Self-Help Jesus in America

Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel

By Allie Rash
Allie Rash is a rising senior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She hails from Franklin, TN, but calls North Carolina and Kansas home as well.  This Spring Allie completed an independent study with Prof. Mike Altman on ideas of self-help in American Protestantism. In this post she reviews the final book they read together, Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. This post originally appeared on Allie’s independent study blog, Self-Help Jesus.

The final book we read for this semester is called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler. And, as the title assures, it made for a beautiful finish to my quest. In my first post I laid out three questions I would try to keep in mind during this semester and they were:

(1) Where did the ‘self-help’ movement in American Protestantism come from?
(2) What about it is particularly American?
(3) What’s at stake? What’s the appeal of it?

And, I have to say, Dr. Bowler’s book definitely hit the nail on the head for all three.

For the first: where did it come from? Well, obviously the whole book talks about that, so I’ll just point out something that really struck me from it. One thing I was interested in was how she laid out the way the Prosperity Gospel attached itself to mainstream Protestantism through the crossing paths of pentecostalism and evangelicalism. This began, as Bowler puts it as “the prosperity gospel hatched inside pentecostalism soon found that its universal reassurances could carry it far beyond any denominational sectarian home (42).” She goes on to show how a period of intermingling between these Christian parties gave birth to the widespread embrace of a self-help Gospel writing in American Protestant circles. She spoke at length on how this mingling created a unity of sorts, where speakers of all different theological perspectives could come and agree along prosperity lines.

“It was not unusual to see a Catholic priest, an Episcopal pastor, and a pentecostal evangelist sharing the same platform at Full Gospel Business Men’s dinners or the thousand of other conferences revivals, crusades, and missions sponsored by a multitude of churches and para-church organizations.” (72)

This answered a question I had of how exactly this vein in Protestantism made the jump from tent revivals and healing campaigns to a casual ‘way of thinking.’ Bowler addresses this even further as she discusses the ways the Prosperity Gospel resonated with Americans throughout the 20th century. Which brings us to resolving the next question of what exactly is particularly American about it?

This book succinctly laid out the shifts in presentation, reception, and even ideology the Prosperity Gospel underwent as America underwent changes economically, globally, and socially. When Americans were sickened by institutionalism, the stream of “charismatic renewal” resonated perfectly with discontent citizens and churchgoers (70). Bowler states that as “outsiders called it baptized materialism; followers called it living in the overflow (95),” an example that at every twist and turn of American culture, the Prosperity Gospel was right there to twist and turn with it. One thing that seems constant throughout, however, is “America’s culture of optimism” that was central to the self-help movement (227).

It is as if this gospel of health and wealth gave an excuse to the excess the ‘American Dream’ had to offer. Anywhere a negative outlook lay, this movement had a way of promoting it as the work of God. Mantras like “blessed to be a blessing” spread like wildfire through American speech, dissolving any possible guilt that material possessions or success may bring. Even more, it claims those things as bestowed gifts by God to deserving children, and therefore encourages what Bowler refers to as “the American tradition of rugged self-reliance (227).” As you take responsibility for having the faith to receive your blessings from God, you’re freed up to enjoy those blessings as you receive them. It’s a combination of the American striving for betterment, and the Christian striving to see the evidence of God in this life. It’s, quite perfectly, American Christianity.

Which, then leads to the answer of the third question we began this journey with: what’s at stake, what’s the appeal? Throughout Bowler’s book it seemed to me that the appeal of this Prosperity Gospel is that combination of the desire for betterment in this life, alongside the desire to see and affirm your beliefs about God. The Prosperity Gospel lets you see the gospel, and I think that is the appeal of it. It allows for the believer to cut down the unknown nature of spirituality, and instead “use their everyday experiences as spiritual weights and measures (9).”

“The Norman Vincent Peales and Oral Roberts of the decade simply reminded people of the goodness of God and the endless possibilities embedded in the everyman’s life.” (60)

America, this land of endless possibilities, needed a Christianity that reminded it’s citizens of that. Go-getter, work-smarter-not-harder, individualistic and determined Americans needed to determine their faith as well.

“In prayer cloths and happy thoughts alike, people discovered the merits of applied Christianity.  It was faith they could put to work.” (60)

When I initially set out on this journey, my own naturally critical and cynical attitude assumed that the appeal of this Gospel was how it promised ‘stuff’ to greedy and selfish Americans. And, surely, I can’t say that isn’t some of the appeal of it. But something Blessed showed me that I’ll appreciate both for this study and in my future endeavors as a scholar, is to be open to conclusions you weren’t initially expecting. I found in her book a small picture being woven of Christians desperate to see the hand of God in their lives, desperate as many today are of affirmation of their beliefs and convictions that they devote their lives to. And this self-help message gives them that, in a convenient “American” sort of way. It allowed 20th century Christian Americans to combine their national convictions with their religious ones; it gave these followers of Christianity a renewed hope in what they believed. Bowler, naturally, states it best:

“It represented the triumph of American optimism over the realities of a fickle economy, entrenched racism, pervasive poverty, and theological pessimism that foretold the future as dangling by a thread.  Countless listeners reimagined their ability as good Christians – as good Americans – to leapfrog over any obstacles (7).”

All in all, Blessed was a wonderful round-up to this semester’s study. And throughout it all I’ve learned myriads of names and histories, read incredible books, and taken a swell intellectual quest. I feel like I’ve grown as a student, a scholar, and a human being. So, thanks for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed it; I’ve certainly enjoyed writing!