How He Lost It

I Was Wrong

by Jim Bakker
Thomas Nelson, 647 pp., $24.99

Tammy: Telling It My Way

by Tammy Faye Messner
Villard, 339 pp., $22.95

1.

Jim Bakker’s confessional I Was Wrong is a remarkable work in many respects, not least of which is the skill with which it is written. His earlier autobiography, Move That Mountain (1976), was a ghostwritten potboiler. I Was Wrong acknowledges the help of Ken Abraham, “who used his skills to craft this book.” (The last of his many thanks is “to my best friend who never left me…Jesus!”) However it was crafted, the book is Bakker’s solemn effort to tell the story of his sudden rise to be one of the nation’s most successful televangelists, and the sudden downfall in which he lost his ministry, his freedom, his self-respect, and his wife.

For readers unfamiliar with the sad soap opera of Jim and Tammy Faye, here is a quick rundown. The diminutive pair—she is four feet eleven, he five feet eight—met at North Central Bible School, in Minneapolis. Both came from strict Pentecostal homes in which life centered on church services. Pentecostals are evangelicals who take their name from the biblical account of the seventh Sunday after Easter, when the Holy Ghost descended on the Apostles. They believe that the gifts of Pentecost, such as instant faith healing and the power to speak in tongues, remain in effect today. In her 1978 autobiography, I Gotta Be Me, Tammy tells how she was born again at age ten when she responded to an altar call. “I lay on the floor for hours and spoke in an unknown language…. I was walking with Jesus.”

Jim proposed on their third date. Tammy, then eighteen, giggled throughout the ceremony. Because the Bible School banned student marriages the young newlyweds left to hit the road as traveling soul savers. Jim preached. Tammy played the piano and accordion and sang. In an effort to reach children with the gospel, Jim and Tammy began using puppets. Tammy had a tiny voice for animating Susie Moppet and a deep voice for Allie Alligator. Sunday school meetings tripled in attendance. Word of their popularity reached Pat Robertson, who invited them to do a children’s show on his fledgling Christian television station in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Jim and Tammy Show was a huge success.

In I Gotta Be Me Tammy says Jim worked so hard on their show that he had a mental breakdown. For a month he stayed in bed, Bible in hand, muttering, “Please God, don’t let me lose my mind.” Once recovered, Jim persuaded Robertson to let him start a show modeled on Johnny Carson’s. It became CBN’s 700 Club. Jim was host of the show for years before Pat began taking over every other night. Rifts between the two widened. “I loved him [Pat] with a real deep love of the Lord,” Tammy writes. “But at times he would do certain things…. I built up a terrible, terrible resentment in my heart against him.”

Pentecostals frequently hear, sometimes even see, the Lord speak to them in mysterious ways. Jim and Tammy liked to open the…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.