“Say this after me,” Reverend Ike urged his flock: “I have no fear of money.”
“I have no fear of money,” the congregation repeated.
“Money is not against my religion,” Reverend Ike said.“Money is not against my religion,” the crowd echoed.
Money certainly didn’t violate the gospel of Reverend Ike. He loved money with a religious zeal, and he urged his followers to love lucre, too. “If thy religion cannot stand money, thy religion is bad, not money,” he said. “I never understood preachers who get up and talk about how terrible money is, then, before they sit down, they ask for some.”
The audience laughed, and Reverend Ike proclaimed that he had no theological qualms about enjoying the riches his devotees donated. “Do you know how much I love the precious Lord when I sit in my Rolls Royce limousine?”
The United States was the first nation on earth to establish freedom of religion, and that freedom spawned a class of preachers who create their own churches and preach their own theologies. Among the most entertaining was Reverend Ike. He was born Frederick Joseph Eikerenkoetter II in South Carolina in 1935, son of a Baptist minister of Dutch and Indonesian heritage and an African American schoolteacher.
At 14, he became assistant pastor to his father’s congregation, later earning a theology degree at Chicago’s American Bible College. After a stint as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, he moved to Boston in 1964 and founded the Miracle Temple, where he practiced the art of faith healing.
“I was just about the best in Boston,” he told an interviewer. “Snatching people out of wheelchairs and off their crutches, pouring some oil over them while I commanded them to walk or see or hear.”
Healing the sick is noble work, but it doesn’t pay the bills, especially if you’re not a physician and can’t charge for the service. After two years, the Rev. Eikerenkoetter fled to Manhattan to preach what he dubbed “Prosperity Now.” He rented a Harlem theater, billed himself on the marquee as “Rev. Ike,” and trademarked the nickname. His materialist gospel and theatrical exhortations attracted a large, mostly Black, following and soon hundreds of radio stations were broadcasting his sermons. In 1969, he paid $500,000 for a 5,000-seat movie theater at Broadway and West 175th that he christened the Palace Cathedral. By the mid-1970s, his over-the-top sermons were airing on TV across America. “Along with Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson,” The New York Times noted, “he was one of the first evangelists to grasp the power of television.”
Preaching before huge enlargements of $1,000 bills and attired in expensive suits—some funereal black, others flamboyant orange or pink—Ike informed followers that the first step to getting rich was to visualize the cash they craved: “Close your eyes and see green—money up to your armpits, a roomful of money and there you are, just tossing around in it like a swimming pool.”
He encouraged disciples to write him letters detailing their problems—and to be sure to include a generous donation. In return, he’d send a prayer cloth capable of working “miracles of healing, blessing and deliverance,” plus advice on how to solve problems. His replies, he admitted, were all identical. “Most people think there are separate answers to each problem,” he told an interviewer in 1972. “There’s not but one problem. If I can get a person to believe in himself, that’s my whole ministry, simply to inspire.”
Reverend Ike didn’t invent the idea of creating a religion that married two American fixations—God and money. That’s an old tradition, known to religious scholars as the “prosperity gospel.” In the late 1800s, Russell Conwell, the Baptist minister who founded Temple University, delivered his famous “Acres of Diamonds” sermon 6,152 times, each time preaching that “it is your duty to get rich.” In 1925, Bruce Barton, an advertising executive and future congressman, published The Man Nobody Knows, which identified Jesus as “the Founder of Modern Business.” In 1952, Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking, a mega-bestseller that combined religion with self-help pep talks. Peale touted a vacuum cleaner salesman who got rich by repeating a mantra: “If God be for me, then I know that with God’s help I can sell vacuum cleaners.”
The reverend’s brilliant innovation was to combine the “prosperity gospel” with the exuberant flair of African American entertainers. “Norman Vincent Peale would be the movement’s Hank Williams,” journalist Tony Norman wrote. “Rev. Ike was its Little Richard.”
Like Little Richard, the reverend loved to sing, and while preaching he’d spontaneously burst into song. “Lots and lots of money ready for my use,” he crooned during one 1972 sermon. “Oh, yes, it’s ready for my use.” And he sang about his favorite possession: “Swing low, sweet Rolls Royce, coming for to carry me home.” He claimed to own “10 or 12” Rolls cars: “My garage runneth over.” Driving a Rolls advertises your wealth, he said. “Therefore I boldly declare: I am rich! I am rich in health, happiness, success, prosperity and moneeeeeeeeey!”
Some preachers insist that every word of the Bible is literally true. Reverend Ike disagreed. He freely interpreted the Good Book. Sure, St. Paul said, “Love of money is the root of all evil” but, Ike explained, what Paul really meant was that “lack of money is the root of all evil.” Sure, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” but Ike appended a comic addendum: “Think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in—he doesn’t even have a bribe for the gatekeeper.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, Ike’s oratory evolved, sounding less like Christian sermonizing and more like New Age self-help lectures. “I interpret the Bible psychologically rather than theologically,” he said. He moved to Los Angeles and discoursed on “mental reconditioning” and “The Science of Living” and “The Power of Fascination.” Of course, he still loved money, evidenced by lectures with titles such as “The Excitement of Money” and “How to Make Money While You Are Sleeping.”
“Money is just like a woman,” he wrote. “Money has emotions. Money has feelings, and if you hurt the feelings of money she is going to stay away from you, or give you trouble.”
Reverend Ike never hurt money’s feelings, and she never left him. When he died at 74 in 2009, he left an estate worth several million dollars—certainly more than enough to bribe heaven’s gatekeeper. Upon his death, Rev. Ike Ministries issued a statement that captured the essence of the founder’s creed: “In lieu of flowers, Rev. Ike would ask that tributes and/or offerings be sent to Rev. Ike Ministries.”
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