The Preacher

Bishop T. D. Jakes wants his flock not only to do good but to do well, and his brand of entrepreneurial spirituality has made him perhaps the most influential black leader in America today

Today Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest-growing religion within the Christian faith, with an estimated 500 million adherents around the globe. The membership is drawn from all races and from all Christian denominations. Among poor blacks worldwide, who may chafe from the legacy of colonial churches brought by white missionaries, Pentecostalism offers a theology that is more emotionally and experientially based and a liturgy that accommodates local rites, rituals, and traditions. Pentecostalism is by definition a grassroots movement, without an encompassing hierarchical structure. (But there are networks of affiliation: Jakes was named a bishop in 1987 by the Board of Bishops of the Greater Emmanuel Pentecostal Churches.) At the Potter’s House, one discovers Baptists and Catholics and Methodists and Episcopalians.

Jakes regards his own conversion, as he explained one morning during a chat in the sanctuary, to have been a matter of providence. It was a Saturday, and Jakes, whom on other occasions I had always seen in an expensive suit, was wearing a windbreaker and jeans and cowboy boots. The previous night he’d come in from Arizona, and the next day he would fly out to Australia. Jakes stretched out his legs and seemed completely at ease.

“At the time I moved from the Baptist Church to the Pentecostal Church I was about sixteen years old,” Jakes said. “My father had died, something was missing out of my life, and I was not fulfilled in my spirituality where I was.

“The reason why I say it was destiny is because it was during this time that the charismatic Pentecostal movement was exploding in this country. And with that explosion came a multicultural interdenominational ideology. The megachurch is a place where Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals intersect. And had I stayed in a mainline denomination, I would have missed that intersection. For the role that I was supposed to play globally, I couldn’t be owned by a particular denomination, or be narrow in my perspectives or focus.”

That may seem to some like a grandiose interpretation; it calls to mind the observation that the message of Jesus succeeded because it coincided with the fruitful conditions created by the Roman Empire. But there is a large element of simple truth in Jakes’s assessment.

The youngest of three children, Thomas Dexter Jakes was born in 1957 to working-class parents in South Charleston, West Virginia. His father, Ernest L. Jakes Sr., a native of Mississippi, owned a janitorial business. His mother, Odith, who studied with Coretta Scott King at Lincoln High School, in Alabama, was a schoolteacher. Odith would help her children get to know the works of African-American poets and writers like Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, and she raised them to take seriously the prospect of the Kingdom of God.

In 1973, after years of suffering, Ernest Jakes succumbed to a kidney ailment. T.D., a teenager, and for years the only child at home to tend his father, was distraught. He dropped out of high school his senior year to care for his ailing mother, earned a GED, then enrolled at West Virginia State only to drop out after a year or so. He went to work as a processor of oxygen and acetylene at a chemical plant in Charleston, owned by Union Carbide, a job that he assumed would give him the kind of middle-class life that so many of his parents’ friends had achieved. But this way of life, which had sustained so many northern black Americans since the end of World War II, was coming to an end, as manufacturing jobs in what was already being called the Rust Belt began to disappear.

Jakes did not see that change coming. But even as he worked his day job he began exploring another path. His religious impulses had never atrophied; indeed, he had begun to preach at nineteen. He did not need reminding that there was more to life than Union Carbide, and he possessed an innate confidence—derived from having had to care for and serve as an advocate for his father—in his ability to talk to older people about things that matter. In 1980 Jakes opened his first storefront church, called the Greater Emmanuel Temple of Faith, in Montgomery, West Virginia, about thirty miles southeast of the state capital, Charleston. At his first service, he spoke to an audience of literally ten, swelled by the presence of his sister and mother. As a Pentecostal minister he did not need a divinity degree, simply a license from the state’s Pentecostal Association. He donned long robes when he preached, and he wrapped a towel around his neck to absorb the perspiration.

It didn’t take long for Jakes to be noticed; because of his distinctive and fluent sermons, word of mouth began drawing the multitudes. The head of the Pentecostal Association invited him to travel and speak throughout West Virginia, and Jakes honed his message about how to overcome self-loathing and self-doubt. He attracted large crowds—and the attention of Serita Ann Jamison, the daughter of a coal miner who lived in Alpoca, in the northeast part of the state. Before long Jakes was a husband and the father of twins (the couple now have five children, the youngest of whom is eleven). Then, in 1982, Union Carbide sold one of its Charleston plants, and Jakes was out of work.

“We lost everything,” Jakes recalls. “And it was a real fight to get back up. I’m glad it happened, from the standpoint that I can relate to extremely poor people. I was literally cutting grass and digging ditches, trying to get diapers for my kids. So when I go into a home of somebody who doesn’t have lights on, I’ve been there. I know what it is to get government milk.”

Jakes’s sudden financial fall would become a moment of intellectual and religious definition. In practical terms, it also made him realize that he had better start getting more creative about his livelihood and diversifying his income. The ministry would now become, and remain, Jakes’s main focus, but he was open as well to business opportunities of various kinds. He did not want to be living off the contributions of his congregation, most of whom were just scraping by.

Our culture expects preachers to be poor, or at least to be of no more than modest means. Scripture itself gives sanction to this idea. And Jakes might have remained that kind of preacher had it not been for a particular Sunday-school class he taught in 1991. Jakes had become increasingly concerned about the issues so many women faced: the drugs, the unreliable husbands, the sexual abuse, the overt misogyny. So on that fateful Sunday he decided to hold a special service to speak just to women. The service—in which he acknowledged and confronted the victimization of women, but also held out a vision of empowerment and personal resurrection—left a deep impression, and word of it spread. Soon women were coming from hundreds of miles away, and Jakes himself was invited to travel long distances—to Kansas, to Oklahoma, to Georgia—and bring his famous sermon with him. Speaking at a televised revival in Oklahoma, Jakes caught the eye of Paul Crouch, the head of the far-flung Trinity Broadcast Network, a Christian organization, and within a year Jakes began appearing regularly on television.

Commercially, though, the real breakthrough came in 1993, when Jakes used the family savings—some $15,000—to publish a book called Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which put into print everything he’d been preaching about. The book combined quotations from Scripture (the title itself comes from a passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus brings the balm of relief to a troubled woman) and large amounts of practical advice. Jakes describes God as “the perfect husband” who “wants to make sweet love to you,” adding: “I’m not being carnal. I’m being real.” The self-published book, which initially sold for $10, went through printing after printing, and eventually sold more than 2 million copies, giving Jakes and his family a measure of financial independence. So fundamental is Woman, Thou Art Loosed  to the Jakes ministry that everyone in his circle now simply uses the shorthand “WTAL.”

Presented by

Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent. His last piece, on Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, appeared in the September issue.

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