At the end of my recent post “Let me introduce you to a con man (probably)” I discussed the possibility that these televangelists might not be con artists. It’s possible that they really believe their own drivel. Today I’m going to defend that argument, and explain why that’s actually much worse than if they were all frauds.
Now, I realise it seems naive to even entertain the idea that these guys aren’t con men. Just look at the bullshit they spout!
This is from R.W. Shambach’s book, You Can’t Beat God Givin’. It’s a story called “The Twenty-Six Miracles,” which my dad read to me as a boy. Here’s the full text; I’ll just give you the edited highlights.
“A woman brought her child, who had twenty-six major diseases, to our meeting. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. The boy was born blind, deaf and mute. Both arms were crippled and deformed. His elbows protruded up into his little tummy; his knees touched his elbows. Both legs were crippled and deformed; he had club feet. When he was born, his doctors said that boy would never live to see his first birthday, but they were wrong; he was approaching four years of age.
“The following Sunday, his mother came to me and said, ‘Brother Schambach, I’m down to my last twenty dollars. I’ve paid the hotel bill, but we’ve been eating in the restaurant, coming to three services a day and giving in every offering. All the money has run out. My baby has not been prayed for.’ She was very upset, and she was ready to give up and go home.
“That night I came out, and I led the singing in that evening service. Then I introduced Brother A. A. Allen, and he came bouncing out on that platform and said ‘Tonight we’re going to receive an offering of faith.’ I had never heard him use that expression before, and I saw eyebrows lift all over the congregation. He went on, ‘Now, if you don’t know what I mean when I say an ‘offering of faith,’ I mean for you to give God something you cannot afford to give. That’s a good definition, isn’t it? If you can afford it, there’s no faith connected to it. So give Him something you can’t afford to give.’
“As soon as Brother Allen said that, I saw that boy’s mother leap out into the aisle and come running… I never saw anybody in such a hurry to give, and, I confess, I was nosy. I came down off that platform to see what she had given. You know what I saw in that bucket? A twenty dollar bill.
“. . . Brother Allen went on and collected the offering and launched into his sermon. But about fifteen minutes into his message he stopped and said, ‘I’m being carried away in the Spirit.’
“Then he said, ‘I’m inside the hospital, and there’s no doubt in my mind where I’m heading because I hear all these babies crying. It’s a maternity ward. I see five doctors around a table. A little baby has been born. The baby was born with twelve, no, sixteen, no, twenty-six diseases.’
“Brother Allen continued, ‘Twenty-six diseases. The doctors said he’d never live to see his first birthday, but that’s not so. That boy is approaching four. Now I see the mother packing a suitcase… Lady you’re here tonight. Bring me that baby! God’s going to give you twenty-six miracles.’
“That woman came running again for the second time that night. She put the baby in Brother Allen’s arms…
“That little boy’s tongue had been hanging out of his mouth all week. The first thing I saw as Brother Allen prayed was that tongue snapped back in the mouth like a rubber band. For the first time in four years, the little guy’s tongue was in his mouth. I saw two little whirlpools in his eyes, just a milky color. You couldn’t tell whether he had blue or brown or what color of eyes. But during the prayer, that whirlpool ceased, and I saw two brand new brown eyes! I knew God had opened his eyes, and if God opened the eyes, I knew He had unstopped the deaf ears.
“Then those little arms began to snap like pieces of wood; and for the first time, they stretched out. The legs cracked like wood popping. All of sudden, I saw God form toes out of those club feet as easily as child forms something with silly-putty. The crowd was watching by this time going wild! I’ve never seen any people shout and rejoice so much in all my life.
“I saw that baby placed on his feet, and he began to run for the first time in his life. He had never seen his mama before, never said a word, but he began running across the platform and I was running right after him to catch him. He leaped into his mama’s arms, and I heard him say his first word, ‘Mama.’”
Too Long Didn’t Read: A destitute woman put her last $20 in an offering bucket, and her crippled son was instantaneously healed.
