Why is South Africa so Vulnerable to the Prosperity Gospel? (2) The Legacy of John G. Lake

John Graham Lake (1870-1935) was an American evangelist and leader in South Africa’s early establishment of Zionism and Pentecostalism, which was “by far the most successful southern African religious movement of the 20th century.”[1]

After years in the business world and with no formal theological education, Lake declared in the early 1900’s to have received a direct revelation from God. This would be one of the many questionable claims that marked Lake’s ministry. By 1907, he was a leading figure among the followers of Charles Parham and other Pentecostals in Zion City, Illinois.

A Word About Parham

A quick digression regarding Parham is important. Charles Fox Parham (1873-1929) is considered the founder of the modern Pentecostal movement, 
although his student William Seymour would surpass his influence once the Azusa Street Revival began in Los Angeles in 1906. The modern Pentecostal Movement essentially began on New Year’s Day 1901 when Parham’s students claimed to be given the gift of tongues, which they believed at the time to be the ability to speak in authentic foreign languages. Such claims of Spirit baptism quickly exploded into a revival Parham called the “Apostolic Faith Movement.”

Upheaval soon followed. He was forced to close his Bible school in Topeka, Kansas. Then, in Zion, Illinois, five of his followers were found guilty of beating to death a disabled woman while attempting to exorcise demons. The “Parham cult” was run out of town and soon became a byword for religious extremism. In 1907 Parham was arrested at a hotel in Texas on charges of sodomy and pedophilia. He was never charged.

Back to John G.

Healing was the chief emphasis of Lake’s ministry. As a pioneer of “god-men” theology, Lake laid out “one of the strongest Pentecostal cases for suprahuman abilities.”[2] He asserted: “God intends us to be gods (John 10:34). There is a God-power and a soul-force in the nature of man that God is endeavoring to bring forth….The man within is the real man. The inner man is the real governor, the true man that Jesus said was a god.”[3]

Flowing from the belief that mental illness and sometimes illness in general was caused by demon possession, a number of savage exorcisms followed—resulting in at least two deaths. Public uproar ensued, Lake fled and soon was crossing the Atlantic on a Pentecostal mission to South Africa.

Lake in South Africa

Lake may have been the first Pentecostal missionary in South Africa. Though John Dowie and then William Bryant had already acted as leaders of the South African Zionists, Lake soon took over and eventually founded the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) in 1908, remaining until 1913.

As a side note, most of South Africa’s Zionists and Pentecostals fall under the umbrella of the AFM. According to the 2010 account of Operation World, the AFM has more affiliates (3,100,00) than any other denomination in South Africa, more than the Methodist and Dutch Reformed churches (NGK and NHK) combined.

During Lake’s time in South Africa he continued to pander his audience with miracles, speaking in tongues, on stage healings, exorcisms and even raising of the dead. The controversy he experienced in the US followed him to South Africa as well, as he continued to be accused of fraud and deception. Before leaving, however, he left behind his most significant contribution: African disciples who would carry on his charade.

Barry Morton writes:

“Lake trained at least three influential African preachers in this wide range of methods: Edward Lion, Isaiah Shembe, and Elias Letwaba. The first two formed the Zion Apostolic Faith Mission and the Nazarite Churches respectively (the second and third largest Zionist congregations), with Lion himself being the mentor of Engenas Lekganyane, founder of the largest Zionist group, the Zion Christian Church.”[6]


So it is not difficult to see why the Prosperity Gospel has found such fertile soil in South Africa. Lake planted the seeds long before men like Benny Hinn, TB Joshua and Kenneth Copeland were known. In fact, Lake actually learned his methods of deception a decade before arriving in South Africa from John Dowie, leader of the Zion Christian Church, the largest denomination in South Africa.


[1] Barry Morton, “‘The Devil Who Heals’: Fraud and Falsification in the Evangelical Career of John G Lake, Missionary to South Africa 1908–1913,” 98.

[2] Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 23.

[3] John G. Lake, Spiritual Hunger and Other Sermons, ed. Gordon Lindsay (Dallas: Christ for the Nations, 1994), 20.

[4] Morton, “‘The Devil Who Heals’: Fraud and Falsification in the Evangelical Career of John G Lake, Missionary to South Africa 1908–1913,” 113.

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