Televangelists Who Lost All Their Money

Whether you're religious or not, you should be aware: there are few things as disruptive, despicable, and destructive as televangelists. A cross between preacher and pop star, televangelists spend their time building up faith and selling miracles. For the televangelist, God's grace is directly proportional to the amount of money you're willing to spend. And they want you to spend, spend, spend.

But while their followers are scrimping and saving for the next bottle of snake oil, televangelists are living large. They're asking their followers to pay for $54 million private jets despite having net worths in the tens of millions, according to ETI. Televangelists today sell miracle water just as the churches of yesterday sold indulgences, often targeting those who are already experiencing financial woes.

Jesus once said that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven. Money is temptation. Sometimes that temptation grows so great that it backfires. Just as there are many televangelists who have scammed the masses, there are also many televangelists who have lost everything. There are televangelists who pushed their scams too far and got caught — or lived too big and ended up under a pile of debt. But as we'll see, they usually don't lose "all their money" for long.

Jim Bakker has been cut off by his credit card company

You may be familiar with the name Jim Bakker, and not for any positive reasons. As History notes, Jim Bakker has had his share of issues. In the 1980s, he was indicted for fraud. He was given a 45-year sentence and a $500,000 fine. Still, like cockroaches, a conman will always be back. By 2003, he had returned to the televised stage with the Jim Bakker Show, explains the Charlotte Observer.

Then in early 2020 Bakker started selling colloidal silver supplements that he claimed would cure coronavirus. While you can do a lot in the name of the Lord, you can't sell fake medical supplements. First his credit card processing for the supplements was cut off ... so he just asked his followers to start sending checks. And that's when the state of Missouri filed suit against Jim Bakker for selling the "Silver Solution" as a ward against COVID-19. Needless to say, the Silver Solution did not work and, according to the NIH, could even be dangerous to one's health.

The ultimate outcome of the multiple suits against Bakker has not been decided as of 2021 (and, in the interim, he received disaster relief funding from the government), but he has lost everything before; perhaps he will lose it all again.

Pentecostal preacher Peter Popoff plugged Poland Spring

When people think about televangelist scams, they often think about Peter Popoff. Peter Popoff was a seller of "miracle water" — regular water that was purported to have mystical, miraculous properties. Popoff is the type of televangelist who would read dramatic stories of followers pouring their water on their shoes and being able to walk again. And it worked. People bought the water.

But any scam only works for so long. While it seems like something like "miracle water" doesn't really have to be debunked, debunked it was — by no one less than James Randi, according to Truth in Advertising. After being revealed as a charlatan, Popoff was forced to declare bankruptcy. At the time, he listed almost 800 creditors.

But though the German-born televangelist lost his money and power back then, he eventually got it back — as they unfortunately often do. His net worth has since reestablished itself at $10 million and, according to Business Insider, he continues to shill the same scams. It's not impossible that the entire cycle will repeat itself again.

Ron Luce targeted troubled teens with the Teen Mania International

Both debt and legal problems hounded Ron Luce, a teen-focused televangelist, whose ministry concentrated on large-scale productions aimed at troubled teens. Those who aren't "in the know" about the ministry field might not know that Teen Mania International was in operation for 30 years, putting on "high tech and high impact" seminars. 

But even the best of intentions can't outpace poor money management skills. As a non-profit organization, Teen Mania's finances can be seen online — losing money in most recent years until finally shutting down. Insiders stated that the cause seemed to be mismanagement and a reluctance to seek help. Eventually, a warrant was put out for Ron Luce's arrest due to his failure to appear in court — and Teen Mania International shuttered its doors.

As for Ron Luce, as with most televangelists, he's moved on to a new company — identical to the old company. Luce is now operating with Generation Next, another spectacle-based attempt at reaching out to youth. It's unclear what will be different about the management at Generation Next, but Luce still has a pretty clear (and dubious) claim to fame — at one point, Teen Mania was one of the country's most insolvent charities, according to Christianity Today.

Robert J. Freeman was sentenced to 27 months in prison

The pastor and televangelist Dr. Shine was known for his luxurious lifestyle, declaring bankruptcy in 2005 per The Bay Net. Dr. Shine had to pay back more than $630,000 to four church members, after he was found to be living off the assets of the church. But that's not all: he was jailed for deception during his bankruptcy proceedings. So who, exactly, was "Dr. Shine"?

