Oral Roberts died this week and the obituaries have been abuzz with analyses of his life and legacy.
The USA Today headline summed up his contributions this way: “Oral Roberts brought health-and-wealth Gospel mainstream.” The Los Angeles Times gave a similar snapshot of the man: “Oral Roberts dies at 91; televangelist was pioneering preacher of the ‘prosperity gospel‘”
But Christianity Today‘s lead blogger, Ted Olsen, disagreed. He responded with a post titled “Why the Oral Roberts Obituaries Are Wrong.” The long subtitle at the head of Olsen’s post explained: “The ‘faith-healer’ (who hated the term) may have done much to mainstream Pentecostalism, but he was no architect of the Prosperity Gospel.”
Olsen’s argument, essentially, is that the real founder and mastermind of prosperity doctrine was not Oral Roberts but Kenneth Hagin, “who is far more widely recognized as the man who joined Pentecostalism with the Faith Movement (also called ‘Word-Faith,’ or derogatively, the Prosperity Gospel or ‘Health and Wealth’ gospel).”
Olsen, however, is wrong. He has evidently confused two categories. It is quite true that Kenneth Hagin is the main prosperity preacher who popularized word-faith doctrine–the notion that the words we speak determine the blessings we receive. Hagin borrowed that doctrine from an earlier, lesser-known preacher–E. W. Kenyon. (A mountain of evidence suggests that Hagin actually plagiarized large portions of his published works from Kenyon’s writings.) Kenyon had been strongly influenced by the teachings of New Thought, a 19th-century metaphysical cult similar to Christian Science. So Hagin’s word-faith doctrines had deeply cultic roots, but the idea fit perfectly with the prosperity doctrines that were already being taught by A. A. Allen, Oral Roberts, Jack Coe, and other faith-healers. The two ideas were natural complements to one another.
Still, word-faith doctrine and the prosperity gospel are not synonymous. (Even the current Wikipedia entry acknowledges this: “Although [the Word of Faith movement] shares teachings in common with Prosperity theology, they are not the same thing.”) Prosperity doctrine is the notion that God’s favor is expressed mainly through physical health and material prosperity, and that these blessings are available for the claiming by anyone who has sufficient faith.
Oral Roberts was certainly the 20th century’s leading advocate of that idea. His prosperity doctrine laid the foundation for an enormous media-based religious system, and Oral Roberts was indeed its chief architect. It is preposterous that Christianity Today would try to whitewash that fact. Prosperity teaching was what Roberts himself wanted to be remembered for.
After he embraced prosperity doctrine, Oral Roberts’ best-known and most far-reaching brainchild was the Seed-Faith message. Roberts taught that money and material things donated to his organization were the seeds of prosperity and material blessings from God, and that God promises to multiply in miraculous ways whatever is given–and give many times more back to the donor. It was a simple, quasi-spiritual get-rich-quick scheme that appealed mainly to poor, disadvantaged, and desperate people. It generated untold millions for Roberts’ empire and was quickly adopted by a host of similarly-oriented Pentecostal and Charismatic media ministries. The Seed-Faith principle is the main cash-cow that built and has supported vast networks of televangelists who barter for their viewers’ money with fervent promises of “miracles”–and the miracles are invariably described in terms of material blessings, mainly money. Elsewhere I have compared this doctrine to the mentality of the post-WWII cargo cults.
Tragically, the Seed-Faith message usurped and utterly replaced whatever gospel content there ever may have been in Oral Roberts’ preaching.
This post was last updated: Dec. 27, 2009
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