Robert Gibson Tilton (born June 7th, 1946) is an American Televangelist that preaches the prosperity theology on his show Success-N-Life, running 1981 – 1993; 1997–present. His program was taken off of the air in 1993 as a result of ABC's two-year Primetime Live investigations into his ministry and fundraising practices in which he was exposed for exploiting and scamming vulnerable followers.
"(Yelling) As surely as I'm speaking by the spirit of God, (...) you need to make a vow of faith of a thousand dollars! (Mockingly) "Oh, Bob, couldn't you say $25?" NO!"
- Robert demanding money in the name of God
On Success-N-Life, Tilton daily taught that all of life's problems, especially that of poverty and illness, could be attributed to sin. Tilton's main role in his show and live sermons was stressing the importance of the viewers making "vows of faith", a.k.a large financial commitments to his ministry--claiming that, in return, God would reward them with material goods, money, or by healing. Tilton would specifically ask that people vow what they could not afford in the name of faith, stating that God would not be satisfied with the sacrifice any other way. Tilton would frequently name $1,000 vows being his preference, but would claim to receive "words of knowledge" that one individual must vow $5,000-$10,000, "prophesized" by listing illnesses and etc.
On one occasion, Tilton set aside a small fraction of the funds to take a trip to Madui, India, an impoverished city and in his words, "the poorest of the poor", to spread the word of God and perform miracle healings for five days. At the end of every show, he asked the audience for money.
Tilton would also perform faith healings through the television screen by either speaking in tongues or holding up a hand through which "the energy of God (would) flow" and (loudly) praying. Tilton essentially believed in screaming the demons away.
In the program's prime in 1991, the ministry was earning nearly $80 million per year through donations, completely tax free.
The main focus and widespread discovery of the fundraising scandal was that surrounding the prayer request forms.
Tilton created a service in which viewers in need could send the ministry a donation including a personal letter asking Tilton to pray for them, and it was promised he would do so. In 1991, Texas-based minister Ole Anthony discovered a dumpster filled to the brim with prayer request forms -- containing everything but the money. The same was found outside of Tilton's many banks. Anthony assisted Diane Sawyer with ABC News' investigation, in which they alleged that the ministry throws the letters away without reading them, plucking only the cash and valuables. The allegations also then questioned Tilton's two multi-million dollar mansions, recently purchased yacht, vacation to California, and cosmetic surgery.
In response, Tilton aired a special episode of Success-N-Life entitled "Primetime Lies." Tilton insisted that the letters found in the "dipsy dumpster" only could have been stolen by the media in order to slander him for a story, and that he prays over every prayer request he receives; in fact, he "laid on them so much that 'the ink and various chemicals actually got into (his) bloodstream, begin to swell (his) capillaries, (...) got into (his) immune system," and he "had two small strokes in (his) brain." He followed this up by claiming that the reason he purchased a boat was to go on vacation in order to heal, as prescribed by his doctor, and that the cosmetic surgery was to remove the bags under his eyes after "all those chemicals had messed 'em up." When criticized for using church donations to fund his various luxuries, his reasoning was that because he preached prosperity, he should be allowed to practice it.
In generally defending himself, Tilton would frequently use ad hominem attacks, such as calling Sawyer and Anthony "demons", and otherwise accusing them of simply being against God.
During investigations, several followers of Tilton's church attempted to sue. On more than one occasion, it was found that the ministry was still sending computer-generated letters--under the guise that they were messages from God written by Tilton himself--to deceased donors. Some also complained that his live faith healings were false and their symptoms prevailed; one example being a woman whose son threw his glasses out after meeting Tilton, and the next day, the boy was running into walls.
Because none of these allegations were inherently illegal, they did not go to trial. Although his congregation was shrinking, Tilton was usually able to avoid legal issue because he never specified where the money would end up (unlike Jim Bakker, fellow televangelist, who went to prison for fraud), and claimed religious freedom. One plaintiff, Vivian Elliot, won $1.5 million due to an unfulfilled secular promise to build a crisis center with money she personally donated.
People that worked with Tilton relayed stories to Primetime Live as well.
- One former prayer hotline operator claimed that they were given specific instructions on how to deal with callers, such as keeping calls below seven minutes and asking for a $100 "vow" at minimum.
- A secretary of Tilton's claimed that he would use excerpts from "get rich quick" books in his sermons and was never seen performing normal pastoral duties (such as visiting with the sick and praying with members).
- Tilton's former maid confirmed that prayer requests sent to Tilton were ignored, and stacked up in the garage until they were thrown away.
- An anonymous former college friend of Tilton's claimed that he and Tilton would attend tent revival meetings and pretend to be anointed and healed as sport. They also discussed the idea of creating a revival ministry "and drive around the country and get rich." Tilton denied knowing the interviewee.
The decline of Success-N-Life also lead to the end of Tilton's 25-year marriage. Soon after, married Leigh Valentine, a fellow evangelist. Within months, she divorced Tilton and accused him of being a physically abusive alcoholic. Valentine requested that the court include the church and all its property as community property in the proceedings, which the jury ruled against.
(WORK IN PROGRESS)