Reverend Ike (1 June 1935 - ), religious leader, was born Frederick...
Reverend Ike (1 June 1935 - ), religious leader, was born Frederick Joseph Eikerenkoetter II in Ridgeland, South Carolina, to Frederick Joseph Eikerenkoetter Sr., a Baptist minister and architect, and Rema Estelle Matthews, a teacher. As a boy, he was exposed to the fundamentalist theology of the Bible Way Church in Ridgeland, where his father was the pastor, and he became an assistant minister at the age of fourteen. After graduating from high school in 1952, Frederick won a scholarship to the American Bible College in New York and earned a Bachelor of Theology degree in 1956. He then became a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force and started what might have become a traditional and uneventful ministerial career. However, after only two years, Eikerenkoetter left the security of the chaplaincy to embark on a new vocation as an evangelist.
Back in South Carolina, he veered from his Baptist roots and began to develop an eclectic ministry, akin to Pentecostalism, that relied heavily on faith healing, the excitement of revival meetings, and the appeal of a charismatic preacher. By 1962 the United Church of Jesus Christ, which he had founded a few years earlier, had only a few members and met in a converted storefront, yet even then he anticipated building a great church empire, and, for this reason, he established the United Christian Evangelist Association, which would become the organizational and business umbrella for his future endeavors. In 1964 he married Eula Mae Dent; together they had one son, Xavier. Ultimately, his wife would become the co-pastor of his ministries, and his son would be given the title Bishop Coadjutor. They moved to Boston in 1965, where he founded the Miracle Temple and acquired his first radio audience.
Until Eikerenkoetter’s ascendance, the Reverend C. L. FRANKLIN, with his syndicated radio programs and recording contracts, was the most popular black preacher in America. Historically, the success of most black ministers relied on how well they delivered a standard Protestant message that emphasized faith in God and hard work and that generally deprecated the desire for material pleasures. Indeed, many ministers became quite wealthy by advocating this austere doctrine. Eikerenkoetter offered a radically different theology that contrasted sharply with the old-time religion in both form and substance.
Like FATHER DIVINE at the turn of the century, who was influenced by Charles Fillmore and Robert Collier, the pioneers of New Thought philosophy, Eikerenkoetter was also drawn to ideas that originated with New Thought because they placed greater power and responsibility upon the individual to affect the course of his or her life in this world, rather than praying for a better life in the hereafter. Eikerenkoetter, however, never proclaimed himself to be God or a messiah, as Father Divine and DADDY GRACE had strongly intimated. It is likely that Eikerenkoetter was exposed to New Thought philosophy through white ministers, such as Norman Vincent Peale, and motivational speakers, such as Dale Carnegie, who had popularized a new gospel of positive thinking. Eikerenkoetter was the first to package this concept within an African American religious ethos and successfully market it to black consumers.
In 1966 two decisions contributed greatly to Eikerenkoetter’s success: he established his flagship congregation on 125th Street in Harlem, New York, and he began to use the name Reverend Ike instead of the difficult-to-pronounce Dutch name Eikerenkoetter. Not even the flamboyant Harlem minister ADAM CLAYTON POWELL JR. was as flashy or as ostentatious as Reverend Ike, who flaunted his diamond rings, fur coats, and mink-upholstered Rolls Royce. While the mainstream press ridiculed his extravagance and considered it proof that he was a charlatan, Reverend Ike argued to his critics and to the thousands who were drawn to him that his very wealth was proof that his program worked. In contrast to a long tradition of pie-in-the-sky preaching, Ike repeatedly said, “I want my pie now, with ice cream on top” (Morris, 180). He taught that “the LACK of money is the root of all evil” (Morris, 184) and to overcome the guilt that many religious people had about desiring money, he developed the mantra “I like money. I need money. I want money. . . . Money is not sinful in its right place. Money is good” (Morris, 176).
The response to this theology of prosperity was so overwhelming that in 1969 the congregation purchased the historic Palace Auditorium, which occupied a full block on Broadway and 175th Street. Five thousand people attended services there each week, and the building also contained his school, the United Church and Science of Living Institute. Reverend Ike claimed that millions of people subscribed to his magazine, Action!, or listened to him on more than eighty-nine radio stations. In 1971 he became the first black leader since MARCUS GARVEY to pack Madison Square Garden, and in 1973 he became the first black preacher to acquire a television program, Joy of Living. Through all of these outlets he sold literature extolling his “Blessing Plan,” as well as products promising to heal or enrich the purchaser—if the person had faith and contributed to his church.
At the height of his popularity in the late 1970s, Ike was prominent among a new generation of televangelists. He received offers to speak to diverse audiences and once even lectured on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In an effort to deflect criticism that his ministry was completely self-serving, his church sponsored programs to help drug addicts, and he purchased a lifetime membership with the NAACP. During the 1980s, however, his star began to fade, and the former religious icon quickly became a parody of black preachers who prey on the poor and desperate. His public image also suffered from a number of unsuccessful criminal investigations by the Internal Revenue Service and the Postal Service and by a sexual harassment suit brought by a male employee against him in 1995. Reverend Ike’s ministry survived these accusations, but it never regained its former stature.
Lingering questions about Reverend Ike’s motives and character obscured the theological innovations that he pioneered, and excessive attention to Ike’s showmanship prevented many observers from recognizing that at its core his message appealed to African Americans who legitimately wanted a greater share of American prosperity.
The records and papers of Reverend Ike are not publicly available. The most scholarly study of his ministry is an unpublished dissertation by Martin V. Gallatin, “Rev. Ike’s Ministry: A Sociological Investigation of Religious Innovation,” New York University, 1979.
Baer, Hans A., and Merrill Singer. African American Religion (2002).
Morris, James. The Preachers (1973).
Riley, Clayton. “The Golden Gospel of Reverend Ike,” New York Magazine (19 Mar. 1975).
Sanders, Charles L. “The Gospel According to Rev. Ike,” Ebony (Dec. 1976).
Sholomo B. Levy