The Origin of Prosperity Doctrine Part V: Faith-Formula

Positive Confession and the Word of Faith movement

In 1846 Ethan O. Allen became the first American to make the faith-healing ministry his full-time vocation. By the mid-twentieth century, a hundred years later, a legion of faith-healers had descended from him and others with a developed system of theology that emphasised prosperity and healing as a divine right. Their central message resulted in a new generation of preachers that had at their disposal the enormous funds required to grow international media ministries. By the late twentieth century their radio broadcasts, publications and prime-time television shows had spread prosperity doctrine to hundreds of millions of people across many countries of the world.

The influence of New Thought

The New Thought movement of the late nineteenth century had a profound influence on a number of American leaders in the Divine Healing movement in the first half of the twentieth century who went on to become the fathers of the Positive Confession, or Faith-Formula theology of Pentecostalism.

New Thought was a movement that began after the death of Phineas P. Quimby (1802-66) when a number of his students came together to preserve his teaching. Quimby had developed an alternative system of healing through parapsychology after beginning a career as a mesmerist. Quimby taught that bodily sickness was caused when the mind believed false notions about health, and could be healed by correcting these beliefs in the mind. The movement that sprang from his protégé emphasised, not only health and healing, but also abundance, prosperity, wealth and happiness. The basic presuppositions of New Thought’s system of divine healing are, firstly, God is all reality and in God is no sickness; secondly, man is a part of God and therefore man’s sickness is not a reality; thirdly, healing occurs automatically when men believe the truth about reality.

Quimby labelled his system the ‘science’ of Christ. From Quimby came M. B. Eddy who developed Christian Science as a movement separately from New Thought and founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. From Quimby also came a new generation of faith-healers in the Divine Healing movement, such as E. W. Kenyon, John G. Lake and William M. Branham, who carried the emphasis of Quimby and New Thought into their own Pentecostal healing ministries.

E. W. Kenyon

Essek William Kenyon (1867-1948) pastored several churches in New England and founded what was later known as Providence Bible Institute. Kenyon was a student of Emerson College of Oratory, a breeding ground for New Thought philosophical ideas. He was heavily influenced by the system of P. P Quimby but adapted the ideas of the New Thought movement as he merged them together with the teachings of Divine Healing that came out of the Holiness movement.

Like Quimby, who taught that beliefs in the mind cause bodily conditions, E. W. Kenyon emphasised the combined power of belief and the tongue. He taught that the words of our mouths betray faith or fear in our minds, and the combined affect of positive or negative belief and words cause the positive or negative realities that come into existence. Kenyon’s focus on the “positive confession of the Word of God” earned the doctrine that sprang from his ministry the title, Positive Confession theology. Similar to E. O. Allen and A. B. Simpson before him, Kenyon taught prosperity as a “divine right.” Reminiscent of the laws formulated by C. G. Finney for spiritual success, Kenyon formulated laws of prosperity for daily rehearsal and recital to cultivate a mind of faith that would result in a life of complete health and material wealth.

J. G. Lake

John Graham Lake (1870-1935) was an early Pentecostal faith-healer who, after being ordained as a Methodist minister, chose to pursue commercial business and became very successful and wealthy. His wife experienced a healing under J. A. Dowie in 1898, and soon after Lake became an associate and elder in Dowie’s Zion Catholic Apostolic Church for a number of years. After the birth of Pentecostalism and his wife’s death in 1908 Lake went on to conduct a very influential healing ministry in America between 1913 and 1935. Mirroring the position of New Thought and Christian Science, J. G. Lake taught, “Man is not a separate creation detached from God, he is part of God Himself… God intends us to be gods. The inner man is the real governor, the true man that Jesus said was a god.”

W. M. Branham

William Marrion Branham (1909-65) was another very influential faith-healer in the Divine Healing movement in the first half of the twentieth century. Branham emphasised prosperity as well as healing and taught about the intrinsic power of the spoken word. Kenneth Hagin, an important propagator of the prosperity gospel in the latter part of the twentieth century, identified Branham as a prophet.

Positive Confession Theology

From E. W. Kenyon, J. G. Lake, W. M. Branham and others, the twentieth century saw a Positive Confession or Faith-Formula theology emerge in American Pentecostalism that triggered the current Prosperity movement. This theology stresses that we create reality with the words of our mouths; “what I confess, I possess.”

The key to this new theology is what has become known as ‘Rhema’ doctrine, after the original Greek word rhema, which refers to the “spoken word” (Compared to logos which refers to the “written word.”) This doctrine teaches that whatever is spoken in faith (or fear) becomes immediately inspired with dynamic power that will affect change in whatever situation it is uttered.

Kenyon held to a dichotomy concerning knowledge. He believed that two types of knowledge existed, being ‘revelation’ knowledge and ‘sense’ knowledge. ‘Revelation’ or ‘faith’ knowledge was above the realm of the senses and was the true and higher knowledge of God himself.

