Jimmy Swaggart called him “a cancer in the body of Christ.” Jerry Falwell concurred, calling him, “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” And yet, for nearly a decade, Jim Bakker and his then-wife, Tammy Faye, were among the most beloved (and recognizable) faces of modern Christian ministry.
That was, at least, until it all came crashing down in 1987.
Before that, though, the Bakkers ran what was the innovative, often revolutionary, and ultimately scandal-ridden PTL ministry, an operation that included a satellite TV network and a constantly-expanding Christian theme park and family resort.
Of course, we now know how that ministry ended, with a disgraced Bakker being defrocked, criminally charged, and serving a prison sentence for misappropriating ministry funds, and a disillusioned Tammy Faye morphing into a pop culture icon trying desperately to hold onto what little fame she had left before losing a battle with cancer.
Over the years, the Bakkers’ story has been told through books, documentaries, exposés, and even a movie production or two. With the release of the film, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” (itself based on a 2000 documentary of the same name), the Bakkers are once again brought into the spotlight, with a renewed interest in their scandal-ridden story.
For the record: we are not re-hashing the scandals themselves here; if you want to learn more about that, we suggest one of the multiple sources available.
So, then, why am I even bringing up the Bakkers on a southern gospel music blog?
Well, for starters, the Bakkers’ ministry headquarters was Heritage USA, a “Christian Disneyland” that, at its peak, was the third-most-visited park in the nation, behind only the two US Disney parks. Among other luxuries at the resort were state-of-the-art television production facilities and a large concert hall.
The television production aspect allowed for many gospel groups to tape live concerts in Heritage’s main theater. A quick search on YouTube for gospel music from from the mid-80’s will return a multitude of clips that were taped at PTL and either broadcast on the satellite network or packaged and sold by artists directly at concerts. In addition, some artists were so involved with the PTL ministry that they actually had homes on the Heritage USA property, making regular appearances on Jim Bakker’s talk/variety show.
Tammy Faye also fancied herself a gospel singer, releasing multiple solo gospel albums over the years (often included in gift packages for ministry “partners,” or folks who made donations and pledges to PTL). In total, Tammy recorded around 15 solo albums.
To put it simply, you can’t tell the Bakkers’ story without gospel music.
And yet, due to the nature and highly-publicized scope of their ministry’s rise and fall, the Bakkers’ influence on (and some could even say expansion of) southern gospel music is frequently swept under the rug, with many artists formerly associated with them downplaying their involvement. Don’t get me wrong – the Bakkers’ story is filled with cautionary tales about greed and questionable practices – but even with those well-known faults, their love for and support of SG artists is not one to be ignored.
In fact, after the end of the “Gospel Singing Jubilee” in the early 80’s, the only major television outlets for gospel groups was the fledgling TNN with their occasional gospel programs, or PTL, which had a far larger reach thanks to both their syndication and satellite network. Were it not for PTL and the Bakkers, southern gospel music may have seen a significant downturn throughout the 80’s.
Even so, by the time Bill Gaither invited several gospel legends to take part in his first video shoot, many of them had not worked in quite a while; while Gaither can easily be credited for giving southern gospel music a boost in the mid-90’s, it may never have happened had Jim Bakker not had PTL as an outlet in the 80’s.
Seeing two different dramatized productions on the Bakkers only adds to the impact that they had on gospel music (and it on them); a Lifetime-produced TV film featured Bernadette Peters (as Tammy) performing multiple gospel songs in the film, including “God Rides On Wings of Love,” while the most recent film, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” includes star Jessica Chastain (again as Tammy) rehearsing the Cathedrals hit, “Somebody Touched Me.”
I actually posted a clip of Tammy Faye singing “Somebody Touched Me” (using the original Cathedrals backing track and vocals) on a Facebook group recently, again noting their impact on southern gospel music, and the responses were surprisingly positive. Sure, everyone is aware of what went wrong, but the conversation as a whole focused not on their shortcomings, but how much people truly appreciated what the Bakkers seemingly were attempting to do with their ministry.
Of course, in the eyes of the general public, the Bakkers are just one of many examples of why mainstream Christianity (and televangelists in general) cannot be trusted, and to be fair, there are definitely folks who have only poured fuel on that flame. To Christians, the downfall of the Bakkers was both devastating (especially to those closely associated with them), and embarrassing to the faith as a whole, as the Bakkers were among the most popular Christian televangelists in the world at the time.
Nevertheless, attempts to ignore their ministry due to its sad ending would effectively erase years of positive influence on a genre that otherwise may have struggled to maintain its presence. Say what you will about their private lives or business practices; Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s impact on southern gospel music cannot be ignored.
Kyle, where can I see that video of Chastain rehearsing ‘Somebody Touched Me’ that you reference?
Because it’s a brand new movie, you’d probably have to watch the movie.
I did find this link which has a promo clip of Jessica Chastain singing…didn’t hear “Somebody Touched Me” in the clip, though.