The Prosperity Gospel in America
Summary and Keywords
“Prosperity gospel” is a term used mostly by critics to describe a theology and movement based on the belief that God wants to reward believers with health and wealth. The prosperity gospel, known alternatively as the Word of Faith or Health and Wealth gospel, maintains a distinctive view of how faith operates. Built on the theology of Essek William Kenyon, an early 20th-century radio evangelist, faith came to be seen as a spiritual law that guaranteed that believers who spoke positive truths aloud would lay claim to the divine blessings of health and happiness. Kenyon had absorbed a metaphysical vision of the power of the mind that had been developed by the New Thought movement and popularized in the burgeoning genre of self-help. Kenyon’s theology of faith-filled words was spread through healing revivalists in the young Pentecostal movement—most famously F. F. Bosworth—as one of many tools for achieving divine healing. Other variations of New Thought–inflected Christianity appeared in self-help prophets of the 1920s and 1930s, like Father Divine’s (1877/82?–1965) Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace’s (1881–1960) United House of Prayer.
In the 1940s and 1950s, many Pentecostal pastors left their denominations and stirred up healing revivals across North America. Many of the most famous healing evangelists—Oral Roberts, William Branham, T. L. Osborn, A. A. Allen, Gordon Lindsay, and others—were influenced by Bosworth’s teachings on the law of faith (borrowed, of course, from Kenyon) to explain why some people were healed in their nightly revivals and others were not. Positive words, prayed aloud, possessed the power to make blessings materialize. By the early 1950s, they began to preach that wealth was also a divine right. New theological terms like “seed faith,” coined by Oral Roberts, sprang up to explain how gifts to the church were guaranteed to be returned to the believer with an added bonus. By the 1960s, the healing revivals had dried up, but the prosperity gospel continued to grow in the charismatic revivals washing through Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. In the charismatic movement, the prosperity gained middle-class audiences, greater respectability, and wider audiences beyond the Pentecostal nest. During this time, many prosperity-preaching evangelists began to build churches, educational centers, and radio and television ministries to spread their message. The airwaves were soon dominated by celebrity prosperity preachers like Rex Humbard, Robert Schuller, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and others. In the late 1980s, the movement faced a major crisis when several famous televangelists were accused of financial and sexual misconduct. However, new celebrities arose to replace them with a gentler message and a more professional image. The message was always a variation on the same theme: God wants to bless you. Stars like Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, or Joyce Meyer promised Christians the power to claim financial and physical well-being through right thought and speech. Though planted in Pentecostalism, the 21st-century prosperity movement attracted believers from diverse ethnic, denominational, racial, and economic backgrounds.
The prosperity gospel is the belief that God rewards those with right thinking with health, wealth, and whole-life abundance. It goes by many names, known alternatively as the faith, health and wealth, Word of Faith, or “Name It and Claim It” gospel. It is a metaphysically inflected Christian theology recognizable by four common themes: faith, health, wealth, and victory.1 Faith, in this account, is a spiritual power that makes health, wealth, and victory over all obstacles possible for every believer who speaks and prays positive words aloud. It is often mistaken for simple optimism or its close theological cousin “positive thinking,” which shares its foundational belief in the power of the mind over matter. The prosperity gospel’s philosophical and religious heritage is often difficult for people to identify because its theology and practice are characteristically synthetic, mixing the categories of religion, psychology, medicine, and self-help. Its prophets are not typically theologians or intellectuals, but popularizers and religious entrepreneurs.2
The origins of the prosperity gospel lie in the late 19th century at a time when Americans began to be convinced of the powers of the mind. Emmanuel Swedenborg’s (1688–1772) Neoplatonic theory of correspondence, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1803–1882) philosophical idealism, and Theosophy’s search for spiritual laws laid the foundation. But it was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866), a watchmaker and inventor, who significantly advanced the cause of mind power. Quimby’s attempts to cure his own tuberculosis led him to conclude that his pain was often contingent on his mental state. He began to learn the art of mesmerism, a hybrid of healing practices and metaphysical thought based on Franz Antoine Mesmer’s (1733–1815) discovery of hypnosis. As his work began to flourish and his mesmerism became a rather successful career in the healing arts, he stumbled into insights about the subconscious mind, including the effectiveness of placebos and a “talking cure,” a forerunner of modern psychotherapy. Quimby concluded that the human subconscious shared in the divine powers of God and could be aligned to promote health, an idea that had a profound effect on American religious thinkers such as Mary Baker Eddy of Christian Science and its offspring, New Thought.
