Paula White

Kira Ganga Kieffer

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PAULA WHITE TIMELINE

1966 (April 20):  Paula Michelle Furr was born in Tupelo, Mississippi.

1984:  Furr converted to Christianity at the Damascus Church of God in Maryland at age eighteen.

1984:  Paula Furr married Dean Knight and had a son, Bradley Knight.

1989:  Paula Furr Knight and Dean Knight divorced.

1990:  Paula Furr Knight married Randy White, a Church of God pastor.

1991:  Paula White co-founded Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Florida, with Randy White.

2001:  Paula White began broadcasting the televangelism program, Paula White Today.

2003:  Paula White published Birthing Your Dreams: God’s Plan for Living Victoriously.

2004:  Paula White published Daily Treasures (Words of Wisdom for the Power-Filled Life).

2004:  Paula White published He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Unconditional Love but Is Afraid to Feel.

2005:  Paula White published Deal with It! Workbook by Paula White.

2005:  Paula White published I Promise You…God’s Assurance for Everyday Living.

2005:  Paula White published Simple Suggestions for a Sensational Life. 

2005:  Paula White published Restoration: The Power of the Blood.

2006:  Paula White published Deal With It! You Cannot Conquer What You Will Not Confront.

2007:  Paula White and Randy White divorced.

2007:  Paula White published I Don’t Get Wholeness…That’s the Problem: Making Relationships Work.

2007:  Paula White Published You’re All That! Understand God’s Design for Your Life.

2007:  The U.S. Senate Finance Committee, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) initiated an investigation into Paula and Randy White, along with five other televangelists for alleged misappropriation of funds. 

2008:  Published Move On, Move Up. 

2009:  Paula White published Dare to Dream: See Yourself as God Sees You.

2012–2019:  White served as Senior Pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida.

2014:  Without Walls International Church filed for bankruptcy.

2014:  The U. S. Senate Finance Committee reported that no charges would be brought against the Whites after seven years of investigation.

2015:  Paula White married Jonathan Cain, keyboardist for the rock band Journey.

2017 (January 20):  White delivered an invocation at the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.

2019:  Paula White published Something Greater: Finding Triumph Over Trials.

2019 (May):  White retired from her position as senior pastor at New Destiny Christian Center; announced that son, Bradley Knight and his wife as her successors; renamed the church City of Destiny.

2019 (November 1):  White became Special Adviser of President Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

BIOGRAPHY

Paula Michelle White-Cain (née Furr) was born on April 20, 1966 in Tupelo, Mississippi, to parents Janelle and Donald Furr. [Image at right] When Paula was five years old, her parents divorced, and her mother moved Paula and her brother to Memphis, Tennessee, where they lived in poverty. Donald committed suicide shortly thereafter. According to White, she was terrorized by guilt over her father’s death in her childhood, and during her teenage years she suffered physical and sexual abuse by caregivers, psychological abuse by her mother, and bulimia. When White’s mother remarried, the family moved to Washington, D.C., and White graduated from Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Maryland.

Shortly after turning eighteen, White converted to Christianity at Damascus Church of God in Maryland. She also married her first husband, Dean Knight, and had a son, Bradley. According to White, she received a vision in which she was told to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ worldwide after committing her life to God (Lee and Sinitiere 2009:115). During her short marriage to Dean Knight in the 1980s, White volunteered with inner-city ministries in Washington, D.C. while she studied the Bible at a local Church of God school. In 1987, she met Pentecostal minister Randy White, and the two divorced their spouses and married in 1990.

The Whites moved to Florida and founded their own ministry in 1991, where Paula learned the skills of pastoring. After a few false starts, Paula and Randy White started Without Walls International Church in Tampa, attracting a racially and ethnically diverse membership. During the early 1990s, White caught the attention of burgeoning African American megachurch pastor T. D. Jakes. White refers to Jakes as her “spiritual father,” [Image at right] and she relied on his mentorship as her pastoral role developed. She also learned from Jakes a deep prosperity theology that moved the Whites’ ministry away from Pentecostalism and into nondenominational territory (Duin 2017). Jakes brought White into the fold and increased her visibility by inviting her to preach at two of his popular touring conferences for women, “Woman Thou Art Loosed” and “God’s Leading Lady” (Lee and Sinitiere 2009:119).

