Jim & Tammy Faye
I met Jim Bakker in the mid- 80”s at his Heritage USA site in the Carolinas when Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye were at the top. Their televised PTL Club was the hottest televangelist show on TV. Their Heritage USA was a national attraction. Bakker’s sex scandal was forgotten about. His obvious financial frauds were being overlooked because Ronald Reagan didn’t want to antagonize the large bloc of Evangelical/Southern Baptist votes.
My friend, Brunt, a NYC stagehand who had worked for years at CBS, and myself, were going around the East Coast, learning all we could about satellite TV, a concept Brunt believed would push cable TV out. It certainly has fulfilled Brunt’s belief in it, but also proved my skepticism of us ever raising enough funds to get into the race.
Bakker welcomed us when we requested to visit his TV studio. He put us up in a mansion on the grounds and gave us carte blanch to the 24 hour free food in cafeteria building on the grounds. There was a huge crowd of followers and freeloaders that had rooms in the many smaller houses on the grounds and were regulars at the 24/7 cafeteria.
Unlike Swaggart, Bakker treated his followers with respect and charity. Unlike Swaggart, Bakker was congenial, easy to talk with.
In our brief sit-down with him, he was thrilled to find out I was from Minnesota.
‘That is where I fell in love with my lovely wife, Tammy Faye.’
Tammy Faye was from the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. They met when both were working in downtown Minneapolis, and attending bible college.
‘Love at first sight. We married shortly afterwards, dropped out of school and started our itinerant preaching, any place, any where. One of the first places was a church converted from a movie theater in Minneapolis.’
He apologized for having to cut short our chat. The coming Sunday was Palm Sunday and he had so much to do yet.
He turned us over to Franklyn, his number one man, assuring us that Franklyn would show us everything on both PTL campuses. He did and was quite candid about everything and everyone at the PLT Club.
Brunt was very impressed by the state-of-the-art television studio. He said it was by far better than CBS’s studios. He insisted we go back a second day and I bowed out at the last minute. Darn migraine! I spent the day people-watching and reading, and second guessing this whole TV venture.
Sunday we went to church. The parking lot was full, buses, RV’s, many nice cars, but rust-buckets jalopies took up most of the spaces. Franklyn said Bakker didn’t charge them to park. ‘Soften them up so they don’t feel they are getting taken for a ride when they pop for his overpriced goodies, and keep having to contribute to another collection.’
To enter the church from the lot, you first went into a very large room filled with a maze of tables on which were Bakker’s overpriced goodies. Since there was no direct aisle to the church proper, you had to zig-zag around tables and the people manning each one. A brilliant money-trap.
I stopped at one and opened a bible autographed, at a slight cost above one without Bakker’s imprimatur. Then I opened another and compared the signatures.
Franklyn snickered. ‘The only time Jim writes his name is on his secret bank account.’
I asked Franklyn how long he had been with the Bakkers, and he said, ‘Too long.’ I asked how long he planned to stay and he said as long as Bakker manages to stay out of jail. That was the first time I heard the words ‘Bakker’ and ‘jail’ in the same sentence.
Franklyn sat us in reserved seats, front row, center, in the balcony. Best seats to watch live entertainment in any theater.
After assuring us we’d get a kick out of the service, he went to his seat in the VIP on-stage, folding chair, section. He later told us that they had to sit in those uncomfortable chairs because there was less chance of dozing off during the sermon.
It dawned on me that there was one important person who wasn’t to be seen…Tammy Faye.
The choir was top notch but didn’t have a lead singer as good as Jimmie Swaggart. Bakker led off with the story behind Palm Sunday. One of his favorite Biblical stories, he said.
Years later he confessed that the first time he read the bible was in prison. Up until then he got by by just perusing ‘Cliff Notes’ of the interesting parts.
It was a much softer service than Swaggart’s Fire and Brimstone, Repent or go to Hell, sermons. Bakker stressed ‘Prosperity Theology’, aka the Protestant Ethic. Money was a sign of God’s love and okay. The more money you have, the more it proved you were pleasing God.
‘And I am a shining example of that,’ he said, as he bade them to contribute to the church. which in turn would intercede with God and see to it you will be rewarded in this world and the next. And the KFC buckets were passed around for the first time.
Then he went into his spiel to sell ‘Life Memberships in Heritage USA’ at a thousand bucks a pop which would include a 3 day stay in one of the several luxury hotels that were to be built. Only one of these hotels were actually built.