By the 1880s an amalgamation of notions about the power of the mind and the effect of thinking positively became known as New Thought, a type of metaphysics with a Christian framework.3 Its authors asserted a fundamental unity of the human and divine. What was needed for humankind was not a salvation from above but the development of personal potential. Moreover, true reality was thought, not substance; the material world was only a projection of the mind. This being so, New Thought argued, the world and the body could be shaped by thinking. Positive results came from positive thought; negative results came from negative thought.4
These beliefs found wide acceptance in popular culture, spread in magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Success Magazine, and Woman’s Home Companion, as well as dramatic productions and, especially, books of advice. A new genre of success literature, blending metaphysics with psychology, commerce and self-help, brought New Thought into millions of homes. Frank Haddock’s The Power of the Will (1907) and William Walker Atkinson’s The Secret of Success (1908) and The Secret of Mental Magic (1912) taught the power of the mind, but none was more influential than Dale Carnegie (1888–1955). Beginning as an itinerant public speaker, Carnegie developed a media empire in radio, print media, and his “Dale Carnegie Course,” where he preached the relationship between thought and the acquisition of wealth and success. His best-selling How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) sold tens of millions of copies. Elements of New Thought crossed into new (often Pentecostal-flavored) African American movements such as Father Divine’s (1877/82?–1965) Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace’s (1881–1960) United House of Prayer.5 These self-help prophets introduced metaphysical Christianity to far-flung African American audiences and established a precedent inside Pentecostalism of preaching divine access to both health and wealth. The potential of mind power found a comfortable niche among those in need as well as those already confident in their own strength and promise, unsurprised to learn that within each one lay God-given powers waiting to be unlocked.
At the turn of the 20th century, New Thought’s overtly sectarian character softened into palatable generalities, and ideas about mind power trickled into other Christian traditions, including Pentecostalism. On the surface, Pentecostalism and New Thought shared little in common. But, particularly in its early days, both traditions were preoccupied with the same question that had piqued Phineas Quimby: why do some people get well and others do not? A minority tradition inside Pentecostalism adopted and adapted New Thought conclusions: believers must speak positive words aloud to restore their bodies and their souls.
A little-known pastor and radio evangelist named Essek William Kenyon paved the way. Kenyon held various Methodist and Baptist pastorates and, in 1900, founded Bethel Bible Institute in Spencer, Massachusetts, modeled after the faith-cure movement’s healing centers. Kenyon traveled a great deal as an evangelist before eventually settling in Washington state, where he founded his ministry, which included New Covenant Baptist Church, a radio program called Kenyon’s Church of the Air, and his publication Herald of Faith.
Though E. W. Kenyon was not a Pentecostal, his friendships with some of the most important Pentecostal leaders of the day—William Durham, Aimee Semple McPherson, John G. Lake, and F. F. Bosworth—had a significant impact on the incipient movement. His writings, particularly on faith, would lay much of the theological foundation for Pentecostalism’s understanding of mind power. Kenyon believed New Thought to be a counterfeit faith, but he shared their focus on mind, spirit, and a cluster of universal laws that govern the Christian life.
Kenyon understood Jesus’ death on the cross to have underwritten a series of spiritual and legal transactions. In language similar to New Thought, God was a spirit who created a spiritual universe. The physical world was merely a material reflection of this spiritual universe. So too humans were primarily spirit.6 In the Fall, Satan acquired legal authority over all humankind and plagued the earth with sickness, poverty, and death. Humans, their senses dulled, could not see beyond the material and into the spiritual realm where God’s storehouse of blessing awaited. Jesus’ death and resurrection broke Satan’s legal powers and gave believers both restored spiritual senses and their rightful legal dominion over the earth.
Kenyon’s account of human capabilities bordered on deification. He marveled that believers were like spiritual “supermen” with incredible powers.7 But only if Christians first learned the inner workings of faith. Deeply influenced by the late 19th-century divine-healing movement, particularly the Keswick Higher Life tradition and the faith-cure movement, Kenyon explored the connection among belief, mind, and the body. Healers should encourage patients to pray the “prayer of faith,” holding God to his guarantee of health for all who believe, and that that faith must be put into action.8 Sick people were encouraged to get up and serve God in contradiction to their pain, believing that spiritual momentum would take over and restore them to health. Kenyon took this a step further, believing that faith was “confident assurance based on absolute knowledge that everything is already provided through the operation of certain immutable laws.”9
The most important law pertained to the spoken word. Kenyon shared the common New Thought premise that God’s “Creative Word” brought the world into being. As God declared “Let there be . . .,” the power of the spoken word acted as an invisible force that created matter and laid the foundations of the earth.10 Words became powerful weapons. Kenyon urged believers to use spoken words, called positive confessions, to tap into God’s own creative power to change their circumstances.
Kenyon’s legacy lived on in other famous healers. Fred F. Bosworth, healing evangelist and radio pioneer, borrowed elements of Kenyon’s ideas to form one of Pentecostalism’s most influential healing theologies. In the 1920s, Bosworth spread his message through American and Canadian revivals and his successful radio program, National Radio Revival Missionary Crusaders. He penned the best-selling Christ the Healer, which popularized the view that right-speaking Christians can be healed. They must “act faith, speak faith, and to think faith” even though “every sense” may feel unwell. Bosworth was so deeply influenced by Kenyon’s understanding of positive confession that he included a chapter of Kenyon’s work in his own book. Though Bosworth never preached about prosperity, his message that right-speaking believers could change their circumstances would soon become an important pillar of a new healing revival on the horizon.
In the years after World War II, hundreds of Pentecostal preachers left their denominations and set out on their own, erecting temporary tent churches in towns and cities across North America with a call to return to the Pentecostal movement’s emphasis on supernatural signs and wonders. The most successful ministers of the era, pioneers like Oral Roberts, William Branham, Gordon Lindsay, and A. A. Allen were bold and wildly charismatic, stirring revival with talk of healing, deliverance, prophecy, and financial prosperity. They spoke of endless miracles—the paralytic walking, the blind seeing—as nightly events. These ministers were loved for their orchestration of nightly experiences of the divine.
