The Prosperity Gospel Is Surprisingly Mainstream
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.