James Orsen Bakker (born January 2, 1940) is an American televangelist, entrepreneur, and convicted fraudster. He hosted the television program The PTL Club with his then-wife, Tammy Faye, from 1974 to 1989. He also developed Heritage USA, a now-defunct Christian theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
In the late 1980s, Bakker resigned from the ministry over a cover-up of hush money to church secretary Jessica Hahn for an alleged rape. Subsequent revelations of accounting fraud brought about felony charges, conviction, imprisonment, and divorce. Bakker later remarried and returned to televangelism, founding Morningside Church in Blue Eye, Missouri. He hosts The Jim Bakker Show, which focuses on the end times and the Second Coming of Christ while promoting emergency survival products. He has written several books, including I Was Wrong and Time Has Come: How to Prepare Now for Epic Events Ahead.
His Personal Life
James Orsen Bakker was born in Muskegon, Michigan, the son of Raleigh Bakker and Furnia Lynette “Furn” Irwin. Bakker attended North Central University (a Bible college affiliated with the Assemblies of God in Minneapolis), where he met fellow student Tammy Faye LaValley in 1960. He worked at a restaurant in the Young-Quinlan department store in Minneapolis; Tammy Faye worked at the Three Sisters, a nearby boutique.
The Bakkers married on April 1, 1961, and left college to become evangelists. They had two children, Tammy Sue “Sissy” Bakker Chapman (born March 2, 1970) and Jamie Charles “Jay” Bakker (born December 18, 1975). They divorced on March 13, 1992. On September 4, 1998, Bakker married Lori Beth Graham, a former televangelist, 50 days after they met. In 2002 they adopted five children.
His Early Career
In 1966, the Bakkers began working at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, which had an audience in the low thousands at the time. They contributed to the network’s growth, and their success with a variety show format (including interviews and puppets) helped make The 700 Club a company staple. The Jim and Tammy Show, aimed at young children, was broadcast for several years from their Portsmouth, Virginia studio. The Bakkers then hosted the first version of The 700 Club. In 1972 the Bakkers left Robertson’s ministry and in 1973 joined with Paul and Jan Crouch to help co-found the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Jim and his wife then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1976 they first put The PTL Club on the air.
The PTL Club
From 1974 to 1987, the Bakkers hosted The PTL Club, which functioned like a late-night talk show. Guests ranged from religious figures such as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts to entertainers such as Mr. T and Mickey Rooney. Bakker founded the PTL Satellite Network in 1974, which aired The PTL Club and other religious television programs.
Throughout the 1970s, Bakker built a headquarters for their ministry in the Carolinas called Heritage Village. Over time, the Bakkers expanded the ministry to include the Heritage USA amusement park in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Heritage USA became the third-most-successful theme park in the US at the time. Viewer contributions were estimated to exceed $1 million a week, with proceeds to expand the theme park and The PTL Club‘s mission. Bakker responded to inquiries about his use of mass media by saying: “I believe that if Jesus were alive today, he would be on TV”.
The Bakkers had a lavish lifestyle. In a 1990 New Yorker article, Frances FitzGerald quoted Dave Barry: “They personified the most characteristic excesses of the 1980s—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.” Two scandals brought down the ministry in 1987; Bakker was accused of sexual misconduct by church secretary Jessica Hahn, which led to his resignation, and illegal misuse of ministry funds eventually led to his imprisonment. Bakker was dismissed as an Assemblies of God minister on May 6, 1987. In 1990, the biographical TV movie, Fall from Grace starring Kevin Spacey and Bernadette Peters depicted his rise and fall within the religious televangelist arena. On January 18, 2019, ABC’s 20/20 aired a two-hour special, entitled Unfaithfully Yours, about the rise and downfall of the Bakkers.
In 1979, Bakker and his PTL ministry came under investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for allegedly misusing funds raised on the air. The FCC report was finalized in 1982 and found that Bakker had raised $350,000 that he told viewers would go towards funding overseas missions but were actually used to pay for part of Heritage USA. The report also found that Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker used PTL funds for personal expenses. FCC commissioners voted four to three to drop the investigation, after which they allowed Bakker to sell the only TV station that he owned, therefore bypassing future FCC oversight. The FCC forwarded their report to the Justice Department, who declined to press charges, citing insufficient evidence. Bakker used the controversy to raise more funds from his audience, branding the investigation a “witch-hunt”, and asking viewers to “give the Devil a black eye”.
