American television evangelist (born 1946)
Robert Gibson Tilton (born June 7, 1946) is an American televangelist and the former pastor of the Word of Faith Family Church in Farmers Branch, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. At his ministry’s peak in 1991, Tilton’s infomercial-style program, Success-N-Life, aired in all 235 American television markets (on a daily basis in the majority of them) and brought in nearly $80 million per year; it was described as “the fastest growing television ministry in America.”
When ABC’s Primetime Live raised questions about Tilton’s fundraising practices, a series of investigations into the ministry were initiated, and Success-N-Life was taken off the air. Tilton later returned to television on a new version of the program airing on BET and The Word Network.
Life and career
Robert Tilton was born in McKinney, Texas, on June 7, 1946. He attended Cooke County Junior College and Texas Technological University. He married his first wife, Martha “Marte” Phillips, in 1968. According to his autobiographical materials, Tilton had a conversion experience to evangelical Christianity the following year and began his ministry in 1974, taking his family on the road to, in his words, “preach this gospel of Jesus.” Tilton preached to small congregations and revivals throughout Texas and Oklahoma. His family settled in Dallas and built the Word of Faith Family Church, a small nondenominational charismatic church in Farmers Branch, in 1976. The church started a local television program then known as Daystar.
Tilton’s young church was growing steadily, but Daystar failed to expand beyond the Dallas area until Tilton traveled to Hawaii – his self-described version of Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness – and came upon an increasingly popular new form of television programming: the late-night infomercial. Tilton was particularly influenced by Dave Del Dotto, a real estate promoter who hosted hour-long infomercials showing his glamorous life in Hawaii, as well as on-camera testimonials lauding his “get rich quick” books. Upon his return from Hawaii in 1981, Tilton, with the help of a US$1.3 million loan from Dallas banker Herman Beebe, revamped Daystar into an hour-long “religious infomercial” with the title Success-N-Life.
On Success-N-Life, Tilton regularly taught that all of life’s trials, especially poverty, were a result of sin. His message consisted mainly of impressing upon viewers the importance of making “vows”—financial commitments to Tilton’s ministry. His preferred vow, stressed frequently on his broadcasts, was $1,000. Occasionally, Tilton would claim to have received a word of knowledge for someone to give a vow of $5,000 or even $10,000. When a person made a vow to Tilton, he preached that God would recognize the vow and reward the donor with vast material riches. The show also ran “testimonials” of viewers who gave to Tilton’s ministry and reportedly received miracles in return, a practice that would be used as the basis for a later lawsuit from donors charging Tilton’s ministry with fraud.
A Dallas Morning News story published in 1992 observed that Tilton spent more than 84% of his show’s airtime for fundraising and promotions, a total higher than the 22% for an average commercial television show; other sources put the total fundraising time during episodes of Success-N-Life closer to 68%. Some of Tilton’s fundraising letters were written by Gene Ewing, the head of a multimillion-dollar marketing empire writing donation letters for other televangelists like W. V. Grant and Don Stewart.
As a result of Tilton’s television success, Word of Faith Family Church grew to become a megachurch, with 8,000 members at its height. Tilton also wrote several self help books about financial success, including The Power to Create Wealth, God’s Laws of Success, How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally, and How to be Rich and Have Everything You Ever Wanted. Most of his books were published in the 1980s and distributed via promotion on Success-N-Life and through the many mailings Tilton’s ministry sent his followers. The books were republished in the late 1990s to be used as centerpieces of his 1997 infomercial series and are now promoted on his current (as of 2010[update]) daily live internet broadcast.
Ministry and fundraising scandal
In 1991, ABC News conducted an investigation of Tilton (as well as two other Dallas-area televangelists, Grant and Larry Lea). The investigation, assisted by Trinity Foundation president Ole Anthony and broadcast on ABC’s Primetime Live on November 21, 1991, alleged that Tilton’s ministry threw away prayer requests without reading them, keeping only the accompanying money or valuables sent to the ministry by viewers, garnering his ministry an estimated US$80 million a year.
Allegations of exploitation of vulnerable people
Anthony, a Christian minister whose organization works with the homeless and the poor on the east side of Dallas, first took an interest in Tilton’s ministry in the late 1980s after encountering needy people who told him they had lost all of their money making donations to high-profile televangelists, especially Tilton. Curious about the pervasiveness of the problem, the Trinity Foundation got on the mailing lists of several televangelists, including Tilton, and started keeping records of the many types of solicitations they received almost daily from various ministries.
Former Coca-Cola executive Harry Guetzlaff came to Trinity after he had been turned away from Tilton’s church when he found himself on hard times following a divorce. He had been a longtime donor and gave up his last $5,000 as a “vow of faith” just weeks earlier. Guetzlaff’s experience, combined with the sheer magnitude of mailings from Tilton’s ministry, spurred Anthony, a former Air Force intelligence officer and licensed private investigator, to start a full investigation of Tilton’s ministry. Guetzlaff joined Anthony in the task of gathering details on Tilton’s operation and later did much of the legwork in uncovering the paper trail for the ABC News investigation.
In a November 21, 1991, promotional appearance on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, Diane Sawyer said that she had incidentally watched several televangelist programs, including Success-N-Life, and was both “fascinated” and “disturbed” by them. Stressing the public’s sensitivity to reporters questioning religion, Sawyer said that she spoke with other journalists, and then eventually to ABC producers, who then decided to conduct their own investigation into Grant, Lea, and Tilton. ABC producers learned about possible resources available from Anthony and Trinity, and contacted them for information. After comparing their accumulated notes, data and details, the two groups decided to pool their efforts and began planning the undercover portion of the story. Anthony agreed to portray himself as a Dallas-based minister with a small church looking into the ways TV ministries could grow so quickly, and the ABC producers would pose as Anthony’s “media consultants.”
Meeting with Response Media
The team, armed with hidden cameras and microphones, arrived for a meeting at Response Media, the Tulsa-based marketing firm handling Tilton’s mass mailings, to discuss a proposal sent by Anthony to Response Media about fundraising for a religious-based TV talk show. The director of Response Media, Jim Moore, described for Anthony and the hidden cameras (concealed in the undercover Primetime Live producers’ glasses and handbags) many techniques used by Tilton to raise funds for his ministry. Moore also said that Tilton was doing “far better than anyone knows” and described the main strategy Tilton employed for such a high return rate on his mailings—that is, send the recipient a “gimmick” that compelled the recipient to mail something back in return, and most recipients would include some money along with it. Moore declined to disclose how much Response Media was paid for its services or how much money the mailings were generating for the Tilton ministry.
However, as part of his sales pitch to Anthony, Moore disclosed that the response letters generated by the fundraising mailings Response Media sends out for its clients were never delivered to the client; instead, they were sent unopened to the client’s financial institution or other institutions of choice. “You never have to touch it”, Moore added in response to a clarification question from Anthony about dealing with the gimmick objects sent to the potential donors in the mails. One of the ABC producers asked whether this was a standard practice—”So the mail goes straight to the bank?”—and Moore asserted that it was: “The mail goes to the bank, and they put the money in your account. We just get the paper with the person’s name and how much they gave.”