“You’ve got cancer of the stomach? Are you ready to burn that cancer out? Here it goes in the mighty… Devil back off – back off devil! Hallelujah!” – Peter Popoff, 1986
In 1986, Peter Popoff was exposed. The American faith healer and “televangelist” had enjoyed great popularity in the early ‘80s, publishing several books and hosting a national television show. He regularly performed faith healing demonstrations in large, sold-out auditoriums. Popoff somehow knew the names, addresses and maladies of attendees, many of whom would miraculously get up from wheelchairs or throw away their crutches. Ira McCorriston, former controller of the Peter Popoff Evangelical Association, alleged that the organisation was taking $1.25 million a month in mail donations, solicited through the 55 televisions stations and 130 radio stations on which Popoff regularly appeared.
To James Randi, Popoff’s rapid success was suspicious. A well-known magician and debunker of psychics, Randi committed himself to unmasking Popoff. In 1986 Randi and a private investigator attended one of Popoff’s shows in San Francisco, incognito and armed with a radio scanner. In a subsequent appearance on The Tonight Show, Randi revealed what they had recorded: Popoff’s wife Elizabeth was feeding him information through an earpiece. Her voice can be heard as soon as the show begins: “Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can’t, you’re in trouble…” She could also be heard using racially abusive language and laughing at sick audience members. “It turns out that God’s frequency – I didn’t know he used radio – is 39.10 MHz,” said Randi. “And God is a woman, obviously, and sounds exactly like Popoff’s wife.”
In 1987, Popoff declared himself bankrupt. Mail donations had fallen to $200,000 a month. He could no longer sustain what had become a very expensive media industry. His career, it seemed, was over.
“I believe that there is someone watching me right now, a woman: you have several thousand dollars’ worth of credit card debt and you’ve just struggled with it. You’re paying exorbitantly high interest rates. I want to tell you if you’ll use the miracle point of contact, the faith tool I’m talking about today, you could see those debts wiped out, obliterated. God is telling me right now in my spirit that you can see those debts cancelled.” – Peter Popoff, 2012 Infomercial
The cable television explosion of the late ‘90s facilitated Popoff’s resurrection. He became one of a number of televangelists preaching “prosperity gospel” – an exploitative doctrine equating poverty with sin and promising wealth in exchange for tithes to particular ministries. As part of his revival, Popoff bought time slots on the Black Entertainment Network. In a 1998 report Hannah Rosin, then writing for The Washington Post, pinpointed the televangelist’s business strategy: “The preachers are turning to what they see as a reliable audience for the prosperity gospel: the black community.” Rather than hiding them, Popoff exploits his own experiences, flouting his ongoing “persecution” in a bid to connect with his viewers.
With money flowing in once more, Popoff has expanded his audience. According to Randi, Popoff made $10 million more in 2008 than during the zenith of his career in the ‘80s. Financial data is not available after 2005, after which he changed his ministry from a business to a religious organisation. However, in 2005 alone, Popoff’s organisation grossed $23 million. He and his wife took $600,000 each, and currently live in a house valued at $4.5 million. Now aged 68, and showing no signs of slowing down his operations, Popoff has a global reach – he will appear on UK satellite television 33 times this week and regularly makes personal appearances in eastern Europe.
Ole Anthony is the founder of the Trinity Foundation, an organisation that prosecutes fraudulent ministers and warns the public about them. “The public as a whole has a short-term memory on the subject,” Anthony says. “It has been our experience that for a short while after an exposé of a particular ministry, donations to that organisation will drop for a time; however, their donations soon return to normal.” Despite the hard work of religious watchdogs and sceptics such as James Randi, even dramatic exposés tend to fade from the public’s consciousness.
“Every time he [Popoff] said I would get an amount of money, that exact amount of money I got in the mail, or I got a phone call saying go pick it up. The exact date, the exact amount, and it totalled about $105,000. Not only did I get back what was stolen, I mean, my heart was healed through his words.” – Andrea’s Testimonial, from Popoff’s website
Popoff has always preyed on the most vulnerable. Since the economic crash in 2008 he has been pushing “God’s divine power of debt cancellation” particularly hard. Popoff’s core audience comprises the sick, the elderly and the unemployed; his message is hammered into them through relentless repetition. “One reason people are easily fooled into giving money to a charlatan,” says Anthony, “is desperation. Almost everyone has experienced some sort of tragedy or hardship and in general, people who are suffering will give.”
Beneath the mysticism, a more straightforward type of deception is Popoff’s bread and butter. He offers to give anyone a free vial of miracle water, claiming, somewhat disconcertingly, that it originates from a stream near Chernobyl that was miraculously saved from contamination. These gimmicks are used to build up mailing lists of potential donors. When I ordered my free water, it came with a long typed letter, punctuated with what looked like handwritten personal notes from Popoff, such as “God has chosen you to have a part in this.” On closer inspection, however, these are also printed.
Also enclosed was a letter asking for a donation and a handy freepost envelope. Popoff likens cash donations to the planting of a seed, and kindly asks for any specific prayer requests I might want to make. A mainstay of prosperity theology, “seed-faith” donations, are Popoff’s main source of income. “They lead people to believe that if they give or plant their “seed” into a particular ministry,” says Anthony, “they or their loved-ones will be blessed either financially or physically with wealth and health.” The letters I receive are long and rambling, quoting scripture to reassure me that wealth, health and prosperity are on their way, so long as I do as he says: “THIS FIRST STEP TOWARDS AMASSING THIS GREAT FORTUNE… IS RELEASING YOUR SEED FAITH.”
The letters grow more stern as time passes and I don’t reply. I’m told that it’s not too late, that a windfall of over £27,000 will be sent to me, but I must “Obey God in sowing a seed of £27.” In total I have received two “anointed mirrors,” one “gold bracelet” four “prayer cloths” and a “blood red victory bag”. Each object comes with elaborate powers and its own divine backstory – God has told Popoff to send them to me and informed him of the complicated rituals (many of which involve seed donations) that I must undertake to see miraculous results. None look like they cost more than 50p. The urgency is startling and even though I know these letters have been generated by a computer, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Popoff has taken a personal interest in me.
“I am a single mom trying to hold on to and find what faith I have and have lost. I have an array of emotional, spiritual, and financial drama that only Satan himself can claim as handiwork. I too have been in contact with the infamous Rev. Popoff. He has squeezed some money out of me as well. Desperate for support from the high, I went along with it because I so badly wanted answers… I was anxiously waiting his letters. But all I was getting was one after another with promises and sure things but only if I was obedient to God by sowing a seed. Saying that God would take me out of this position I was in. The latest letter promised a miracle beyond dreams before New Year’s Eve. Don’t see that happening either because I have not sent him money lately.” – Extract from a letter to the editor of Christian Issues, signed “Lonely, broken and lost”
Former employees of Popoff have bemoaned his objectionable practices. One disgruntled worker recently posted an anonymous complaint online, saying: “It was my job to enter prayer requests and donations into a database. These entries into the database would generate a letter to be sent back to the person who wrote in.” The computer-generated letters appear to be handwritten by Peter Popoff himself. “High-dollar donors are placed on an “A-donor” list and receive thank you phone calls and occasional personalized solicitations for more donations,” says Anthony.
Despite being a proven liar and an undoubted fraud, Popoff, the evangelical equivalent of a fake Nigerian prince, is allowed to promise material wealth in exchange for donations on British television. Ofcom’s rules state that religious programmes must not exploit the susceptibilities of the audience and has found some of Popoff’s material to be in breach of this. No steps, however, are currently being taken to remove him from the air.