Oral Roberts, Pioneering Televangelist, Dies

Granville Oral Roberts, the granddaddy of all Pentecostal healing and prosperity evangelists, died yesterday of complications from a fall in Newport Beach, California. Perhaps no evangelist outside of Billy Graham has played such an integral role in contemporary American religious life in the last century. Roberts’ healing ministry, his seed-faith teachings, the creation of the City of Faith and Oral Roberts University are the highlights of the life of a fascinating American icon whose larger-than-life personality, visions, and entrepreneurial religious sensibility helped to transform Pentecostalism from a maligned movement into mainstream religion.

Jesus may have been 900 feet tall in Oral Roberts’ vision, but his visionary capabilities were ahead of the curve in integrating media and popular culture with the message of healing and prosperity. In my estimation, it is Roberts’ role as Pentecostal evangelist and empire builder that has had a lasting influence on religion and media in America. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Paul and Jan Crouch, and countless other televangelist wannabes owe their success to Roberts’ pioneering work on televising his healing crusades and his prime-time television specials. Roberts as a Pentecostal minister singlehandedly brought Pentecostal parlance of seed faith and healing into the mainstream, helping it to become the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Before Jakes, Creflo, Bakker, and Swaggart, there was Oral. He was smoking—not cigarettes, but with the fire of the Holy Ghost.

Like many Pentecostal evangelists and preachers before, Roberts’ call to ministry arrived in the midst of sickness. Not expected to survive a bout with tuberculosis, Roberts at 17 years of age heard God’s voice promising to heal him on the way to a healing meeting, promising that he would build a university for God. After having hands laid upon him, he was healed not only of tuberculosis, but also of stuttering.

Roberts’ calling separated him from the traditional Pentecostal evangelist. Most of the time, the message is “start a church” but like much of Roberts’ life, he confounded the traditional Pentecostal testimonies and narratives. He served as a pastor for a time, but then began Healing Waters Ministry in 1947 and a magazine soon after. Roberts’ business acumen and evangelistic fervor coupled to make his healing ministry a major ministry of evangelism in the early 1950s. Broadcasting first on radio, then on television, Roberts’ tent was billed as the largest gospel tent in the world, able to hold 12,500 people.

While other Pentecostal denominations were segregated, Oral Roberts held integrated evangelistic meetings. While Pentecostals endeavored to keep the lines between themselves and the world clearly delineated by eschewing the world, Roberts dived in by using television effectively as a tool, beginning in 1955, to broadcast his meetings, using direct mail advertising to raise money, and even taking the prayer cloth to new heights. Just today, one of my friends, a professor at a Pentecostal seminary, revealed that her mother kept the prayer cloth she received from Roberts to cure her of her barrenness, back in the 1950s, alongside the proof of her healing: her daughter’s birth certificate. 

Roberts’ televised healings at the beginning were not even broadcast in his home base of Tulsa, though stations later relented. The shows became a popular fixture, somewhat alleviating the constant need for the five semi-trailer trucks and the 12,500-seat tent. His charismatic presence and the demeanor of those being healed captivated audiences in that budding era of television. While Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades merely had preaching and singing, Oral’s crusades were filled with fiery preaching, hands being laid, and miracles (both real and contested) being played out across America’s television screens.

From the success of his television ministry, Roberts set off to accomplish the next phase of his calling by starting Oral Roberts University (ORU). Opening its doors in September of 1965 with 303 students, ORU would grow and even have Billy Graham as the dedication speaker when Roberts was installed as president in 1967. Noted for such students as Representative Michelle Bachman, Ted Haggard, and Joel Osteen, ORU quickly became the go-to school for Pentecostals and Charismatics.

Yet Roberts, frustrated with criticisms from the Pentecostal establishment, changed his affiliation in 1968 from the Pentecostal Holiness Church to United Methodist. This change allowed him to experiment with different styles of entertainment and ministry on his television show, and he soon began to feature musical numbers and dancing—behaviors prohibited in traditional Pentecostal denominations—as a way to both reach supporters and promote ORU.

Far from the stereotype of the illiterate Pentecostal, Roberts’ plans included not only a university, but the City of Faith, a medical complex which included a nursing school, dental school, and hospital. Believing that God had divinely inspired him to build a center where the cure for cancer would be discovered, Roberts took the principles embedded in Pentecostal divine healing and put them into pragmatic practice by building the City of Faith.

Constantly dunning for money to build the center, it was the vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus as a sign to Roberts that would place media scrutiny on his ministry in an uncomfortable way. Ridiculed for reciting the vision in a letter to supporters, the 900-foot-tall Jesus vision would eventually inspire Mark Griffin of Dallas to become a self-styled rapper with the handle of MC 900 Ft. Jesus, who had a string of hits.

Roberts was not without his share of controversy over his relentless calls for money and his promotion of “seed faith” (sowing a seed to fulfill your need). Roberts endured scrutiny almost from the beginning of his evangelistic work. Church of God leaders offered a thousand dollars to anyone who could prove they had been healed in his tent revivals, and touted that no one had come forth to confirm their healing.

Roberts ignored them—along with allegations of high living, fancy suits, jets and the like—and several harsh books, including one from former daughter-in-law Patti Roberts (whose divorce from Richard Roberts was allegedly sanctioned by Oral Roberts because she questioned the lavish lifestyle of the Roberts family). Roberts’ daughter died in a plane crash alongside her husband and, in 1980, Roberts’ son committed suicide after being arrested for drug use. The recent 2007 scandal involving finances at ORU, and accusations of Richard Roberts’ second wife Lindsay’s behavior with male ORU students was enough to bring Oral out of retirement and back at the helm of ORU for a short period of time.

Whatever might be said about Oral Roberts, in the end, he was the most captivating figure on the televangelist scene. I think one of my friends said it best as we attended a rather interesting Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting held at ORU a few years ago. Marveling at the giant praying hands, the prayer tower, and the doors to the banquet hall with a sign that requested visitors to “please leave your handgun in your vehicle,” I marveled at the physical plant that Oral had built.

My friend said, “What other Pentecostal leader had a vision, and built it?”

And she was right. Whatever can be said about Oral Roberts, he embraced the veni vidi vici of Pentecostalism full stop. I’m only wishing there was a television camera on the other side, to watch him make a grand entrance.

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