This was the scam that made him big bucks but also the cause of him going to prison for mail and wire fraud.
Brochures were handed out detailing the this dream- come- true opportunity. And the means to get in on the ground floor. Then, on with the service.
He dedicated the next round of contributions to the PTL Youth Ministry. And to kick it off the giving, he pointed out there was a large ‘party-boat’ in the PTL lake, and he was donating that to the Youth Ministry.
Kachink!!! Bring back the KFC Bucket Brigade.
Afterwards, Brunt mentioned to Franklyn, he thought Bakker should be praised for his concern about the kids.
Franklyn snickered. ‘The money donated for the Youth Ministry goes in the same pot as all the other money. The Youth Ministry gets enough to keep it going, no more. And as far as that damn boat is concerned, it’s only April, and he has given it away four times so far this year. Once those hotels get built, the only way any kids will get a ride on it, will be with their life-membership parents.’
Snake oil slick.
There wasn’t a healing hands schtick like Swaggart’s, per say. First, Bakker put his hands to his forehead. ‘Seeking a vision.’ The first vision he got was there was someone in the audience whose Pacemaker needed a new battery, post haste. There was a collective gasp from many of the flock. The ones who suddenly grabbed at the left side of their chest.
Next, he invited all who were ailing physically and or spiritually, to come to the rail that divided them from them the sanctuary. He said he would lay healing hands and pray for them to be healed and to be reborn. It was necessary to be reborn if anyone desired to attain the God-given sign of forgiveness, namely a lot of money. The rail was quickly filled with the pilgrims who were sitting closest to it.
Bakker called a halt to the others who were coming. He said time prevented him to heal everyone in a physical way, but he would heal the others via the spiritual path. And he began with the laying of hands, audience-right.
Enter Tammy Faye. Quietly. She snuck in by way of a door, audience-left, that opened by the rail. The followers were intent on Bakker, and didn’t see her. Only people like me, who were bored with the whole thing, noticed her.
She came wearing a dress a tad too short to be deemed modest. But, what she lacked in dress, she more than made up for in make-up. Pictures of her famous facial make-up did not lie. She stood for a bit looking at the rail lineup.
There was a young man in tight jeans about three from the end of the rail. She moved quickly and pushed her way between the rail and the young stud. I could only imagine the look on his face, as she pulled him tight against her and held him there with both her hands on his buttocks.
Jim stopped healing and put his hands to his own forehead. Another vision.. ‘I feel..I feel there are people in this church who have Lust in their hearts,’ he said, in a voice louder than he had used before.’ Lust, deep in their hearts, that they must control. Lust they have to exhume if they are to be saved..
The lad in the tight jeans made an attempt to step back, but Tammy Faye pulled him back. Bakker then continued to work his way down the rail, slapping foreheads and asking that their prayers be answered.
He was moving faster then before, and his healing slaps were louder. They had some real sting to them. Franklyn verified my thoughts afterwards.
‘Not much love in that marriage anymore. Lately she’s been going out of her way to rile him up,’ he snickered. ‘That one today was a dozy,’
With only three foreheads to go before Bakker reached his wife and her special ‘sinner’, Tammy Faye released the young man and slipped out the door. The lad watched her go and turned his head just in time to receive a healing slap on his forehead. If anybody in the church was dozing off, that very loud slap would surely have woken them up.
I had to fight like crazy not to bust out laughing. The highlight of the PTL visit.
That service was the last time I saw Jim Bakker or Tammy Faye in person.
The next day, we met with Franklyn, before we left. We had wanted to thank Bakker for our fine stay but Franklyn told us Bakker had gone into hiding after the Palm Sunday Service. He didn’t bring Tammy Faye along.
‘Oh’, I said, ‘I dropped the car keys and had to pick them up right by the piano. I saw a mic taped to the leg. Was that a bug?’
Franklyn smirked. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘There’s bugs all over the house. One reason I never talked much in there. The phones are tapped too. A lot of bugs and phone taps in the village. Bakker’s got people that screen the tapes for him.’
‘No kidding!’ Brunt hollered. ‘What a goddam pervert!’
‘No,’ explained Franklyn. ‘He’s not a voyeur. Well, at least, not with these bugs. The only time he wants to know about is if somebody is something different then they claim to be. Like, maybe are an undercover Fed Agent, checking out the finances. Or a fink trying to dig up more dirt on Bakker. A lot of other preachers are jealous of the setup here, and want to take it over.’
