It is the 2nd of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1940.
It is only the second day of the new calendar year, and we already have our latest Dr. Gene Scott All-Star. For those unfamiliar with this category, it is a designation we give some of the more peculiar characters in the church's history, with special attention given to exotic varieties of the North American televangelist.
Televangelists have become easy fodder for comedians and a target for those who suppose the church might not be on the up and up. But it hasn't always been that way. We've noted many early Christian broadcasters on this show, from the earliest religious broadcasts on the radio to primetime shows on major networks devoted to explicitly Christian shows, themes, and conversations. And while there will always be wolves in sheep's clothing, it was assumed that these religious programs and figures had been vetted. Furthermore, there was no money in it at first. Before 1960, all television stations were required to devote a given amount of hours every week to educational and religious instruction. When the law was changed, it allowed stations to sell their religious broadcasting hours. Thus, the more you wanted to be on television, the more you had to fundraise.
And there was one man that revolutionized that process. Today, for better or worse, we remember the controversial man who fleeced his television congregation to the tune of a million dollars a week in the 1980s. Today, we glance at and see what we might learn from the saga of Jim Bakker, who was born on this, the 2nd of January in 1940.
James Orsen Bakker was a Bible school dropout who married aspiring evangelist Tammy Faye LaValley in 1961. In 1967, the two joined Pat Robertson's 700 Club television program as hosts and puppeteers. The couple's chemistry proved popular, and soon Jim had the vision of a Christian version of The Tonight Show. This would become PTL, or "Praise the Lord," one of the most popular shows and satellite networks worldwide.
By 1979, the FCC had prepared a lengthy legal case against the Bakkers that should have resulted in the ministry's collapse. The Bakkers could have been a small, strange footnote in the bigger story. However, the new "Moral Majority" began a national campaign arguing that secularists were trying to silence the church. An FCC ruling that would shut down a visible television ministry would be bad optics. And the 1980 election was one run on optics and grievances, real or imagined.
Jim Bakker continued his ascent, and in 1986, his Christian themed amusement park, Heritage USA, was only behind Disneyland and Disney World in terms of yearly visitors.
But it would all soon come crashing down. Tammy Faye admitted to a drug problem and was hospitalized. It was then revealed that Jim Bakker had paid a church secretary from New York over $200,000 to keep their private indiscretions private. Baker gave his ministry to rival Jerry Falwell to run while the Bakers organized their affairs. However, as new and lurid details were revealed, the new burgeoning televangelists, including Falwell, attempted to bury their one-time rival. Falwell called Bakker "the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history." (To which, I say, "I've seen worse.")
Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He and Tammy Faye divorced, and she became an unlikely celebrity in the years before her death from cancer in 2007. Jim and Tammy Faye received the Lifetime treatment in 1990 with a biopic. Bernadette Peters and Kevin Spacey played the couple.
Bakker only served eight years, and upon his release in 1994, he swore off television ministry, at least until 2003. Bakker and his new wife host a daily program that, just last year, was banned from processing donations via credit card companies. This was on account of them selling fake COVID-19 cures.
It's easy to laugh at the excess of Jim Bakker. Still, he became the template for disgraced televangelists and a cautionary tale for those who might lust after the dangerous cocktail of Christian celebrity, lack of financial accountability, and greed. Exposing the tawdry details of supposedly pious television preachers became something of a cottage industry after Bakker.
James Bakker, a cautionary tale, a curious bit of evangelical Americana, and Dr. Gene Scott All-Star was born on this, the 2nd of January in 1940.
The reading for today, the 8th Day of Christmas, is the poem "Saving Jesus" by Paul Lake.
"BrickHouse Security saves Jesus for 8th year in a row,
offers free GPS tracking of nativity scenes and holiday displays."
The sharp eye
Of angels, shepherds,
Thieves snatch the infant
From the crèche
To spirit God off
In the flesh.
The thieves' intent
In the dark of night,
To take flight.
To empty Christmas
Of the Christ
Would seem the purpose
Of the heist—
Unless the abject
Hijack the babe
To feel newborn
Themselves, and think
By robbing churches
They gain a love
They cannot purchase.
Unlike the soulless
With planted chip,
Restores the lost
And covers crime
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by another man who got his ministry started with a puppet ministry, Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day, and remember…the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.