Amid the strife of the Culture Wars and the heated partisan divides between Red and Blue states, one thing seems to bring together a great many Americans across both sides of the nation's secular/sacred divide: a deep, abiding sense of amusement and incredulity—if not outright contempt—for purveyors and supporters of the so-called "Prosperity Gospel".
Fodder for comedy club monologues and weighty theological pronouncements alike, the "health and wealth," "name it and claim it," "confess it and possess it" TV preachers and their blessing-seeking, hap-hap-happy followers come about as close to being a national whipping boy as any one constituency within our culture. By turns dismissed and disavowed, the Prosperity movement has often been treated as a gold-plated curiosity that evokes questions about how "they" (the preachers) get away with "it," or why "they" (the believers) buy into "it."
Kate Bowler's book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press) moves beyond conventional wisdom to tell a more complex story about the movement. Part history, part theological analysis, part sociology, part ethnographic study, Blessed explores how this movement came to be, analyzes its central teachings, traces its networks, and notes its appeal.
Ultimately Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, takes these people—and their beliefs and practices—seriously. By doing so, she moves beyond a simplistic framework of snake oil salesmen and gullible dupes, toward a re-casting of the movement as one that "offers a comprehensive approach to the human condition" and sees humanity as "creatures fallen, but not broken." In the process, Bowler finds that the movement "has consecrated America's culture of optimism" and marvels at how fundamentally American—and perhaps human—many of its assumptions and aspirations really are.
While the beginnings of an actual Prosperity movement only trace back to the 1970s, Bowler puts together a longer lineage that begins in the late 19th century. This earlier period brought together three influential streams—Pentecostalism, New Thought as set forth by mediators like Holiness pastor E. W. Kenyon, and the secular American belief in upward mobility, individualism, and wealth. Kenyon provided a particularly important bridge to the Pentecostal world and influenced figures such as William Durham, F. F. Bosworth, and Aimee Semple McPherson.
African-American metaphysical teachers in Northern cities such as Father George Hurley, Charles Emmanuel "Sweet Daddy" Grace, and Father Divine also proved important, combining elements of holiness and Pentecostal belief, black spiritualism, and self-help. So too did figures such as Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale, with their more Main Street-friendly messages of positive thinking and visualizing success.
Bowler argues that the main trigger for the movement's growth can be traced to the healing revival of the 1950s. Pentecostal evangelists such as William Branham, A. A. Allen, Kenneth Hagin, and—most importantly—Oral Roberts embraced an understanding of faith as an activator that unleashed spiritual power. At the same time, they understood the Bible as a repository of God's laws and covenants that endowed believers with specific rights and privileges. As Bowler points out, the healing preachers varied in the certainty with which they held out the promise of God's intervention, but their followers generally came to expect that it would happen.
By the late 1950s, the sensation surrounding the healing revival was fading away. And throughout the 1960s, the travelling evangelists were coming off the road to start more settled ministries. During these times, Prosperity teaching became more pronounced in the messages of Roberts, Gordon Lindsay, T. A. Osborne, LeRoy Jenkins (whose Columbus, Ohio-based Church of What's Happening Now may claim the prize for greatest church name, ever), young Kenneth Copeland, and others. The Charismatic movement that swept mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in the '60s and '70s provided a huge influx of believers—and dollars—that laid the foundation for a burgeoning Prosperity empire. Bowler shows that denominational ties were often relaxed, ignored, or severed as a sprawling, interlocking network of conferences and television ministries created a self-sustaining, mutually-reinforcing religious movement.
Prosperity-oriented teachers (including Roberts, the Bakkers, and Tilton) climbed to the top of the televangelist heap and suffered heavily during the "Pearlygate" scandals of the late '80s. But even from the ashes of scandal, the Prosperity message rose again and gained new momentum. Bowler notes two major changes that extended its longevity. First, the ascent of a smoother, more sophisticated "soft prosperity" message—touted by more relaxed, corporate figures like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Paula White—replaced the more theologically-explicit "hard prosperity" teachings of an earlier generation. This helped the movement's appeal within a more therapeutic, secular context. A second development was the rise of a generation of African-American Prosperity teachers such as T. D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, Frederick K. C. Price, and Eddie Long. Fueled by the economic boom of the '90s and the Reverse Great Migration to the urban South, these leaders fostered a new wave of black megachurches and new visions for mutual aid (both need-based and business-promoting) within the African-American community.
No Religious Sideshow
As the size and number of their congregations, TV ministries, and bestselling books confirm, the contemporary footprint of the American Prosperity Gospel is large, indeed. This buttresses Bowler's larger argument that the Prosperity movement is no religious sideshow. Citing studies, Bowler shows that 17 percent of all American Christians openly identify with the movement; that every Sunday, over a million people attend Prosperity-oriented megachurches—43 percent of which boast multiethnic or multicultural congregations; and that two-thirds of all Christian believers are convinced that God, ultimately, wants them to prosper. In effect, she argues that if a substantial number of people identify with the Prosperity Gospel and accept its common teachings, then it must be closer to the mainstream than one might imagine.
Bowler's take on the Prosperity movement is hardly boosterish or all-embracing. She questions its inclination to lean toward short-term answers to economic problems while ignoring systemic solutions. Additionally, she is troubled by the movement's penchant for end-times speculation and near-unquestioning support for a Zionist vision of Israel. Throughout her book there are anecdotes and examples of biblical interpretation that will no doubt leave those outside the Prosperity movement shaking their heads.
Nonetheless, in its overall trajectory, Blessed serves as a corrective to dismissive stereotypes. It reminds us, as well, of the Prosperity movement's internal coherence, as well as its important function in the lives of many American Christians as a source of hope, values, and personal and communal improvement.
Larry Eskridge is associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. He is the author of God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press).