Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reverend Ike 1935-2009

Reverend Ike TV-advertisement from TV Party!

Before there was The Secret, before Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer, before Joel Osteen and Rod Parsley.... there was (native South Carolinian) Reverend Ike, born Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II.

There was no word for it in the 70s, so no one referred to Reverend Ike's unique approach as Prosperity Theology. But what has become fairly common among a certain school of televangelists today, was basically stolen from Reverend Ike, and later morphed into this modern media phenomenon.

Yes, I said stolen.

I've written about appropriation before in the area of music, which is what I am familiar with. But as my regular readers know, I also follow religion and spirituality. And I have always been struck by how Joel Osteen sounds like a suburban, squeaky-clean, white man's version of Reverend Ike. Nobody credits Reverend Ike, and in fact, as you see from the above-linked Wikipedia entry, he doesn't even get mentioned in the line-up with the other Prosperity Gospel preachers. Why not? T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn are duly listed, and I might take issue with their places on the list. But Reverend Ike? He was first.

More cultural theft from African-Americans. So far, none of the formal obituaries I have read, have stated this outright, so I will.

From the Associated Press:

Reverend Ike preached the power of what he called “positive self-image psychology” to his 5,000 parishioners at the United Church Science of Living Institute. The church was housed in a former movie theater in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood.

In the 1970s, Reverend Ike was one of the first evangelists to reach an audience of millions through television.

“This is the do-it-yourself church,” he proclaimed. “The only savior in this philosophy is God in you.”

Reverend Ike stretched Christian tenets, relocating the idea of God to the interior of the self, with the power to bring the believer anything he or she desired in the way of health, wealth and peace of mind.

The philosophy did not sit well with traditional Christian ministers and civil rights leaders who felt black churches should focus on social reform rather than self-fulfillment.

His critics said he preyed on the poor and conned the faithful into giving him donations that he spent on cars, clothes and homes for himself. The IRS and the Postal Service investigated his businesses.

Others defended his philosophy of mind over matter, which appealed to middle-class believers who felt their hard work should be rewarded in this life.

“If it's that difficult for a rich man to get into heaven,” he said, riffing on the famous verse from the book of Matthew, “think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in. He doesn't even have a bribe for the gatekeeper.”
Whether the good Reverend was right or wrong in his approach, he was the first to popularize this message and take it nationwide. In the 70s, he was famous enough that Richard Pryor played a character based on him (named "Daddy Rich") in the movie Car Wash (1976). Everyone knew who the character was supposed to be.

It's interesting that the official obits now focus on his money and possessions... do you think they will focus on Osteen's or Parsley's, when they finally depart this earth? Well, maybe.

But I can't help but notice that his "visualization" ideas, now transformed into suburban self-help literature, are reduced to lowly money-grubbing in a way that the Osteens (recently respectably profiled on "60 Minutes") and The Secret are not.

The New York Daily News, for instance:
Rev. Ike's ministry reached its peak in the mid-1970s, when his sermons were carried on 1,770 radio stations to an audience estimated at 2.5 million.

He also preached his philosophy of self-empowerment on television and the Internet, in books and magazines, and on audiotapes and videotapes.

From the stage of the former Loews movie theater on 175th St. in Washington Heights, which he restored and transformed into his United Church Science of Living Institute, Rev. Ike would tell thousands of parishioners "this is the do-it-yourself church. The only savior in this philosophy is God in you."

He then would exhort the believers to "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."

As payback for spiritual inspiration, Rev. Ike asked for cash donations from the faithful - preferably in bills not coins. "Change makes your minister nervous in the service," he would say.

Critics called Rev. Ike a con man, saying the only point of his ministry was getting rich from the donations.

They noted that he made a show of sumptuous clothes, jewelry, posh residences and exotic cars. "My garages runneth over," he would boast.

But his supporters said Rev. Ike's love of luxury had roots both in the traditions of African-American evangelism and the philosophies of mind over matter.

Rev. Ike was born in Ridgeland, S.C., to a father who was a Baptist minister and a mother who taught elementary school. They divorced when he was 5.

At 14, he became an assistant pastor for his father's congregation. He briefly preached in Boston before coming to New York.

