A History of the American Prosperity Gospel

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the history of Christianity in the United States at Duke Divinity School, has just released her first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel with Oxford University Press.

Bowler spent eight years traveling, interviewing and researching archives to tell the first broad account of the prosperity gospel, one of the most popular religious movements of the last 50 years. Rather than track a series of individuals or isolated churches, the book seeks to show how millions of American Christians came to see money, health, and good fortune as divine.

Bowler traveled across North America and even to Israel with controversial faith healer Benny Hinn to see what these millions of American Christians had in common. In her book, she isolates particular hallmarks—faith, wealth, health and victory—that unified thousands of diverse churches spread across denominational, ethnic and regional lines. Despite that no church wants to be identified as a “prosperity” church, Bowler argues that this complex movement can still be mapped.

Her research began in her hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada when an unusually large church sprang up with a message Bowler had never heard before: “God wants you to prosper.” To her surprise, this church celebrated their pastor’s wealth, even giving him a motorcycle (which he drove into the sanctuary and on stage) in their Pastor’s Appreciation Day festivities.

In her book, Bowler concludes that the emphasis on money cannot be reduced to greed but that believers love how this gospel shows them how to comb through their own lives for evidence of God’s provision.

“This is not a story about how a few brave souls smuggled money into Pentecostalism,” she argues, “but about how American believers learned to use everyday experiences as spiritual weights and measures.”

In interviews with lifelong believers, Bowler finds that the main currency for the movement is hope. This hope, she writes, is the shared and “stubborn assurance that for us the Gospel is good news. But just how good is for readers and the faithful to decide.”

Bowler teaches courses at the Divinity School in American Christianity and world Christianity with an emphasis on historical and ethnographic methods. Her research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, megachurches, and religion and ethnicity.

 

See a review of the book in Publishers Weekly.