Dr. Shine, real name Robert J. Freeman, was accused of affinity fraud. This is a type of fraud during which the conman targets those who are within the same community as them, such as a church group. Freeman referred to himself as "God's Top Gun of Deliverance" and built trust with his victims. According to AFRO, Freeman and his wife were $1.3 million in debt by 2005, with extravagant expenses such as $87,000 in private jet leasing.

But most people don't go to jail during bankruptcy. Freeman was purchasing goods under the names of other churchgoers as a way of hiding his assets — assets that included a $1.75 million dollar residence. That was a crime that could have gotten him up to 20 years in prison or a $250,000 fine.

Televangelist Leroy Jenkins was indicted for tax evasion

Leroy Jenkins is another stunning example of how televangelists just won't go away. Back in 1993, he was accused of tax evasion — though he was ultimately acquitted and shredded all the related documents. This was after a 1979 conviction for conspiracy to burn down people's homes, reported on by Columbus Monthly. In fact, Jenkins' entire history is a story of cash grabs and misfires.

In 2001, Jenkins married a 77-year-old member of his church... who had just won the lottery. But the wedding was annulled. It would be just two years later that Jenkins would be accused of selling contaminated "miracle water." He was pumping and bottling it directly from a well on his property and it was found to include coliform bacteria. Not the miracle that most people were hoping for.

His church was condemned and destroyed in 2014. At his height, he turned away 10,000 at Madison Square Garden — after his death in 2017, he now remains slightly less well-known than the meme of the same name.

Megachurch televangelist Robert Schuller filed for bankruptcy

Robert Schuller preached in the "Crystal Cathedral, which was neither made of crystal or a cathedral, and hosted a weekly TV show, The House of Power. That power was the "power of positive thinking," which nevertheless did not extend to the "power of responsible finance." But in terms of charlatanry, Schuller wasn't so bad; he was more a self-help peddler than a snake oil salesman. For the most part, there weren't any major scandals for his ministry, it just didn't manage its money right.

About a decade ago, Robert Schuller's church was forced to initiate bankruptcy proceedings after creditors sued for repayment — and the Crystal Cathedral had to sell off some of its property to pay off its debts, such as its mortgage. Schuller himself pleaded with his congregation to send money in, reported by ABC News. The economic woes were blamed primarily on the recession. The church was known for its pageantry and big productions, which were ultimately expensive. By 2010, the church owed $7.5 million to creditors, in addition to a nearly $40 million mortgage.

According to the New York Times, the Schuller family decided to cut ties with the church by 2012. By then, Schuller himself had been succeeded by his family in terms of duties. Following his death, his residence in Orange County was listed for sale — at $1.749 million according to Fortune.

Marvin Gorman was accused of infidelity, stripped of his cloth, and bankrupted

Apparently, the world of televangelism isn't always big enough for everyone. Back in the 1980s, televangelists Jimmy Swaggart (pictured) and Marvin Gorman ended up embroiled in a dramatic rivalry. Swaggart ended up winning the battle — but not the war.

Swaggart was the more popular televangelist, so when he accused Gorman of infidelity it was taken seriously. Gorman was stripped of his cloth and bankrupted, per the LA Times. But according to Gorman it was all lies. He ultimately accused Swaggart of defamation, receiving a $6.6 million award that was eventually reduced to $1.85 million. Jimmy Swaggart also lost everything (for a brief three years).

Did Gorman actually commit infidelity? Accounts are mixed. There were witnesses that stated that Gorman had acted inappropriately with them, as reported in Tulsa World — and the accusation of defamation was not settled in court, but rather out of it. Either way, Gorman's congregation never recovered from the blow dealt by Swaggart, or the rumors about his reputation that persisted afterward.

Dr. Paula White, Trump's 'spiritual advisor,' may be faking her doctoral degree

Following Donald Trump's inauguration, publications such as Slate highlighted Paula White's lack of credentials — notably, that she calls herself a doctor without an actual degree, and that in 2014, she lost everything when her first church went bankrupt, with $29 million in loans (despite living in a $2.2 million mansion). But perhaps she wasn't such a strange pick: Trump's businesses have declared bankruptcy multiple times.