He leaves his wife, Eula, and son, Xavier Frederick.
I don't think Joel Osteen's obit will call him a con-man, although I would imagine he is LOTS richer than Reverend Ike, who certainly never had "60 Minutes" come calling.

The juxtaposition is interesting. Why is no one making the comparison?

In Harold Bloom's book The American Religion, there is a chapter about how American Christianity borrowed (appropriated?) certain Gnostic elements of African theology. I'd say the example of Reverend Ike gives us that lesson, right up close and personal.

RIP, Reverend Ike.


missincognegro said...

An excellent post. It raises awareness regarding the seedy underbelly of artistic expression in the United States, and the way in which Black talent has been appropriated, i.e. stolen by Whites. Elvis Presley is often cited for having appropriated songs from Black artists. Hound Dog" is one of the songs believed to have been appropriated from a female blues singer. I wish I could recall the name of the blues artist at this point in time.

Again, well-done. I hope more folks read this particular post. :)

DaisyDeadhead said...

Miss Incognegro, her name was Big Mama Thornton.. Rest assured, white America was NOT ready for Big Mama Thornton... in fact, they were barely ready for ELVIS! :D

Big Mama Thornton also wrote "Ball and Chain"--I played Janis Joplin's famous live version on this thread. (Joplin was always careful to credit Thornton, Elvis rarely mentioned her.)

Thanks for your comment!

D. said...

One had stopped hearing about Rev. Ike by the early '80s, but the church was still in the converted theater (wish I'd photographed it) when I left New York (mid '90s). I thought there'd been a scandal I'd missed or something, but if there was, there's no mention in the obit.

So you would call Joel Osteen the Pat Boone of Prosperity Theology?

DaisyDeadhead said...

D.: So you would call Joel Osteen the Pat Boone of Prosperity Theology?

Ohhhh! That is so good, wish I'd thought of it. :)

mikeb302000 said...

I remember Rev. Ike, but I can't remember from where or when. Those must have been the days I was burning some of the old brain cells up.

sheila said...

I never heard of Rev. Ike. But this is a most interesting post! I cannot stand televangelists. They are all money grubbing. Of course they want you to be rich, that's more money for them,, lol.

Anyhow, I liked how you put in there about the power of positive thinking. That itself is very interesting and your post is so true! The other day I posted something in my other blog about water and the body and thoughts/pos thinking. So it's even more interesting to me that you posted this. :)

John Powers said...

Appropriation as theft makes me uneasy because the fluidity of culture and the possibility of culture change seem so important. Things are often complicated, for example "Hound Dog" was written by Leiber and Stoller, white guys. Popular music was a collaboration across race, class and ethnicity.

When I was a kid sometimes would listen to radio preachers with others and make light of sermons about giving. I noticed today charts of opinions about whether Obama is a natural born citizen broken up by region. Less than half in the South answer yes, whereas everywhere else overwhelming majorities do.

You pointed to Richard Pryor's parody of Rev. Ike as an in-joke. Something that's often missed on the rest of the country is making light as a response to different beliefs among Southerners, and in the Black community. Intolerance is rife in all parts of the USA, but people outside the South often miss how people in the South live and let live.

DaisyDeadhead said...

John Powers: Things are often complicated, for example "Hound Dog" was written by Leiber and Stoller, white guys. Popular music was a collaboration across race, class and ethnicity.

Good point. This is usually my defense of Laura Nyro, who came from a very musically (and ethnically) diverse family, and recorded Harlem-styled music with people like Patti LaBelle... then her own songs were recorded by "smooth" black California-based pop-artists The Fifth Dimension. One can barely keep track of the ebb and flow of influences and traditions, when analyzing her music--as well as the artists who popularized it: Streisand, Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat & Tears, etc.

But theology is usually pretty specific and traceable by contrast. I really can't think of anyone who preached Prosperity Gospel before Rev. Ike did (not just "the power of positive thinking"--but actually attributing material success to fidelity to God) ... and now they are trying to ignore/downplay/minimize his influence. This is pretty brazen, and I invite you to look at that Wikipedia page and see what I mean. He is TOTALLY EXCLUDED and he was FIRST.

