Divine deceit: the Bakkers’ troubled legacy perseveres in Fort Mill
by Addie Rae Allen
For over a decade, York County and MorningStar Ministries have been caught in a legal battle over the fate of the abandoned 21-story hotel that looms over Fort Mill. MorningStar wishes to repurpose it, while the county insists that its glory days are over.
For many locals, the building’s “glory days” are a mystery. However, with the legal case progressing and new publicity due to the award-winning movie The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021), a certain scandalous chapter in Fort Mill history is gaining attention.
“But when you come to Heritage USA, remember to bring your Bible and your VISA card – because the Bible is the Holy Truth, and God doesn’t take American Express.”
Televangelist Jim Bakker surely had a way with words — words that would put Fort Mill on the map as the home of “Christian Disneyland,” better known as Heritage USA.
In 1978, people were buzzing about Jim’s and his wife Tammy Faye’s new Christain-themed park. By this time, the two were American household names due to their success as hosts of The 700 Club on the Christain Broadcasting Network, as well as on their own show called The PTL Club on the PTL (Praise the Lord) Satellite Network. Since many households became infatuated with the evangelical couple, the park was on many families’ vacation lists during the decade it was open, including local minister Lisa Beam’s.
“It really was ‘all that,’” Lisa said.
According to Lisa’s husband Hal, a friend of Jim Bakker reported that Bakker definitely loved God, he just lost the fear of Him.
“I’ve been telling the Devil, you get away from Jim Bakker.”
Despite Heritage USA’s reported financial success and soaring attendance, the park closed down in shame.
The Bakkers played a happy couple on The PTL Club, but that’s all it was: playing make-believe. News about Jim Bakker’s casual infidelity and possible sexual assault of former-PTL-secretary-now-model-and-actress Jessica Hahn — who was paid over $200,00 in hush money — swamped the headlines and destroyed Jim’s Christian image, as well as Heritage USA’s reputation.
Incarcerated in 1989 for pocketing PTL money, Jim’s public opinion crumbled. However, Tammy Faye’s was only boosted.
Many began to sympathize with her as the wife of a philanderer, and praised her resilience. Known for her singing performances, Tammy Faye was able to continue displaying her own talent — though this time with less recognition as the infamous Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker duo was no more.
Tammy Faye remarried in 1993, the year before Jim Bakker was released from prison, but she died 14 years later in 2007 from cancer. Despite it being over a decade since she was last seen, Tammy Faye is still remembered by many.
For some, it can even be said that she feels like more of a caricature than a person due to her iconic, heavy-handed eyeshadow and lipstick.
“How can people judge her when they have never walked in her shoes?” Beam asked. “I think she felt the need to wear all that makeup to hide what was really going on.”
“Jim and Tammy Faye, don’t you ever set foot down here again.”
After fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell briefly took over the PTL empire in 1987 and MorningStar Ministries bought the property in 2004, memories of Heritage USA have started to fade.
However, some whispers still echo.
The Upper Room, which was designed as a replica of where Jesus hosted the Last Supper, was once the ministry hub of the PTL. It reopened in 2010 with a new name: the Upper Room Chapel. According to the Upper Room Chapel website, it presently serves “to fulfill its original purpose, ‘a place of prayer and worship.’” The Chapel now hosts church services almost every day as well as weddings on Fridays.
The most notable remnants of the former PTL theme park is, of course, the abandoned 21-story hotel, sometimes called “Heritage tower.” Originally intended to house Heritage USA attendees, the haunting PTL artifact never accomplished its goal after the park closed due to both the destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Jim Bakker’s financial and sexual scandals.
Not only are the traces of the Heritage USA property causing problems, but also its original leadership.
Jim Bakker began a new televangelical show in 2003, reminiscently titled The Jim Bakker Show, with his new wife, Lori Bakker. Jim preaches “prophetic” news of the “end times” and uses fear as a business tactic. With the PTL empire in dust, Jim Bakker is trying to expand a new one: Doomsday food.
Doomsday food — or survival food — is now Bakker’s monetary focus. He said on his show that with the second coming of Christ rapidly approaching, “…there could be days that are filled with food and water shortages. Making preparations now is essential for survival.”
Back in Fort Mill, MorningStar Ministries has worked since Aug. 2021 to prospectively open the hotel as an active-adult community center. York County has barred them from doing so on the grounds that the building is not structurally sound and is aesthetically an eye-sore. The most recent meeting between MorningStar and York took place on Mar. 16.
For the last three decades, Fort Mill has been recovering from the aftermath of Heritage USA. As the legality of past PTL property is debated and Jim Bakker still preaches on TV, an eerie case of déjà vu hangs over suburbia.
“I started out by believing God for a newer car than the one I was driving. I started out believing God for a nicer apartment than I had. Then I moved up.”
– Jim Bakker