Fund Raising: Did Oral Roberts Go Too Far?
This article was originally published in the February 20, 1987, issue of Christianity Today.
Thoughts about heaven are not new to Oral Roberts. In 1975, the Tulsa evangelist told a chapel audience at Oral Roberts University (ORU) that he had asked God to take him, but God did not answer.
This time, according to Roberts, God is taking the initiative. Roberts has stated in a fund-raising appeal letter and on television that unless he raises a total of $8 million above regular ministry expenses by next month, he will die.
“I desperately need you to come into agreement with me concerning my life being extended beyond March,” states a fund-raising letter signed by Roberts.
“…God said, ‘I want you to use the ORU medical school to put My medical presence in the earth. I want you to get this going in one year or I will call you home!’” Roberts says he received this message last March.
The evangelist likens his situation to the apostle Paul who, in the New Testament Book of Philippians, spoke of his desire to “depart and be with Christ,” but also of his responsibility to “abide with you in the flesh.” According to Roberts’s letter, “when it looked like Paul would go on to heaven, his partners flooded him with the necessary money, each one giving to God’s servant out of their own need.”
A follow-up letter signed by Roberts’s son, Richard, affirms that without the money needed to send out missionary healing teams, “God will not extend Dad’s life.” Oral and Richard Roberts made similar statements on their weekly television program. A public outcry led several television stations to drop programs containing the controversial appeal.
Return to roots
Those who have followed Roberts’s ministry say his recent announcement does not differ greatly from previous claims, such as his vision of, and conversation with, a 900-foot-tall Jesus a few years ago.
Historian David Harrell, author of the biography Oral Roberts: An American Life, said the evangelist in the 1970s “flirted with evangelical respectability,” by becoming a Methodist, developing a respectable university, and building friendships with mainstream Christian leaders. But in recent years, Harrell said, Roberts has returned to his Pentecostal roots, noting that “messages from God” are not uncommon in Pentecostal circles.
Calvin College communications professor Quentin Schultze, a student of Christian fund raising, criticized Roberts’s latest appeal, saying it reflects poorly on Christian organizations. But he added: “You’ve got to see it in the context of a man who has a tremendous amount of pressure on him. He’s at the top of an organization that has to bring in millions of dollars each year to keep things going.
“When you get into that kind of stressful situation, especially coming from a neo-Pentecostal perspective, it is easy to attribute thoughts and feelings to God’s leading. … All Christians talk about God speaking to us. Because of Oral’s [theological] tradition, he takes this idea further.”
Many have questioned whether the message about Roberts’s possible death originated with God or with Roberts. Harrell said Roberts is extremely emotional and that he “seems to get revelations from God when in a state of deep psychological depression.”
Robert G. Tuttle, Jr., who taught at the ORU School of Theology and Missions from 1979 to 1985, said “Oral has one passion in life: to obey God. … It’s very important to him to be faithful to the mandate of sending doctors to the mission field. He’s always believed if he wasn’t faithful, God would take him.” Tuttle said he has already sent a check to Roberts.