As a couple outsiders, Brunt and I thought that worrying was excessive. The PTL and the Bakkers were on firm ground.
As an insider, Franklyn knew the end was near for both the marriage and the PTL Cub. He could feel the hot breaths of both Swaggart and the Feds.
‘About time to get packed,’ he said with a straight face and a shake of his head.
‘Oh, we’re packed,’ Brunt said. ‘Our suitcases are in the car already.’
‘I was talking about myself,’ Franklyn said, ‘Today’s a good day to move on’
I never heard anything more about Franklyn. I do know that where ever he went, what ever he wanted to do, he’d land on his feet. His predictions about the Bakkers came true soon after.
First hit was the Swaggarts revisiting Bakker’s sex scandal, costing Bakkers to be defrocked and expelled from the PTL Club. Next came the Reagan Administration failure to continue to look the other way at his getting-rich schemes.
In spite of Tammy Faye crying in the court and on TV, he was sentenced to 45 years in Federal Prison. Cut back to 8 years on appeal, because the judge had not held back on his contempt of money-grabbing crooked ministers.
Bakker served only 5 years thanks to the letter wring campaign of his son, Jay. And the promise of his celebrity lawer, Allen Dershowitch, that Bakker would never again preach this type of religion and commerce that led to the frauds.
He was paroled, but he still owed 6 million to the IRS. His dream world was a nightmare now. He had lost so much… including his family.
Tammy Faye had divorced him prior to the appeal; and had quickly married their old friend, the man who was the construction supervisor at Heritage Village.
Jim and Tammy Faye’s daughter, Tammy Sue, and son, Jay, had not only inherited their vocation, preaching, from their parents, they also inherited the millstone of the scandals.
Shame, depression, lack of self-confidence, therapy after therapy, rehab after rehab, battles with alcohol, drugs. Tammy Sue gave up a promising career as a singer to seek solace in religion. Jay turned from traditional Evangelism and became an ‘evangelical punk preacher.
Jim Bakker changed his religious philosophy. He now said the Protestant Ethic was a false doctrine. He concocted a religion based on ‘’proverbs, both Biblical and his own, based on the news of the times. For instance:
Hind- sight – Hurricane Matthew was God’s wrath against then President Obama.
Fore-sight – Civil War if President Trump is impeached.
Get-Rich-Schemes – Made a lot during the Pandemic when he sold colloidal silver as a cure for COVID. Escaping another prison term, he had to pay 160 thousand to the sheep that had bought into the scam.
After prison, Bakker became a big draw on the Guest Preachers’ circuit, where he met a Reverend Lori Graham. In spite of the 18 years difference in their ages, they were married a month later, and became a duo on the circuit.
Lori’s early years had been a disaster… abusive father, abusive husband, 5 abortions, sex, drugs, etc.. Her life changed when she decided to be Born-Again. Followed by becoming a minister
She devoted her time to helping women in their struggles. She was a good stepmother to Bakker’s two children and a good mother to the five children she adopted over the years.
Sadly though, she partnered with her husband via TV and books to tout the religion of proverbial visions, and she turned a blind eye to his scams.
The two wandering preachers finally found themselves a home base in Branson, MO, the hub of live entertainment in America’s heartland. In 2003, he got back on TV and was quickly picked up by religious TV channels. Stressing the upcoming Apocalypse, God’s retribution against men of bad faith. He’s got a new enterprise now to augment his usual goodies for sale. He sells buckets of frozen ‘Survival Food’ to survivalists that fear the disaster. Naturally, God told him about the Apocalypse in a vision.
In 2008, one of his flock, who credits Jim Bakker with saving his marriage, donated 25 Million so the Bakkers could move their TV show to Blue Eye, MO.
Not even a slight stroke could dent the vast TV following he continues to have on religious channels. Nor could the stroke interfere with God appearing to him in visions. Nor could the stroke stop him from becoming richer by the broadcasting minute.
‘The Evil that men do
Lives after themselves
The Good is oft
interred with their bones‘
Well, it would take a hell of a lot of de-interring to find any Good in the bones
of ‘Ministers of the Word’
the likes of
Jimmie Swaggart and Jim Bakker
But, in all fairness, there are examples of Good done by some Televangelists.