In 2001, White reports being called by God to start a television ministry, and she began Paula White Ministries with the program, Paula White Today. By 2006, the program was syndicated and airing across a range of networks, including the Trinity Broadcast Network, Black Entertainment Network, and Country Music Television, among other Christian stations. Her television success helped the Without Walls church boom, drawing 20,000 regular attendees to its ministry (Duin 2017).

White’s popularity led her to publish more than a dozen Christian self-help books aimed at helping readers attract prosperity into their lives: more money, better health, stronger relationships, and recognizing the power of God’s unconditional love. Throughout the 2000s, she also ministered to celebrities and politicians in crisis, most notably the singer Michael Jackson who was mired in child molestation accusations when he reached out to White for personal pastoring (Lee and Sinitiere 2009:110). In addition, White became a personal spiritual counselor to celebrities, including Tyra Banks, Darryl Strawberry, and Donald Trump. In 2002, according to White, Trump cold-called her after seeing her television show and complimented her for having the “‘it’ factor.” The two met and became friends, and Trump solicited her advice and prayers surrounding crucial business and political decisions (Leusner 2017; Glenza 2019; Peters and Dias 2019).

In 2007, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, led by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), initiated an investigation into Randy and Paula White and the Without Walls International Church, as well as five other megachurches, for misuse of donations. That year, Paula and Randy also announced their divorce. In 2014, the investigation ended with no major findings or charges, but Without Walls International Church filed for bankruptcy and Paula resigned in order to become the senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida (Zoll 2014).

Between 2012 and May 2019, White served as senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center, where she spearheaded church growth and several domestic and international ministries in U.S. prisons and cities, as well as in South Africa and Haiti. In 2015, she married rock musician Jonathan Cain, the keyboardist for the band Journey.

During this period, White stepped closer to politics, continuing her work with Trump and chairing his Evangelical Advisory Committee to help connect his campaign with evangelical Christian voters during the 2016 presidential campaign. [Image at right] On January 20, 2017, White was the first woman to provide an invocation at a U.S. presidential inauguration, and she has served as a spiritual counselor to Trump since he took office.

In May 2019, White announced her resignation from New Destiny, and she installed her son and his wife as co-pastors of the church, newly named Destiny City. She stated that she was called to start 3,000 churches and a university (Kuruvilla 2019). In November 2019, White was appointed to lead the Faith and Opportunity Initiative at the White House in an official capacity. At her last service as senior pastor at New Destiny, White announced that her decision was based on a message from God, who told her to move on to new opportunities. She reportedly told the congregation, “The Lord spoke to me very clearly and said, ‘If you miss this moment, you will delay things. Do not miss this moment’” (Kuruvilla 2019). White has also likened Trump to the biblical Queen Esther and stated that he was chosen by God to lead the United States (Itkowitz 2017).

TEACHINGS/DOCTRINES

White is a nondenominational evangelical Christian who was first baptized into the Pentecostal Church of God. On her website, White’s beliefs are represented in six categories: The Scriptures; The Trinity; Salvation; Baptism; Communion; and The Kingdom. In this set of beliefs, she aligns herself with other nondenominational American evangelical Christians, but her description of The Scriptures does not include a discussion of biblical inerrancy or the Bible as the “word of God,” which differentiates her from more fundamentalist Christians. Instead, it specifies, “We believe the Bible is divinely inspired by God, and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. We believe that in it are the principles by which are to live, and the measure of our faith and doctrine” (Paula White Ministries 2019). In White’s preaching, she refers to the Bible often, basing her messaging on elaborating upon specific passages and relating them to personal, real life problems.

