I sometimes say that the most original gospel message America ever gave to the world was the "health and wealth gospel" of the media evangelists. No one was more flamboyant in preaching such a message than the late Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, or "The Rev. Ike." For Rev. Ike the love of money was not the root of all evil. Salvation, for him, was found in personal success and material prosperity. He used to say, "Don't wait for your pie in the sky, by and by. Say I want my pie right now—and I want it with ice cream on top!" Money, he often said was, "God in action." The man sure knew how to turn a phrase.
I suppose most readers under 40 would have little or no recognition of the name of Rev. Ike. For my generation he was just odd enough to capture our interest in the 1970s. Born June 1, 1935 in Ridgeland, South Carolina, Frederick Eikerenkoetter was of African American and Dutch-Indonesian descent. Rev. Ike began his career as a teen preacher and later became the assistant pastor of the Bible Way Church in Ridgeland, South Carolina. He served a stint as an assistant to an Air Force chaplain (as a non-commissioned officer assigned to assist chaplains) and then founded several churches and ministries. His first church was the United Church of Jesus Christ in Beaufort, South Carolina. He founded the United Christian Evangelistic Association in Boston and then the Christ Community United Church in New York City, located on 175th Street in Manhattan. The Chicago Tribune says Rev. Ike received a "clear call to the ministry" at age seven. This is typical of the cultural Christianity that he grew up with in that time.
Eikerenkoetter attended the American Bible College, a school in Oklahoma that closed in 2005. American Biblical College says that it was known as a Bible-based evangelical, fundamental and nondenominational college with solid, conservative values. The school also says (on a Web site) that it was pleased to have both students and faculty from dozens of denominational and independent churches and backgrounds. The statement of faith affirmed the following:
• We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
• We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
• We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
• We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
• We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
• We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
• We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Whatever Rev. Ike got at this Bible school he clearly did not remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. After he moved to New York City he seized upon Psalm 23 and said his philosophy was based upon these words: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." He began to spread a message of personal empowerment and wealth saying the best thing you can do for the poor is to "not be one of them." At the height of Rev. Ike's ministry he had 2.5 million listeners on 1,770 radio stations. He later went into television preaching in ten major markets, which is how I first saw him in Chicago. One wrote that he "toured the nation like a soul-music star, attracting thousands to his sermons." He had unique ways for soliciting money and made no bones about his desire to collect all that he could. He lived a lavish lifestyle and flaunted his fleet of cars. He drove Cadillacs, Bentley's and Rolls-Royce's. He once said, "My garage runneth over."
Rev. Ike had a stroke in 1977 and never recovered, dying on July 28, 2009. He is survived by his wife of forty-nine years and his one son, who now runs his "metaphysical church." What Rev. Ike eventually did was create a new type of "mind science." For example, he began a Business of Living Institute and called the philosophy "Thinkonomics." He taught his followers: "Anything that you can honestly think and feel that you deserve must come to you." The guy was creative if nothing else.
When guys like Rev. Ike come flashing across the scene and then fade away I wonder what happens to the multitudes of people who flock to hear them in their prime? In the case of Rev. Ike most evangelicals clearly saw through his flamboyance and false teaching. Yet he pioneered a style and a communication presence that went into the mainstream over time. Ironically Rev. Ike was investigated by the U. S. government for money matters but he was never convicted. He also avoided the kinds of scandals that plagued more orthodox preachers with similar backgrounds to his own.
Rev. Ike was one of the earliest proponents of what we now call "prosperity theology." He argued that we should not feel guilty about riches. He taught people to embrace prosperity as a wonderful gift.
Here is the sad irony. Prosperity is a gift. And we should not feel guilty if we are given this gift. The problem is teaching people that God wills for everyone to prosper if they just have enough faith, or the right kind of faith. What Rev. Ike shamelessly promoted seemed odd to many in the 1970s. Now, forty years later, it seems less odd since so many elements of this message are used with a sprinkle of "mind science" so as to create the modern versions of the same message, albeit with a stronger dose of teaching about the cross and the work of Christ in salvation.
The question here is not really about wealth. It is not even about thinking positively. The real question is about living well and what living well really means. Those who live well will also die well. And those who live well will truly trust God and live for his glory. Because they live well they then will be prepared for the judgment which is sure to come. "It is appointed to man to die once and after that to face the judgment."
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We were just talking at church on Wednesday about the concept of God’s answering all prayers and giving you what you pray for. Some people feel that anything prayed for would eventually net a positive answer by God. It is a form of the Gospel of prosperity and is certainly a works based notion. The discussion was a good one and no blood was shed, thankfully. I remember hearing a story about Rev. Ike who said during the collection portion of his preaching, “I don’t want to hear the harsh clank of pocket change in the collection plate. I only want to hear the smooth sound of folding money.” I guess Ike had his prayers answered but I take no comfort in that.
I think some of the people who flock to the prosperity preachers are mired in poverty and want hope that things can get better (some are probably just materialistic).
How are we going to address this longing to have enough to eat, a house to live in, etc.?
The church must walk alongside the poor (not give handouts) to help them holistically. The movement of the kingdom is towards building a people whose hearts and minds are ruled by the gracious king.
Thanks for the engaging remarks on the prosperity gospel. I was reading ‘Christianty Today’ website earlier and saw an article that I thought complemented your thoughts so well by Mark Galli.
The article Galli did was a review of atheist contrarian Bruce Shieman’s book “An Atheist Defends Religion: Why humanity is better off with religion than without it.” I’d tried sending this earlier but here are Galli’s words again:
“The gospel isn’t primarily about helping individuals to live their life they’ve always wanted; it tells people to die to their yearning for self-fulfillment . . . It’s not about improving people, but killing the old self and creating them anew . . . The gospel is about the cross, which puts a nail in the coffin of religion as such. And the gospel is about resurrection—-not an improvement nor an adjustment, but the breaking in of a completely new life because the old life has been obliterated.”