A confidential 1985 Internal Revenue Service report found that $1.3 million in ministry funds were used for the Bakkers’ personal benefit from 1980 to 1983. The report recommended that PTL be stripped of its tax-exempt status but no action was taken until the Jessica Hahn scandal in 1987. Art Harris and Michael Isikoff wrote in The Washington Post that politics may have played a role in the three government agencies taking no action against PTL despite the evidence against them, as members of the Reagan administration were not eager to go after television ministers whose evangelical followers made up their base.
His Sexual Misconduct and Resignation
A $279,000 payoff for the silence of Jessica Hahn, who alleged that Bakker and former PTL Club co-host John Wesley Fletcher drugged and raped her, was paid with PTL’s funds through Bakker’s associate Roe Messner. Bakker, who made the PTL organization’s financial decisions, allegedly kept two sets of books to conceal accounting irregularities. The Charlotte Observer reporters, led by Charles Shepard, investigated the PTL organization’s finances and published a series of articles.
On March 19, 1987, after the disclosure of a payoff to Hahn, Bakker resigned from PTL. Although he acknowledged that he had a sexual encounter with Hahn at a hotel room in Clearwater, Florida, he denied raping her. Bakker was the subject of homosexual and bisexual allegations made by John Wesley Fletcher and PTL director Jay Babcock, which he denied under oath. Rival televangelist John Ankerberg appeared on Larry King Live and made several allegations against Bakker, which both Bakkers denied.
Bakker was succeeded as PTL head by Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell. He chose Falwell as his successor because he feared that fellow Pentecostal pastor Jimmy Swaggart was attempting to take over his ministry. Swaggart had initiated a church investigation into Bakker over allegations of Bakker’s sexual misconduct.
Bakker believed that Falwell would temporarily lead the ministry until the scandal died down, but Falwell barred Bakker from returning to PTL on April 28, 1987. Later that summer, as donations declined sharply in the wake of Bakker’s resignation and the end of the Bakkers’ PTL Club TV program, Falwell raised $20 million to keep PTL solvent and took a promised water slide ride at Heritage USA. Falwell and the remaining members of the PTL board resigned in October 1987, stating that a ruling from a bankruptcy court judge made rebuilding the ministry impossible.
In response to the scandal, Falwell called Bakker a liar, an embezzler, a sexual deviant, and “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history”. On CNN, Swaggart told Larry King that Bakker was a “cancer in the body of Christ”. In February 1988, Swaggart became involved in a sex scandal of his own after being caught visiting prostitutes in New Orleans. The Bakker and Swaggart scandals had a profound effect on the world of televangelism, causing greater media scrutiny of televangelists and their finances. Falwell said that the scandals had “strengthened broadcast evangelism and made Christianity stronger, more mature and more committed.” Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition compared the PTL scandal to the 2017 Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations.
Fraud Trial, Criminal Charges, and Sentencing
The PTL Club‘s fundraising activities between 1984 and 1987 were reported by The Charlotte Observer, eventually leading to criminal charges against Bakker. Bakker and his PTL associates sold $1,000 “lifetime memberships”, entitling buyers to an annual three-night stay at a luxury hotel at Heritage USA, during that period. According to the prosecution at Bakker’s fraud trial, tens of thousands of memberships were sold but only one 500-room hotel was ever finished. Bakker sold “exclusive partnerships” which exceeded capacity, raising more than twice the money needed to build the hotel. Much of the money paid Heritage USA’s operating expenses, and Bakker kept $3.4 million.
After a 16-month federal grand-jury probe, Bakker was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. In 1989, after a five-week trial which began on August 28 in Charlotte, North Carolina, a jury found him guilty on all 24 counts. Judge Robert Daniel Potter sentenced Bakker to 45 years in federal prison and imposed a $500,000 fine. At the Federal Medical Center, Rochester in Rochester, Minnesota, he shared a cell with activist Lyndon LaRouche and skydiver Roger Nelson.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Bakker’s conviction on the fraud and conspiracy charges, voided Bakker’s 45-year sentence and $500,000 fine, and ordered a new sentencing hearing in February 1991. The court ruled that Potter’s sentencing statement about Bakker, that “those of us who do have a religion are sick of being saps for money-grubbing preachers and priests”, was evidence that the judge had injected his religious beliefs into Bakker’s sentence.
A sentence-reduction hearing was held on November 16, 1992, and Bakker’s sentence was reduced to eight years. In August 1993, he was transferred to a minimum-security federal prison in Jesup, Georgia. Bakker was paroled in July 1994, after serving almost five years of his sentence. His son, Jay, spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to the parole board advocating leniency. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz acted as his parole attorney, having said that he “would guarantee that Mr. Bakker would never again engage in the blend of religion and commerce that led to his conviction.” Bakker was released from Federal Bureau of Prisons custody on December 1, 1994, owing $6 million to the Internal Revenue Service.
