I hope all of you have enjoyed the slight tweaks that I did to the Tuesday Timeline last week. I listened to some of my readers who said that I tended to info-drop too much information at the very beginning of these Tuesday Timeline entries, and I’ve made the lead-in to the topic a little shorter. Judging by the slight increase in page views, it seems to have made a little bit of a difference.
This week, we’re doing a spotlight on March 19, and this time around, we’re going back to the eighties for this one. But before we go on to that, let’s take a look at some of the other events that took place on this date.
1279 – The Song Dynasty in China ends following Mongolia’s victory in the Battle of Yamen
1918 – Time zones and Daylight Savings Time are established by United States Congress
1931 – The state of Nevada legalizes gambling
1932 – The Sydney Harbour Bridge is opened
1945 – Adolf Hitler issues his “Nero Decree”
1950 – Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, dies of a heart attack at the age of 70
1954 – The first televised boxing match in colour television (between Willie Tory and Joey Giardello) is broadcast
1958 – Twenty-four people are killed and another fifteen are injured in the Monarch Underwear Company fire in Manhattan, New York
1962 – Bob Dylan releases his debut album, “Bob Dylan” through Columbia Records
1966 – Texas Western becomes the first college basketball team to win the Final Four with an all-black starting line-up
1979 – The United States House of Representatives begins broadcasting day-to-day business on the cable network C-SPAN
2003 – George W. Bush orders the commencement of war against Iraq as Operation: Iraqi Freedom begins
2005 – John DeLorean, the inventor of the DeLorean automobile passes away in Summit, New Jersey at the age of 80
Yeah, I think that’s enough events to discuss for today.
We also have a few celebrity birthdays to talk about in this edition of the Tuesday Timeline, and I want to wish the following famous faces a happy birthday...Renee Taylor, Ursula Andress, Ruth Pointer (Pointer Sisters), Glenn Close, Harvey Weinstein, Bruce Willis, Mary Scheer, Jake Weber, Fred Stoller, Tyrone Hill, Gary Jules, Rachel Blanchard, and Matt Littler.
Now, as I mentioned beforehand, this week, we are travelling back in time to the decade known as the 1980s.
Today’s date? March 19, 1987.
Now, everyone knows that the 1980s were a decade of incredible excess, greed, and luxury. It was a decade in which yuppies and stockbrokers were considered idols, and it was a decade in which everybody dreamed big.
And, it was also a decade in which people felt a need to hold on to their faiths and their beliefs.
As far back as I can remember, there were plenty of television shows that aired during the 1980s that urged people to turn to God and religion during what were considered to be times of unrest and uncertainty. The age of the televangelist was definitely at its peak around the mid-1980s, and it seemed as though no matter where you turned, there were always people who tried to bring a little bit of God into everyone’s lives. Certainly in my home country of Canada, we have our fair share of religious television programming. After all, “100 Huntley Street” has been on the air in Canada since 1977.
In the United States, there are several examples of televangelists, which have included Billy Graham, Jack Van Impe, and Jimmy Swaggart. Unfortunately, I really can’t tell you much about any of these programs, because I was never really big on watching televangelism at work. In fact, I may be alienating some people by admitting this, but whenever Billy Graham pre-empted an episode of Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune, I would break down into hysterics and curse that man something fierce for interrupting my program! In my defense though, in March 1987 I was still in kindergarten, and didn’t know any better.
(Even though at the age of nearly 32, I still wouldn’t go out of my way to watch religious programming. I have my own belief system, and don’t really need to watch people praising the Lord to back that up.)
Of course, while the age of televangelism was huge in the 1980s, so were the scandals that toppled some of these figures from grace. Case in point, just do a little research on Jimmy Swaggart’s confession from 1988 to see what I mean.
But this blog is not about Jimmy Swaggart. Instead, it’s about a pair of televangelists who hosted their very own Christian-themed television program. For thirteen years, they built their audience, and had continued success by having reputable minsters and contemporary Christian artists as guests. But, on March 19, 1987, that success came to an embarrassing end, as one half of the duo admitted to sinning, so to speak.
Twenty-six years ago today televangelist Jim Bakker’s bad behaviour caused him to resign from the very empire he had spent nearly fifteen years creating. In the end, it cost him his television show, his television network, his marriage, and for several years, his freedom!
But, before we take a look at the events of March 19, 1987 in great detail, we need to look at how it all began.
Jim Bakker was born on January 2, 1940 in the state of Michigan. When he was in his late teens, he attended school at North Central University – a Bible college associated with the Assemblies of God – in Minneapolis. It was during his time there as a student that he met his future wife, Tammy Faye LaValley, an eighteen year old student who worked part-time at a boutique. Jim and Tammy fell in love, and tied the knot on April 1, 1961. Together, they left the Bible college to become evangelists, and became the parents of two children, Tammy Sue and Jamie.
Their career as televangelists began five years after their wedding, when they began working at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. At the time, they struggled to get an audience, which measured in the thousands. Due to their perseverance and creativity, they slowly began to attract a following. They even created their own television program, “The Jim and Tammy Show”, which they filmed from their Portsmouth, Virginia studio. This program ran until at least the early 1970s, when Jim and Tammy moved to California.
