Jim Bakker is a controversial American TV evangelist who founded the PTL TV network, and Heritage USA theme park.
Biographical fast facts
Full or original name at birth: James Orsen Bakker *
Error corrections or clarifications
* His last name is spelled Bakker, not "Baker" as several sources erroneously report.
While attending the North Central Bible College in Minnesota, Jim Bakker met the woman who would become his wife. Years later, the future Tammy Faye Bakker became known as the sweet, ditzy co-host of his shows, who also wore entirely too much makeup. At the pinnacle of their fame, endless jokes could be heard on late-night talk shows themed around her excessive use of makeup and mascara. Even Tammy Faye herself joked, "Honey, I am going to my grave with my eyelashes and my makeup on."
Following their marriage, they became itinerant preachers, living out of their suitcases, going from church to church. It wasn't long before larger churches began inviting them to speak. By the mid-1960s, they were hosting the 700 Club show, which aired on Pat Robertson's Christian TV network. They remained there until 1973, when the pair left to co-found the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He then founded and served as President of the PTL (Praise the Lord) club from 1974 till 1987. The popular show was beamed via satellite to millions of PTL viewers. As the ministry prospered, increasing amounts of money poured in. With the funds, Jim began building a Christian retreat in South Carolina.
The Heritage USA resort quickly grew into an impressive Christian-oriented complex sitting on hundreds of acres and encompassing a wide range of shopping, ministry, lodging, and even a theme park. The centerpiece of the resort was a magnificent luxury hotel. Each new building added to the resort became increasingly lavish. During the mid-1980s, they offered "lifetime memberships" starting at $1,000. This membership would supposedly entitle PTL supporters to a lifetime of vacations at the Heritage USA resort. In its heyday, the resort attracted millions of visitors each year and employed two thousand people. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker both came from poor families, yet by now, were spending money like there was no tomorrow. They were squandering church money on luxury cars, several mansions and the now-famous doghouse equipped with air-conditioning. At the height of their overspending, the Bakker's and their PTL ministry were burning through as much as $500,000 per day. When their spending reached these epic proportions and far exceeded donations coming in, Bakker's on-air fundraising became frantic. They stooped so low as to parade before cameras, frail, handicapped children they reportedly wanted to help, in hopes of increasing donations. As was later discovered, much of the fundraising done in the final months of the ministry, was not for upcoming projects or to cover future costs associated with the lifetime partnerships they were endlessly hawking, but rather, to simply pay current day-to-day expenses. Investigations showed that even as the lavish spending continued by the Bakker's, the operation moved deeper and deeper in debt. Jim later admitted, "I had to raise about $1 million every two days just to stay alive." In the end, the ministry was 70 million dollars in debt. This despite the fact more than 150 million dollars had been donated by his followers.
Jim Bakker's son Jay, once commented, "Both of my parents are ministers and at one time had the largest church in the country until their lives were changed by one of the biggest scandals in America." That scandal came in 1987. The Charlotte Observer broke the story of financial wrongdoings, beginning with the payment of over a quarter of a million dollars in church funds, as hush money, paid to church secretary Jessica Hahn. The $265,000 payoff was intended to keep a 1980 adulterous tryst between Jim Bakker and Hahn a secret. Jim resigned as head of PTL in 1987 after admitting to the affair. It was later revealed that Bakker had not only sold far more "lifetime memberships" than he could accommodate, but was also skimming millions in church money for his own use. In May of 1987, the Assemblies of God defrocked Bakker for his adultery.
In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted of numerous counts of fraud and conspiracy for stealing millions from his PTL followers. He was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for bilking those PTL supporters. Even after his conviction, Tammy Faye seemed blind to his crimes, commenting "No, I honestly don't think he (Jim) was greedy." Likewise, Jim seemed content to blame others, saying, "I think the Devil was mad. I think something so wonderful and beautiful was being built, that the Devil was mad. And then when we broke ground for the largest church ever built in the history of the world, I think the Devil said this is it. I think I've got to smash Jim and Tammy Bakker." Jim had lost his empire, then, while behind bars, his wife. In 1992, Tammy Faye divorced him. She later married Bakker's former best friend, Roe Messner. Messner was the one who had actually helped Jim build Heritage USA. Tammy Faye Messner died in 2007 following a lengthy battle with cancer.
Jim went to jail in 1989, but served just a fraction of his 45-year prison sentence and was paroled in 1994, after a federal appeals court reduced his sentence.
The loss of trust felt by viewers caused a noticeable drop in donations for most televangelists for some time following the scandal.
Jim returned to televangelism in 2003 with The Jim Bakker Show. Based in Branson, Missouri, this new venture was financially backed by former PTL Club supporter, Jerry Crawford. In 2007, Crawford began to see his plans for a new Christian retreat and retirement community come together. Morningside at Blue Eye was developed on several hundred acres of land near the tiny community of Blue Eye, outside of Branson. Many years in the planning, Morningside will boast its own multi-use community center, condominiums, townhouses, individual homes, an assisted-living facility, a clinic, a mall featuring shops, restaurants, offices and a youth center. Bakker conducts Sunday services at the Grace Chapel and The Jim Bakker Show utilizes a new TV studio for its broadcasts. Though Jim Bakker has been involved in helping design elements of the Christian-themed residential community, it is developer Jerry Crawford's dream and his financial backing that has brought the development to fruition. Eyebrows were raised when Bakker began soliciting large donations to help build the new Grace Chapel at Morningside. While many supporters lined up to be a part of the new community, others wondered if history might be repeating itself.
In 2006, his son Jay was the focus of a six-part documentary, One Punk Under God: The Prodigal Son of Jim and Tammy Faye, which aired on the Sundance Channel. The television documentary told the story of Jay's unorthodox New York City ministry. The pierced and tattooed preacher brought his message of inclusion to many unusual venues in an effort to reach those frequently marginalized by society and more tradition religions.
Early in 2008, Jim Bakker moved his operations from nearby Branson and began broadcasting from new facilities at the sprawling Morningside at Blue Eye development. Journalists reported that a number of previous PTL supporters were among the first to visit and offer donations to his new ministry. Some of those former followers have forgiven him, while others state that forgiveness is unnecessary since they feel he was unjustly prosecuted.
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