With the recent passing of Oral Roberts, I began to ponder the Word of Faith movement and it’s impact on our present theological landscape. I grew up on a steady diet of T.V. evangelists. And as a young Christian, I adopted much of the “prosperity gospel” or “Word of Faith” message I heard. Now, there’s much within “Word of Faith” that needs correction. A friend of mine wrote a balanced treatment of that here (give it moment to download). But there’s some good things about it as well. That may be strange for you to hear, since normally people either love the “Word of Faith” message or they think it’s heresy. Sorry, I wish it were that simple. Sure, prosperity preachers say some wacked out things. But they also believe God actually cares about the day-to-day issues of life, like finances and health. And that’s something many of their detractors have no answer for. People who say God does a greater work by “healing the soul,” and not the body are completely out of touch with real life. Of course, there’s balance – God’s not gonna give you a Mercedes because you confessed it into existence. But neither am I the least bit afraid to say that God does bless people materially and financially.
Most people see the “prosperity gospel” as a new phenomenon – something created in the last 40 years or so. An “Americanized” form of Christianity that hinges upon Western consumerism and greed. And if you merely study contemporary reflections of Christianity, you may convince yourself that you are correct. But there are countless examples throughout church history that say otherwise (you can start with historians Keith Thomas, Valerie Flint, and Stephen Wilson for this information). For example, Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic, tells the story of a local parishioner who believed his excommunication was ineffective since he had his best crop production the following year. In other words, this guy thought that if God had been angry at him, he would not have received such blessing. Yet his material prosperity stated otherwise. Most Christians throughout history have followed this line of thinking.
Equating material and relational “prosperity” to Christianity is as old as the church itself. This most commonly involved alternative uses of consecrated items found within the church. Parishioners drank holy water as a cure for illness, sprinkled it on their homes, their fields, and on their cattle for protection. Clergy performed exorcisms to make fields fruitful, lit holy candles to protect animals, and spoke curses to drive away vermin, weeds, and crop destroying insects. During communion, parishioners would not swallow the host but hold it in their mouth until they returned to their seat. They then carried the host as an amulet for protection, to cure disease, or sometimes ground it into powder to sprinkle over crops as a charm against caterpillars. Christians also took the blessed palms from Palm Sunday back to their farms where they placed them above their beds, on religious pictures, over doors, or planted them in the fields to ensure good crops. They were also placed in the cradles of babies, used to ward off storms, or weaved into small crosses that the people used as talismans. The practice of making palm crosses was banned in the 1540s, yet people continued these practices to the end of the 1800s. At calendar festivals, animals were blessed by the priest, sprinkled with holy water, and ritually washed or dipped as part of ceremony for health and protection. There are reports of parishioners withholding their tithes from ministers who refused to perform such remedies.
Despite clergy’s efforts to state otherwise, Christians have always believed in a prosperity gospel. The examples above explain this thinking: though Jesus helped in the afterlife, a cross worn around the neck protected from peril now. Though the Eucharist represented a life of spiritual communion with God, the host could be sprinkled over crops now. Though the blood of Jesus atoned sin, communion wine could heal a sick child now. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the rise of such practices roughly coincided with the marginalization of spiritual gifts by clergy.
Belief in ”prosperity” did not stop with the Reformation or with the Enlightenment. With Catholic and Protestant clergy condemning their use, people continued to employ alternate methods for physical and financial well-being. In 1594, Lutheran inspectors in Germany reported that “the use of spells is so widespread among the people here that not a man or woman begins…or refrains from doing anything…without employing some particular blessing, incantation, spell, or other such heathenish means…” They did this because clergy gave them no Christian alternative. So, they found substitutes. Documented examples like this exist into the twentieth century.
So, Sam, what are you trying to say? I’m saying that most Christians (until they are taught otherwise) honestly believe that God should be willing to intervene in their daily lives bringing “prosperity” in the forms of material blessing, protection, deliverance, healing, and wealth. Telling them they shouldn’t expect such things has never deterred anyone from seeking God’s blessing. The “Word of Faith” movement is merely a modern manifestation of this. And though some may see such requests for “blessing” beneath them, the majority of Christians throughout history have thought differently. The “prosperity gospel” isn’t new. In fact, wherever you find well-meaning Christians seeking the kindness and generosity of God, you’ll find it. If God cares at all, then he must care about all aspects of our lives.