Magazines 2023 Jan - Feb Early cancer death of prosperity gospel preacher Leon Fontaine raises questions for his followers

Early cancer death of prosperity gospel preacher Leon Fontaine raises questions for his followers

16 January 2023 By John Longhurst

In November 2022, Leon Fontaine died. Fontaine, pastor of Springs Church—the largest church in Canada, with locations in Winnipeg and Calgary—was a well-known prosperity gospel preacher, telling people they could live healthy and successful lives through faith in Jesus. His death came as a shock to many since he died young (age 59) and of cancer—a disease he claimed could be miraculously defeated by believers.

Many years ago, when I was in my late teens, a much-loved youth pastor in my hometown was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Together with others, we prayed for him to be healed. Oh, how we prayed! Fervently, devotedly, as individuals and in groups. 

We prayed how we had been taught: to claim victory over the dreaded disease in the name of Jesus, believing if we said the right things in the right way our prayers would produce a miracle. 

And then he died. 

Upon hearing the news, I was devastated and confused. Hadn’t I been taught the Bible promised health and healing for believers? That Jesus promised abundant life for Christians — not just in heaven, but here on earth, too? That God answered prayers if people had enough faith? 

It was a tough and challenging time for me. The suppositions of my belief system were rocked. Things didn’t turn out the way I had been told. I had to figure out a new way to live as a person of faith in the world.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I had been taught was a form of Christianity known as the prosperity gospel — the belief it’s God’s will for Christians to be happy, healthy and wealthy. All I had to do was “name it and claim it.”  

I haven’t believed that way for a very long time. Over the years I’ve learned that life is unpredictable, uncertain and messy. But many people still do, including those who go to Springs Church.

Springs is known in Canadian Christian circles as a prosperity gospel church. And Leon Fontaine was one of its most popular preachers. In sermons and video messages he said things like: “God has promised us health and healing. That’s a fact . . . I’ve witnessed incredible instantaneous miracles take place, and I’ve also watched people walk out miraculous recovery from everything from plantar warts to terminal cancer.”

No matter what you’re facing, he said, “the truth remains that you can walk in God’s promises of health and healing!”

He asked in another message: “What if I told you that God doesn’t want you to be sick? Many Christians have been taught that whatever happens in their life is God's will. In other words, if one person is healthy and the other is sick — it's God's will. But if you look in the Bible, you'll see that's actually not true.”

God’s will, he preached, was not for people to be “poor, sick, and hurting . . . when the Bible says ‘for by grace are ye saved by faith.’ The word saved doesn't just means saved from hell. It means saved from sickness, saved from poverty, saved from early deaths.”

God’s plan was to save Christians from sickness and disease, he said. His grace would keep them healthy and protected “until old age” — as long as people had enough faith and trained their minds to think only positive thoughts. No negative thoughts!

But now Fontaine is dead, at age 59 from cancer. How will people at Springs respond? His passing might prompt some uncomfortable questions for his followers, such as: Was what he taught wrong? If Fontaine could die young from cancer, a disease he said God would cure people from, was it all a lie?

And if it wasn’t a lie, here’s a troubling thought: Did Fontaine not believe what he preached? Or did he not have enough faith to get his own miracle? If a man so close to God like him couldn’t get healed, what hope is there for others?

Finally, can this God Fontaine preached about be trusted? For some, his death could prompt a crisis of faith.

Former Winnipegger Kate Bowler is a cancer survivor and author of the book “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.” She acknowledges its appeal. The prosperity gospel, she said, “offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you,” she said.

But life doesn’t always work out that way. And when it doesn’t, followers of the prosperity gospel can suffer doubly. “Shame compounds the grief,” she said, noting they not only feel grief over the loss of a loved one, they also feel guilty because they weren’t able to pull them through — a guilt they need to live with for the rest of their lives.

“Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith,” she said.

To be clear, I don’t think Fontaine was a fake or a charlatan. I don’t think he was preying on the hopes and dreams of others. I believe he sincerely believed what he was preaching. And from the tributes pouring in, he sounded like a caring and devoted pastor, husband, father and friend. 

But the fact of the matter is there are no guarantees in life. Christians get cancer, too. Sometimes they survive it, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get a good job, sometimes they are passed over for promotion. Sometimes someone they love dies, sometimes they don’t. There is no “gospel,” prosperity or otherwise, that offers a formula that works every time for every situation.

Or, as Bowler put it, “there is no cure to being human; finitude is going to be part of this deal . . . at some point, we must say to ourselves, ‘I’m going to need to let go.’”

From the December 31, 2022 Winnipeg Free Press. Reprinted with permission from the author's blog.