As an evangelical Christian, White’s belief in the power of baptism and being “born again” through conversion are key aspects of her teachings. Her emphasis is not on traditional altar calls, but instead on testimony and the power of personal narratives. As anthropologist Susan Harding has written about fundamentalist Christian narrative and speech patterns, the experience of conversion is testified to others through an “acquired language or dialect” that emphasizes miraculous changes in the individual convert’s life and gratitude to God for her salvation (Harding 2000:34). White’s populist style of preaching and testifying makes clear that anyone can achieve these gifts of baptism, and that they are life changing for the better. She refers to herself as a “messed-up Mississippi girl” whose struggles and childhood traumas should have made her life, mental health, and ability to provide for and preach to millions of people unsalvageable. Referring to her own misfortunes, foibles, and triumphs, White testifies of her conversion as part of her preaching style and strategy (Lee and Sinitiere 2007:107).

White’s message and ministry also espouse prosperity theology. Historian of American religions Kate Bowler has argued that prosperity theology, or the prosperity gospel, “favors theological conservatism, and yet, organizationally it is unlike other conservative movements that tend to produce mandates and institutions with ironclad purpose” (Bowler 2013:4). Instead, prosperity preachers tend to be individual celebrities who “operate as theological and institutional independents, rising, persisting, and falling haphazardly” (Bowler 2013:4). This description aptly fits White’s celebrity status and independent roles as a megachurch pastor and spiritual-political adviser. The prosperity gospel refers to a theology emphasizing tangible rewards from God in this life, primarily in the form of wealth and health. As a prosperity preacher, White promises believers that their investments (spiritual and financial) in the church will reap rewards. As she preached in a 2019 sermon, “what you appreciate appreciates!” which she applied to finances, relationships, romance, and any good thing in one’s life (White 2019). The financial metaphor of an asset appreciating is representative of the style of White’s prosperity theology in which she preaches to followers that they will receive what they put their minds to.

Prosperity preachers are also well-known for their emphatic encouragement of followers to tithe or donate money to their cause or church organization as a way of demonstrating their desire for abundance. White frequently points to the New Testament verse “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (NIV Matthew 25:29) to illustrate this theological view. For White, there are two important messages in this verse. First, giving money to God (for White, this means the Church, which stands for God) will bring givers more money or blessings. Second, possessing blessings helps to accrue more blessings. In other words, to have plenty (wealth or health) is a virtue, not a sin or a source of shame. Consequently, according to White, the more one has, the more one deserves to (and will) receive. At White’s Without Walls congregation, tithing had “concrete guidelines” with options to donate “One month’s pay; One day’s pay; One week’s pay; My best First Fruits offering” (Bowler 2013:129–30). At the time of the Senate investigation, Without Walls International’s slogan was “Sacrificial Giving, Supernatural Empowerment.” As scholar of communications Douglas J. Swanson has shown, “renewalist” megachurches like the Whites’ combined the act of tithing with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in such a way as to imply “supernatural gifts” for purchase (Swanson 2012:66-7).

RITUALS/PRACTICES 

White performs many of the rituals and practices traditionally associated with the charismatic aspects of Pentecostalism. These include channeling the gifts of the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues (glossolalia); laying on hands for healing; performing spiritual warfare; and exorcism (Wacker 2001; Bowler 2013). At church services, White preaches a lively sermon, often encouraging call-and-response audience participation, and then ends the service with a period for anointing congregants with holy oils and leading prayer. Because of the size of her congregations, these are choreographed, multi-pastor events in which hundreds of congregants come forward to the stage to be prayed for. White leads the prayer and channels the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues and translating for the audience the meaning of the unknown language. These translations take the form of prophecies of blessings for members of the congregation (White 2012).

White also engages in spiritual warfare, a type of prayer aimed at unmasking deceptive satanic forces and spirits and calling on the benevolence of the Holy Spirit to provide truth or prophetic claims. According to religions scholar R. Marie Griffith, “Charismatic culture assumes not only the existence of Satan but the reality of untold numbers of lesser malevolent spirits, many of which correspond to base emotions, actions, and states of mind” (Griffith 1997:97). As pastor and spiritual guide, White enters a state of prayer and discerns fact from fiction, good from evil, reporting on the messages she receives from the spirit world and harnessing godly powers to fight off malevolence for individuals or her congregation. In her role as presidential spiritual adviser to Trump, White also receives and reports on prophecies gleaned from spiritual encounters and applies them to political or governmental matters (Ahmed 2019).

