He sits behind a desk. He wears a dark suit, crisp, bright tie. His face radiates joy and peace. He tells you that the coming year is sure to bring untold riches. All you have to do is “support God’s work.*” He justifies his asking for money through the liberal use of Bible verses, finding plenty of ways of interperting the words to fit his purpose.
Or perhaps he puts his own spin on things when he instructs that “just like planting a seed in the natural [sic] yields a harvest of increase, when you sow finances to God’s work, you’ll receive an abundant harvest in return.**”
No matter the words or the preacher spouting them, the message is clear—the more money you give to the church, the more you can expect in return. It’s a message that particularly resonates with those that buy into the Prosperity Gospel, or the belief that your faith in God (and regular contributions to your church) entitle you to financial success. It’s a system of thought popularized by the likes of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and the president of the United States†.
These ideas can all trace their roots back to the turn of the century when American religions were running wild and the money was flowing like the wine at a wedding at Cana. One such religion was an offshoot of Emerson’s sublime Transcendentalism. Named New Thought, it was a belief system that took all of the mystical and vaguely occult elements of Emerson’s philosophy and threw out all the annoying introspection and moral grounding. It wasn’t so much the Over-Soul as the Hand-Over-Your-Money.
Nowhere is this personified better than in the Mystic Success Club, the brainchild of two New Thought leaders Helen Van Anderson and Hubert A. Knight (two amazingly interesting people in their own right). Promising “health, wealth, a long, useful and blessed career,” the club worked as a sort of pyramid scheme / self-help-by-mail series.
Once enrolled, the prospective soon-to-be-wealthy member could expect four booklets to arrive over four months. Each book represented a “degree” to attain through dutiful study and by signing up three of your friends. The details beyond that are scarce, but the gist seems to be that once you master the four degrees, you too will have the ability to swindle people out of their money.
At its heart, the Mystic Success Club‡ and its ilk couch their success plan within the language of spiritual fulfillment. Believe in God, give money, receive his blessings in return. The really clever thing about this sort of scam is it manages to simultaneously take the credit for any success a person might achieve while deflecting blame for any failure. So you gave money and prayed and got a promotion at work? All glory to God and the Mystic Success Club! Did you send in your check and, uh oh, got fired? That’s probably due to a lack of faith—send in more money to make up for it!
Echoes of this sentiment can still be heard today. Often we’ll hear leaders make grand promises of job creation or tax relief or national unity. And often those same promises will be preceded or followed by two simple words: “Believe me.” If, by some chance, unemployment drops? Your belief has been rewarded and this is only the start. When, as is more often the case, those promises don’t come through? There wasn’t enough faith or a lack of support from other entities. The system works, these charlatans will tell you, it’s your lack of faith that is the problem.
As for the Mystic Success Club, it eventually petered out after one of the founders, Hubert Knight, killed himself after being found guilty on extortion charges. The other, Van Anderson, spent the rest of her life lecturing on the various esoteric teachings of New Thought, but never again threw herself into as complete of a swindle as the Club.
*Binny Hinn’s Greatest Wealth Transfer
**Joel Osteen – Today’s Word – March 18, 2015
†Arguably, Trump is one of the most irreligious presidents the country has seen. That being said, the preacher that has had the most impact on his life, Norman Vience Peale, literally wrote the book on success through belief—The Power of Positive Thinking. [Washington Post]
‡New York Magazine of Mysteries – Volume 4, Number 4, February 1903