In the 25 years since, life has changed considerably for the small-town preacher with a big dream. He's known to the world now as Bishop T.D. Jakes. He's no longer bi-vocational by necessity - he's multi-vocational by choice.
The pastor of the 30,000-member Potter's House, a nondenominational Pentecostal church in southwest Dallas, is a multimillionaire who heads an evangelical media empire.
The 47-year-old self-described "hillbilly" is a Grammy-winning gospel artist with his own label, an author with more than 8 million books sold, a speaker in demand in the religious and secular worlds. Time magazine in 2001 put him on the cover and asked, "Is This Man the Next Billy Graham?"
President Bush has called him a "social entrepreneur." One of his nonprofit groups is developing a 231-acre, master-planned community near his church. His Mega Fest conference in Atlanta this summer drew about 150,000.
And, now, he adds movie producer and actor to his resume.
"Woman, Thou Art Loosed," which opens Friday, is a story of redemption through a young woman shattered by having been sexually abused as a child. Bishop Jakes plays himself in the film, which was financed with his own money and that of investors including Gary Sheffield, Cedric the Entertainer and lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
He's never liked being limited by the title "preacher.""I want the freedom to be everything I am," Bishop Jakes said recently, as he sat in the sanctuary, where he says he feels most alive.
His increased visibility and growing empire, though, have brought criticism. Critics find fault with his lavish lifestyle, which is vastly different from Graham's. Others take him to task for not preaching enough about social justice in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and others.
Though he exudes confidence while preaching, even masking a lisp that's otherwise obvious, he's shy and soft-spoken in person. The criticism hurts, Bishop Jakes admitted. But he knows that the criticism and the comparisons come with the territory.
"Everybody paints me as someone else," he said. "But I don't think God duplicates any individual."
Though the life of Thomas Dexter Jakes has changed dramatically since arriving in Dallas eight years ago, those who've known him longest say his passion for preaching and helping people hasn't changed. "At the core of him, the essence - to use a phrase he coined, the is-ness of a person--has not changed," said Lawrence Robinson, an associate pastor at the Potter's House and a friend for 30 years.
Bishop Jakes took on a care-giving role early, tending to his father in his dying years. Ernest Jakes, as big and gregarious a man as his son, died of kidney disease when Tommy was 15. Two years later, Tommy felt called to the ministry. He practiced by preaching to squirrels near his home in South Charleston, W.Va.
He said his love for words came from his mother, Odith Jakes, who died five years ago. A teacher and an orator, she often took him to speaking engagements.
Once, he told her: "Right now, they call me Mrs. Jakes' son. But the time will come when you'll come hear me speak, and they'll call you Tom Jakes' mother." He was 8. And he was right.
He met his wife, the former Serita Ann Jamison, while preaching at her church in Alpoca, W.Va. She'd written him a few encouraging notes, and her pastor's wife introduced the two. "He asked, `Do you know where a single gentleman can get a home-cooked meal?' I couldn't cook, so I said I would ask my mother," Mrs. Jakes said.
They married within a year. He continued working several jobs, struggling to lead a 10-member storefront church in Montgomery, W.Va. "When I came into the church, he'd play piano and sing and then go up and preach," said Derick Faison, who began attending as a teen and now is an associate pastor at the Potter's House.
The preacher with the powerful baritone and white-hot fervor burst onto the evangelical scene in 1993 with a weekly television broadcast on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a Bible study and book for women - "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" (The name comes from words Jesus spoke in the Gospel of Luke to a woman as he healed her.) The Bible study begat a cottage industry within the Jakes empire. The new movie is based on his 1993 book of the same name, which has also been a stage play and a soon-to-be-released novel.
Bishop Jakes moved his ministry to Dallas three years later. He continued reaching the masses with topics that most ministers wouldn't touch, such as sexual abuse and drug use. Within months, the Potter's House became one of the fastest-growing churches in the country, requiring a new 8,200-seat sanctuary.