Have you heard of the Rev. James Eugene “Gene” Ewing? Probably not. If you have read the ghostwritten autobiography of televangelist Oral Roberts, you might have heard his name. Gene Ewing is the inventor of seed faith fundraising, and he made a fortune off of it.
Ewing was a tent revivalist in the 60s. he must have gotten tired of actually performing his schtick and changed tactics. He opened “Church by Mail Inc.” He wrote fundraising letters from a Tulsa, Oklahoma mailbox that targeting the rural poor. The letters were supposedly from “St. Matthew’s Church.” However, there was no physical building. This was a mail-order church. Ewing would send out paper prayer rugs with a picture of Jesus on the front and out of context verses on the back. There would be instructions to follow. If the sucker followed the instructions, they were promised a monetary blessing. The letter also had testimonials from people who were blessed.
There was also a subtle threat that the person receiving the letter would miss out on the blessings God had for them if they didn’t follow directions. Ewing’s St Matthew’s church pulled in $6 million dollars a year in the 1970s. When the IRS denied his non-profit status, Ewing finally purchased a physical building in a poor neighborhood of Tulsa.
Ewing expanded his ministries by consulting with other Evangelist. It was Ewing who taught Oral Roberts the seed faith con. According to a special report by Tulsa World,
Donations to Roberts’ ministry had plummeted after Roberts built Oral Roberts University and joined the United Methodist Church. His top advisers were seeking a buyer for the ministry’s corporate airplane.
The Rev. Wayne A. Robinson, then the vice president of public affairs for the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, called Ewing about the plane. Robinson was the executive producer of Roberts’ television shows and editor-in-chief of his publications. He also was the ghostwriter for Roberts’ autobiography.
Ewing expressed interest in the plane, which was dispatched to California to pick up Ewing and several other associates.
“I brought them in to see Oral,” Robinson recalled. “I was expecting the appropriate deference of these guys to Oral, the big man. About the first thing Gene said was, ‘Oral, you are in trouble, and I can help you.’ “
Ewing, who had little formal education, was about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, wore expensive clothing and jewelry, and a blow-dried hairstyle, Robinson said.
“He had all the things you can think of people who had made it and come out of poverty: the most expensive silk suits, alligator shoes, coifed hair.”
Ewing spoke in broken grammar, and one of his model letters contained 17 misspellings, Robinson said. But Roberts “recognized that this person had something to say, and he was willing to listen.”
During a second meeting with Roberts, Ewing laid out his seed-faith philosophy.
“Gene laid out one of the most sophisticated fund-raising campaigns I had ever seen. He said, ‘Oral, I want you to write your supporters and tell them you are going in the prayer tower, and you are going to read their prayer requests and pray over them.’ He stayed there three days. I forget how many hundred thousands of letters we had, but it was huge.”
Robinson said that on Ewing’s advice, Roberts responded to the letters with a letter outlining seed faith.
“You give, and you get from God. It was a kind of prosperity gospel,” Robinson said.
Roberts was so happy with Ewing’s advice that he gave Ewing the plane, Robinson said.
The next year, income to Roberts’ ministry doubled, to $12 million from about $6 million, Robinson said.
So, at the heart of the prosperity gospel is a con rather than any theological foundation. The fundraising letters Ewing created served as models for every huckster today. I’ve written about Peter Popoff and his “miracle water” scam. His letters followed the model created by Ewing. The letters are constructed to draw a sucker in and part them from their cash.
First, the letters seem personal. The Evangelist claims, on the computer-generated form letter, that they have been thinking and praying for you since you contacted them. There is even some “handwritten script” font used to make it look like the Evangelist scribbled notes. Second, some object is sent. It might be a paper prayer rug, a vial of miracle water or oil, even a $1 bill. It’s a psychological technique known as “reciprocity.” Someone sends you something, and you feel a sense of obligation to send them something in return. Easter Seals uses the gimmick by sending you seals, and you respond by sending a donation. Since the Evangelist sent you a prayer rug and instructions on how to use it to unlock heaven’s blessing, you feel you should send him a little something back. However, the urge to reciprocate is taken advantage of when you are told that the bigger seed you plant with your donation, the bigger harvest you will get.
If you answer the first letter with a donation, expect a follow-up letter. These usually include a second envelope inside marked “personal and confidential.” The reader is instructed to show it to no one, to discuss it with no one, and to only open it in secret. The second envelope asks for more money and makes more promises and contains more subtle threats of missing God’s blessing for not obeying the instructions inside. Your token object inside the second envelope may be a “faith check” drawn of Heaven’s bank for $10,000. You are to sign the check while whispering Jesus’ name three times and carry it in your billfold until the promise becomes true! The second personal and confidential envelope with the need for secrecy is designed to prevent family and friends from intervening in the poor financial decisions of the mark.
So, there you have it. “Seed faith” theology isn’t theology at all. It is nothing more than a marketing gimmick created int the 1960s by a huckster who targeted the rural poor and was able to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills with the proceeds of his direct mail marketing scheme. He taught it to other Evangelist, and now we have rich Evangelist preaching the prosperity gospel. If you think drinking miracle water and sending in $77.77 as a seed faith offering to prove you are cooperating with God is going to get you a financial blessing, just remember that the only people who get rich from seed faith are the con-artist Evangelists who write the letters.
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I tape a few pennies to prayer rug (cheap paper) and return it via the addressed, stamped envelope. Soon, another scam letter arrives. I repeat with a few pennies and keep the suckers sending the mailings that cost more then the pittance in pennies I send. Trying to scam me costs those hucksters a bit of the wealth their greedy lust desires.