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Reverend Ike was a minister who helped pioneer the prosperity gospel. He taught that God wants you to be wealthy, spiritually and even materially. He died this week at the age of 74. His message of economic empowerment drew millions of followers and also criticism of his extravagant lifestyle.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has the story of Reverend Ike.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Frederick Eikerenkoetter was born in Ridgeland, South Carolina to a Dutch Indonesian father and African-American mother. He became pastor of his father's Baptist church at age 14. But eventually he moved to a more charismatic faith, one which focused on faith healing, and traded the doctrines of sin and suffering for a philosophy of abundance.
Reverend FREDERICK EIKERENKOETTER (Christ United Church): If you are really happy for the presence, the power of God in you, clap your hands and shout yes.
(Soundbite of applause)
Professor JONATHAN WALTON (University of California at Riverside): He was part revivalist, Evangelist, he was part Johnny Mathis, if you will.
HAGERTY: Jonathan Walton teaches religion at the University of California at Riverside and has written about Reverend Ike.
Prof. WALTON: he would often say these lines such as, you know, I come to you today looking good, feeling good and smelling good. And this would just kind of ooze off of him. And this charisma just attracted persons from many different ranges of society.
HAGERTY: His sermons drew hundreds to his Palace Cathedral, a renovated movie theater in New York's Washington Heights. He reached millions more through radio and TV with this message.
Rev. EIKERENKOETTER: If you can honestly think and feel that you are worthy and deserve a million dollars, that million dollars must come to you.
HAGERTY: Jonathan Walton says Reverend Ike was a pioneer of what's become known as the prosperity gospel.
Prof. WALTON: His message is quintessentially American, right? It's this kind of, God is on your side. If you can see it, if you can believe it, then you can have it, you can claim it. And God wants this for you.
HAGERTY: And Reverend Ike's own success was Exhibit A. He owned multiple homes and more than two dozen cars, including a few Rolls-Royces. He had many critics who claimed he was preying on the poor. He faced several lawsuits and government investigations into his ministries. Other Christian leaders derided his theology as shallow and misguided. Initially, Carlton Pearson, interim senior pastor at Christ Universal Temple, was one of them.
Reverend CARLTON PEARSON (Interim Senior Pastor, Christ Universal Temple): People would testify: I came here in my raggedy car, and I'm driving away with a Cadillac. We just felt it was what we call carnal, unspiritual, that he was talking to the flesh and speaking to the ego and all that kind of thing.
HAGERTY: But if leaders didn't like him, his congregants, largely middle and working-class blacks, did. When others like Martin Luther King talked of sacrifice and social reform, Reverend Ike spoke of material empowerment.
Rev. EIKERENKOETTER: I'd say there is no virtue in poverty. There is no honor in poverty. There is no style in poverty. Poverty doesn't have any class.
HAGERTY: Pearson, who came to appreciate the flamboyant pastor, says Reverend Ike gave his followers license to aspire to more.
Rev. PEARSON: He was helping jar the consciousness of the African-American community, that we were not disenfranchised and that we didn't have to be poor and dispossessed, that we could own our own selves and our lives and that we could create money.
HAGERTY: That is a message that is alive and well in churches today.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.