Why televangelists are not (all) con artists

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.

Anyway, exhibit B: Kenneth Hagin retracted much of the prosperity gospel.

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:

  1. If you say something enough, you start to believe it.
  2. If you believe something genuinely, it’s much easier to convince other people.
  3. There are strong psychological pressures for people’s actions to be consistent with their words.
  4. 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.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on October 24, 2012, in Christianity, Fundamentalism, Word of Faith and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’m sure you are quite right to say that many of these guys really do sincerely believe what they are preaching. It is far too simplistic to suppose that the reality must be that cynical conmen decide to make a profession out of manipulating the gullible.

    But just as the sincere but deluded preacher starts off at some stage as a member ofthe rank and file, so the con artist may start off from among the sincerely deluded. Because when it gradually becomes apparent to such a person that the whole thing is a delusion it is often the case that they have nowhere to go and too much to lose. This happens at all parts of the spectrum of belief from the way-out fringe to the broader church where many clergy are no longer believers but are trapped in the way of life they have committed themselves to.

  2. I’d say that some of them are con men. Others at least start by taking the religion seriously, not intending it to be a con. But I have to wonder whether many of them eventually come to see it as a con, but continue anyway because they have made that their life and it would be hard to change.

  3. They may well all be con artists, so what? why not spend your time energy and emotions on something constructive?.

  4. I think some of these people are either genuinely delusional (high-functioning people with mental illness) or living with astounding cognitive dissonance. However, reading The Faith Healers by James Randi was an eye-opener in showing how many seemingly sincere evangelists are out-and-out frauds behind the scenes, and they know it perfectly well.

  5. The mistake most people make is that they believe that “zealot” and “grifter” are mutually exclusive. They’re not. Most televangelists are a bit of both. Some people have a hard time believing that a true believer would steal from his flock; I say that a real true believer will never think of it as “stealing.” As you put it, it’s merely proof that the prosperity gospel works.

  6. If I remember right, Allen died an alcoholic. When I lived in Arizona many years ago, Allen had a community nearby called Miracle Valley. (I think I got the name right. 37 years ago) they came into the grocery I worked at…very strange people.

  7. I did research on Hagin since he was our “spiritual father”. It was interesting. How did all the false religions start? Islam, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness etc…they claim they had a vision of Jesus, God or angel. Kenneth claims same thing. Jesus appeared to him and explained word of faith. This contradicts Galatians. Jesus would never change scripture so I don’t think he saw him, maybe the opposite. Check out YouTube on Hagin where he is hisses at people under the “spirit” and they start moving like snakes. Creepy! I think Hagin deceived himself and didn’t mean to start a false cult but he did. He was a follower of Kenyon…which Kenyon was involved in Christian Science. This is where positive thoughts started. Christian Science is New Age. I love your blog, post anything else you discovered. If you look at new age practices, it’s exactly what we did as charasmatic.

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