Jim And Tammy Faye Bakker in all their 1980s glory. (Image Source)
I started composing this post months ago. I stopped partially because my blogging, as a whole, slowed way down at the start of the schoolyear (Z is now in second grade, and homeschooling demands more and more time). But mainly, I didn’t finish this particular post because reading up on Jim Bakker pulled me into some kind of weird online hole.
Really. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll see what I mean.
Complicating things further, Jim is the first subject in this The Preachers series who is actually living (his ex-wife Tammy passed away a decade ago after a long battle with cancer). He’s pushing 80, has been in some form of ministry for over half a century, did a stint in prison, came out, and kept right at it. He’s like some Televangelical Energizer Bunny– he just keeps on going, and going, and going.
Difficulties aside, I knew I had to include Bakker in this. I can’t think of too many others who have made such an indelible mark on American religious culure and history- for good and bad. Yes, a number of his contemporaries such as Jerry Falwell, Paul Crouch, and Pat Robertson (also still kicking), cannot and must not be forgotten in such discussions. But Bakker, with PTL, and Heritage U.S.A., and the crying, and the scandalous affairs, and the ridiculously exorbitant lifestyle… it’s Evangelical Excess, and his story will continually be retold for many more decades.
I primarily relied on the excellent “PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire” by John Wigger, and I highly recommend it. Read on for some fascinating facts.
Image and Caption from PTL
- Of course, Jim Bakker was all about the Prosperity Gospel. Duh.
“Bakker’s conception of faith called on believers to take risks and extend themselves beyond their resources, counting on God to provide. When it came to money, for those with enough faith God employed a “special math” that did not rely on “facts,” Bakker said. Like other prosperity preachers, he claimed that believers could speak almost anything into existence, a concept sometimes called “name it and claim it,” or “blab it and grab it.” “Don’t pray, ‘Lord, Your will be done,’ when you are praying for health or wealth. You already know it is God’s will for you to have those things,” Bakker told his audience. “When you want a new car, just claim it. Pray specifically; tell God what kind you want, and be sure to specify what options and what color you want too!”8 At its best, faith understood in this way inspired believers to take chances and think big. At its worst, it fostered an alternate reality that could shade into fantasy and denial. At PTL, it did both.”
- Bakker was sexually assaulted for years as a child by a fellow member of the church he attended.
As he tells it in his post-prison autobiography, when Bakker was about eleven years old a young man from his church who was in his late twenties or early thirties approached him one Sunday night after church and asked if he would like to go to a drive-in for a hamburger. Lonely as he was, Bakker was “awed that this adult would want me.” The man (Bakker calls him Russell) was a member of the church, so Bakker’s parents were not concerned. At the restaurant the man “gave me his undivided attention. I felt wonderfully special,” Bakker writes. After they ate, the man drove “to the edge of town” and kept going. They drove down a “deserted dirt road” and stopped. The man assured Bakker that everything was okay as he unzipped Bakker’s jeans and began to fondle him.
“I felt almost proud that Russell would give me so much attention. I thought, So this is what having a buddy is all about! This must be what the big guys do,” Bakker writes.
After that, the man became “a frequent figure” in Bakker’s life. He took Bakker to “isolated construction sites,” or simply “stopped along the road somewhere.” When Bakker mowed his lawn the man took him “up to his bedroom and molested me.”
Image and caption from PTL
- Although involved in church, he didn’t necessarily feel all too committed to the Christian life as a teen until…
The turning point in his religious life, as Bakker later remembered it, was when he ran over three-year-old Jimmy Summerfield. Bakker had just dropped off Sandy Tyers at her home and was pulling up to church on a snowy Sunday night. He was driving his father’s ’52 Cadillac with his cousin George in the seat next to him when he felt a bump. The boy had slid down a snow bank in front of the car. The front tire rolled over his chest, crushing his collarbone and puncturing a lung. At first Bakker despaired that the boy might die, but miraculously he survived without debilitating injuries. The miracle of Summerfield’s recovery, Bakker would later say, convinced him to attend Bible College.
- While Jim grew up in middle class comfort (despite later claims to the contrary), Tammy’s childhood was rough.
Tammy LaValley grew up in a house without indoor plumbing in International Falls, Minnesota. She was the oldest of eight children, two born before her parents divorced when she was about three, and six born after her mother remarried. Their house had three small bedrooms upstairs, one downstairs, a small living room connected to a dining room, and a kitchen, with an outhouse in back. The house was heated by an oil stove in the living room. Tammy’s childhood friend, Nancy Helland, remembers that Tammy’s family “didn’t have any money and they lived in a squalid brown house.” To get to Tammy’s room you had to climb a “tiny narrow staircase … almost like a ladder.” The chaos of growing up in a large family in a small house without much money shaped Tammy’s childhood memories. “Saturday night at our house was just a riot because that was when we got our baths,” she later wrote. Her mother would heat water on the stove and pour it into a galvanized tub. They all had to use the same water, with the “cleanest ones” going first.
Apart from their poverty, her mother’s divorce dramatically shaped Tammy’s childhood, particularly the way she was treated by her church, which viewed divorce and remarriage as a form of adultery. To the people of her Pentecostal church, Full Gospel Assembly, “my mother was just a harlot,” Tammy later remembered.
