“Who started the Prosperity Movement?” – I found this question in the Search Terms list this morning and it piqued my curiosity enough to drop everything and find an answer. What I discovered is… very revealing, and helps explain why so many ‘traditional’ Christians find the movement, sometimes called the “Word of Faith” movement, vaguely disturbing.
In case anyone reading has had the good fortune not to be exposed to the Prosperity Movement, here are a few of its core beliefs. The movement has a Christian veneer and claims to revere the Bible but teaches that (a) Christians are all little gods; (b) physical illness and other forms of suffering are a result of a lack of faith; (c) God wants to prosper you, make you wealthy and successful, and help you realize your potential; (d) God MUST do anything you ask for in Jesus’ name; and (e) any church or believer who disagrees with a Word of Faith preacher/teacher is suspect and should be avoided. None of these teachings can be found in Scripture… in fact the god of the Prosperity movement has a lot more in common with Oprah than with the God of the Bible.
So who started it? Credit goes to Dr. Roger L. Smalling, minister in the Presbyterian Church of America and a career missionary in Latin America, for the answers that follow. I highly recommend his online book The Prosperity Movement: Wounded Charismatics for an intelligent, compassionate, and easy-to-read refutation of the movement.
From Chapter 4 of Dr. Smalling’s book:
“Word of Faith has its roots in a pagan cult that rivaled Christianity during the first three centuries of the Christian era, known as Gnosticism […which] held to a form of Dualism. This meant matter is bad and spirit is good. The Bible, however, teaches God created both realms and called all creation, spiritual and material, ‘good’. “[Gnostics] held that a series of spiritual laws exist between the two dimensions by which both realms could be controlled. […] A Gnostic goal was to attain to divinity and become a kind of creative “god.” This was through the “releasing” of his spirit from the material realm through his special “knowledge” of the mystical forces governing the universe.
“Iranaeus, one of the third century fathers who combated Gnosticism in his book Against Heresies, comments on the spiritual pride characteristic of Gnostics: “They consider themselves ‘mature’, so that no one can be compared with them in the greatness of their knowledge, not even if you mention Peter or Paul or any of the other apostles…” (I, XIII, 6)”
(side note: We’ve been reading a lot of Iranaeus in seminary this year. For a guy who lived in the 100-200’s AD his stuff is AMAZINGLY relevant to our day. Highly recommended reading.)
“In 1875, Mary Baker Eddy […launched] the Christian Science sect. The First Church of Christ Scientist was founded in Boston in 1879. Eddy had adapted many of the early Gnostic concepts in her writings, which included the denial of the reality of illness and matter.
“One of the early converts to Christian Science, and a member of the Mother Church from 1903 until his death in 1908, was Dr. C.W. Emerson. He founded a college in Boston […] One of the early students of Emerson’s school was a young man by the name of E.W. Kenyon. Kenyon picked up some of the Gnostic concepts and incorporated them into his own writings later on.
“The terms “Word of Faith” and “Revelation Knowledge” are found throughout Kenyon’s books. […] His booklet, Two Kinds of Knowledge, is especially dangerous because of its subtlety. In it, […] “revelation knowledge” comes directly to our spirit, bypassing both reason and the five senses. Kenyon believed that since God is spiritual, it is impossible to understand God or spiritual truth without this special “revelation.” Through this, a dangerous and subtle error enters. If a person swallows it, then the Bible itself comes to be judged by the standard of the “revelation knowledge” that one experiences subjectively. Subtly and unconsciously, the reader of Kenyon becomes his own standard of truth. […] Untrained Christians eager for supernatural experiences can easily fall into Kenyon-style mysticism.
“Kenyon died in 1948, but the Gnostic torch didn’t die with him. It was embraced by a young Pentecostal hungry for the supernatural, Kenneth Hagin… the recognized founder and leader of the Word of Faith movement. Hagin praises Kenyon to the skies in one of his first books, The Name of Jesus, and confesses his deep indebtedness to him. Hagin later passed on these teachings to Kenneth Copeland. Through Copeland came Charles Capps, Jerry Savelle, and others. T.L. Osborn also expressed deep debt to Kenyon in a letter to Kenyon’s granddaughter in 1972, calling an him “an Apostle.”
Smalling then goes on to quote from Hagin’s book Art of Intercession, in which Hagin describes being visited by and having conversations with a Jesus-spirit: “During this visit, the supposed Jesus-spirit gave him a startling “revelation.” All the theologians in the past who taught that God was in absolute control of all things were wrong. Hagin claims, “God is not ruling in this world … And God cannot do anything unless somebody down here asks him.””
This revelation can be countered with the following scripture passages: “Whatever the Lord pleases He does, in heaven and in earth… Psalm 135:6; “That the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men…” Daniel 4:17 Smalling concludes: “Am I implying that the “being” who visited Kenneth Hagin and gave him the Word of Faith revelations is not really Jesus Christ, but a deceiving demon? Be assured, I am not implying it. I’m stating it as a fact.”
Smalling believes the Charismatic movement was, at least in part, hijacked by Hagin and his friends. The Charismatic movement, which rightfully sought a fresh understanding of and experience of the Holy Spirit in worship and in life — as opposed to the “dead orthodoxy” of the mainline churches in the 1960s and 70s — unfortunately threw out the baby with the bathwater by not grasping the possibility of a “living orthodoxy”. This left the Charismatic movement theologically defenseless when Hagin came along. Smalling writes:
“The movement gained momentum with the more articulate and younger Kenneth Copeland. His book Laws of Prosperity launched him to Faith Movement stardom, offering a new worldview that filled in the theological gaps left by an abandoned orthodoxy. Books by “faith” teachers flooded the market and the new Charismatics snapped them up like starving fish after bait. Sadly, cash flow rather than truth determined what books appeared in the Christian market. Those with a dissenting voice found it difficult to get their books published.
“An even bigger boon for the Prosperity Movement came in the 80’s when Paul Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), announced the faith movement was the route he would take in his programming. Jim Bakker of the PTL Network and Paul Crouch endorsed the faith movement’s concepts, giving it worldwide exposure. Result: Gnosticism, disguised under the banner of “faith,” began to root itself deeply into the psyche of American Charismatics.”
Smalling also notes — quite rightly — that not all Charismatics were taken in by this heresy.
“The influence of the Prosperity Movement has been partially stemmed by three factors. First, the Assemblies of God, the largest and most influential Pentecostal denomination in the world, repudiated the Word of Faith teachings in an official position paper. Second, two books warning about the movement were published and became well known: Hank Hanegraaf’s, Christianity In Crisis and Dave Hunt’s Seduction of Christianity. Finally, the most serious blow came with the fall of Jim Bakker (PTL) in the late ‘80’s, and similar scandals among American TV evangelists. These events, however, were only a trimming of the branches and failed to penetrate the roots of the movement, namely Hagin and Copeland and their false god. Though weakened, the tree still flourishes in the U.S. today.”
So that’s the “family tree” of the Prosperity Movement, from the roots down.
I can’t stress enough how spiritually dangerous this stuff is! I’ve met so many people who have followed it for awhile and become completely disillusioned, not only with the church but with God Himself. It must be understood: the Word of Faith / Prosperity movement is not of Christ. It has nothing to do with the God of the Bible and everything to do with ancient teachings of pagan Greek philosophers.