The Origin of Prosperity Doctrine Part II: Perfectionism

Christian Perfection and Wealth through Virtue

How did the present-day emphasis on prosperity in Pentecostalism come to the point of promising material wealth now through faith to all Christian by means of Christ's work on the cross?

In Part I of this article we saw that the origin of the prosperity doctrine can be traced back as far as the radical changes of the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, and in particular to the foundational influence of the Reformation work ethic and the consequent emphasis within Protestantism on the pursuit of money for the sake of society and the good of the church.

More directly, however, the prosperity doctrine of Pentecostalism has it's origin in the theological developments of the seventeen, eighteen and nineteen hundreds within Methodism and the Holiness movement. In Part II of this article we'll discuss the part played by John Wesley and Charles Finney's 'Christian perfection,' (1800s) and the key doctrinal developments of the nineteenth century that gave rise to the prosperity doctrine.

Wesley's Christian Perfection

The influence of the Protestant Reformation in eighteenth-century Methodism under John Wesley (1703-1791) saw a new focus emerge on Christian perfection. 'The Holy Club,' which began with John Wesley, his brother Charles and George Whitefield, stressed 'inward' religion and insisted on strict discipline and organisation, and by 1729 had earned themselves the title, 'Methodists.' Welsey was strongly influenced by Luther's Reformation principles. By 1739 the Methodists, under Wesley's control, had become a rapidly spreading movement of clubs, societies and bands, with highly committed members to the Movement's 'rules' of holiness, discipline, evangelism and good works.

John Wesley's contribution to Pentecostalism came particularly from his development of a unique teaching regarding Christian 'perfection.' In A Short Account of Christian Perfection (1760) Wesley urged Christians to seek a second work of grace involving 'entire sanctification.' Entire sanctification would be attained the moment a Christian, having progressed in holiness, became completely devoid of self-interest.

This doctrine of 'Christian perfection' had a strong inluence on Charles Finney, who later contributed to the development of Pentecostalism's prosperity doctrine. Welsey did not view prosperity himself to be 'supernatural blessing through faith,' but rather emphasised 'natural prosperity through hard work.' It was he who said, "religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches." He added, however, "Whenever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased. Therefore I do not see how it is possible in the nature of things for any revival of religion to continue long... As riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of this world in all its branches." His motto, however, has an ongoing influence: "Get all you can, save all you can, and give all you can."

Growing prosperity

The Industrial Revolution dramatically increased the levels of wealth in the West. In addition to industrialisation, significant changes occurred in the nineteenth-century that made America, in particular, conducive to rapid economic growth, such as unprecedented licence for free enterprise and a revolution in transportation with the construction of an extensive railroad system. As a result, between 1775 and 1850, America experienced a prolific escalation in the material wealth of the nation.


Consequently over the nineteenth-century longstanding views within American society regarding prosperity began to change. In 1790 Benjamin Franklin left at his death his incomplete Autobiography that recounted his life's journey from 'rags-to-riches,' entirely by means of his own ingenuity. This was pehaps the first of an entire genre that followed of self-help literature that continues today, designed to motivate readers to accelerate their own efforts toward fortune and fame. His prosperity maxims, such as 'Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,' and 'There is no gain without pain,' have inspired a view of man as the master of his own fate, whose success or failure is proportional to the quality of his character and determination. With the demise of aristocracy, the meritocratic society that followed awarded prosperity to those with the best combination of intelligence (talent) and effort (character).

Finney's Perfectionism

Methodism evolved through the influence of Charles G. Finney to place central emphasis on a higher Christian life of blessing from God and the central role of human ability as a means to bring God's blessing and the Spirit's power.

Charles Finney (1792-1875) spent the last 40 years of his life constructing a theology of revival. Underpinning all of his doctrine was his teaching that the practice of Christian perfection was the attainable duty of all Christians. Finney was significantly influenced by Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection, which crystallised his belief in 'entire sanctification' as a state of perfect trust in God and committment to his will.

Finney also taught that God had established the means by which humans could produce revival. He believed, not only that individuals possessed the ability within themselves to make a choice to follow Christ, but also that Christians possessed the power within themselves to live holy lives. He taught that the result of God's help combined with strenuous human effort was blessing and revival. "A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of it's means." In his Revival Lectures, Finney taught that God had revealed laws of revival in Scripture. Thus, when the Church obeyed these laws, spiritual renewal followed.

In 1835 Charles Finney and Asa Mahan joined together with perfectionist leaders in Methodism. Later, Walter and Phoebe Palmer used Finney's revival methods in the Holiness movement to call Christians to a second experience of the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion that required total committment.

By 1836, when Finney became professor of Oberlin College in Ohio, he had developed a distinct doctrinal emphasis that was to be a key ingredient within the developing Holiness movement and Pentecostalism that followed it. "An all together higher and more stable form of Christian life was attainable and was the priviledge of all Christians." The prosperity doctrine of Pentecostalism inherited the emphasis of Finney and others in Methodism and the Holiness movement on a Christian's ability by means of complete committment and faith to bring the Holy Spirit's blessing.

Positive Thinking

Finney was broke with the Calvinism of the post-Reformation era. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the classical theologian of revival, had emphasised the sovereignty of God in and the inability of men to produce revival. Finney emphasised human choice in conversion and the ability of men to create revivals by use of human means. Finney psychologised conversion. His Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1854) taught techniques for success. The positive thinking movement that developed in the second half of the nineteenth century can be traced to the radical influence on American society of Finney’s emphasis on human ability.

Also a part of the origin of the positive thinking movement was the transcendentalism of Henry D. Thoreau and others. In the secular world of 1854, Thoreau developed a view of faith as a psychological faculty that expressed itself as self-confidence in human ability to triumph against the odds.

Wealth through Virtue

The doctrine of Christian leaders in many Protestant denominations also began to change over the nineteenth-century. Perhaps the most famous example is Reverend Thomas P. Hunt, who in 1836 wrote The Book of Wealth: In Which it is Proved from the Bible that it is the Duty of Every Man to Become Rich, which soon became a bestseller.

John D. Rockefeller, the Baptist minister, explained to one of his Sunday-school classes, "The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest... It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God," portraying his own influence from the Social Darwinism movement of the day (Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, 1850).

A new 'wealth-through-virtue' gospel developed. Andrew Carnegie, who was also a self-stated fan of Spencer's Social Darwinism, taught that an honest days work was 'not a bad sort of prayer.' The Baptist Charles H. Conwell taught, "It is your duty to get rich... To make money honestly is to preach the gospel." William Lawrence, the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, writing in 1892, argued: "In the long run, it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes. We, like the Psalmist, occasionally see the wicked prosper, but only occasionally. Godliness is in league with riches."

More on this topic

The origin of the prosperity doctrine - Part III

The origin of the prosperity doctrine - Part I

What Pentecostals believe about prosperity

Changing views on money

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Burgess, Stanley M., et. al., The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, 2003, Zondervan.

De Botton, Alain. Status Anxiety, Camberwell, Vic. : Hamish Hamilton, 2004, p. 85.

Water, Mark, The new encyclopedia of Christian quotations, Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, c2000. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.