Image and Caption from PTL
- The two met at North Central Bible College, and were very quickly an item.
They had a lot in common. Both grew up in Midwestern Pentecostal churches, felt alienated from their families, and loved the stage. “She was absolutely the cutest girl I had ever seen,” Bakker later remembered. On their first date they went to a Wednesday night meeting at the Minneapolis Evangelistic Auditorium, where Bakker had become the youth director. Tammy was only four feet ten inches and Bakker five foot four. “He weighed 130 pounds and I seventy-three. We looked great together,” Tammy later recalled. They went out the next night and the next. On their third date, Jim asked Tammy to marry him. She said yes. “I had no doubts,” she later wrote.
- It didn’t take long for the two to drop out of school and then hit the road as traveling evangelists:
Jim and Tammy began as small-time Pentecostal healing evangelists, traveling a circuit from church to church in the Bible Belt. For six months they preached across North Carolina, sometimes receiving as little as $30 for a week or two of meetings. Once they were paid with a live chicken, which Tammy turned into a pet, feeding it apples and bread crumbs.
Looking to broaden their appeal, they created a puppet show for the children who attended their meetings. They made the puppets from the caps of bubble bath bottles that were shaped like animal heads, creating Susie Moppet and her family. Soon they added Allie Alligator. Tammy worked the puppets behind a small set, using a “little Susie Moppet voice” and a “big Allie Alligator voice,” while Jim stood out front playing the straight man. The puppets were an immediate hit and brought the Bakkers to the attention of Pat Robertson, who had just started a small Christian television station in Portsmouth, Virginia.
- From love offerings of chickens to performances with puppets, the Bakkers found themselves on TV thanks to Pat Robertson. Yes, the same Pat Robertson still making such pronouncements as last month’s horrendous mass shooting in Las Vegas was due to disrespect of President Trump.… —_– Anyway, back to the story:
Robertson hired the Bakkers to do a kids show called Come On Over. The name was eventually changed to the Jim and Tammy Show to capitalize on the Bakkers’ growing popularity.
The show, launched in September 1965, was a huge success, drawing a large live audience every afternoon. The set, which became more elaborate over time, featured the front of a house, complete with a porch, front door, and picture window. Kids waited up to four weeks for tickets, and Zippy the Mailbox, a fixture on the program, received as many as five thousand letters a week. The Bakkers ad-libbed the show, a pattern they continued for more than two decades of doing live television, giving the show a spontaneous, if sometimes goofy, feel. John Gilman, a director at CBN, did the voice of Zippy. Gilman and the show’s crew staged pranks without telling the Bakkers, like spring-loading Zippy so that the mail shot out at Jim when he opened it on air, or rigging Zippy to roll across the set when Bakker approached. Once during “mail time,” as Jim and Tammy stood next to Zippy reading letters, Tammy gave a “hint to the mothers” who were watching. After buying bars of soap, they should take them home and unwrap them, so that the soap would dry out and “last twice as long,” Tammy said. “And it makes your clothes smell good if you like to put it in your drawers,” Tammy added. Everyone in the studio laughed as Tammy looked around, bewildered, until she figured it out. She spent the rest of the show giggling. Sometimes the Bakkers continued off-air arguments during the show, with Tammy using the puppets’ voices to say whatever was on her mind. Susie Moppet was the one who got mad at Jim, while Allie Alligator acted as the peacemaker. “I guess it was therapy for me,” Tammy later wrote. Tammy never had much of a filter; what you saw was who she was, a quality that endeared her to just about everyone.
The Bakkers became minor celebs, and before long, they were tapped to host a Johnny Carson-style talk show, only geared towards Christians. And so began the 700 Club in November 1966. By late 1972, though, Jim peaced out at CBN and struck out to do Christian Broadcasting his way. The Bakkers started a non-profit corp called Trinity Broadcasting Systems around the same time, and later began working with Jan and Paul Crouch in L.A. to eventually launch a Christian network in Cali.
The new television show, launched in late spring 1973, was called the PTL Club, reminiscent of the 700 Club. PTL was meant to be a sort of code, immediately recognizable to evangelicals as short for Praise the Lord, but non-threatening to the “lost.” The station broadcasted five hours a night, seven days a week. For a while Bakker had a friend at CBN send him old tapes of the Jim and Tammy Show to rebroadcast at Channel 46. Bakker felt that he had a right to the shows, but when Robertson found out, he had all of the Jim and Tammy Show tapes erased.
Ouch. And LOL. But things quickly got bad between Paul and Jim, and by November 1973, the Bakkers were out. They packed up and headed back east once more, settling in Charlotte. Things took off for them there:
PTL’S GROWTH IN the second half of the 1970s was nothing short of spectacular. It was a “wild ride,” as one PTL employee put it, including the rapid expansion of the network of affiliate stations, the creation of a satellite network, the purchase of new properties, the launch of overseas ministries in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and the continued evolution of the talk show. The staff expanded from half a dozen in 1974 to seven hundred by the end of 1979, and the money poured in.
And now, I’m going to end this post as it’s already pretty darn long. We’ll get the rest of the story in part two.
Image and caption from PTL