Ideas about mind power weaved in and out of the Pentecostal healing revival. Faith was a spiritual power that could heal, deliver, prosper, and unleash God’s will simply by speaking true words aloud. Publishing and republishing E. W. Kenyon or F. F. Bosworth’s words beside their own, most midcentury revivalists proclaimed that faith wielded the authority to confess and possess. They believed, like Kenyon, that listeners must “rise above your confession” and speak positive words.11 Anything less guaranteed that Satan would steal their health and happiness. Instead, as evangelist A. A. Allen advised, they must put their faith into action: “ACT YOUR FAITH . . . Leave your wheel chair. Throw away your crutches. Walk and run! Leap for joy! . . . Quit ‘trying to believe.’ Simply believe, and ACT.”12
The revival’s heady supernatural expectations produced some ministers who thrived on incredulity. A. A. Allen famously claimed unusual miracles such as oil or sometimes cross-shaped blood appearing on believers’ foreheads heads, or photographs of demonic forces. Franklin Hall controversially penned manuals promising “atomic power” and even refused to wash his own suit as evidence that God’s “Bodyfelt Salvation” warded off emotional distress as well as body odor.13 Both Allen and Franklin famously claimed the power to raise the dead. Allen would eventually abandon this teaching when too many followers sent the bodies of their loved ones to his Miracle Valley headquarters in Arizona.
With magazines called Healing Waters (Oral Roberts), Voice of Healing (Gordon Lindsay), or Herald of Healing (Jack Coe), it was clear that they were healers at heart. But because their nightly revivals were predicated on people seeing God’s power with their own eyes, many evangelists were keen to find a spiritual formula that guaranteed results. Though they counseled every possible method for healing, from anointing oil to laying on of hands to prayer cloths, a belief in positive words was fast becoming a preferred practice. In the early years of the revival, most evangelists applied this understanding of spoken faith to healing (with some detours into promises of youth and long life). Healing evangelist Velmer Gardner spoke for his generation when he explained that faith was “the switch in our hand to turn on all the omnipotent power of our Lord.”14 But how, precisely, did God turn faith into power?
A young minister named Kenneth E. Hagin became one of the most popular systematizers for the workings of faith (and for this he is often mistaken as the founder of prosperity theology). Hagin, an Assemblies of God preacher from Texas, had experienced a dramatic healing from heart trouble as a child and deeply believed in the law of faith as the means of his healing. Hagin’s law of faith had two meanings: legal and scientific. He began with E. W. Kenyon’s teaching that “Christianity is a legal document” that afforded Christians the “rights and privileges” of salvation, health, happiness, and victory over all circumstances. Conversely, those who were sick, poor, or miserable fell to live “beneath their privileges.”15 Hagin also believed that the law of faith acted as a universal agent, a power like gravity or electricity that was an invisible operator of cause and effect. Though Hagin did not pioneer these ideas, his simpler, almost automated, law of faith invoked a Newtonian paradigm that eventually became his hallmark and, in the late 1960s, the foundation of what many have called the “Word of Faith” movement.
The rough contours of the earliest prosperity gospels (that is to say, the use of faith for health and wealth) took shape in the early 1950s. More and more evangelists began to speak of financial miracles. They seamlessly combined that faith for healing with faith for finances, urging people to obey additional spiritual laws like the law of the tithe. A. A. Allen was famous for stories of miracle wallets that multiplied the dollars inside and believers who gave to his ministry who received supernatural compensation. Evangelists seemed to spur each other on with guarantees of hundredfold returns and special scriptures that unlocked giving and getting.
The Tulsa evangelist Granville Oral Roberts proved to be a major architect of the prosperity gospel both theologically and institutionally. In 1947, Roberts believed he had discovered the biblical imperative to prosper in 3 John 2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health even as thy soul prospereth.” Roberts’s catchphrases summed up his triumphant theology: “God is Greater,” “Turn even Your Faith Loose,” “Something Good is Going to Happen to You,” and “Except a Miracle!” He coined the term “seed faith,” one of the most significant theological terms in prosperity theology for its account of precisely how money given to the church would be returned.16 The seed (money) is sown into the ground (a godly ministry). At first, it may seem like nothing is happening, but it is waiting for its season to grow in abundance (returned and multiplied money). This agriculture metaphor both explains periods of waiting and want, and is purposefully vague about how seed and money are multiplied. It was easy to believe that Oral Roberts knew what he was talking about, for he seemed to have the Midas touch. He successfully launched a radio program, crusades, a magazine, numerous books, and (later) a vast television ministry as well as the nation’s first charismatic university, Oral Roberts University. He was the living embodiment, at times, of his own theology.
