Rev Ike: Preacher who worshipped wealth

In many American evangelical churches, prosperity is seen as a sign of God’s blessing, and the display of material wealth by church leaders a reflection of that blessing; the pure essence of what Max Weber defined as “the Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism”. Few evangelists appealed more directly for that blessing, or flaunted worldly success more flamboyantly, than the Reverend Ike, who has died aged 74. And none encouraged their congregations more enthusiastically to do the same, to “close your eyes and see green!”

Proselytising combined with a relentless appeal for funds has always been a staple of evangelicism, but Rev Ike’s message of fiscal empowerment was unique. If St Paul believed that money was the root of all evil, then Ike rewrote Paul, telling his followers that evil grew from lack of money, and that they, with his guidance, could use faith to get rich.

His preaching was equally distinctive, blending the traditional gospel style of black churches, with their emphasis on preparing for the next life, with a practical exhortation far closer to mainstream white churches, in particular the “Power of Positive Thinking” preached by Norman Vincent Peale. With the stage presence of a James Brown, and brilliant comic timing, his blend worked phenomenally well; at his peak, in the early 1970s, Ike’s success was arguably second only to Billy Graham’s in America.

By then he was preaching to a congregation of some 5,000 at his “Palace Cathedral”, formerly the showcase Loews Cinema on 175th street in New York’s Washington Heights, and reaching some 2.5 million others weekly on syndicated television and a network of 1,770 radio stations. His Christ Community United Church offered Ike’s “Science of Living: Prosperity Now!” through “positive self-image psychology” and “Thinkonomics”. He preached making your mind a “money magnet”, stressing that “everything you feel you’re not worthy of, you can’t have”.

His sartorial sense reflected the “Superfly” excess of the era, complemented by gaudy rings and glittering jewellery; he was living proof that his theology brought results. In another tradition of American evangelicals, he was often accused of fraud, yet though investigated repeatedly, he was never even prosecuted.

Frederick Joseph Eikerenkoetter II was born on 1 June 1935 in Ridgeland, South Carolina, where his father, of Dutch-Indonesian extraction, was a Baptist preacher, and his mother, a black American, taught at school. By the time he was 14 he was preaching in his father’s church, but after being captivated by a Pentecostal revival, he became the primary preacher for the local Pentecostals, meeting on Sundays in a juke joint.

In 1956 he graduated as valedictorian of his class at the Pentecostal American Bible College in Chicago, and served two years as a US Air Force chaplain, but in 1959 he was excommunicated, possibly for referring to “Lord Buddha” in his thesis. He set up his own church in Ridgeland, still preaching standard Pentecostal doctrine, and in 1962 married Eula May Dent. He moved to Boston in 1964, where he began faithhealing at his “Miracle Temple”. “It’s a wonder I didn’t kill anybody,” he said later in a remarkably frank interview with Clayton Riley.

In 1966 he bought a derelict theatre in Harlem, where he was billed as “Rev Ike”, and began preaching the message that “God wants you to be rich, now!”

He devised the “Blessing Plan”, soliciting contributions which would be “returned with interest”.

Ike raised $600,000 to buy the Loews Cinema in a more middle-class part of Manhattan. The beauty of Ike’s mission was that his theology demanded that he flaunt his wealth; when questioned about his fleet of luxury cars he laughed, “my garages runneth over”.

Ike discouraged small contributions by saying that God “loved the whisper of banknotes”; the sound of coins clinking made him “nervous in the service”.

As his appeal on television faded in the 1990s, Ike turned more to direct mail, sending strands of prayer clothes and asking for donations in return, and continued turning a profit. He maintained mansions on both coasts, and after a stroke in 2007 moved permanently to Los Angeles. He never fully recovered from the stroke, and died in hospital on 28 July. He is survived by his wife, and his son, Bishop Frederick Eikerenkoetter III, who assumes leadership of his mission. Announcing his death, his website said that in lieu of flowers, Rev Ike would ask for “tributes and/or offerings”.

Michael Carlson

Frederick Joseph Eikerenkoetter II (Rev Ike), preacher: born Ridgeland, South Carolina 1 June 1935; married 1962 Eula May Dent (one son); died Los Angeles, California 28 July 2009.