The Prosperity Gospel Is Surprisingly Mainstream
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.