Prayer is central for White. She teaches followers that there are “eight ways that God speaks” to them, which are primarily internal or personal (White 2014). White also prays publicly, providing invocations and prayers for congregations as well as for President Trump, both on private and on public occasions (Duin 2017; Glenza 2019; Itkowitz 2017).

LEADERSHIP

White has served as senior pastor at two nondenominational Christian megachurch congregations, Without Walls International and New Destiny Christian Center, which she retired from in 2019. She also operates Paula White Ministries, an international televangelism and charitable organization, and she has published more than a dozen self-help and Christian books, audiotapes, and faith-based workbooks.

In American evangelicalism, there are often racial divides that prevent congregations or church movements from being racially integrated (Emerson and Smith 2000). While megachurches in general tend to stem this divide, White’s ministry is notable for its multiracial and multicultural appeal (Lee and Sinitiere 2009:112, 122; Walton 2009:82).

In 2019, White joined the Trump administration as the Special Adviser of the White House Faith & Opportunity Initiative. [Image at right] In this capacity and her prior informal role as spiritual adviser to Trump and evangelical outreach coordinator of his presidential campaign, White has lobbied and advised on political and legislative issues related to international humanitarian aid, opposition to abortion, and criminal justice.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

As a prominent evangelical woman in a culturally conservative religious milieu that values traditional gender roles, White has experienced challenges from within Christian circles to her legitimacy as a female pastor in a male-dominated field (Lee and Sinitiere 2009:122). She has also faced criticism for being a divorced woman and single mother in a religious culture that values marriage and the nuclear family as sacred and inviolable.

While White faces strong critiques by mainstream media and political liberals for her beliefs and blending of faith and politics, as well as her relationship to President Trump, her strongest critics are from many traditional evangelical leaders and liberal Protestants who view prosperity theology as heretical (Peters and Dias 2019) and who see White and other prosperity preachers and televangelists as grifters who profit financially by preying on the needs and insecurities of their followers. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has referred to White as a “charlatan” (Duin 2017). Prominent liberal pastor Rev. William J. Barber II, the leader of the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina, saw her elevation to the White House as an “ominous sign” and a manifestation of “Christian narcissism” (Peters and Dias 2019). Additionally, White’s connection to Trump and the Republican Party challenged many African American followers who view the president’s policies and administration as racist (Peters and Dias 2019).

Prosperity theology, megachurches, and televangelism have fallen under intense public and political scrutiny since the 1980s during the height of television preaching and fundraising and the downfalls of preachers such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others. Paula and Randy White were investigated by the U.S. Senate for misuse of donations in 2007, and they also filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after closing several sites of Without Walls in Florida (Zoll 2011).

SIGNIFICANCE TO THE STUDY OF WOMEN IN RELIGIONS

White is significant to the study of women in religions because of her unprecedented access to a sitting United States president as a spiritual adviser. She was also the first woman to provide an invocation at a presidential inauguration. In this sense, White’s reported role in a president’s life and administration exceeds that of famed evangelical pastor Rev. Billy Graham (1918-2018), who served as a personal pastor to every president from Harry S Truman (in office 1945-1953) to Barack Obama (in office 2009-2017), but did not work at the White House in an official capacity (Wacker 2014).

Due to proscriptions against women’s leadership in evangelical communities, as well as conservative Christians’ emphases on traditional gender roles, women have not often occupied major pastoral roles in evangelical churches. White is notable for her leadership and senior pastoring of two megachurches of her own founding. It is also significant that White is a charismatic Christian, since women have historically had more legitimacy and ability to demonstrate divine connections and interpretations in charismatic traditions such as early Pentecostalism (Wacker 2000). Early twentieth-century Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) exemplifies this trend (Sutton 2007), and White should be viewed as part of McPherson’s legacy due to their shared use of charismatic practices and celebrity.

IMAGES 

Image 1: Paula White.
Image 2: Paula White and her “spiritual father,” televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes.
Image 3: Paula White speaking at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
Image 4: President Donald Trump listens as Paula White leads a prayer at the White House on 27 August 2018.