There is homage/collaboration, and then there is outright theft.

Actually, I think Onyx Lynx (comment above) totally nailed it in so many ways. Rev. Ike was right out there, wearing gaudy jewelry and bragging about cars, and thus, embarrassing to white Christian suburbia. This unapologetic relationship to bling is part of the African tradition, certainly not the (Calvinist) American tradition. As Little Richard was regarded as embarrassing and weird and flaming, back in the day. Osteen is one of the white suburbanites, and he can sugar-coat and transform the message--just like Pat Boone could sing "Tutti Frutti" without everyone flipping out and wondering if there was, you know, some underlying sexual context to the song (there was). Nobody ever thought Pat Boone was sexy. He got on TV singing a Little Richard song before Little Richard was ever allowed on TV.

I see the same thing with Osteen and Reverend Ike.

I noticed today charts of opinions about whether Obama is a natural born citizen broken up by region. Less than half in the South answer yes, whereas everywhere else overwhelming majorities do.

But about 29-33% of the south IS African-American, so I'd be curious about the racial make-up of any survey that claims "less than half"--and who exactly was surveyed for that one.

Yeah, call me cynical. ;)

John Powers said...

I wonder sometimes what live conversation with some of my interlocators online would be like. I'm so bumbling that I a quick smack down with you.

About Rev. Ike and appropriation you wrote something that gets to our disagreement:

But theology is usually pretty specific and traceable by contrast.

I tend to see theology as more fluid with constant efforts at syncretism.

We share an interest about religion--I'll quickly stipulate you know more than I. One common area of interest is is the big tent of pentacostalism. I speculate that part of the shared interest is because the movement crosses so many boundaries of race, ethnicity class. In other words it the mixing-up that makes the movement so interesting.

I haven't read Bloom's book. There's a certain knee-jerk reaction to over-genralization of Africa. Africa is a huge continent and extremely diverse. I'm not sure what Bloom was pointing to in "African theology." With a capital T the expression is more specific. Anyhow the sense of your paragraph seems to refer to patterns of syncretism. And I don't know how to square such movements with the notion of appropriation as theft.

I don't see Onyx Lynx's comment.

DaisyDeadhead said...

John, cut to the chase: can you name a single preacher who was preaching Prosperity Gospel before Rev. Ike?

If not, that is my whole point. Rev. Ike was FIRST, period. You don't have to agree with me about theology being precise, to recognize who was first in the field.

Onyx Lynx is D, above, the comment about Joel Osteen as Pat Boone. I elaborated a bit re: why I agree with her.

John Powers said...

"John, cut to the chase: can you name a single preacher who was preaching Prosperity Gospel before Rev. Ike?"

It sort of depends on what you mean by "Prosperity Gospel."

The Wikipedia article you link to closely associates Prosperity Gospel with Pentecostal or Charismatic theology. So Kenneth Hagin and the Full Gospel Business Men's Association comes to mind. And of course there's Oral Roberts.

Theology is hard because Christians so vigorously disagree and identify what they believe as "truth" links in lineage which seem reasonable are disputed.

Rev. Ike was viewed as a huckster by mainstream religious denominations as well as evangelicals. This criticism of Rev. Ike is a problem when claiming direct descent of one prosperity preacher to another.

Clearly Ossteen has multiple influences. Both Osteen and Rev. Ike blend psychology and religious thought. But I'd place Rev. Ike outside the Pentacostal movement and align Ossteen within it (broadly speaking).

The Wikipedia article relies on a theological argument: "Godliness causes prosperity." Variations on this theme in Christianity precede Rev. Ike.

I think that Rev. Ike's was unique but hardly admirable. Something that makes him distinct from many of the names on the Wikipedia is that he avoided theological arguments because they got in the way of prosperity.

I suspect that Rev. Ike was aware of Norman Vincent Peale. And that he saw how Norman Vincent Peale's rabid anti-Catholic stances got in the way and was determined to avoid that mistake.

You say "theology is usually pretty specific and traceable." I see more of a melange.

Carol said...

Huh it's that difficult for a rich man to get into heaven,Carol
Best Affordable Security Systems Suitable for Renters and Apartments, Business and RV think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in how true it is!!