The 'Money Gospel' (Part 1)

A friend asked me recently to write about the 'money gospel'. I have not heard it called that before but it wasn't too hard to determine that she was referring to what is often called the prosperity gospel. I almost cannot decide where to begin and I am sure this will take several posts to cover. I think we will need to address its history, its biblical supports or lack thereof and also its current impact on our communities to construct a decent analysis. I will show my hand from the beginning and tell you that I think this 'gospel' is a damned heresy that betrays the very heart of God. I hope this series of posts will help explain why.


Oral Roberts is often credited with introducing the prosperity gospel in 1947. The long and tangled roots of this doctrine go much further back into American History. In 1902 William James described what was being called New Thought in The Varieties of Religious Experience as follows:
"To my mind a current ... important and interesting ...(religious phenomenon) that which has recently poured over America and seems to be gathering force every day ...and to which, for the sake of having a brief designation, I will give the title of the "Mind-cure movement." There are various sects of this "New Thought," to use another of the names by which it calls itself; but their agreements are so profound that their differences may be neglected for my present purpose, and I will treat the movement, without apology, as if it were a simple thing. It is a deliberately optimistic scheme of life, with both a speculative and a practical side. In its gradual development during the last quarter of a century, it has taken up into itself a number of contributory elements, and it must now be reckoned with as a genuine religious power. It has reached the stage, for example, when the demand for its literature is great enough for insincere stuff, mechanically produced for the market, to be to a certain extent supplied by publishers -- a phenomenon never observed, I imagine, until a religion has got well past its earliest insecure beginnings. One of the doctrinal sources of Mind-cure is the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; another is Berkeleyan idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of "law" and "progress" and "development"; another the optimistic popular science evolutionism of which I have recently spoken; and, finally, Hinduism has contributed a strain. But the most characteristic feature of the mind-cure movement is an inspiration much more direct. The leaders in this faith have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind.Their belief has in a general way been corroborated by the practical experience of their disciples; and this experience forms to-day a mass imposing in amount...."
Victorian America had been fertile ground for all kinds of mental magic like transcendentlism, spiritualism, free masonry and, what we shall begin to explore here, New Thought. But first, I suppose we should reach really far back, to...

File:Franz Anton Mesmer.jpg
Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815) who was a German physician that introduced the highly criticized idea of animal magnetism. Briefly animal magnatism was a theory about a 'fluid' or 'life fource' that he said existed in beings that breathe. He was said to conduct healings based on this theory in a kind of 'laying on of hands.' His ideas were not religious and Mesmor actually commented on Johann Joseph Gassner's well known exorcisms and healings as a spiritualization of the same principles that he was using. In time he began using 'passes' of his hand in front of his patients in a form a hypnotism and it is from his name which we get our english word 'mesmerize'.

Phineas Parkhust Quimby (1802-1866) was an inventor and healer who lived in maine and is largely thought to be an originator of New Thought. Quimby used Mesmer's ideas to develop a hybrid of healing practices and metaphysical thought. He became convinced that the mind could overcome disease and began touring as a mesmorist and later as a physician.  He eventually concluded that healing occurred because of mental and spiritual alignment and began writing 'To the sick and not the well...that they may open their eyes and see how they have been decieved." This inspired a whole generation of positive thinkers that follow.

Mary Baker Eddie (1821-1910), the founder of Christian Science, took Phineas Quimby’s ideas and reworked them into a Christological framework. Eddy taught a spirituality akin to Gnosticism in which salvation was gained by a special knowledge. Jesus offered salvation, not because he was divine but because he saw the world as it really was and offered that saving knowledge to His followers. Christianity, for Eddy, was about reeducation. She taught that the material realm was full of illusions that tricked our minds into misconceptions of reality. She maintained that illness, suffering and even death resulted from mental error.

