Billy Graham

Fallen evangelist Jim Bakker and wife pay their respects to Billy Graham in Charlotte

Two former U.S. presidents paid their respects to Billy Graham this week, but few expected to see another longtime Graham admirer show up on Tuesday.

Jim Bakker, whose PTL empire collapsed three decades ago amid sex and financial scandals, was back in Charlotte to honor Graham, who visited him when he was in federal prison.

A tearful Bakker told reporters at the Billy Graham Library that Graham was the greatest preacher since Christ, Observer news partner WBTV reported.

“I had to do something ... had to do something,” Bakker said, according to the station.

Billy Graham’s boyhood home, which is where his body was lying in repose Monday and Tuesday, was on PTL’s Heritage USA property in Fort Mill, S.C., for a time in the 1980s. It was moved to the Billy Graham Library grounds in 2006.

Bakker briefly discussed how Graham visited him in prison, according to Charlotte station WSOC-TV. He declined to answer questions from a WSOC-TV reporter about criticism that his new ministry “is once again taking advantage of people and their money,” the station reported.

These days, Bakker and second wife, Lori, who was with him in Charlotte on Tuesday, co-host “The Jim Bakker Show” from a Christian compound near Branson, Mo. The focus of his TV show is on the coming Apocalypse and on selling the emergency food and survivalist gear Bakker says will keep believers alive during the tribulation that will precede the End Times.

In the 1980s, Bakker interviewed Billy Graham on “Jim and Tammy,” the Christian TV show he co-hosted with then-wife Tammy from PTL.

Graham and his family never gave up on Bakker after he went to federal prison in 1989 on PTL-related fraud charges or after Tammy divorced him in 1992.

Billy Graham and son Franklin both visited him when he was behind bars.

“Probably one of the most important appointments in my life, Billy Graham came into my prison when I was there,” Bakker told WBTV on Tuesday. “He wrapped his arms around me when I was a mess. I was cleaning toilets at that moment and I was at a very low moment in my life. Billy Graham walked in and threw his arms around me and said, ‘Jim, I love you.’”

Then when he was released in 1994, Bakker told Charisma magazine in 2016, the Graham family loaned him a car and a house to stay in for more than three years.

“Do you understand what the Graham family did for me? How they stuck their necks out?” Bakker told Charisma. “So there are real Christians!”

On the first Sunday he was out of prison, Bakker told the magazine, Billy’s wife, Ruth, took him with her to her Presbyterian church in Montreat.

“They represented Jesus Christ to somebody who the world said was fallen and would never preach again,” Bakker told WBTV.

Bakker told Charisma that Franklin Graham even bought him two briefcases in anticipation of Bakker getting back into ministry.

“He saw me coming back,” Bakker told the magazine. “At that time, I still didn’t plan to come back.”

Why did he come to Charlotte?

Bakker’s answer to WBTV: “The whole Graham family loved me and I had to come and say goodbye, but he’s in heaven. We’re gonna walk with him someday.”

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak