Oral Roberts: Greatest Religious Entertainer of the Century

Granville Oral Roberts was first and foremost a showman. Some may take issue with such a claim, especially those who revered him as a minister of the gospel. Yet I am not sure “Brother Oral” himself would.

Say what you will, Oral Roberts’s success was made possible by his unbridled passion for the dramatic. Yet this seemingly extemporaneous Pentecostal preacher and faith-healer was anything but spontaneous. His city-wide healing crusades, 5,000 person traveling tent, and carefully orchestrated healing lines were the heartbeat of his early ministry. Well coordinated in advance, there was an advanced color-coded card system to determine whom the ushers would bring forth (the seriously ill were given a white card and were isolated in the “invalid room”).

And by 1947 when Roberts devoted himself to conquering the media airwaves with his Healing Waters broadcast, Roberts proved himself to be a fundraising guru. Between 1949-1953, Roberts raised enough money from his $10 per month pledge envelopes distributed at revival meetings to expand from 20 local signals to a deal with ABC that put the revivalists on over 400 stations across the country. A year later his now legendary seed-faith Blessing Pact program provided the resources to sustain a bourgeoning television ministry for the rest of the century.

On television is where Oral Roberts’s performative genius came to full fruition. These shows were prerecorded and extensive editing took place prior to broadcast. This allowed Roberts to focus on favorable events and delete his many healing hiccups. In later discussing his editing tactics, Roberts defended his methods by appealing to the persuasive power of the sensational. “I was trying to establish in the minds of the people the possibility that a healing can take place in this century…I admit there was a disadvantage to this, but I had to weigh advantages over the disadvantages and think of the viewer and his need.”

This is why I suggest Oral Roberts should be remembered, first and foremost, as one of the greatest religious entertainers of the twentieth century. Sure he was a preacher but this was not his strength. He was hardly a model for homiletic or ministerial excellence in a morally respectable sense. His religious identity was capricious. His dedication to followers was as good as the next offering. And, due to the way his family ran ORU into the ground, his only real legacy in theological education will be in name only (thank God!).

But we can celebrate Oral Roberts for what he was, a showman par excellence. For he understood like few others before him that P.T. Barnum’s advertising maxim applied to the realm of religion, “without promotion something terrible happens….Nothing!”

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