Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Prosperity Gospel

From a a good review of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel that itself summarizes the history of that "gospel":
...Kate Bowler unravels the origins and development of the prosperity gospel into a multi-billion dollar industry. Although there are several varieties of prosperity gospels with subtly different animating convictions and practices, Bowler sensibly lumps them together as birds of a feather, a range of species in the same genus. “Word of Faith,” “Positive Confession,” “Health and Wealth,” and so forth, they all share a bedrock conviction that God chooses to bless his children with material prosperity in body, mind, and brokerage account, awaiting only our willingness to get on board.

Origins: Pentecostal Healing and New Thought Mind Power

Bowler locates the origins of the prosperity gospel in turn-of-the-century Pentecostal healing and New Thought mind power. Nurtured in the radical Holiness movement of the late nineteenth century, divine healers insisted that Christ’s atonement secured health for our bodies along with salvation for our souls. Just as prayer in faith would bring forgiveness of sins, prayer would release Christ’s healing power for aching backs, cancers, and tuberculosis, all of which arose from sin, personal or collective. The key was to believe. Pray and hold onto it, believe that it is yours, and act out the healing even if “lying symptoms” persist.

Meanwhile, the monistic New Thought movement viewed divinity as an impersonal power that people could access through right thinking. The key to a healthy body and a successful life was to eliminate harmful negative thoughts and use mantras and other techniques to reinforce positivity.

Both Pentecostal healing and New Thought mind power relied on a perfectionist anthropology. Human beings are troubled by sins and failings, but through our choice to apply the right knowledge and techniques we can be empowered and fulfilled, perhaps even releasing divine attributes within ourselves.

Early Twentieth Century Through the Bakkers

In the first half of the twentieth century, E.W. Kenyon united Holiness-Pentecostal and New Thought themes by combining divine healing and the power of the mind to shape reality into an incipient prosperity gospel. Along with Kenyon, Pentecostal healing revivalist John G. Lake added the notion that God intends us to be “god-men” through our faith, while F.F. Bosworth and others provided a bridge to the healing revivals of the late 1940s and 1950s, which rejuvenated the audacious supernaturalism of early Pentecostalism.

Mid-century positive thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale also united New Thought with at least a veneer of Christianity. His Power of Positive Thinking (1952) sold millions of copies to those eager for peace of mind and bountiful harvests. Thereafter, the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and following brought Pentecostal sensibilities to many mainline and evangelical churches, priming believers for the gifts of the Spirit and the tangible presence and power of God.

Planted in this fertile soil, the prosperity gospel took root in the 1950s and 1960s, then grew apace in the following two decades. Key figures included Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. .... [more]