The Prosperity Gospel’s Optimism

A new book that traces the Prosperity Gospel's history says some interesting things.


Yesterday I read a review at Christianity Today of Kate Bowler’s book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel and it certainly had some interesting tidbits. Here’s what really got me looking at it:

“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'”.

The review goes on to talk of Bowler’s very comprehensive coverage of the movement’s history. There are some interesting comments here – that the Prosperity Gospel is very much in line with American optimism, and you can’t fault it too much on that front (but you can on other fronts). Also, of interest is how mainstream the Prosperity Gospel actually has become, despite the fact that it’s also so hated (as per the quote above).

There are several things to say here. The Prosperity, “name it and claim it” Gospel is a huge influence in South Africa. Even researcher Ed Stetzer hints at it in his thoughts on South Africa (see his last point). I find that interesting.

But what I found even more interesting is where Bowler traces the roots of this movement:

“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.”

I was aware of E.W. Kenyon’s New Thought, but I didn’t know he was a Holiness pastor. That means he probably preached that God promises us that we can be made entirely holy in this life – we can live in “perfect love”. Its roots date very much back to John Wesley, who taught that Christians can have a “second-blessing” experience where God sanctifies the individual completely, makes them holy, and while able to sin they won’t, because God has entirely sanctified them.

Wesleyans these days preach this, to varying degrees. When I recently read John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfectionism I must say I was quite convinced of the teaching. I still am. It’s a wonderfully optimistic teaching that, if true, means we actually can live lives that are victorious over sin.

Unfortunately, that all became rather warped as the generations went by, it seems. Holiness preaching eventually became quite legalistic. And, on the other end, it seems that the optimism was taken so far as to bring us to the prosperity gospel message.

It’s easy to see why this worked well with Pentecostalism – after all, the Pentecostals taught a third blessing, of sorts, that of being empowered by the Holy Spirit.

At any rate, the article itself is quite interesting and worth a read, especially if you, like me, really don’t like Prosperity theology.

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