REFERENCES

Ahmed, Tufayel. 2019. “Trump Pastor Paula White Tells Followers to Give $229 for ‘Prophetic Instruction’ on How to Defeat Their Enemies.” Newsweek, November 15. Accessed from https://www.newsweek.com/trump-pastor-paula-white-prophetic-instruction-defeat-enemies-1471978 on 10 December 2019.

Bowler, Kate. 2013. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press.

Duin, Julia. 2017. “She Led Trump to Christ: The Rise of the Televangelist Who Advises the White House.” Washington Post Magazine, November 14. Accessed from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/she-led-trump-to-christ-the-rise-of-the-televangelist-who-advises-the-white-house/2017/11/13/1dc3a830-bb1a-11e7-be94-fabb0f1e9ffb_story.html on 10 December 2019.

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Glenza, Jessica. 2019. “Paula White: The Pastor Who Helps Trump Hear What ‘God Has to Say.’” The Guardian, March 27. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/27/paula-white-donald-trump-pastor-evangelicals on 10 December 2019.

Griffith, R. Marie. 1997. God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Harding, Susan Friend. 2000. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Itkowitz, Colby. 2017. “‘Raised Up by God’: Televangelist Paula White Compares Trump to Queen Esther.” Washington Post, August 23. Accessed from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/23/raised-up-by-god-televangelist-paula-white-compares-trump-to-queen-esther/ on 10 December 2019.

Kuruvilla, Carol. 2019. “Paula White, Trump’s Spiritual Adviser, Leaves Florida Church With New Ambitions.” HuffPost, May 8. Accessed from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/paula-white-trump-church_n_5cd2e310e4b0a7dffccfa91e on 5 December 2019.

Lee, Shayne, and Phillip Luke Sinitiere. 2009. Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace. New York: New York University Press.

Leusner, Jim. 2017. “50 Most Powerful 2017: Philanthropy & Community Voices.” Orlando Magazine, June 26. Accessed from https://www.orlandomagazine.com/50-most-powerful-2017-philanthropy-community-voices/ on 10 December 2019.

Paula White Ministries. 2019. “Get to Know Paula.” Accessed from https://paulawhite.org/paula.html#news1-25 on 5 December 2019.

Peters, Jeremy W. and Elizabeth Dias. 2019. “Paula White, Newest White House Aide, Is a Uniquely Trumpian Pastor.” New York Times, November 2. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/02/us/politics/paula-white-trump.html on 10 December 2019.

Sutton, Matthew Avery. 2007. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Swanson, Douglas J. 2012. “Answering to God, or to Senator Grassley?: How Leading Christian Health and Wealth Ministries’ Website Content Portrayed Social Order and Financial Accountability Following a Federal Investigation.” Journal of Media and Religion 11:61-77.

Wacker, Grant. 2003. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wacker, Grant. 2014. America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Walton, Jonathan L. 2009. Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. New York: New York University Press.

White, Paula. 2019. “Complainers Remain Praisers Get Raised,” October 7 Paula White Ministries Podcast. Accessed from https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/paula-white-ministries-podcast/id1143586641 on 10 December 2019.

White, Paula. 2014. “The 8 Ways God Speaks to Us, Part. 2: Tongues.” Paula White Ministries. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPx2JGaJ8r0 on 10 December 2019.

White, Paula. 2012. “The Power of the Holy Spirit.” Paula White Ministries. Accessed from  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ar39gjJPLEQ on 10 December 2019.

Zoll, Rachel. 2011. “Televangelists Escape Penalty in Senate Inquiry.” NBC News, January 7. Accessed from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/40960871/ns/politics-capitol_hill/t/televangelists-escape-penalty-senate-inquiry/#.XebABi2ZPjA on 10 December 2019.

SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES

Bowler, Kate. 2019. The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fea, John. 2018. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Posner, Sarah. 2008. God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republic Crusade for Values Voters. Sausalito: PoliPoint Press.

White, Paula. 2017. Dare to Dream: See Yourself as God Sees You. Nashville: FaithWords.

White-Cain, Paula. 2019. Something Greater: Finding Triumph Over Trials. Nashville: FaithWords.

Publication Date:
13 December 2019

 

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