But that's not all that's bizarre about Paula White. In early 2020, according to The Guardian, she was broadcast on video commanding "satanic pregnancies" to "miscarry." (She later claimed this was taken out of context.) White believed that she had been appointed as Trump's adviser on assignment from God, believed financial prosperity was part of God's approval, and had faced allegations of misusing church funds before. In fact, Paula White's church took in from $150,000 to $350,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program. Many churches and televangelists did.

White was one of six televangelists investigated for misappropriation of White House funds. Some accused White of opportunism, due to her requests for "seed" money for Trump's Faith and Opportunity Initiative — and the running of online coronavirus prayer sessions, which claimed that she operated a hospital for the sick. And while she's only "lost everything" once, PPP inquiries and fraud investigations continue.

Televangelist Juanita Bynum was arrested for $125,000 worth of debts

Juanita Bynum has been described in the New York Times as "the most prominent black female television evangelist." In 2008, Bynum publicly ended her marriage to her husband following an instance of domestic violence. At the time, they were already separated — and following the altercation, Bynum became the "new face of domestic violence."

In 2013, Juanita Bynum was arrested regarding a 2007 court order, which alleged that Bynum owed ALW Entertainment $125,000 for show dates she never attended. During the arrest, she was already in the process of declaring bankruptcy, with bankruptcy proceedings which enumerated $5 million in debt — impressive due to her bank receipts of $8 million annually. Following her arrest, Bynum stated that it had been due to miscommunication and fraud — and that, as far as she was aware, the debt situation with ALW Entertainment had already been resolved, according to the Christian Post

Most recently, Bynum was in the news for canceling an engagement after a pastor entered her room and saw her underwear laid out on her bed; the pastor's defense was that he was simply leaving something in her room for her. But Bynum wasn't buying it, and it was added to the list of engagements she had canceled.

Richard Roberts used Oral Roberts University as an 'ATM'

The famous Christian institution Oral Roberts University was founded by one of the most famous televangelists in the world — the titular Oral Roberts — who was succeeded by his son, Richard Roberts. In 2007, Oral Roberts University, was found to be over $50 million in debt, in part to the IRS

While Richard Roberts claimed the issues couldn't have been foreseen, Tulsa World reported that he did resign as president of the university. He was accused of embezzling funds from the school for purposes such as home remodeling — as well as misappropriation of assets such as the university jet. His wife, Lindsey, was further accused of spending nearly $40,000 of the school's money on clothes, in addition to an $800 monthly cellphone bill. It wouldn't take too long for the university to resolve its debt; the university itself announced that it had resolved all long-term debts as of 2009, an impressive feat. This included nearly $20 million in cash and pledges, reported by NBC News.

That wasn't the last time he hit the news — in 2012, Richard Roberts was arrested for speeding and a DUI.

Kent Hovind got in trouble for declaring bankruptcy under false pretenses

Known chiefly for his videos (and backyard exhibit) about the "lies" surrounding dinosaurs, Kent Hovind offered $250,000 to anyone who could give him "empirical evidence" of evolution. The fact that no one was ever able to claim this money is probably at least in part that the money likely never existed.

Ultimately, he found himself in hot water for declaring bankruptcy under false pretenses. Then he attempted to sue the United States government for half a billion dollars, according to Forbes. He further claimed he was not a citizen of the United States (he was) that he did not earn income (he did), and that he should not be subject to paying taxes for God's work (he is). By 2006, the National Center for Science Education reported that Hovind had racked up an impressive 58 federal charges. He had been fighting with the IRS for the better part of two decades, but maintained that he did not understand what he did wrong.

Then again, it isn't wholly surprising that someone who doesn't believe in evolution would also not believe in taxes.

Televangelist Tony Alamo was convicted of tax evasion and much worse

Part of the problem of being a televangelist is the massive amount of power that you have over the lives of other people. Tony Alamo, along with his wife Susan, ran a cult — now immortalized in the documentary Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony AlamoBy some accounts, it was driven by Alamo's unbridled hubris: he felt as though he could do anything.

But this eventually caught up with them. In 1994, a jury convicted him of tax evasion, according to the NY Times. He had understated his income in 1985 and failed to file at all from 1986 to 1988. Later, he would go on to marry eight of his followers — including children as young as 15. This is what would eventually (and rightfully) undo him.

Later, Alamo was later ordered by a judge to pay restitution of $500,000 to each of his sexual assault victims. He was convicted in 2009 for taking underaged girls across state lines for sex. As reported by Time Magazine, he ultimately died in prison in 2017 at the age of 82.