How the Prosperity Gospel Works

History and Evolution of the Prosperity Gospel

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
Minister and author Dr Norman Vincent Peale works at his desk in New York City, 1966. His book "The Power of Positive Thinking" put a modern and religious spin on New Thought philosophy. Roger Higgins/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The prosperity gospel didn't come out of thin air. It's the result of more than a century of self-help movements and spiritual revivals coalescing into a shiny new form of American-made Christianity.

Its roots go back to the "New Thought" movement of mid-19th century America popular with non-religious thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, which taught that the individual could exercise power over the material world with his thoughts. One popular New Thought writer taught his followers to "See yourself in a prosperous condition. Affirm that you will before long be in a prosperous condition" [source: Burton].

Around the end of that century, a pastor named E.W. Kenyon put a Christian spin on New Thought and taught that people should avoid thinking or saying things associated with sickness or poverty. Instead, they should say, "God's strength is mine. God's health is mine. His success is mine" [source: Bowler].

Another key ingredient in the prosperity gospel is the Protestant work ethic, a term coined by Max Weber in 1905, which introduced the idea that financial success could be tied to a certain type of hardworking Christian faith. Calvinists, who believed that some people were predestined to be saved, pointed to outward signs like wealth to justify their "elect" status [source: Burton].

But the two clearest influences on the prosperity gospel were two unrelated movements born after World War II. The first is the rise of Pentecostal tent revivals, charismatic roadshows of faith healing that spread out across the U.S. and Canada. This firebrand form of Pentecostalism placed a strong emphasis on outward manifestations of spiritual gifts. First and foremost was speaking in tongues, in which the spirit poured out of individuals in the form of a divine language.

The second influential post-war movement was spawned by Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 bestseller "The Power of Positive Thinking," which introduced a modern update to the occult practices of New Thought. Peale taught that when a person thinks positively, they "set in motion positive forces which bring positive results to pass." Interestingly, Peale was also the pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in New York, where a young Donald Trump and his parents attended church.

The first true prosperity preachers like Oral Roberts blended all of these ingredients together to create a new religious worldview that combined the focused positive thinking of Peale with the Pentecostal belief in physical manifestations of faith. It was a short trip from speaking in tongues, to receiving gifts of physical healing through faith, to receiving gifts of all kinds, including material wealth.

Roberts became one of America's first televangelists in the 1960s, spawning a succession of prosperity preachers who used the medium to connect with growing audiences of believers who were eager to donate money to the church in return for God delivering a "seven-fold" return on the investment.

Some of today's most popular prosperity preachers like Lakewood's Joel Osteen made a conscious turn away from the crass methods of now-disgraced 1980s televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and latched onto the therapeutic language popular in modern American life [source: Sinitiere]. In other words, they made a break with "hard prosperity" teaching, often derisively referred to as "name it and claim it" for what might be called "soft prosperity." Osteen's message is more about internal "blessings" and "living your best life" — which includes financial comforts, of course — but also having inner peace and joy. Osteen could be the poster child for this "best life" since he is said to be worth $60 million and lives in a 17,000-square-foot house [source: Finn]. His followers like the fact that his message is always positive, long on love and short on hellfire.

Of course, the prosperity gospel is much more than big-name preachers with millions of Twitter followers. It's a religious practice followed by faithful believers around the world. Let's find out what that looks like.