Oral Roberts: Evangelist who pioneered the charismatic style that came to dominate American Christianity
Thursday 17 December 2009
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.
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.
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