Oral Roberts: Evangelist who pioneered the charismatic style that came to dominate American Christianity

Oral Roberts was one of the most remarkable religious figures to have appeared in North America in the 20th century. A faith healer and pioneer of a new, informal style of religious broadcasting that became fashionable in the 1970s, he was at the forefront of the charismatic movement that became a powerful, even dominant, force in mainstream Christianity during the 1980s and 1990s. The founder of Oral Roberts University and Faith City, a medical school and hospital complex at Tulsa, Oklahoma, he will be remembered as one of America's most enterprising and colourful religious entrepreneurs.

Oral Roberts was born in Oklahoma in 1918. His father was of Welsh descent, his mother half Cherokee Indian. Both parents had received the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" in the wake of the famous Azuza Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906, which saw the birth of modern Pentecostalism. Roberts claimed to have been miraculously cured of tuberculosis at the age of 17, when God spoke to him directly, commanding him to "take My healing power to your generation." From that time onwards he insisted that every major decision he took was directly dictated by God.

Although a promising student, Oral Roberts never completed high school, abandoning his education to assist his father, a pentecostalist preacher, on the revival circuit. Though the healings he performed at tent meetings around the country never ceased to be contested by sceptical newsmen, Roberts's fame soon extended beyond his native Oklahoma. The meetings – held in a specially constructed tent designed to hold 7,000 – were often rowdy affairs, with crutches and hearing aids hurled into the air as cripples abandoned their wheelchairs, cancers were pronounced healed and demons exorcised. After the hymns and prayers Roberts would move along the "healing line" like a swimmer, using a kind of modified breaststroke, touching one sufferer with his left hand, the next with his right.

A shrewd politician, Roberts was careful to protect himself against disappointed customers. Before queuing up for healing people were required to sign a release form acknowledging that entry into the prayer line did not guarantee a cure.

Roberts' ministry was generally looked on with disdain by preachers in the regular fundamentalist tradition who insisted that Christ's gifts of healing had ceased with the Apostles. Bob Jones, the veteran evangelist, attacked him as a "religious racketeer" whose accounts of his conversations with God amounted to blasphemy. Opposition to healing claims among mainstream churches was endorsed by a medical commission appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1956 which reported: "We can find no evidence that there is any type of illness cured by spiritual healing alone which could not have been cured by medical treatment."

But unlike many preachers at the populist end of the American religious spectrum, Roberts' instincts were thoroughly ecumenical. Despite the controversy over his healing claims and the $5,000 "love offerings" he accepted from his audiences, his diplomatic skills enabled him to win increasing acceptance within the mainstream. He gradually de-emphasised the healing ministry and in 1968 abandoned the Pentecostal Holiness Church, joining America's most middle-of-the-road denomination, the Methodists. He began preaching on local radio stations in the 1940s and during the following decade his sermons, broadcast by more than 200 stations, were estimated to reach audiences of more than 100 million.

It was television, however, that made him known internationally. The healing services were televised from the mid-1950s, becoming the principal source of conversions by the end of the decade. In 1969 he inaugurated a revolutionary new format – the religious television variety-show, aimed at the unconverted and aired on prime time evening slots instead of the Sunday morning "religious ghetto". The show proved popular with young people, attracting such Hollywood stars as Jimmy Durante, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis and Burl Ives. Imitated by other religious broadcasters, the new-style religious television became the principal vehicle through which America's previously marginalised Christian believers entered the cultural mainstream. Roberts' added celebrity boosted to more than a million the circulation of Abundant Life, the magazine through which he was able to get his message across in more detail, and to solicit contributions.

Roberts' success brought with it an increasingly affluent lifestyle, including a 10-bedroom ranch-style mansion in the suburbs of Tulsa, homes in Palm Springs and Southern California, expensive cars and private planes. Like other preachers on the religious right, he found it convenient to overlook Christ's teachings on poverty, proclaiming instead that "God doesn't deserve second best". In time his moral approval of affluence developed into a fully fledged prosperity theology he called "seed-faith". Roberts interpreted a verse in the Third Epistle of John – "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth" – as meaning that God endorsed personal prosperity and that poverty was an oppression that needed healing as much as a physical disease. The therapy he prescribed required that the faithful open their purses as well as their hearts to God, by giving to Roberts' ministry. The proof-text was Luke 6:38: "Give, and it shall be given unto you."

