cover image PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire

PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire

John Wigger. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-19-937971-2

Professor of History at the University of Missouri Wigger (American Saint) starts this captivating exploration of the rise, stumble, and fall of the PTL evangelical empire founded in 1973 by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—one of the first major televangelist operations in the United States—with a brief review of the Pentecostal evangelical religion in America and the early biographies of both Bakkers before plunging into the development of the PTL business empire. The scandal-ridden downfall of the Bakkers was front-page news in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but the story starts in the early ’60s with the just-married Bakkers setting off to travel by car as evangelical preachers. The Bakkers started on television with a children’s show on a network headlined by Pat Robertson, the Bakkers’ expansion to owning studios and stations came quickly. Jim Bakker’s spin on what is broadly known as “the prosperity gospel,” a particularly American evangelical take on the relationship between God and money, was what led both to the couple’s spectacular success and, eventually, ruin. Wigger does an outstanding job of untangling and following the various threads of the PTL, only briefly allowing himself a moment of ahistorical judgment when discussing the 45-year prison term eventually passed on Jim Bakker. Anyone interested in the theological underpinnings of certain contemporary strains of right-wing American politics, as well as those more particularly interested in the Bakkers or televangelism, should find this book rewarding. (Aug.)