As a couple, Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker created an evangelical empire that encompassed a Christian ministry, broadcasting network and theme park. They became two of the most famous televangelists in America, whose devout teachings often appeared at odds with the extravagant lifestyle they led. The fact that their eventual fall from televised grace came from a sex and financial scandal only served to increase the public’s fascination with them.
The couple connected quickly and soon got their first television show
Tammy Faye LaValley was born in International Falls, Minnesota, in 1942 to Pentecostal preacher parents. Jim Bakker was a self-described visionary and dreamer who was born in 1940 and grew up in Muskegon, Michigan. They met in 1960 as students at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis and for their first date, Jim invited Tammy Faye to attend church with him. In her memoir Tammy: Telling it My Way, Tammy Faye recalls Jim saying to her at the end of that date: “Tammy LaValley, I have loved you ever since the minute I saw you walk into school…” before asking her to marry him.
A year later, the newlyweds had dropped out of college to follow their shared dream of creating a ministry. As Assemblies of God traveling evangelists, Jim preached while Tammy Faye sang and played the accordion, ministering to churches across the United States. One part of their teachings involved a puppet show ministry for children, which in 1965 became a television show on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Leveraging Robertson’s admiration for the children’s program, Jim convinced him that if the puppet show was successful Jim should be given an opportunity to create a late-night Christian talk show.
Jim wanted to create “a Christian version of The Tonight Show,” John Wigger, author of PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire, told ABC News of the Bakker’s time at CBN, noting the Christian talk show was one of Jim’s first big innovations in televised ministry. That first foray into talk shows became The 700 Club, still a flagship program for CBN. “It’s not listed in the bible, but my spiritual gift, my specific calling from God, is to be a television talk-show host,” Jim was quoted as saying in Spy magazine.
Jim and Tammy Faye eventually began their own television network
As Jim and Tammy Faye’s public profile grew, so did their family unit. In 1970 Tammy Faye gave birth to daughter Tammy Sue “Sissy,” and in 1975 to a son, Jamie “Jay” Charles. During the intervening years the Bakkers moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Jim founded the PTL (Praise the Lord) Satellite Network in 1974, followed by the debut of The PTL Club in 1976 which continued to air until 1987. Formatted like late night fare, the program hosted prominent ministers talking about current affairs, featured guests as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Eldridge Cleaver, and showcased popular Christian recording artists.
As hosts, the Bakkers helped popularize the “prosperity gospel,” where Christian faith is often equated with financial and material success. To viewers of The PTL Club, Jim and Tammy Faye were the embodiment of God rewarding strong faith with financial blessings, and the Bakkers’ far-flung flock willingly tithed in the belief that they would receive the same blessings in return.
Between guests and musical interludes, a heavily made-up and bewigged Tammy Faye and flashily dressed Jim encouraged viewers to send money in return for prayers, blessings and the possibility of achieving a lifestyle akin to their own. The show’s ratings soon vaulted higher and higher and yielded even greater financial returns.
The couple showed a united front on TV but were privately unravelling
Tammy Faye’s effusiveness and Jim’s calm faith were endearing, as was her unpredictability which could result in tearful outbursts about life’s struggles and successes, her own included. Rev. Mel White, a former ghostwriter for preacher Jerry Falwell, described her appeal as combination Martha Stewart, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Carol Burnett. “She talked about sex, and flirted with Jimmy,” White said. “She took on the caricature of an obedient wife, and blasted it. You have never seen Pat Robertson’s wife, or Jerry Falwell’s wife. They stay at home, doing what those wives do.”
In private, the Bakkers were beginning to grow apart. Jim poured all his energies into building the PTL Network, expanding the studios and office buildings — which became known as Heritage Village — and developing and appearing on new Christian programming. Though she cohosted the network’s most popular show, Tammy Faye often felt alone at home, looking after their young children with little or no help from Jim.
Soon other people “began to notice rising tension between Jim and me,” Tammy Faye wrote in Telling it My Way. “You could feel it on the set, you could feel it when visiting our home. Jim became so preoccupied with the development of Heritage Village that there was little energy left over for deepening our relationship. While I encouraged his efforts, I began to feel more distant from him than ever.” Intimacy between the couple had become rare, according to Tammy Faye.
Their world came crashing down when Jim was involved in a sexual assault scandal
In 1978, the Bakkers used $200 million of PTL funds to finance the building of Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre Christian-themed experience park and residential complex in Fort Mill, South Carolina. At the height of its popularity Heritage USA billed itself as the country’s third-largest theme park in attendance with an estimated 4.9 million visitors a year. By the mid-1980s, the couple was at the helm of a multi-million dollar evangelical empire, but their lavish lifestyle was drawing detractors in the mainstream media. Tammy Faye’s appearance and love of shopping had become a punchline for comics. Shopping, Tammy Faye often publicly declared, was cheaper than a psychiatrist, and she said she hoped heaven would include a shopping center “where there’s no limit on your charge card.”
But no amount of shopping eased the pain of the 1987 revelation that her husband had used $279,000 of PTL money in an attempt to buy the silence of 21-year-old church secretary Jessica Hahn, who claimed Jim had sexually assaulted her in a Florida hotel room in 1980. Though Jim insisted the sex was consensual, his — and by association Tammy Faye’s — fall from televised grace was swift.
Jim reluctantly stepped down from his position at PTL, handing control to fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell. Worse for the Bakkers was the revelation by a Charlotte Observer investigation that Jim had mismanaged funds and that PTL was leveraged to the point of financial collapse. According to Time, in the final months of the Bakker era at PTL, the organization was taking in $4.2 million a month and spending $7.2 million. All of the Bakkers’ luxurious homes and excessive spending was now under a far harsher spotlight than the couple was used to, and a criminal investigation into PTL’s finances was launched in June 1987.
Tammy Faye initially stood by her husband’s side but eventually divorced him
Publicly Tammy Faye stood by her man, even appearing alongside Jim in a now infamous 1987 interview with Ted Koppel for Nightline, defending their actions. She was present as he was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy, then sentenced to 45 years in federal prison, with the sentence eventually reduced to eight years. When Jim was found guilty, Tammy Faye — who was never indicted — appeared at a news conference and tearfully sang, “On Christ the solid rock I stand/All other ground is sinking sand.”
Three years later they divorced. Criticized for initiating the divorce while her husband was behind bars, Tammy Faye stated in her memoir: “How cruel would it have been for me to have waited until he walked through those prison doors, happy and filled with dreams and plans for Jim and Tammy.” In a 1992 letter to her Florida church, she explained her reasons behind the divorce. “For years I have been pretending that everything is all right, when in fact I hurt all the time,” she wrote. “I cannot pretend anymore.”
A year after the divorce, Tammy Faye married property developer and former family friend Roe Messner, who had helped build much of Heritage USA. Messner was convicted of bankruptcy fraud in 1994 and served 27 months in prison. Tammy Faye remaining married to Messner until her death in 2007 at age 65, following an 11-year battle with colon cancer. Asked in 2002 if she still had a relationship with her ex-husband, Tammy Faye replied, “Oh yes. We have a very nice relationship. I say I like being Jim Bakker’s friend and I love being Roe Messner’s wife.”
Paroled in 1994, Jim returned Christian broadcasting in 2003 with The Jim Bakker Show, co-hosting alongside his second wife Lori, whom he married in 1998. In a statement at the time of Tammy Faye’s death, Jim said that his ex-wife “lived her life like the song she sang, ‘If Life Hands You a Lemon, Make Lemonade.’”