Tammy Faye Bakker was an American Christian evangelist, singer, author, talk show host and television personality. Together with her husband, entrepreneur Jim Bakker, she built a religious television empire, The PTL Club, only to see it fall apart after Jim’s conviction for fraud in 1989.
A larger than life personality, Tammy was best known for her unconventional views regarding her religion as well as her acceptance of the LGBT community. Here we take a look at her life and the impact she made.
Tammy Faye Bakker was born Tamara Faye LaValley in International Falls, Minnesota. Her parents married in 1941 and were Pentecostal preachers. Shortly after Tammy’s birth, her mother’s painful divorce alienated them from their church. Both of her parents remarried, with her mother marrying Fred Willard Grover to form a large blended family, of which Tammy was the oldest.
Marriage to Jim Bakker
Tammy married her husband, Jim Bakker, in April 1961, after they met as students a year earlier at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1962 they moved to South Carolina and began their ministry together. The pair travelled to Christian communities all around America together, with Jim preaching while Tammy sang songs and played the accordion. (They went on to have two children, daughter Tammy Sue ‘Sissy’ in 1970, and son Jamie in 1975).
Their preaching caught the attention of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) who hired them as hosts of popular children’s show Jim and Tammy. They later became the first hosts of CBN’s The 700 Club. Other projects they were involved in included a children’s puppet ministry on CBN which ran from 1964-1973.
The PTL Club
In 1974, Tammy gained notice for her work with a televangelist programme she co-founded with Jim called The PTL Club (‘Praise the Lord’). Also known as The Jim and Tammy Show, the programme ran from 1974-1989 (later known as PTL Today and Heritage Today).
The programme had a talk show format, and mixed glitzy entertainment with family values. The couple preached a ‘prosperity gospel’, approving the growing affluence of American evangelicals and the showy lifestyles of their television ministers – including themselves (they owned multiple houses and expensive cars).
The Bakkers purchased airtime on TV stations across America in order to run their various programmes, and in 1978, Jim Bakker created a satellite network to distribute his paid programming more efficiently and widely. To fund his enterprise, the Bakkers hosted telethons asking viewers to sign up for monthly pledges to become ‘PTL Club’ partners, which were hugely successful.
By its final years, the programme had become the flagship of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Satellite Network. During PTL’s 14 year history, as hosts, Jim and Tammy Bakker became two of the most recognisable and highly-rated televangelists in America, with a multimillion-dollar TV empire.
During the 1970’s, Tammy also had a career as a recording artist, and along with her husband Jim, built a now-defunct Christian retreat and theme park, Heritage USA in 1978. They used $200 million of PTL funds to build the theme park which ranked alongside Disneyland as one of the most popular theme parks in America at the time.
Tammy Bakker in particular was often well-regarded by her fans due to her glamorous personality and her sentimental and emotive touch to the stories she hosted. She held candid discussions of topics that many of her other evangelist peers would have considered taboo, including on penile implants and acceptance and compassion for the LGBT community.
At the height of the mid-1980s AIDS epidemic, Tammy interviewed Steven Pieters, a gay Christian minister with AIDS, on her segment ‘Tammy’s House Party’ for The PTL Club. They discussed Pieters’ sexuality, his coming out, his AIDS diagnosis and the death of his partner. Tammy addressed her audience saying:
How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, we who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care.
Throughout the AIDS epidemic, Tammy advocated for viewers to show compassion and pray for the ill. She also invited drug addicts onto her segment and interviewed them about substance abuse.
Collapse of PTL
Tammy and Jim’s marriage faced problems in 1987 after Jim was accused of allegedly raping former church secretary and model Jessica Hahn, and using $287,000 from PTL to pay off her silence. Later financial scandals also purported that the couple had used the non-profit PTL’s donations to fund their opulent lifestyle. Jim denied any wrongdoing and claimed the sex was consensual and that he’d been set up.
In 1989 Jim was sentenced to 45 years in prison for embezzlement – on 24 fraud and conspiracy counts due to suspicious PTL Club fundraising activities. This inevitably led to PTL’s bankruptcy and collapse, and the cable network was sold to Morris Cerullo World Evangelism of San Diego, California – becoming known as The Inspiration Network, and later INSP (TV network), headquartered in Indian Land, South Carolina.
On 23 August 1991, at his re-sentencing hearing, the court reduced Jim Bakker’s original 45-year sentence to 18 years, 5 of which he actually served before being released. (20 years after his release from prison and having gone back into television evangelism, Jim purchased PTL’s trademark and logo and relaunched the network.)
What happened to Tammy?
Tammy Faye Bakker had gained significant publicity during Jim’s trial and imprisonment. Whilst she initially tried to support him, she subsequently filed for divorce in 1992 while Jim was in prison, later marrying building contractor Roe Messner.
Roe’s contracting business had built much of the Heritage USA theme park as well as many large churches, having been a family friend to the Bakkers throughout the PTL years. However in 1996, Roe himself was convicted of bankruptcy fraud, having claimed to owe nearly $30 million to over 300 creditors in 1990. He was sentenced in 1996 and went on to serve 27 months in prison.
That same year in 1996, Tammy was diagnosed with colon cancer, but re-entered the public eye in a series of books, movies and television appearances. Despite her Christian fundamentalist background, she became a gay icon after parting from PTL, regularly appearing in Gay Pride marches.
In March 2004 divulged that she also had inoperable lung cancer. Despite miraculously going into remission after chemotherapy, the lung cancer reemerged. She later received hospice care in her home, and died in July 2007 after an 11 year fight against cancer.
Tammy Faye Bakker‘s legacy
During her career, Tammy was noted for her eccentric and glamorous persona, as well as for her moral views that diverged from many mainstream evangelists of the time – particularly her advocacy for the LGBT community as well as her reaching out to HIV/AIDS patients at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Tammy had released three autobiographies during her lifetime, I Gotta Be Me (1978) Tammy: Telling it My Way (1996) and I Will Survive and You Will Too! (2003), and in 2021 her life and legacy were featured in a biopic called The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Actress Jessica Chastain played Tammy, and Andrew Garfield played Jim Bakker – Jessica Chastain went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker at the 2022 Oscars.