Obviously, this didn’t happen. Shambach goes on to claim that the mother obtained written affidavits from the child’s doctors, confirming that these miracles had taken place. And he specifically says that this happened before an audience of 3,000 at Birmingham Fairgrounds Arena, Alabama, in the 1950s. So you’d think there would be a world-famous news report from the local newspaper, and a paper in a respected medical journal, giving the account of this impossible occurrence. But there’s nothing. It didn’t happen.
It’s also hard to see how Shambach himself could possibly believe that this happened. He’s claiming he saw it firsthand. And the most telling thing is the business with the $20 bill. This is a story Shambach told to boost people’s faith just before sending around the offering bucket. The cynicism is just staggering.
I mentioned in my last post that Jesse Duplantis was audacious to claim he’d been to heaven, and Shambach is audacious to claim this too. It’s almost as though these preachers get away with it because their claims are so far-fetched. Surely, surely, if you were going to lie, you’d try to think of something a little more plausible?
So how can I possibly think that these guys could be genuine? Well, only because I’ve rubbed shoulders with so many of them, and if they are actors, they are sensationally good. And my family friends, who were responsible for chauffering round people like Kenneth Copeland at his British conventions, never suspected a thing. Of course, when you’ve dedicated your life to that gospel, there would be pretty strong internal pressures to rationalise it if you did see anything untoward.
Kenneth Hagin kickstarted the whole Word of Faith movement which became the prosperity gospel. The other preachers on the scene, like Copeland, called him Daddy Hagin. There’s this very interesting (to me) blog post claiming that, near the end of his life, Kenneth Hagin convened a meeting of leading prosperity gospel preachers to warn them that they had taken the message too far, and made it about greed.
Now, I’m not going to say that meeting definitely happened based on one blog post, but Kenneth Hagin did then release a book, The Midas Touch: A Balanced Approach to Biblical Prosperity. In this book he said that, while God did want to bless people, the hundredfold return and other prosperity doctrines were not of God. I can think of some cynical hypotheses why he might have done this, but the simplest explanation is that the guy was sincere.
Now, if Hagin was sincere but, say, Kenneth Copeland isn’t, that’s fascinating, because the two shared the platform many times. That would mean Copeland is such a fraud he appeared genuine to a pastor.
The rest of my argument is anecdotal: Growing up, I or my family spent lots of time with people like Kenneth Hagin’s daughter, Patti Harrison, and staff from Rhema Bible Training Centre, the Bible School founded by Hagin. And I’m convinced those people were genuine. So either everyone’s genuine, or there are some wolves in the pack so cunning that they’re taking everyone for a ride, including the other preachers.
It makes sense for the preachers to be deluded, for these reasons:
- If you say something enough, you start to believe it.
- If you believe something genuinely, it’s much easier to convince other people.
- There are strong psychological pressures for people’s actions to be consistent with their words.
- If your income comes from the offering bucket, the prosperity gospel will undoubtedly work for you!
Thus, I am sceptical when people suggest that religion is all about control. I’m sure it is for some religious leaders, but that’s a simplistic explanation.
Here’s what I find terrifying: Religious ideas (in this case, the prosperity gospel) can control people without any human intention for that to happen. It is a faceless, unconscious concept which strips people of their money (or mental health, or time, or family) to no good end. The prosperity gospel can’t benefit from having adherents, because the “prosperity gospel” is only a thought in people’s heads.
(I’ve consciously avoided the term “meme” here because I know it’s controversial, and I haven’t read about it widely enough to feel confident about using it)
Regardless of how many con men there are in the televangelist game, the Word of Faith has many sincere advocates. If all the con artists died, those sincere people would continue being stripped of their wealth, for no purpose. The money would only be used to further the message. The prosperity gospel is simply an acid which burns out people’s wallets and their souls.
- In which I receive a prophecy from a televangelist
- Let me introduce you to a con man (probably)
- Audio: Word of Faith (for those of you who prefer listening, here I am explaining the prosperity gospel on the Pod Delusion podcast)