To Tammy Faye Bakker, it was almost as if her husband had received a sign. "One morning," she was saying, "Jim just got up out of a clear blue sky and said, 'It's time to go home.' "

Home, as far as the Bakkers are concerned, is Fort Mill, S.C., where until 16 months ago they had ruled over the glitziest empire in religious broadcasting—the PTL ("Praise the Lord") ministry, with its TV studios, round-the-clock broadcast schedule and opulent 2,300-acre Heritage USA theme park and resort. Then came the most clamorous fall since Jericho. After confessing that he had paid church secretary (and future Playboy nude pinup) Jessica Hahn $265,000 to keep mum about their 1980 sexual dalliance, Jim resigned as head of PTL, and the Bakkers were forced to flee their kingdom in March 1987. Two months later the Assemblies of God defrocked Bakker amid allegations that he had engaged in homosexual activity and reports that he and his wife had lavishly enriched themselves at the ministry's expense. The Bakkers' exile promised to be as lengthy as their humiliation was deep.

Yet earlier this month, Jim, 48, and Tammy, 46, were back, beaming and as apple-cheeked as ever, hugging throngs of well-wishers and announcing their intention to regain control of their decimated empire. "We belong here," Tammy Faye bubbles outside the storefront headquarters of the Bring Bakkers Back club, about a mile up U.S. Highway 21 from Heritage USA. "Even the air smells right. I feel like giving the whole world a big hug."

Well, maybe not the whole world. "I don't believe any human being in this century has been treated as badly by the media as we have," she says. "I'd be happy if no one ever took my picture again. To me it is like being raped. I'm the opposite of the Cheers song. I wanna go where nobody knows my name."

Such a place is not Fort Mill, where last summer the televangelists' supporters paid for a huge pink billboard that pictured the smiling couple standing alongside the words "Welcome Back Jim & Tammy." The greetings were premature. The Bakkers didn't leave their exile in Palm Desert, Calif., until the end of May, when Jim suddenly decided the time was right. "His sister Donna had just come to stay with us for a month or so," says Tammy, "to help with the mail piling up on the dining room table. And Jamie [the Bakkers' 12-year-old son] still had a week more of school. But to Jim it was like there was an urgency that we had to get here." Bakker had been tracking the fate of his former fiefdom closely. "I've watched every leader who has tried to grab this thing fail," he says. The first was Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority founder to whom Bakker had handed PTL's reins—temporarily, he insists—after he was forced to resign. But Falwell declined to step aside, claiming that Bakker had deceived him about the nature of his encounter with Jessica Hahn and that the Bakkers' "greed" had left the ministry with a monthly operating deficit of $2 million. Under Falwell, PTL filed for bankruptcy in June 1987.

Falwell was replaced by a court-appointed trustee, David Clark, who resigned because his plan to restructure the PTL collapsed. With the church complex facing debts estimated at $130 million or more and the loss of nearly 25 percent of its TV stations, Clark was succeeded by another court-appointed trustee, M.C. "Red" Benton, the former Mayor of Winston-Salem, N.C. Benton prepared to carry out an amended reorganization plan calling for the sale of Heritage USA and other assets to pay off PTL's debts. He would meet with anyone who had an offer, even with Jim Bakker.

"Heritage USA is about to be liquidated, so I can't wait any longer," Bakker says. "I've sought God. I believe I am forgiven. I admit to having made mistakes. But we founded this ministry, and I believe we deserve a chance to save it."

Returning to Fort Mill, Bakker seemed to enjoy causing a stir. On June 1 he walked uninvited into the PTL TV control room and was asked to leave. A week later he appeared at PTL's Camp Meeting USA program and received a standing ovation from the audience. No one outside the studio saw Jim's appearance, however, because PTL officials—suspecting that he might show up—substituted a previously taped episode for the program's usual live telecast. Bakker's comment on the incident: "We've been erased. In Russia you silence people, but that's not supposed to happen here."

By their own account, the Bakkers had been enduring a kind of purgatory. "During the first seven months [after the scandal broke], I not only thought of killing myself, I could think of little else," Bakker says. "It was like being in the crash of an airliner, and you're burnt and you're half dead, but you can't die." Jim insists he and Tammy are victims. "My initials are J.O.B.—the O is for Orson, after Orson Welles—and I began to feel like Job."

Though the couple swears the ordeal has brought their family closer together, the immediate fallout for the children was traumatic. A month after the PTL scandal began, daughter Tammy Sue, then 17, eloped with Doug Chapman, a former lifeguard at Heritage USA. Jamie, who has endured several coast-to-coast moves, recalls getting into a fistfight to defend his father's name.

The Bakkers hope the move to Fort Mill will be their last. They first bunked in an old farmhouse that one of their supporters had converted to a bed and breakfast—a far cry from the five-level lakeside home they occupied in their heyday. Tammy Faye found the mattress so uncomfortable she slept on the floor. After one week BBB clubbers signed a $1,000-a-month lease for the Bakkers on a 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom home in River Hills Plantation, about 20 minutes from Heritage USA. "After all that's happened, we surely expected to encounter some nastiness here," Bakker says. "But there hasn't been one negative moment."

Or none that he cared to notice. BBB club headquarters received telephone calls from people who objected to the payment of $1,000 a month in rent. Someone had also hurled white paint against the Bakkers' likenesses on the Welcome Back billboard high above Route 21.

Despite Bakker's assertion that "money is not the problem," the plan that he originally presented to Benton fell short of an actual buyout offer. Instead, Bakker proposed to rent the theme park's Heritage Grand Hotel and dormant Heritage Island water park and to buy time on the PTL satellite network in order to raise money. Now he's lobbying banks to raise the full purchase price. Among Bakker's stiffest competitors is George Shinn, a sports entrepreneur who owns the Charlotte, N.C., expansion team that will enter the NBA next season. Shinn proposes to build an arena for his team at Heritage USA and sell liquor there, a prospect that dismays many PTL faithful. But letting the Bakkers back on the air would present its own problems. "I think that will be extremely difficult until their name is cleared," says Benton, referring to a current federal grand jury investigation of their conduct at PTL.

"The grand jury hasn't got a thing," responds Bakker. "And, of course, Tammy and I know there's nothing. Friends of ours who have gone to the grand jury, they say—"

"They say it's little old ladies' gossip!" interrupts Tammy Faye.

Another obstacle, though, is the lawsuit that former trustee David Clark filed on PTL's behalf, seeking $52 million in damages from the Bakkers and their associates for "gross and willful mismanagement." Then there are the more than 114,000 "Lifetime Partners" to whom the Bakkers offered three nights' and four days' free use of the Heritage USA facilities every year for the rest of their lives in exchange for a $1,000 contribution. Many bought more than one Lifetime Partnership. Now a court-appointed attorney has filed a claim for almost $167 million on the partners' behalf.

None of this dismays the Bakkers' hard-core supporters. "When Jim and Tammy were at Heritage, you could feel a spirit of love and peace," says Jean Wingate, a California retiree who bought five Lifetime Partnerships and is working for the Bakkers' return. "Now it's all gloom and depression, like somebody has died."

If the corpse is Bakker, he's ripe for resurrection. "I've been called every name there is but a child of God," says Jim. "I've been through the greatest humiliation of a lifetime. I've been to death's door. That's taught me a lot about helping other people. I truly believe that when we get back on television, I'm going to save more souls than I've won in my entire life."

—By Eric Levin, with Gail Cameron Wescott in Fort Mill