Behind the Prosperity Gospel

Followers believe God wants them to be rich—not just spiritually but materially.

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The message of the Prosperity Gospel is simple: God wants Christians to prosper in all aspects of life, and that includes their finances. The gospel dates to the early 1900s and the writings of E. W. Kenyon, a New England church leader and schoolmaster. Kenyon's books later inspired Kenneth Hagin, a Texas preacher of the 1950s and '60s who is often called the father of the modern Prosperity Gospel, or Word of Faith, movement.

Hagin stressed that repeated prayer would bring health and wealth, a message advanced by his modern disciples, including Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston. Adherents point to such biblical passages as 2 Corinthians 8:9, in which Paul says, "[Y]et for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich." They also cite Deuteronomy 8:18, which says, "But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth."

The Prosperity Gospel has found its home not in church buildings but in television and radio, mass media that have allowed it to reach hundreds of thousands of worshipers worldwide.

Seventeen percent of Christians, according to a 2006 poll, consider themselves part of the movement. The gospel's unorthodoxy, however, has inspired steady criticism. It has been dubbed "name it and claim it," and "blab it and grab it." Mainstream Protestant ministers have called it "disgusting" and "dangerous." And they cite their own biblical passages to counter its message. One is in the Book of Matthew: "'Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal."