8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top

Larry Holzwarth - November 13, 2017

The fictional Baptist and later Methodist minister Elmer Gantry, who appears in three novels by Sinclair Lewis, was initially considered to be a character so far removed from reality that the first book in which he appeared, Elmer Gantry was banned in many cities.

The clergy was outraged at the depiction of a man of the cloth as an alcohol-loving skirt chaser, prone to narcissism, and motivated by the pursuit of the dollar rather than the spiritual well-being of his congregation. The city of Boston promised to prosecute anyone selling Sinclair Lewis’s novel for violating the law prohibiting “indecent and obscene books.” Elmer Gantry was the product of the fertile imagination of its author, produced as a satire. Today it could almost be considered a documentary.

Evangelists and the more modern televangelists have had their share of con men throughout history, using the precepts of religion and salvation to acquire vast wealth, luxurious surroundings, tax advantages, sexual favors, and political power. The fictional Gantry pales compared to the shenanigans of some real-life purveyors of Truth, who have used and abused their influence over their congregations. Some existed long before the advent of television and the fundraising campaigns which are readily conducted through its reach. Others have fallen from their dizzying heights only to return in less conspicuous form, refreshed but not reformed.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
A poster for the film version of Elmer Gantry starring Burt Lancaster. Wikipedia

Here are eight famous or infamous men of the cloth who conned their way into power, wealth, and history.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
Grigori Rasputin – known to history as the Mad Monk – photographed in 1916. Imperial War Museum


Grigori Rasputin was an uneducated peasant from Siberia who spent his youth involved in minor scrapes with the law. In 1887 he married and eventually fathered seven children with his wife, four of whom died in childhood. A decade later Rasputin experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary, concurrent with his needing to leave his hometown to avoid prosecution as a horse thief. He resorted to a monastery for a short time, before leaving on a pilgrimage during which he acquired a group of followers, many of them of his extended family.

When he returned to his hometown he built a chapel and the number of his followers increased, despite reports of somewhat unusual rites performed as he led worship ceremonies. One of the rites consisted of female members of the congregation bathing Rasputin prior to any ceremonies. By 1905 Rasputin had a reputation as a charismatic and holy leader, with healing powers, despite persistent rumors of sexual activities with female members of his flock. His reputation led him to being held in favor by some of the Russian aristocracy and by 1906 was looked at so favorably by the Tsar that he was allowed to change his surname, an act requiring special dispensation at the time.

Rasputin quickly positioned himself as the primary source of healing for the Tsar’s son when the young Tsarevitch Alexei – a hemophiliac – was injured in a hunting accident. Tsarina Alexandra believed that Rasputin performed a miracle by healing Alexei, most modern scholars believe that Rasputin caused the boy to relax and rest through hypnosis.

Rasputin’s position and powerful influence with the Imperial Family allowed him to preach somewhat unusual views with impunity. He took the position that salvation was not possible without sin to be saved from, and thus yielding to temptation was better for the soul than resisting it, allowing the sinner to then be redeemed. He practiced what he preached through the sins of intemperance and promiscuity. He also accepted bribes from outsiders to use his influence over the Tsarina.

Many of these bribes were in the form of sexual favors. As Russian society descended into chaos and revolution he became a target of the enemies of the Romanov dynasty, and after at least one failed attempt on his life he was murdered in December 1916 through the use of poisons and gunfire.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
L. Ron Hubbard in 1950. Los Angeles Daily News

L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard was a writer of fantasy stories and science fiction who used his skills at creating fiction to produce a history of his own life, which led to the creation of the religion Scientology. The Church he created and for which he wrote the majority of its doctrines recognizes Hubbard’s recitation of his life and experiences as fact, despite substantial portions of it which have been proven false. Hubbard claimed to be largely raised on a Montana cattle ranch owned by his grandfather, where he learned to ride horses before he could walk. Records instead show that he grew up in the center of Helena and an aunt reported that the family did not own a ranch. These discrepancies and hundreds more are blithely ignored by Scientology literature.

During the Second World War Hubbard served in the US Navy, a time in which he later claimed to have experienced extensive combat operations, severe wounds and blindness, and for which he received numerous awards and citations for his service. Navy records indicate that he was never wounded or injured, spent most of his war service in the continental United States, and was found after several questionable incidents to be, “…lacking in the essential qualities of judgment, leadership, and cooperation.”

Despite Hubbard’s claim of receiving crippling injuries to his back and hip, eye injuries, and twice being declared dead by medical personnel, Navy records list a duodenal ulcer as the cause of his only hospitalization in the service. According to Scientology documents, it was this hospitalization which led to Hubbard’s formulation of the practices described in Dianetics.

Hubbard’s status as the holder of a doctorate of philosophy was acquired from Sequoia University, an unaccredited degree mill which was shut down in 1984 after a legal action which found it did not comply with California education laws. Through the growth of Scientology Hubbard acquired a great deal of money by having himself paid a percentage of the Church’s gross income.

He later spent a great deal of time trying to avoid prosecution by French authorities for fraud and other violations. Eventually convicted by the French in absentia, he lived in hiding in various locations while fighting extradition. Forbes magazine later estimated that Hubbard had acquired more than $200 million by 1982, and the IRS began investigating whether to indict him for tax fraud. When he died in 1986, the Church of Scientology issued a statement that he had left his body which had by then become detrimental to his work, and relocated his spirit to another planet to continue his research.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
Robert Tilton on Success-N-Life. Getty

Robert Tilton

Robert Tilton created a ministry presented via a television show which was called Success-N-Life beginning in 1981. By 1991 the show was reaping a windfall of almost $80 million per year from presentations in all of the United States television markets, through which Tilton exhorted his followers to overcome all of life’s trials but especially financial needs – all caused by sin – by making vows.

To Tilton, a vow was a financial commitment to be sent into his church. Vows would be recognized as a commitment against sin, and financial rewards to those who vowed would quickly follow. Tilton accepted vows of varying denominations, but frequently recommended $1,000. Unsurprisingly, Success-N-Life was modeled after infomercials on how to quickly get rich through real estate practices which stressed the wealthy life to be acquired rather than the means of acquiring it.

Along with the vows prayer requests were solicited, with accompanying sums, for Tilton to pray over both during the show and privately. In 1991, the year Success-N-Life hit its peak, ABC News revealed that the prayer requests were routinely opened and thrown away after the enclosed funds were extracted. ABC’s investigation led to others, and Tilton soon found himself beset with a bevy of accusations which he strongly and repeatedly denied.

While ABC had shown trash bags of prayer requests in dumpsters, Tilton said the pictures had been staged by the network, and that he personally prayed over every request, to the point that chemicals in the ink had permeated his bloodstream as he lay upon them praying, causing among other issues, “…two small strokes in the brain.

By 1993 Tilton was dealing with several lawsuits over fraud by former donors, libel actions, and government investigations initiated by the state of Texas. Tilton’s marriage collapsed along with his financial golden goose.

Fraud cases by donors were eventually stopped by a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court which said, in essence, that fraud could not be proved because there was no way to establish whether the prayers would have been answered even if Tilton had, as he claimed, made them. In 1997 Tilton returned to the airwaves and continues to deliver his message today.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
Jim Bakker, with his coat draped over handcuffs, being taken into custody by US Marshals. Associated Press

Jim Bakker

It was an accusation of rape which hastened the process which brought down the ministry known as The PTL Club, run by an Assemblies of God minister named James Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker. Broadcast from Charlotte, North Carolina and reaching nearly one hundred stations and twelve million viewers, The PTL Clubs’ fundraising soon attracted the attention of the Charlotte Observer, which investigated the Bakker’s for their activities.

The Bakker’s had built the nearby Heritage USA amusement park and sold lifetime memberships in the park for $1,000. The lifetime membership included a three-day stay at the resort, which the Observer noted had only a single 500 room hotel. The Bakker’s sold many thousands of lifetime memberships, but no additional hotel space had been added to accommodate members.

The money had instead covered park expenses and a hefty payment of well over $3 million to Jim Bakker. Two sets of books covering the finances of the Bakker’s schemes were uncovered and when one of them which revealed a payment of $279,000 to a former employee, Jessica Hahn, was discovered it was soon established that it had been made to buy her silence over being raped by Bakker and another associate.

Bakker resigned from PTL the day after the payoff was revealed and despite denying the rape he admitted improprieties with Hahn. Jerry Falwell excoriated Bakker in the media, calling him, among other things, “…the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity…” in the history of the religion. Falwell also took control of Heritage USA, which he retained determinedly for some time, recognizing its income potential.

Bakker was convicted of 24 federal counts of fraud and was fined a half-million dollars and sentenced to 45 years in prison in 1988. His appeals led to his conviction being upheld but his sentence thrown out, and he was re-sentenced to eight years in 1992. He was released from prison in 1994 and returned to preaching. Divorced from Tammy Faye while in prison he since remarried, and now focuses his message on surviving the end of days. To help do so, he sells buckets of survival food as part of his message to his true believers.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
Reverend Ike poses in front of his several Roll-Royce automobiles. Britannica

Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II

From his last name, it is easy to see why he dubbed himself Reverend Ike. And in fairness to the prosperity theology preacher he became, he did not claim to be a Christian. “The only savior in this philosophy is you,” he would exhort his devoted followers, who would open their wallets and purses to shower him with cash. Reverend Ike was inordinately proud of his Rolls-Royce collection – eventually, he had 16 – and they shuttled him between luxury homes and the palaces of the rich and famous for decades.

He didn’t just ask for money, for donations small or large, he demanded them. And he got them. He would tell his congregation from the pulpit to donate only checks or paper money, but no coins. “…The sound of them makes me nervous.”

Reverend Ike kept his salary small, or at least relatively small, collecting only about $50,000 dollars annually for his services to better the spiritual life of his followers. But he also drew on an unlimited expense account, allowing those Rolls-Royces to be church transportation rather than personal automobiles. He stayed only in the best hotels, lived in opulent houses, dined at the most expensive restaurants, and wore the finest of fine clothes, not to mention jewelry, that were paid for by his church.

To his largely African American audience, Reverend Ike would shout, “I used to be black myself until I turned green,” a reference to the focus on money. Reverend Ike told his followers to forget about storing up riches in heaven and go for wealth on Earth. He restored a former Loews Theater building in New York and made it into his United Church Science of Living Institute, from the stage of which he would tell his audiences to “…close your eyes and see green…”

In the offices in the same building, his staff opened letters from other devotees of his message, up to two million a year, most of them containing cash in response to his message that money had to be spent to be made. To the critics who called his ministry a con allowing himself to enjoy untold luxury at the expense of his mostly poor followers, Reverend Ike had a ready reply. Arms spread wide he would exclaim, “My garages runneth over.”

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
Approximately $100 million was spent to spread the word of the world’s impending end. The Atlantic

Harold Camping

Harold Camping served as the President of Family Radio starting in 1958, a broadcasting group which eventually reached over 150 American radio markets. He also served as an on-air broadcaster, authored numerous books, and created a calendar describing the age of the earth based on biblical evidence.

Camping established in his work that the Creation occurred in the year 11,013 BCE. As part of his calendar research, Camping discovered that a biblical calendar had been concealed, a reference made in the Books of Daniel and Revelations and that the date of the End Days is revealed in that reference. According to Camping, the end of days, beginning with the Day of Judgment, was to be May 21, 2011.

Camping previously established the date of September 6, 1994, as the probable day of the return of Jesus. These predictions and others of similar vein made in several books led to the solicitation of donations to create the publicity to warn the faithful, and presumably, those sinners who were running out of time, to prepare for the coming end. In his book We Are Almost There, Camping established May 21, 2011, as the day of the coming rapture, when approximately 200 million people worldwide would be raptured. Another publication, To God be the Glory, established October 21, 2011, as the date that the world would end. Money to spread the word of the coming end poured in.

On May 22, 2011, Camping came out of his home which had spent the previous day curtained from the world and expressed surprise at the prevailing normalcy, promising answers in the following days. On May 23 he described the rapture as having taken place, but that it was of a spiritual nature, and October 21 would be the date of the physical rapture, coincident with the end of the world. When questioned whether any of the money donated to spread the erroneous earlier messages would be returned Camping appeared to be surprised at the question responding, “We’re not at the end. Why would we return it?”

The following year Camping acknowledged the error of his prediction and said that he would no longer issue announcements regarding the timing of the end of the world. With his congregation dwindling, Camping largely withdrew from the public eye and died in December 2013. Family Radio claimed major losses of revenue following the inaccurate predictions, and no solicited funds were returned to donors.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
Woodmont, the final home of Father Divine. His rooms are maintained as they were on the day of his death. Wikipedia

Father Divine

Father Divine’s religious philosophy and beliefs were simple. He declared himself to be God. Of his upbringing, early days, and education little is known. Not even his real name is known, for a time it was believed to be George Baker, but that has been since discounted and the official records of his existence in the FBI files record him as alias George Baker, alias God.

