The “Real” Reason Televangelist Jim Bakker Went to Jail

Bakker in jail

Jim Bakker is hauled off to jail in 1989

Here is an excerpt from University of Missouri historian John Wigger’s book PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017):

…on March 19, 1987, Jim Bakker resigned in disgrace from PTL after his December 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public.  Hahn described Bakker forcing himself on her in an article in Playboy, while he claimed that she was a professional who knew “all the tricks of the trade.”  In the wake of the Hahn revelation, stories appeared about Bakker’s invovlement in gay relationships and visits with prostitutes, sometimes wearing a blond wig as a disguise….

The 1987 scandal was initially about sex, but it soon turned to money after it was discovered that PTL had paid Hahn and her representatives $265,000 in hush money.  When he resigned, Bakker turned the ministry over to fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell.  He and his team quickly discovered that PTL was $65 million in debt and bleeding money at a rate of $2 million a month.  That summer workers boarded up the unfinished Towers Hotel, which never opened.  Falwell and his entire staff left PTL in October 1987, less than seven months after he took charge of the ministry.  When he took over, Falwell praised PTL as “one of the major miracle ministries of this century.  I doubt there’s ever been anything like it in the 2,000-year history of the church.”  When he left he declared that Bakker had turned PTL into a “scab and cancer on the fate of Christianity,” a disaster unparalleled in the last 2,000 years.  By then PTL was already in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation.

Two years later, in 1989, Bakker went on trial for wire and mail fraud, accused of overselling “lifetime partnerships” to Heritage USA and misusing the money donated for its construction.  The trial unfolded in a circus-like atmosphere before US District Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Potter.  A witness collapsed on the stand and Bakker himself had a psychological breakdown, crawling under his lawyer’s couch as federal marshals  came to get him.  He was convicted and initially sentenced to forty-five years in prison, serving nearly five years before his release.  For millions who watched the scandal unfold in the press and on television, PTL and the Bakkers became a national symbol of the excesses of the 1980s and the greed of televangelists in particular.

As many of you know, Jim Bakker is now out of prison and has his own cable television show.  We have covered him here.  Apparently, Bakker now has a different story about why he was convicted and sent to jail, and it has nothing to do with fraud.  Watch:


8 thoughts on “The “Real” Reason Televangelist Jim Bakker Went to Jail

  1. Jim Bakker may have started off spreading God’s message, but that stopped a long time ago. He wants to have the limelight, and is constantly trying to stay there selling coins or whatever he can come up with to take money from people who do not realize that he is what I call a “false prophet.” There are some really good preachers on tv… find the true men of God and practice discernment.


  2. Kills me to see people in the church treat a descent man of God like a God , they put them high in a ivory tower throw millions of dollars at them then when the man of God acts like God the church wants his blood . I blame the congregations. I’m still waiting to see Pastor Joel O get hung up next . When you show me a church where the pastor lives equal to the least of his congregation that is where I will worship . The Devil is not at the local bar he’s at the local church where he knows man is looking for a God who wears a 5,000 suit. As for me the Bible alone has always been good enough.


  3. Jeff,
    Please don’t get me wrong. I would enjoy the book. It’s probably very interesting. It just doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing OUP is in the practice of releasing.



    • This is a fine Oxford University Press book. Why can’t someone like James Bakker, a man who influenced millions, be the subject of scholarly book? I am assume that you also believe my book on the American Bible Society (also published by Oxford) is not worthy either.


      • John,

        I am on the OUP mailing list and have a reasonable feel for their material. I think I also have a pretty good feel for what other reputable publishers handle. Despite Bakker’s influence on millions, he is still a comic character of popular culture. Would OUP publish a book on Johnny Carson? He touched millions of lives, and by the way, I rank him as arguably the greatest comedian of his era. There are other fine publishers who handle this sort of subject.

        The ABS is a serious and quasi academic organization. Why shouldn’t OUP handle that subject?



  4. No doubt Professor Wigger is a distinguished historian and writer. His two earlier books dealing with early Methodism appear to be valuable contributions to U.S. history. Yet I am somewhat surprised that Oxford University Press would publish a book on a figure as clownish as Jim Bakker. In fairness to Dr. Wigger, the book might have a wealth of sociological and religious material on America in the late 20th Century; but it’s still surprising for an internationally respected academic publisher to do a book on someone like Bakker (and by connection Bakker’s late wife.) Heritage USA and the Bakker empire probably are more complex than the treatments they received in the tabloids………..but does the subject meet Oxford University Press treatment?


    • I haven’t read it. But I would think the ultimate point, (in my opinion), would be what makes it possible for a person who is not genuine, who is self centered, to be admired and practically idolized by enough people to successfully do what he does for so long. That aspect is interesting to me.
      It’s the kind of thing that can still happen today.


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