Kenyon held to a number of other beliefs that go against mainstream evangelical thought. He believed that Jesus died spiritually, as well as physically, and therefore, after his death on the cross, was ‘born again.’ Many of his predecessors, such as Kenneth Copeland, continue to hold to this position. His basis theological distinctives were preserved in a book published after his death: The Power of the Positive Confession of God’s Word (1977, D. Gossett and E. Kenyon).

The Word of Faith movement

E. W. Kenyon’s theology and the doctrines espoused by J. G. Lake and W. M. Branham inspired the Word of Faith movement of the latter part of the twentieth century. Also known as the Faith movement, or Word movement, it began within American Pentecostalism by emphasising divine prosperity and health through the power of the spoken word. The essential elements of this system are, firstly, that Christ won victory over sin, sickness and poverty; secondly, that believers therefore have a right to health and wealth; and thirdly, that divine health and prosperity are obtained by the positive confession of faith in the Word of God.

Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, Frederick Price, Kenneth Copeland, Don Gossett, Charles Capps and other leading proponents in this movement all directly inherited their theology from Kenyon and his contemporaries. This new generation of televangelists have enjoyed the ability to propagate the Prosperity message by means of extensive and expensive media ministries, fully funded by the giving of their movement in response to their message, thus self-perpetuating the influx of funds.

Kenneth Hagin & Oral Roberts

Kenneth E. Hagin (1917 - 2004) emphasised the power of the spoken word for victorious Christian living after E. W. Kenyon and W. M. Branham. In 1974 he founded Rhema Bible Training Centre for equipping new generations in the Faith movement with Kenyon’s Rhema doctrine. Hagin’s message promised a return on investments made to God that were given to the church.

Oral Granville Roberts (1918 - ), who was considered by Vinson Synan in 1980 the most prominent Pentecostal in the world, in 1956 was circulating his monthly magazine, Abundant Life, to over a million people. In 1969 he was reaching 64 million viewers with prime-time television programs. By 1981 he was able to open his $250 million City of Faith Medical and Research Centre to combine the healing power of faith with medicine. Roberts’ basic presuppositions were, firstly, that God is good; and, secondly, that God therefore wills to heal and prosper his people. Roberts taught that monetary giving to the church was a “seed of faith” that would return a harvest of wealth for those who had complete faith in God.

Kenneth Copeland & Charles Capps

Charles Emmitt Capps (1934 - ) is a current proponent of the Prosperity movement. After being healed by Hagin in 1969 he began teaching that words are the most powerful things in the universe. If spoken in faith, Capps taught, words carry creative power by releasing God’s ability within you. He set out his message in The Tongue, a Creative Force (1976) and in 1980 he was ordained to the “faith ministry” by K. Copeland.

Kenneth Copeland (1937 - ) is perhaps the leading proponent of the Word of Faith gospel today. In his early days, Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts had a life changing impact on Copeland. He enrolled in Oral Roberts University while attending Kenneth Hagin’s Tulsa seminars. He also mined the teachings of E. W. Kenyon, which had a determining influence on his theology. In 1973 Copeland began publishing Believer’s Voice of Victory. Like his spiritual fathers, Copeland emphasises complete prosperity – spirit, soul and body – though total commitment to God’s will.

Like John G. Lake, M. B. Eddy and P.P Quimby before them, Copeland’s teaching raises the status of humanity to a God-like level by teaching that believers possess the ability to rescue themselves from trouble by use of their ‘divine right.’ It was Copeland who said, “You impart humanity into a child that’s born of you. Because you are a human, you have imparted the nature of humanity into that born child. That child wasn’t born a whale. It was born a human. Well, now, you don’t have a God in you. You are one.”

Prosperity in Pentecostalism

Although the Word of Faith movement is currently controversial and even repudiated by some sections within Pentecostalism, the key figures who were influential in creating the underlying doctrines of this movement were all Pentecostal. Like the emphasis on Divine Healing within the Holiness movement, which naturally carried over into Pentecostalism when it emerged, the emphasis of Positive Confession theology, which pre-existed Pentecostalism, carried over into the movement from it’s origin because those who were key proponents of these doctrinal emphases became Pentecostals and continued to be leaders within the movement.

Even though many Pentecostals reject some aspects of the foundational doctrines of the Word of Faith movement, general acceptance has occurred of the overall emphasis on material abundance, positivity and the power of the spoken word, and victorious Christian living.

More on this topic

The origin, Part I - Reformation

The origin, Part II - Perfectionism

The origin, Part III - Divine Healing

The origin, Part IV - New Thought

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

Encyclopedia of occultism & parapsychology / edited by J. Gordon Melton, 5th ed, Detroit : Gale Group, c2001.

The Oxford companion to Christian thought / edited by Adrian Hastings ... [et al.], Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000. | 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.