by Kate Bowler
Oxford University Press, Oxford. 352 pages
Media pundits and academics alike have had no difficulty ruthlessly satirizing and caricaturing the so-called “prosperity gospel.” And, to be fair, the movement’s star attractions over the years have provided a target-rich environment of preening hucksters and buffoons, pandering to gullible, needy people looking for “health and wealth,” “victory” or “favor” or just a dollop of optimism to get through another day. Kate Bower’s book “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel” gives us something much better: a thoughtful overview and analysis of a significant religious movement.
Bower explains that in the nineteenth century “Americans began to question an ethic of self-denial as a stony orthodoxy barren of the Gospel’s abundant promises.” Victorian America produced a rich stew of new religious, spiritual and mental methods to overcome life’s hardships: transcendentalism, spiritualism, mesmerism, Christian Science, the Methodist Holiness movement, Keswick Higher Life, mind-cure and more. From the cluster of ideas in these movements, New Thought emerged — a belief that positive thoughts could improve a person’s situation in life.
This idea was elaborated by E.W. Kenyon and further developed by Kenneth E. Hagin, the “father” of the prosperity gospel. Hagin reduced the gospel to a set of spiritual laws that could be depended upon for results, such as the “law of returns” — if you sow to God, God will give back to you one hundredfold. The movement merged with evangelicalism and drew on mainstream popular sources such as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and Norman Vincent Peal’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It also drew heavily on Pentecostalism to form an appealing recipe for spiritual power. Bower says, “New Thought lit the fuse of Pentecostalism’s psychological dynamite.”
Bower traces how the movement went mainstream in the 1950s and 60s. It was a perfect fit for the televangelists who emerged in these years: Kenneth Copeland, Robert Schuller, Rex Humbard, Benny Hinn and Jimmy Swaggart. She writes, in the 1980s “the movement thrived and survived a decadent decade ruled by supersized churches and televangelists with big hair and bigger promises.” Then came the scandals of the late ‘80s involving prosperity gospel favorites Oral Roberts and Jim and Tammy Bakker.
Properly chastened, the movement changed tacks in the 1990s, softening its message and developing a new set of stars: Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long. Osteen, the current pacesetter, uses more secular language and appeals less to the Holy Spirit than to popular psychology, positive thinking and good household management for success.
A much-needed study of a hugely popular movement, Bower’s book does a good job explaining the movement’s history, themes, theology, demographics and popular exponents. However, this is only an introduction and cries out for further research and elaboration. What we can conclude for now is that, for good or ill, the prosperity gospel is an affirmation of quintessential American commitments to hard work, self-reliance, free enterprise and the belief in optimism. It is a sacralized version of Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” novels and a new, albeit garish, twist on Max Weber’s theme of the Protestant work ethic as a reinforcement of capitalist virtues.
MICHAEL PARKER is director of graduate studies and professor of church history at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.