In 1974, with the backing of the couple’s former youth pastors, Jim and Tammy created the “Praise the Lord” show for the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which began airing in California. At some point within the first year of broadcast, Jim and Tammy relocated the show to Charlotte, North Carolina, and renamed it the “PTL Club”. What initially began as a show that filmed in a converted furniture store in Charlotte grew into a huge conglomerate by the time the 1980s rolled around. During this time, the Bakkers established the PTL Television Network, and by 1984, the program was carried by over one hundred television stations, reaching an audience of twelve million people. They had even built a theme park in South Carolina known as Heritage USA, which at its peak was the third most successful theme park in the United States!
But this was where the web began to unravel for the Bakkers. By the mid-1980s, questions of doubt seemed to surface regarding the legitimacy of the funds raised to support their massive empire. Part of the success that the couple had was due to their stance on accepting everyone of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and whether they had a criminal record or not. They’d accept donations from anyone. And, because of this stance, they were raising one million dollars PER WEEK towards their cause.
It was how they spent the money that got tongues wagging.
It was estimated that between 1984 and 1987, Jim Bakker and his PTL associates reportedly sold lifetime memberships to members for the steep price tag of one thousand dollars. Part of the membership deal included a three-night stay every year for the rest of each member’s life at one of Heritage USA’s luxury hotels. There was just one problem. While it was estimated that over ten thousand lifetime memberships were sold, only one 500-room hotel had been completed. Can you see the discrepancy here? You only need to know basic math to figure out that something was definitely fishy. And, there was more to add to the scandal, and once more, it surrounded Heritage USA.
You see, underneath the lifetime membership plan, feasibly speaking, Heritage USA should have made more than enough money to build more than one hotel on the premises. Instead, the money went towards operating expenses for the park itself...along with a whopping $3.4 million bonus for Jim Bakker himself.
And, then there was the Jessica Hahn scandal.
In case some of you are too young to know who Jessica Hahn is, she was employed as a church secretary in December 1980 when an event happened that changed the lives of both Hahn and Bakker forever. According to Hahn, she claimed that Jim Bakker (along with another preacher) had drugged and raped her, but Bakker later claimed in his 1997 book, “I Was Wrong” that the sexual encounter that he and Hahn shared was consensual. Whether it was or not, considering that Bakker was a married man at the time, it caused a scandal when the news finally broke in early 1987. To make matters worse, Bakker reportedly paid Hahn nearly $300,000 in hush money to keep her quiet...using funds from PTL to foot the bill!
It was due to the allegations of raping Jessica Hahn, as well as his shady financial dealings that forced Bakker to resign from PTL on March 19, 1987. Days later, he was succeeded by Jerry Falwell, and by the end of the year, The PTL Club was pulled off the air, and donations slowed to a crawl.
In 1988, following a sixteen-month investigation, Bakker was indicted on eight counts of mail fraud, fifteen counts of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy. He was found guilty of all twenty-four counts in 1989, and was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison, as well as being issued a half million dollar fine! I guess in this case, God couldn’t save him from facing stiff punishment. Of course, we all know by now that Bakker didn’t serve his time, or else he would still be in jail until 2034. His 45-year sentence was voided by the United States Court of Appeals in 1991, and was subsequently reduced to just eight years. After serving five, he was released on parole in the summer of 1994. But the cost to Bakker was devastating. He lost his entire empire, and Tammy Faye filed for divorce in 1992, marrying Roe Messner...who ironically enough helped Bakker build Heritage USA!
So, what’s happened to the key players since the scandal broke in 1987?
Well, Jim Bakker found love once again with Lori Graham, whom he married in 1998, and has gotten back into television hosting once more with ”The Jim Bakker Show” which is filmed in Branson, Missouri. But, his financial problems are still very much an issue, as Bakker still owes the IRS close to six million dollars!
Tammy Faye Messner spent the 1990s guest starring on television shows, writing books, and even launching her own talk show with Jim J. Bullock which lasted one season. Then in a strange twist of fate, appeared as a cast member of “The Surreal Life” along with Vanilla Ice, Erik Estrada, and Ron Jeremy! Now, THAT’S surreal! But she also faced a cancer battle which lasted eleven years, and she succumbed to the disease in July 2007 at the age of 65. Now, I get that many people feel that she is guilty by association and should have been punished alongside her former husband, but as far as I’m concerned, having to fight cancer for the better part of a decade was more than enough punishment for her. I certainly won’t make any disparaging comments about the dead in this blog.
As for Jessica Hahn, she used the publicity generated by the scandal to her advantage by becoming a model/actress. She was also involved in a long-term relationship with “Married...With Children” co-creator Ron Leavitt, which lasted for seventeen years until Leavitt’s death in 2008.
So, there you have it...a scandal that spread like wildfire through the Christian Evangelical programming on television, and ruined several lives and toppled an entire cable network! All because Jim Bakker completely disregarded at least two of the ten commandments.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
And, as the world watched the whole thing unfold on March 19, 1987, not even God could prevent it from happening.