linden Gross. Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Jim and Tammy Faye’s son, Jay, discusses his father in this telling memoir of living “in the shadows” of scandal and controversey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bakker, Jim, with Ken Abraham. I Was Wrong: The Untold Story of the Shocking Journey from PTL Power to Prison and Beyond. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1996. Jim’s personal account of his rise to fame and his downfall. Includes candid details about his time in prison and his declaration of innocence regarding financial wrongdoings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Messner, Tammy Faye. Telling It My Way. New York: Villard, 1996. Tammy Faye tells her side of the story and supports Jim’s accounts of innocence in the case of financial improprieties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Brett A. Divine Apology: The Discourse of Religious Image Restoration. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. Analyzes religious figures accused of sexual misconduct. Includes some discussion of Jim Bakker in the chapter on fundamentalist preacher Jimmy Swaggart, whose scandalous dalliance with a prostitute was covered closely by the national media.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Michael. The Edge of Disaster. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. A book with a tabloid tone that exposes the couple’s wrongdoings. Richardson was Jim’s personal bodyguard during the televangelist’s peak professional period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shepard, Charles E. Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989. A reporter from The Charlotte Observer analyzes the ascent and collapse of Jim and Tammy Faye’s empire.

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