The newly established Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International promoted the prosperity gospel as a witness to modern Pentecostal faith. Founded in 1952, the organization spread rapidly as an association of spirit-filled businessmen who gathered in local chapters across the country. It became not only a sanctified alternative to men’s organizations like the Rotary Club, but a stately revival that brought many of the healing evangelists to the platform. Its founder Demos Shakarian rallied his members to “make God his Partner [who] assures him success,” and encouraged Pentecostal businessmen to be models of godly finance.17 The budding prosperity gospels of ministers like Oral Roberts, John Osteen (father of Joel Osteen), Gordon Lindsay, and Kenneth Hagin found a welcome home among those learning to invest spiritual meaning in the marketplace.
By the early 1960s, the healing revival was fading. Financial support for its ministers had dried up, and evangelists openly speculated that the revival had gone too far in its promises of signs and wonders. But instead of hitting the road once more, successful revivalists settled down into established ministries, often starting bible schools and brick-and-mortar evangelistic centers.
Postwar American society was awash with Christian formulas for spiritual, physical, and financial abundance. Rabbi Joshua Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946) introduced self-help to the inspirational mass market, followed by best sellers like Claude Bristol’s Magic of Believing (1948), Father James Keller’s You Can Change the World! (1948), and Harry Overstreet’s Mature Mind (1949). This repackaging of earlier metaphysical mind power began to be called “positive thinking” for its emphasis on the cheerful and well-ordered mind.
Norman Vincent Peale (1898–1993), Methodist minister and self-help writer, became the smiling icon of this generation. His early successes as a pastor in Brooklyn and Syracuse earned him a reputation for being a cheery and anecdotal preacher with a gift for advertising and church growth. In the early 1950s, New Thought ideas began to be a major theme in his work. Peale took a position at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, a Reformed Church of America pulpit, which brought him a weekly audience of 4,000 and a national reputation. Peale was a gifted popularizer, and his syndicated television show, What’s Your Trouble, which he cohosted with his wife Ruth, made abstract theology into usable advice. His radio show, The Art of Living, was on the air for forty years, and his magazine, Guideposts, gained four million readers over the next half century. His manifesto, The Power of Positive Thinking, became a New York Times best seller for a record-breaking three years and sold a million copies.
Peale’s positive thinking left a lasting legacy. He helped popularize psychological services within church walls (as many groups, like the Emmanuel Movement, had done before). In 1937, Peale and Smiley Blanton, a professor of psychiatry, paired up to form the Marble Collegiate Church Clinic, a therapeutic center that integrated psychology and religion. Their co-authored book, Faith is the Answer: A Psychiatrist and a Pastor Discuss Your Problems (1940), joined the first waves of mainstream psychological services. Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s 1954 book Way to Happiness and television show Life is Worth Living soon offered a Catholic counterpart with millions of followers. Peale’s articulation of middle-class aspirations, bolstered by a parade of peppy anecdotes, had established a template for future ministers who would make positivity into theological fodder.
Positive thinking found its next star in a young Reformed Church of America minister named Robert Schuller (1926–2015). Schuller was a natural spiritual salesman with a knack for advertising and church growth. For instance, when he was unable to secure a property for his new church in Garden Grove, California, he held services in a drive-in movie theatre and preached to the assembled cars by standing on the roof of the refreshment stand. He advertised the spectacle in the newspaper with headlines that read “Come as you are, in the family car!”
Schuller’s expansive vision for ministry would see incredible successes. He built the 40-acre church campus that housed the Crystal Cathedral, a church of 10,000 panes of glittering glass. The church accommodated 3,000 seats for parishioners as well as a wide parking area for drivers who wanted to stop by and listen. His church ministry sprawled with a school, retirement home, call center, and local outreach programs. Like Peale, he topped the New York Times best-seller list with a reconfiguration of “positive thinking” into “possibility thinking.” His books, which included Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking (1967), Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (1982), Tough Times Never Last but Tough People Do (1983), and The Be Happy Attitudes (1985) established Schuller as the self-help prophet of his time.
It was as a televangelist that Schuller found his true calling. His television program, The Hour of Power, repackaged the church’s worship services for mass viewing, an idea that, by 1983, garnered 2.5 million viewers. The international success of The Hour of Power made Schuller incredibly influential. In 1989, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Schuller was the first pastor to preach on Soviet television.
Schuller weathered many storms, and his ministry continued to thrive well into the 1990s and new millennium before ultimately collapsing in an internal family battle over his successor and the direction of the ministry. In 2010, the church declared bankruptcy, and by 2012 the cathedral and property had been sold to the Roman Catholic diocese.
Positive thinking, however, endured in the legions of pastors like Peale and Schuller who offered a theology of self-esteem: a belief in optimism, rather than talk of sin, and a promise to restore Christians to wholeness and right standing before God.
The prosperity gospel was settling down and growing up. Ministries, churches, schools, and conferences devoted to an increasingly financial message of miraculous faith were popping up across the country and, in particular, the urban sunbelt. Gordon and Freda Lindsay and their Christ for the Nations ministry established a 40,000-square-foot headquarters and a Bible school in Dallas, Texas. Kenneth Hagin founded his new headquarters in 1966 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and, in 1974, the Rhema Bible Training Center as an official organ of his “Word of Faith” theology (named after his popular magazine). Oral Roberts University, also in Tulsa, was founded in 1963 by its charismatic namesake, making the southern prairies the prosperity gospel’s educational heartland. New stars of the movement like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland founded new ministries that would soon earn staggering television and radio audiences.