Selfless giving, said Roberts, was God's road to abundance. Roberts' "partners" – as donors to his ministry were called - were provided with Seed-Faith booklets with monthly coupons to fill in noting the amount of contributions, and instructions to "place this faith book where you keep your important bills like water, gas, electric etc. The first of each month put God's work first in your life."

By 1972 partners were contributing almost $25m per year. Roberts' most enduring monument, Oral Roberts University, was founded in 1962 on divine instructions, with loans and endowments of $50m. The student enrolment was 3,000 who – it was hoped – would eventually bring in 2 million souls per year. While the project met with disapproval from older pentecostalists steeped in the anti-intellectualism of the Bible Belt, its academic acceptance was sealed by the full accreditation it received from the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1971.

The campus, with its futuristic buildings designed by Frank Wallace, including a 200-foot steel and glass "Prayer Tower" ringed by a Crown of Thorns-shaped observation hall, became Tulsa's most famous landmark. Despite its claim to academic respectability, the university – like other Bible-based schools – was run as a personal fiefdom, a highly authoritarian enclave (or, as Roberts preferred to call it, a "semitheocracy") on American soil. Doctrines opposing principles considered fundamental to Biblical theism were not permitted. Students were required to observe a strict code of honour, specifying details of dress and behaviour. The rules were more liberal than in some other religious establishments, such as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. For men, beards were forbidden, but trim moustaches were allowed. Women were permitted a reasonable amount of make-up, with skirts up to two inches above the knee.

There was a strong emphasis on physical fitness. Roberts' Jesus did not approve of fat people and overweight students were required to "slim for Him". Disabled people were kept off the campus until the American Civil Liberties Union brought a successful anti-discrimination suit. There were constant struggles over academic freedom between Roberts and his staff, including problems over tenure, which Roberts effectively abolished, firing faculty members at will. Students were also at his mercy: "You're on my property under God" he once told an assembly of students and faculty. "God told me to raise you up. You belong to me as long as you're here and if you don't like belonging to me under God, get up and leave."

After further conversations with the Almighty, Roberts founded the City of Faith comprising a 30-storey hospital containing the symbolic number of 777 beds, a 60-storey clinic and diagnostic centre (the tallest building in Oklahoma) and a 20-storey medical research centre. The massive complex, fronted by a 60-foot pair of praying hands – the world's largest cast-bronze sculpture – imposed an immense financial burden on the ministry, bringing the faith of Roberts' partners to breaking point. Hospital beds remained empty and despite the constant appeals for funds, by 1986 the City of Faith was running a deficit of more than $1m per month.

In January 1987 Oral Roberts undertook the most spectacular gamble – or act of faith – of his life, retiring to the Prayer Tower, where he promised to fast until God "took him away" unless supporters came up with the necessary funds. Defying the protests of fellow-evangelists, who accused him of "tempting God", divine approval eventually came in the form of a $1.3m gift from a wealthy racetrack owner. Not for the first time, God and Mammon joined forces to save Roberts' ministry, guaranteeing its survival into the 21st century.

Despite his espousal of prosperity theology Roberts' family life was fraught with tragedy and scandal. In 1977 his daughter Rebecca was killed in an air crash. His eldest son shot himself in 1982 after receiving a court order to undergo counselling at a drug treatment centre. In 2007 Richard Roberts, his son and successor, resigned the presidency of Oral Roberts University when he was named in a lawsuit alleging improper use of university funds.

Malise Ruthven

Granville Oral Roberts, preacher: born Pontotoc County, Oklahoma 24 January 1918; married 1938 Evelyn Fahnestock (died 2005; one son, one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Newport Beach, California 15 December 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
The dress can be seen in different colours
Wes Brown is sent-off
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?