Two of the nation’s top televangelists went to war in the 1980s. By the time it was over, both men had been defrocked.
One would go to prison. The other would be caught twice with prostitutes.
Both would weep and wallow and watch their empires crumble.
The tears started flowing in March 1987 at PTL — a Charlotte, N.C.-area megaministry with its own theme park and mammoth waterslide. News of the Rev. Jim Bakker’s adultery with a 21-year-old church secretary, coupled with disclosure of a hush-money payment, helped bring on his downfall.
PTL (which originally stood for “Praise the Lord”) had $129 million in revenues in its last full year with Bakker at the helm.
The prosperity gospel preacher, and Tammy Faye Bakker, his mascara-enthused wife, were known for their upbeat talk-show-style programming. Guests ran the gamut, from pornographer Larry Flynt to KFC founder Harlan Sanders. Fundraising appeals were frequent.
The Bakkers were two of the brightest stars in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal fellowship formed in Hot Springs. But they had a bitter foe in the denomination — a hellfire and brimstone evangelist from Louisiana named Jimmy Swaggart.
A cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley, Swaggart shared his kinfolk’s musical gifts. He was also one of the most famous television preachers in America, with his own 7,000-seat megachurch and Bible college in Baton Rouge.
His revenues, in 1987, were about $150 million.
Swaggart had little use for evangelists of Bakker’s ilk, mocking the “pompadoured pretty-boys with their hair done and their nails done who call themselves preachers.” Bakker, Swaggart would say, was “a cancer on the body of Christ.”
Bakker returned fire, accusing his nemesis of attempting to take over the ministry, a charge Swaggart denied.
The former PTL chief, stripped of power, would later be convicted of defrauding his followers. It was his fundraising practices, not his sexual activities, that would put him behind bars. While locked up, Bakker’s marriage unraveled.
Swaggart’s downfall came in 1988 after he was photographed in the parking lot of a seedy New Orleans-area motel. Confronted by a defrocked former ministry rival named Marvin Gorman, Swaggart would eventually admit that he’d been visiting a prostitute.
After defying church officials, who had ordered him off the air, Swaggart and the Assemblies of God parted ways. He would be caught with a second prostitute, in California, in 1991.
Now 84, Swaggart continues to sing and preach, although his son and grandson have assumed many of his old duties. Services from his near-empty Baton Rouge sanctuary are still broadcast around the world.
Tammy Faye, 65, died of cancer in 2007.
Jim Bakker, 79, after his time in prison, remarried and moved to the Ozarks. His church and television studio in Blue Eye, Mo., are less than two miles north of the Arkansas state line.
— Frank E. Lockwood
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