Orbiting just outside of this circle of revivalists was the Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter (1935–2009), known as Reverend Ike, who gave the prosperity gospel its first black spokesman with a national platform. A southerner who had migrated to the urban north and blended Pentecostal and metaphysical traditions, Reverend Ike’s flashy persona and catchphrases like “Don’t wait for your pie in the sky by and by; have it now with ice cream and a cherry on top” made him a media sensation.18 In 1969, he built a 3,500-seat church capable of broadcasting his services to national television and radio audiences.
The prosperity gospel thrived, in part, because of a new revival flowering in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches: the charismatic movement. Ecumenism bloomed between otherwise distant denominations as thousands of newly spirit-baptized Christians opened their doors and pulpits to one another. This youth-driven movement gravitated toward outdoor festivals, coffeehouse worship, teachings on gifts of the spirit, and invitational sessions for speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, and deliverance (a form of exorcism). Prosperity preachers profited from this new ecumenism and successfully kept pace with what felt “modern” to this middle-class audience, starting churches like Charles Green’s Word of Faith Temple and Wally and Marilyn Hickey’s The Happy Church with the needs of “hippies” in mind. Many of these newly formed prosperity churches would grow to be the nation’s largest Protestant churches, including Lester Sumrall’s Cathedral of Praise and John Osteen’s Lakewood Church.
By the close of the 1970s, the charismatic movement had receded from its high-water mark, but the strong institutions built by prosperity preachers during those years would remain. In particular, their pioneering ventures into radio and television would soon change religious broadcasting entirely.
The 1970s saw an explosion of Christian television with prosperity preachers as frontrunners. New federal regulations no longer favored mainline Protestant and Catholic programming, and, in this free market, entrepreneurial and prosperity-minded Pentecostals had snapped up hundreds of channels and millions of viewers.
The market was crowded by prosperity-preaching entrepreneurs. Lester Sumrall, healing evangelist and prosperity preacher, founded one of the first Christian television stations in 1972 along with a twenty-four-hour Christian radio program and a 2,000-member congregation. Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, and Rex Humbard reigned as the leading lights of inspirational television, gradually displacing Catholic and mainline shows as the most watched religious programs. In fact, in 1970, Rex Humbard’s broadcast, The Cathedral of Tomorrow, shot on location in his multimillion-dollar church of the same name, appeared on more television stations than any other American program. A. A. Allen’s, Kenneth Copeland’s, and Morris Cerullo’s television shows earned respectable ratings and national exposure. In 1971, a cluster of preachers, most of whom preached prosperity, made up 42 percent of the top syndicated religious programs. In 1981, the total jumped to 83 percent. Prosperity ministries were not simply adding to television programming: they were transforming it.
A host of innovators founded networks that soon became electronic empires. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) built its reputation on shows like The 700 Club and The Jim and Tammy Faye Show, featuring the young Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. CBN became one of the most important networks in the industry for its use of satellite technology and twenty-four-hour programing. From 1970 to 1975, their estimated viewership climbed from 10 to 110 million worldwide. Paul and Jan Crouch founded the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which grew so large that, within a few years, it acquired Lester Sumrall’s television network. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker founded the PTL Television Network with a fledgling empire in South Carolina, complete with a 2,200-acre Christian resort and theme park. Between them, they ruled the airwaves.
The 1980s saw the prosperity gospel rise high and sink low. Prosperity preachers had become bona fide celebrities. It was a tightly knit network of megachurch pastors, television stars, media moguls, and traveling evangelists with a shared vision of universal spiritual laws that created divine blessings. Its message gained enormous followings far beyond its white, working-class originators. In its charismatic heyday, it had earned a middle-class reputation and listeners outside of Pentecostal circles. Further, African American and Latino leaders grew in number and stature. Frederick K. C. Price, who counted himself the theological heir of Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts, became the preeminent African American celebrity of God’s money with his crusades, publications, Los Angeles megachurch, and nationwide television program. The only rival to Price’s fame among black audiences was the charismatic singer Carlton Pearson, a protégé of Oral Roberts and megachurch pastor who launched the careers of many African American singers and preachers. Alberto Delgado, also a Rhema graduate, built a Miami megachurch and a national Spanish-language television viewership on the twin message of divine liberation and compensation for trials Latino believers had endured. African American and Latino leaders, nurtured inside faith institutions, began to spread their message to new television and megachurch audiences.
In the late 1980s, however, the prosperity movement stumbled. Audiences began to question its preachers when a series of scandals rocked the movement. In 1987, Oral Roberts faced national ridicule when he fell short of his eight-million-dollar fundraising goal for his City of Faith hospital and wrote to followers that he would retreat to his prayer tower to fast and pray until the goal was met or “God calls me home.”19 Not long after, reporters revealed that Jim Bakker had committed adultery with the twenty-one-year old church secretary and used ministry funds as hush money. The ministry soon came undone when the public learned about the Bakkers’ lavish living while their ministry floundered in debt. Jim Bakker was charged with fraud and went to prison. The career of Jimmy Swaggart (who by this time had abandoned his early belief in the prosperity gospel) fell to pieces when he exposed the adultery of a fellow preacher, Marvin Gorman. Gorman, himself a proponent of prosperity teaching, retaliated by producing evidence of Swaggart’s sexual misconduct. An estimated 100 million people tuned in to see Swaggart’s tearful apology. Religious-television audiences dropped from 15.1 million in 1986 to under 10 million. By the close of the 1980s, the American televangelist seemed like an unredeemable figure.