Essek William Kenyon (1867-1948) embraced this ‘New Thought’ but insisted that it was only Christians who could unlock God's blessings in this way. Kenyon went to Boston’s Emerson College of Oratory where he came into contact with the New Thought Movement. Kenyon was a nomadic minister that preached a theology built on the foundation of nineteenth century evangelicalism. In line with the influences of New Thought he taught that God was spirit who created the spiritual universe. The physical world was a poor material reflection of that spiritual realm. Though we were temporarily clothed in this flesh and blood, humans were ultimately and primarily spirit. This dualistic view of mankind was central to his understanding of salvation. His understanding of salvation was that Jesus had freed man from the power of sin and restored his spiritual nature with Gods own which also restored his dominion over the earth. The christian, Kenyon taught, was no longer burdened by sin and had been granted the authority to rule over the material world. He would reference the creation story as evidence of the power of words. God spoke things into existence and he taught that the christian’s faith filled words would do the same. He ridiculed New thought for their proclamations such as ‘I am happy and I am well” because they did not include Jesus. He was not critical of their method though, in fact he used them frequently but in Jesus name of course. New thoughts process and form was kept and its theology was baptized. 
Up until this point, the Faith movement or New Thought theology was a white American theology. It became very popular and spread quickly and was eventually embraced by the black community. This theology that countered poverty and illness was taught as an empowering message among African Americans. Since poverty was central to much of the experience of the black community, material blessing emerged as a fundamental sign of Gods favor. There was a rise of flamboyant preachers such as Detroits... 

Prophet James Jones. (1907-1971) Jones lived in luxery, taught from a $5,000 throne, lived in a 54 room castle that had been built in 1917, and dressed in outrageously ornate jewel encrusted clothing. He was reffered to by the Saturday Evening Post as the “Messiah in Mink.” Leaders like this Prophet collected huge amounts of money from their predominantly poor congregations with the same theology and promises of New Thought and Christian science. These 'leaders' are often the pride of there communities who seem to prosper vicariously through their 'man of God.'  We still have many such 'Prophets', 'Bishops', and 'Overseers' running churches throughout our cities today and I will have a lot to say about this in a later post on Prosperity Gospels current impacts on our community.

These philosophies and theologies developed over time into what is now known as the ‘Prosperity Gospel.' This Gospel might be used by some to justify what they already have and by others as a kind of magical formula to attain more.In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking would reach outrageous popularity in its restating of these already familiar ideas. Positive thinking should not be confused with mere optimism. Positive thinking deals with the reality stressed by the now cliché "mind over matter”. This blend of religion, psychology, self help and magic earned a central place in the popular religious imagination in America. Though theologically thin, this thinking found a home among many mainline protestant churches. As mentioned in the introduction...

Oral Roberts (1918-2009) is often credited with introducing the prosperity gospel. In 1947 he began teaching about a ‘seed faith’ in which donations were said to be seeds that would return a ‘seven fold’ harvest. 

Kenneth Hagin (1917-2003) played a huge role in the expansion of this theologies influence. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s economic post war boom this theology was easily swallowed by comfortable American Christians who couldn't help but believe that “God must have had something to do with it.” Hagin founded the Rhema Bible Training Center in 1974 which is said to have trained tens of thousands of students in his ‘Word of Faith’ theology. Hagin taught, in line with his theological predecessor Kenyon, that Christianity was a legal transaction in which believers had rights to salvation, protection and victory over all circumstances. Jesus death, it is said, has secured these rights for humanity and has transferred gods “power of attorney” over to Christians. This is why it is believed among these circles that abundant blessings can be commanded in “Jesus’ name.” You can still pull up footage on you-tube of huge congregations screaming “Money cometh to me now!”

Most of the churches in our community (or on your TV such as Creflo Dollar) that are based on the prosperity gospel, white and black alike, will trace much of their ideas and training (if they have any) back to Kenneth Hagin and his 'Word of Faith' theology. 

I hope this was an informative, albeit brief, survey of the history of the prosperity gospel. I will try to follow up soon with a few more posts on the topic. We still need to cover the biblical support or lack thereof and the current impact of this theology in our communities today.