Blessed, A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler

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The prosperity gospel has emerged from the roots of the 19th century New Thought movement, coupled with elements of 20th century Pentecostalism and the American “can-do” spirit, to become the dominant force in 21st century Christianity, especially in America but increasingly exported globally (chapter one).  Professor Kate Bowler spent years researching for this book, visiting 25 percent of all prosperity megachurches, attending all of the major conferences and participating for 18 months in a small African American prosperity church (p. 261).   Her research is thorough, objective and insightful.  The book is developed according to a three-fold thesis (p. 7):

  • Seeking to show how millions of American Christians came to see money, health, and good fortune as divine.
  • Documenting the transformation of Americans who question an ethic of self-denial, and replacing it with a method of reaching into “God’s treasure trove and pulling out a miracle”.
  • Explaining how the prosperity gospel is centered on four themes: faith, wealth, health, and victory.

Much of Bowler’s work is that of a historian.  She traces the history and development of the prosperity gospel from its New Thought beginnings which led to positive thinking (p. 36), including the influence of Norman Vincent Peale (pp. 55-60). This was followed by the healing revivals of the 1940s and 1950s (pp. 39-55), the charismatic movement of the 1960s and the subsequent Vineyard Movement which opened the door between Pentecostalism and the traditional church.  It was through this door that the prosperity gospel entered main-stream Christianity (p. 76).  The Full Gospel Business Men’s Association became an important catalyst for the spread of this rising brand of Pentecostalism (pp. 82, 121).  Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts and the Copelands all played major roles in the early spread of prosperity teachings.  The mantle was later picked up by a great number of Word of Faith and prosperity leaders such as Benny Hinn, Jimmy Bakker, Fred Price, David Cho, Paul Crouch, Marilyn Hickey, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Randy & Paula White, and Joel Osteen.  By 1970 there were 50 prosperity megachurches; by 1990 there were 310 (pp. 100, 181-186).  The number has greatly increased since then.

It is interesting that, when questioned, most prosperity teachers deny the title (p. 249) but they can be identified by their common teachings such as (see chart p. 253):

  • Positive confession (our words determine our life (pp. 22, 66-68, 187-190, 225)).
  • Healing in the atonement (pp. 18, 95, 149).
  • Promise of health
  • Sowing and reaping.
  • Rhema – or Word of Faith Theology
  • Seed faith
  • Victory in this life as our destiny (p. 179).
  • The law of attraction – our words and faith attract good or ill (p. 236).

Some form of the prosperity gospel has now won over the majority of Christians worldwide.   Its appeal is well summarized by Bowler:

The prosperity movement offers a comprehensive approach to the human condition.  It sees men and women as creatures fallen, but not broken, and it shares with them a “gospel,” good news that will set them free from a multitude of oppressions…The faith movement sells a compelling bill of goods: God, wealth, and a healthy body to enjoy it…The prosperity gospel’s chief allure is simple optimism (p. 232).

Blessed is a most helpful book for understanding the theology, history, and dangers of the prosperity movement.

Blessed, A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 337 pp., paper $18.91

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel

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