Divine first called himself The Messenger and presented himself as a Christ-like figure to his mentor, Samuel Morris’s appearance as God the Father. When Morris and Divine had a falling out in 1912, Divine assumed the role of God the Father and so declared himself. He then began a ministry in Georgia, at first attracting a small following of mostly black women, which began to expand to include men and women of all races after several run-ins with the law and occasional incarcerations for lunacy.

Divine returned to New York in 1914, leading his followers in what he called his Peace Movement and married his first wife, Penninah around this time. He preferred to be addressed by his followers as Father Divine and soon established a commune on Long Island. Father Divine held lavish and loud banquets weekly to attract new followers, and drove around the neighborhood in his new Cadillac, angering his neighbors and drawing new supporters. When the police raided one banquet for creating a public nuisance, Father Divine paid the bail for all arrested with a $500 bill.

Soon the Peace Movement had branched out to other locations and Father Divine’s supporters rose to his defense when he was convicted for disturbing the peace, drawing a sentence of one year. When the judge who imposed sentence died of a heart attack four days later, Father Divine commented, “I hated to do it.”

Eventually, Father Divine became ensconced in Philadelphia, where he lived lavishly on the donations of his growing numbers of devoted followers. When his first wife died he soon remarried, concerned that the appearance of Godly immortality would suffer if he were to appear as a widower. He resided in the estate known as Woodmont, given to him by a follower, with 72 acres of grounds and a chateau-like mansion, tennis courts, swimming pools, stables, and groomed lawns. It became and remains the headquarters of the International Peace Mission Movement which arose from Father Divine’s own followers when he died in 1965.

8 Historical Figures Who Used Religion To Con Their Way To The Top
Jack Coe’s mammoth revival tent, which he called the world’s largest, in which he claimed to heal the sick. harvestrevival.com

Jack Coe

Jack Coe began his ministry in a revival tent in the years following the Second World War. Coe was an orphan with a fondness for liquor when he joined the Army during the war, during which he later claimed to have experienced a miracle which led him to seek a career as an itinerant minister. Ordained in 1944 he led several revival-style meetings while still in uniform, although he was not an Army chaplain. When the war ended he began his new career by first visiting his acquaintance Oral Roberts.

Roberts was then an itinerant preacher and Coe measured the tent Robert’s used for his meetings, ordering a larger one for himself. Coe from then on would frequently brag about the size of his tent, calling it the world’s largest.

In 1950 Coe began a magazine to support his ministry. It was called the Herald of Healing and in its pages, Coe included messages which supported his revival meeting oratory, which opposed the ingestion of medicines of any kind, recommended avoiding anyone who practiced medicine in any form and remaining focused strictly on the spiritual message of healing.

Coe’s collections at his revivals were sufficient to support him in a more than comfortable lifestyle, and when criticized for it he responded by comparing his homes to the larger and more sumptuous homes of other ministers. He also criticized the Assemblies of God hierarchy for not providing more support for his message of divine healing.

At a 1955 revival meeting in Miami, Coe told the parents of a young boy suffering from polio that their child had been healed and instructed them to remove the braces from the boy’s legs. When they did so the boy writhed with pain. Coe insisted that the braces remain off and after days of agony the boy’s parents complained to the authorities, who charged Coe with practicing medicine without a license. The charges were eventually dismissed on a technicality, but only a few months later Coe was stricken with bulbar polio, which he failed to heal as well. He died in December 1956, at the age of 38.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – Ten Crazy Facts You Do Not Know About Rasputin

Biography – Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker: Inside Their Relationship and the Scandals That Brought Down Their Empire

Los Angeles Times – Rev. Ike Positively Glitters on Crusade

New York Times – The Golden Gospel of Reverend Ike

National Post – Harold Camping’s Prediction Finally Comes True: Doomsday Preacher Dies Two Years After Apocalypse Ad Blitz

Literary Hub – Religious Cult, Force for Civil Rights, or Both?

Medium – When God Drove a Cadillac: The Remarkable Story of Father Divine

Los Angeles Times – Father Divine’s Movement Slowly Fades