Hard Prosperity Versus Soft Prosperity
When prosperity teachers returned to the spotlight, some things had changed significantly. In a media environment that had learned to mistrust overwrought, emotional preaching, new celebrities appeared with a gentle and professional image. These postmodern prophets of God’s money would not beg for funds but rather focus on the returns. They offered “tools” in the form of relationship guides, financial principles, or therapeutic tips. They doubled as psychologists, trusted friends, and kindly guides to all of life’s problems. It was advent of “soft prosperity.”20
Until the 1990s, the movement had been dominated by a “hard prosperity” gospel. The relationship between cause and effect was direct and quasi magical in description. Positive words brought about positive results almost immediately, propelled into existence by supernatural forces. Negative words became so feared by some that even idiomatic phrases like “tickled to death” could spell disaster.21 It was a heavily supernatural vision of how good things happened to good people. Hard prosperity also refers to the manner in which the message was preached: emotional, hard hitting, and deeply embedded in Pentecostal language and cadences. It was as if the old healing revivals had never ended, and each person must be preached to at the altar. Soft prosperity was far more secular in tone and approach. It modified talk of direct cause and effect to a more roundabout assessment of how faith worked. For instance, a healthy mind could yield improved self-esteem and job performance, leading to a raise. Instead of other preachers, its teachers often cited psychologists, athletes, and inspirational figures alongside Bible characters to illustrate a sermon. On the whole, soft-prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer avoided Christian jargon, changing terms like “positive confessions” to “positive declaration,” but the logic was the same. Life’s circumstances still depended on a believer’s use of faith.
By the early 21st century, the prosperity gospel, like its New Thought predecessor, had lost its sectarian flavor. It had begun to seem so deeply ingrained in the culture that it was hard to separate it from old-fashioned optimism in the American dream. Its claims about human potential had become inextricably entwined with American conceptions of the self. It depicted every believer as a self-governed individual, driven by will, and only as powerful as his or her mind.
The prosperity movement was more diverse than ever before. It had survived disgrace and outgrown its denominational boundaries. It appealed to both white Americans and those of color. It crossed over into a wide variety of denominations and traditions, even those whose headquarters disdained its message. It claimed many of the nation’s largest churches and hundreds of small congregations. Nationally, prosperity theology coursed through popular television, radio, books, seminars, conferences, and megachurches. In churches large and small, the movement had developed a smooth new “soft prosperity” and style of persuasion that harkened back to its origins in self-help culture.
The prosperity gospel’s place at the top gave it astounding reach. In 2011, approximately 1,400 American churches attracted 2,000 or more weekly attendees, earning them the title of “megachurch,” and prosperity churches crowded the upper reaches of this phenomenon. Prosperity giants like Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes led the first and eleventh churches, respectively. Almost half of all churches with more than 10,000 members preached prosperity from the pulpit.22 Celebrities Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyers ruled the airwaves as two of the most watched televangelists in the world. But its true success was difficult to measure. Even when people did not attend a prosperity megachurch, they frequently turned to its leaders as a spiritual guide. The most popular Christian names on the bookstore shelf and Twitter feeds were American prosperity teachers.
Many of the largest churches outside of the United States also preached a prosperity message. The world’s largest church, with a million members, was the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, formerly led by Paul Yonggi Cho (a church-growth favorite in the United States in the 1980s). The Philippines’ El Shaddai movement, a medley of prosperity and Roman Catholic theologies, claimed nine to eleven million followers, and owes its name to a book by Kenneth Hagin. Singapore was a haven for the message; churches like City Harvest Church boasted the leadership of Kong Lee and his wife Ho Yeow Sun, the “singing pastor” and pop star. Australia’s largest church, Sydney’s Hillsong Church, was famous for their soft prosperity and their standing as a worship-music-industry powerhouse. In Africa, Nigeria was most famous for its many prosperity megachurches and far-flung denominations like the Redeemed Christian Church of God. In Latin America, almost every country had its own prosperity megachurch celebrity and often even political parties. Though often deemed an American gospel, the prosperity gospel had taken on vast international dimensions.
In North American popular culture, many variations of New Thought’s conception of the right-speaking individual thrived. In 2007, Rhonda Byrne’s breakaway hit, The Secret, became the latest articulation of the idealized American self. Endorsed by a host of successful inventors, authors, and metaphysical leaders, the book encouraged people to direct their thoughts toward achieving their desires. Fans like Oprah Winfrey, along with the ever-increasing ranks of those claiming to be “spiritual but not religious,” found that The Secret ritualized two American sentiments: people rise to the level of their own ambition; and there’s no such thing as luck.