The Jim Bakker Show
In 2003, Bakker began broadcasting The Jim Bakker Show daily at Studio City Café in Branson, Missouri, with his second wife, Lori; it has been carried on CTN, Daystar, Folk TV, Grace Network (Canada), GEB America, Hope TV (Canada) Impact Network, WGN, WHT, TCT Network, The Word Network, UpliftTV, and ZLiving networks. Most of Bakker’s audience receives his program on DirecTV and Dish Network. Bakker condemned the prosperity theology that he took part in earlier in his career and has embraced apocalypticism. His show has a millennial, survivalist focus and sells buckets of freeze-dried food to his audience in preparation for the end of days. Elspeth Reeve wrote in The Atlantic that Bakker’s doomsday food is overpriced. A man named Jerry Crawford, who credits Bakker with having saved his marriage, invested $25 million in a new ministry for Bakker in Blue Eye, Missouri, named Morningside. Production for The Jim Bakker Show moved to Morningside in 2008.
In 2013, Bakker wrote Time Has Come: How to Prepare Now for Epic Events Ahead about end-time events. Bakker has changed his views on prosperity theology. In his 1980 book Eight Keys to Success, he stated, “God wants you to be happy, God wants you to be rich, God wants you to prosper.” In his 1996 book, I Was Wrong, he admitted that the first time he actually read the Bible all the way through was in prison. Bakker also wrote that he realized that he had taken passages out of context and used them as prooftexts to support his prosperity theology.
Bakker’s revived show features a number of ministers who bill themselves as “prophets”. He now says that “PTL” stands for “Prophets Talking Loud”.
In an October 2017 video, Bakker said that “God will punish those” who ridicule him; he has said that Hurricane Harvey was a judgment of God, and blamed Hurricane Matthew on then-President Barack Obama. Bakker predicted that if current President Donald Trump is impeached, Christians would begin a Second American Civil War. He compared the 2017 Washington train derailment to the sinking of the RMS Titanic and stated the Amtrak train derailment was a warning from God. He also claimed that he predicted the September 11 attacks of 2001, stating that he “saw 9/11 in 1999 before New Year’s Eve” and that there would “be terrorism” and bombings in New York City and Washington, D.C.” A few days after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, he stated that in a dream that “God came to him wearing a camouflage, a hunting vest, and an AR-15 rifle strapped to his back” and that God supported Trump’s plan to arm teachers. Following the death of Billy Graham on February 21, 2018, Bakker attended Graham’s funeral and paid his respects, stating that Graham was the greatest preacher since Jesus, and also remarking that Graham had visited him in prison.
Ed Brayton called Bakker a false prophet in an article on the Patheos website, and Geoffrey Grider called him a false teacher on the Now The End Begins website. On the Stand in the Gap Today radio program, Pennsylvania Pastors Network president Sam Rohrer criticized Bakker’s civil-war prediction. Christian Today criticized Bakker’s show for preying on “the most vulnerable kinds of people,” and claimed that it had “no place on our TV screens.
Misinformation About the COVID-19 Pandemic
Bakker sells colloidal silver supplements, which he advertises as a panacea. In March 2020, the office of the Attorney General of New York ordered Bakker to cease making false medicinal claims about his supplements’ alleged ability to cure the 2019-20 strains of corona-virus. The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration also sent a warning letter to Bakker about his claims regarding the supplements and corona-virus, and Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against Bakker and Morningside Church Productions “For misrepresentations about the effectiveness of “Silver Solution” as a treatment for 2019 novel corona-virus.” Bakker is represented by former Missouri governor Jay Nixon in his lawsuit against the state, who has argued for the suit to be dismissed. Nixon says that the allegations made in the lawsuit are false, stating “Bakker is being unfairly targeted by those who want to crush his ministry and force his Christian television program off the air.”
In April, prohibited from receiving credit card transactions, Bakker disclosed to his viewers that his ministry was on the brink of filing for bankruptcy, and urgently petitioned them for donations. The following month, GEB America and World Harvest Television dropped Bakker’s program from their networks after AT&T asked channels to reconsider airing his show and Connecticut-based liberal Christian group Faithful America began a deplatforming campaign against Bakker.
On May 8, Lori Bakker announced that Bakker had suffered a stroke, which his son Jay described as “minor”. Lori stated that he would be taking a sabbatical from the program until he recovers. She blamed the stroke on Bakker’s hard work on his show and wrote that he had described the criticism against him as “the most vicious attack that he has ever experienced”.
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