The Prosperity Gospel in America
- Kate BowlerKate BowlerDuke Divinity School
“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.