Stay tuned for: the ‘Ultimate Drag Queen’ who became a great ‘angel of mercy’, and the effect a famous preacher had on one of his flock.
Wow! That’s quite a story! I continue to be surprised by how many of us human beings are hungry for someone to tell us how to live, what to believe, what to fear, what to buy, etc. Thank you for sharing your behind-the-scenes glimpse into this particular “ministry.”
Thanks for the comment, and acute observation.
So interesting Don. I wonder if we have anything like those two on the national stage these days. The prosperity gospel is so far removed from the Christian gospel that tells us to take up our cross and follow Christ. Love and serve…sacrifice…disciple. No wonder few embrace it fully. Thanks for the walk back in time.
Certainly not the love of our fellow man we were taught, is it Hugh.
These two are bigger now than ever before. Swaggart & Co are on 42 radio stations plus the internet and his Sonlife 24/7 TV station is on TV, cable, satellite, in the US, the UK, Australia.
Bakker & Co’s 24/7 channel is almost as big.
I’m fascinated and horrified by these stories in equal measure. But I wonder, was there a time, way back when they first met, that Jim and Tammy Faye honestly believed in the religion they were promoting. Before fame and fortune led them down the path of temptation.
I believe so, Gwen, Their early days as ministers seem to be days of honest religious fervor. Their first break into snake oil preaching came about when they discovered the power of radio preaching.
I knew he was… Not good, I had no idea he was that bad!
I think just how far he is off base is a shock to most people, Quill.
Fascinating story, Don. Compared to the Swaggers, one could almost like the Baker’s. 😉
I agree, Pat. I guess the best thing one could say about Bakker is he’s not as bad as Swaggart.
At least not as aggressively unpleasant it seems. Fleece the flock and bamboozle the base–rhetorical question, who do these fellows remind you of?
They remind me of their favorite president and his ilk
Love your answer and it’s phrasing.
No cure for the corrupt, the gullible and the stupid. Fascinating insights Don.
Thanks, Fraggle. As P,T. Barnum said, ‘There’s a sucker born ever minute’.
All I remember, Don, in those live on TV Your Preachers Live Days is their raising hands, rising and calling Jesus to come upon them, come down front where he forgave us, and if we could, we could loose more His name, and then have our own sorry sins forgiven, Amen
Then, off those preachers went to another TV show in their corporate jet, taking a few days to warm up in the Bahamas. There was only one of them I listened to for more than a minute was Billy Graham whose prayer routed us all on the right road, and steered us to a true Jesus. Money free.
Amen, Tom. Without a doubt, Billy Graham epitomizes what a true minister of God should be.
I agree, Tom and Don. Glad at least one televangelist may not have been corrupt.
What an intricate and gripping story. He is such a controversial person who might look like a character straight out of a work of fiction!
So pleased you liked the post, Luisa. I certainly agree that he seems to be a work of fiction ala Elmer Gantry.
I would struggle to think of any good done by a TV evangelist, and will await the next episode with interest. These people are worse than time-share salesmen, as they prey on the weak and terrified.
Best wishes, Pete.
Great comparison, Pete. Snake oil ministers to time-share salesmen. Stay tuned. I think you will surprised.
Don’t throw the evangeiist out with the bath water. Take Billy Graham and John the Baptist.
Like most everybody, I admire Billy Graham as a minister, as a man, as the finest Evangelist of the 20th Century.
And I guess John the Baptist was the first to say man must be Born Again to gain heaven.
Amen to both!
Wow! That was a great post, Don. The guy who gave him 25 million…what an idiot. And is he really still on TV? We moved to Pennsylvania when our daughter was a baby (she’s now 45.) We lived with Hubby’s sister for a short while, as we looked for a house. Every day I did the laundry and ironing, and as I ironed, Jim and Tammy were on TV. I was shocked at their religion, the show, but even more so by Tammy’s black eye makeup. OMG!!! She cried on every show, and a river of black tears streamed down her face. I’d never seen anything so ridiculous. So for a month I watched Jim and Tammy Faye and the black river on her face. I’ll never forget it.
Thanks, Jennie, for your comment about the post. our liking it means a lot to me.
Sad to say, Jim Bakker is bigger now on radio and TV then he was all those years ago.
Stay tuned for the made-up lady who cries.
You are welcome, Don. Your posts are the best stories. Really. Jim Bakker is bigger now? How pathetic. I will definitely stay tuned for the queen of crying mascara.