The distinctive language of the prosperity gospel became common parlance, popping up in television sitcoms, reality shows, fashion magazines, and Twitter hashtags. Phrases like “favor,” “abundant life,” “positive confession,” “speaking life,” and especially “I’m blessed!” had become mainstays. Pentecostals who once felt dismissed as ignorant country folk could now claim to be a major force in American Protestantism.
In the future, the true success of the prosperity gospel will likely be not in its pure form but in its influence on the wider evangelical culture. Although megachurch evangelicals like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels continued to denounce the prosperity gospel, many more slipped their arm around Joyce Meyers and joined her onstage. The influence of the movement was widespread. Some large evangelical churches, for instance, fortified their call for tithing with references to a “system” set up by God to release blessing. Evangelicals challenged one another to consider tithing an opportunity to give and see God return the precise amount, if not more. One large evangelical megachurch began to advertise a ninety-day money back guarantee on any money that was given to the church. If God does not return the same amount or more, givers could ask the church for their money back. Books like the best-selling Prayer of Jabez and Jesus CEO encouraged evangelicals to see ambition in spiritual terms.
Critics frequently argue that the sole beneficiary of the prosperity gospel are the rich pastors who preach it. This is difficult to prove or refute, however, as no one has yet measured the economic ramifications of participation in this movement. But part of the genius and endurance of the prosperity message lay in its adaptability. In economic-boom years, it explained and justified what people already possessed. In times of want, it offered people a solution that everyone could afford: positive thought. Followers testified that it was tremendously empowering to receive assurances that their efforts to dig themselves out of life’s tragedies would be divinely supported and rewarded. But for those on the wrong side of luck, prosperity theology laid the blame at the feet of its followers. Disease, heartbreak, and struggles of all kinds were explained as tests of character or personal failures. In the face of death, its leaders often struggled to account for why some righteous people perished while the unrighteous endured. It was a theodicy—an explanation for the problem of evil—that lay at the heart of the prosperity message. It claimed to guarantee that good things would always happen to good people, a captivating promise that won millions of believers around the world.
Review of the Literature
Studies of the prosperity gospel, including Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (2013), Simon Coleman’s The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity (2000), and Phillip Luke Sintiere’s Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (2015) reflect growing scholarly interest in analyzing the connections among religion, health, and healing. In recent years, literature on religious healing in and beyond the United States has expanded considerably, as anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and medical researchers have traced the development of new modes of understanding suffering or privation, and innovative forms of seeking health, wealth, or wholeness.
Particularly helpful for understanding the origins of the prosperity gospel are histories of late-19th-century Protestant divine healing, New Thought, Christian Science, and related metaphysical movements. Works in this vein, such as Heather Curtis’s Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture (2007), Beryl Satter’s Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement (1999), and Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (2007) place the emergence of prosperity thinkers like E. W. Kenyon into theological and social context.
Studies that analyze the beginnings, growth, and global spread of Pentecostal healing provide another important frame for interpreting the increasing popularity of mind cure and self-help theologies and practices that shaped prosperity movements throughout the 20th century. Especially useful in this regard are Candy Gunther Brown’s Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing (2013), Joseph Williams’s Spirit Cure: A History of Pentecostal Healing (2013), and David Edwin Harrell Jr.’s classic All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America (1975).
The pursuit of healing, health, and prosperity has characterized a wide range of religious communities over the course of the 20th century. Pamela Klassen has analyzed the influence of mind-cure ideas and healing practices within “mainline” churches in Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity (2011). Several scholars have investigated the spread of prosperity theology among African American and Latino Christian groups: Marie Dallam’s Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer (2007), Gaston Espinosa’s Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action (2014), Milmon Harrison’s Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African-American Religion (2005), Shayne Lee’s T. D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (2009), Paula L. McGee’s Brand New Theology: the Wal-Martization of T. D. Jakes and the New Black Church (2017), and Jonathan Walton’s Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (2009).
Scholars have also charted the spread of prosperity theology and practices around the world through communications technologies, the advance of global capitalism, and other processes of globalization. Useful studies that emphasize these themes include Thomas Aechtner’s Health, Wealth and Power in an African Diaspora Church in Canada (2015), Katherine Attansi and Amos Yong’s edited volume Pentecostalism and Prosperity: the Socio-economics of the Global Charismatic Movement (2012), Marla Frederick’s Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global (2016), Andreas Heuser’s edited volume Pastures of Plenty: Tracing Religio-scapes of Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Beyond (2015), Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011), and Kevin O’Neill’s City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala (2009).
