Oral Roberts is dead at age 91. If he had died earlier, say at the height of his career around 1970, the media would take much greater notice. As it is, however, the original televangelist and healing minister is long past his prime and almost forgotten by many Americans. Most of my young seminary students have never heard of him.
My interest in Roberts stems from childhood, when he was an icon in our Pentecostal home. My stepmother gave me comic books about his life and healing ministry published by his Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association. More than once I got into playground brawls over our Pentecostal hero when he was derided by classmates.
By the time I graduated from a Baptist seminary and continued my theological education toward a Ph.D. in religious studies, I had largely moved away from my earlier awe of America's leading "full gospel" evangelist. He had, after all, joined the Methodists while retaining his Pentecostal flavor. Meanwhile, I had left my Pentecostal roots and joined the evangelical mainstream.
After completing a year of study in Germany, I accepted a call to teach theology at Oral Roberts University. I finished my doctoral dissertation while teaching there from 19821984. For me it was the best of times and the worst of times. I was somewhat exhilarated by working so closely with my childhood idol, and yet disillusioned by much of what I experienced.
Oral was a larger-than-life figure on the American religious landscape, comparable to earlier revivalists such as Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson. He became a national celebrity due to his Sunday afternoon nationally broadcast healing services and his later religious-themed hour long prime time variety shows. Few people were indifferent about ...