A decade after Reverend Ike’s death, his son writes about his impact on Black church

(RNS) — For 40 years, Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, or Reverend Ike as he would come to be known, preached prosperity from the pulpit of the United Palace Theater in Harlem, New York. Every Sunday, the popular preacher distilled his secrets for attaining financial success to a congregation of 5,000 mostly Black people.

“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,” he said during a 1972 sermon.

He was a “cheeky man,” joked his son Xavier Eikerenkoetter, who wrote “Reverend Ike: An Extraordinary Life of Influence” with the motivational speaker Mark Victor Hansen. The book traces his late father’s life, “the first Black man in America to preach positive self-image psychology to the Black masses within a church setting,” as he described himself.

Eikerenkoetter started writing the book a few years after his father passed in 2009 but left it unfinished because it was too early and painful to delve into his father’s past, he said. Still, he felt indebted to his father and wanted to highlight the reverend’s influence on today’s prosperity gospel, as well as how his views on race influenced that theology.

Xavier Eikerenkoetter. (Courtesy photo)

Xavier Eikerenkoetter. (Courtesy photo)

“His story needed to be told, and people who love him, and were his followers, and were inspired by him really wanted to get his full life story,” he said.

The book explored how the reverend’s upbringing in Southern Methodist Black churches shaped his theology.

The son of a pastor, Ike started preaching at 14 at a Baptist Church in Ridgeland, South Carolina, his hometown. To break the monotony of the service, he would invite high school music bands on stage to play during baptisms or leave the pulpit to preach from the church’s nave, as the book recounts.

He transgressed codes of “southern traditional religion,” argued his son. The reverend also dismissed the church’s teachings about race, which he thought gave Black people the idea that suffering was a holy condition, explained his son. 

“His own mother believed that Black people, in particular, were put on earth to suffer and that you had to do that and get your reward in heaven. That just didn’t sit right with him,” said Eikerenkoetter. 

During those years, the reverend developed his concept of the “science of living.” Ike preached that to live freely and attain material abundance, Black people needed to reckon with their inner divine power.

"Reverend Ike: An Extraordinary Life of Influence" by Mark Victor Hansen and Xavier Eikerenkoetter. (Courtesy image)

“Reverend Ike: An Extraordinary Life of Influence” by Mark Victor Hansen and Xavier Eikerenkoetter. (Courtesy image)

Jonathan L. Walton, Princeton Theological Seminary’s president, describes Rev. Ike’s Science of Living as a merging of Pentecostal culture, 19th-century New Thought and Spiritualist metaphysics.

“… Rev. Ike offered African Americans a theological vision of attaining material wealth while effacing what he and many of his followers regarded as the multiple negative cultural markers that blackness signified,” he wrote in “The Greening of the Gospel (and Black Body): Rev. Ike’s Gospel of Wealth and Post-Blackness theology.”

Ike put his doctrine into practice at the Miracle Temple, the church he founded in 1964 in Boston, where he practiced “faith-healing.” A few years later, the reverend moved to New York with his wife, Eula M. Dent, where the couple purchased the United Palace Theater in Harlem.

The United Palace’s sermons were impressive and always involved a big production, with lights and cameras, said Eikerenkoetter. 

“It was quite a splendid show. … It had this great feel of a traditional Black church. But there was something more to it because it was also a pretty big production every Sunday,” he said.

At his peak, Rev. Ike’s sermons were aired on more than 1,700 radio stations and broadcast nationwide.

His ministry allowed the reverend to live a lavish lifestyle, which he was happy to show off as a sign that his doctrine worked. His ostentatious display of wealth — the reverend often joked about his collection of 16 Rolls Royces — provoked the ire of his critics and raised accusations of corruption.

Reverend Ike describes Positive Self-Awareness and Self-Motivation in a video. (© Rev. Ike Legacy, LLC.)

Reverend Ike describes Positive Self-Awareness and Self-Motivation in a video. (© Rev. Ike Legacy, LLC.)

His practice of sending prayer cloths, small sheets of red fabric he had blessed, in exchange for donations led many to cast him as a charlatan.

His repeated jests about being green, like money, and not Black also alienated some from the Civil Rights Movement, who thought the reverend saw wealth as a way to shelter himself from the harsh reality of Black American life.

Eikerenkoetter wanted the book to detail his father’s understanding of race and his thoughts on what would alleviate Black people’s living conditions in America. The reverend’s Science of Living invited Black Americans to reckon with their inner divine self to transcend negative stereotypes about Black people, he said. 

“He had a certain pride being a Black person who had transcended the white-touted stereotypes about Black people,” said Eikerenkoetter. 

Writing this book was an occasion for Eikerenkoetter to place his father’s legacy in the lineage of religious Civil Rights figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he said.

“My father was really working on another flank of the same battle,” Eikerenkoetter said. “He was working specifically on that psycho-spiritual level.” 

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