Albanese, Catherine. A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.Find this resource:
Anker, Roy. Self-Help and Popular Religion in Early American Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.Find this resource:
Billingsley, Scott. It’s a New Day: Race and Gender in the Modern Charismatic Movement. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.Find this resource:
Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:
Brown, Candy Gunther. Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Brown, Candy Gunther. The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:
Coleman, Simon. The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Find this resource:
Curtis, Heather. Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Health in American Culture, 1860–1900. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Dallam, Marie. Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer. New York: New York University Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.Find this resource:
Espinosa, Gastón. Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.Find this resource:
Frederick, Marla. Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:
Gardner, Velmer. Healing for You! Springfield, MO: V. J. Gardner, 1952.Find this resource:
George, Carol V. R. God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:
Griffith, R. Marie. Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.Find this resource:
Hagin, Kenneth E. “Is Your Profit Showing?” Word of Faith (January 1976): 4–5.Find this resource:
Hall, Franklin. “Coat Never Needed Cleaning.” Miracle Word 10.4 (1975): 22.Find this resource:
Harrell Jr., David Edwin. All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.Find this resource:
Harrison, Milmon. Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African-American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:
Kenyon, E. W. Advanced Bible Course: Studies in the Deeper Life. 5th ed. Lynnwood, WA: Kenyon’s Gospel Publishing Society, 1970.Find this resource:
Kenyon, E. W. The Father and His Family. Spencer, MA: Reality Press, 1916.Find this resource:
Kenyon, E. W. The Two Kinds of Faith: Faith’s Secret Revealed. Lynnwood, WA: Kenyon’s Gospel Publishing Society, 1998.Find this resource:
King, Paul. Only Believe: Examining the Origin and Development of Classic and Contemporary “Word of Faith” Theologies. Menlo Park, CA: Word and Spirit Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Klassen, Pamela. Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Lee, Shayne. T. D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher. New York: New York University Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Meyer, Donald. The Positive Thinkers. 3d ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.Find this resource:
McConnell, D. R. A Different Gospel. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988.Find this resource:
Nickel, Thomas. “Religion in Business Brings Sure Success.” Full Gospel Men’s Voice (February 1953).Find this resource:
O’Neill, Kevin. City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Osborn, T. L. “Divine Healing Through Confession.” The Voice of Healing (July 1950): 12.Find this resource:
Roberts, Oral. Miracle of Seed Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977.Find this resource:
Satter, Beryl. Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Simmons, Dale H. E. W. Kenyon and the Postbellum Pursuit of Peace, Power, and Plenty. London: Scarecrow Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Sinitiere, Phillip Luke. Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity. New York: New York University Press, 2015.Find this resource:
Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Wacker, Grant. “The Pentecostal Tradition.” In Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions. Edited by Ronald L. Numbers and Darrel W. Amundsen, 514–538. New York: Macmillan, 1986.Find this resource:
Walton, Jonathan. Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. New York: New York University Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Williams, Joseph. Spirit Cure: A History of Pentecostal Healing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:
(1.) Following the historian Catherine Albanese, metaphysical religion replaces “occultism,” “gnosticism,” or “harmonialism” as the umbrella term for the European magical-religious traditions. I describe metaphysical religion as the use of spiritual power to manipulate material and spiritual realms, and to draw believers to a personal restoration and connection to a greater spiritual plane. See Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 7–16. This thematic summary of the prosperity gospel is forwarded by the author in Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
(2.) For more information on the topic of this article, see Bowler, Blessed.
(3.) Beryl Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom (Berkley: University of California Press, 2001).
(4.) For a lovely survey, see Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers, 3d ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988).
(5.) Marie Dallam, Sweet Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
(6.) E. W. Kenyon, The Father and His Family (Spencer, MA: Reality Press, 1916), 53. For a historical treatment of this theme in Kenyon’s work, see Dale H. Simmons, E. W. Kenyon and the Postbellum Pursuit of Peace, Power, and Plenty (London: Scarecrow Press, 1997), 97.
(7.) E. W. Kenyon, Advanced Bible Course: Studies in the Deeper Life, 5th ed. (Lynnwood, WA: Kenyon’s Gospel Publishing Society, 1970).
(8.) Curtis, Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Health in American Culture, 1860–1900 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 23.
(9.) Dale H. Simmons, E. W. Kenyon and the Postbellum Pursuit of Peace, Power, and Plenty (London: Scarecrow Press, 1997), 150.
(10.) E. W. Kenyon, The Two Kinds of Faith: Faith’s Secret Revealed (Lynnwood, WA: Kenyon’s Gospel Publishing Society, 1998), 20.
(11.) T. L. Osborn, “Divine Healing Through Confession,” The Voice of Healing (July 1950): 12.
(12.) Quoted in Grant Wacker, “The Pentecostal Tradition,” in Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions, eds. Ronald L. Numbers and Darrel W. Amundsen (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 526.
(13.) Franklin Hall, “Coat Never Needed Cleaning,” Miracle Word 10.4 (Fall 1975): 22.
(14.) An excerpt from Velmer Gardner, Healing for You! (Springfield, MO: V. J. Gardner, 1952), 23.
(15.) For an example of the contemporary use of legal language in faith theology, see Milmon Harrison, Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 8–10. For an example of condemnation for those living “beneath our privileges,” see Kenneth E. Hagin, “Is Your Profit Showing?” Word of Faith, January 1976, 4–5.
(16.) Oral Roberts, Miracle of Seed Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977).
(17.) Thomas Nickel, “Religion in Business Brings Sure Success,” Full Gospel Men’s Voice, February 1953, 10–11.
(18.) Jonathan Walton, Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 50.
(19.) Randy Frame, “Fund Raising: Did Oral Roberts Go Too Far?” Christianity Today (February 20, 1987).
(20.) See Bowler, Blessed, 7, 125‒127.
(21.) Word of Faith teacher Charles Capps, in particular, was known for avoiding worrisome idiomatic phrases.
(22.) For more on the demographics of the prosperity movement, see Bowler, Blessed, 181‒186.