God's Man in Tulsa: The Life and Ministry of the Original Televangelist
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 him; he was either revered or vilified.
Even some Pentecostals were embarrassed by Oral's television persona. In the 1950s his sweating, spitting, grasping prayers for healing made even his admirers cringe. In the 1970s they were sometimes embarrassed by his cloying familiarity with entertainment personalities on his TV specials.
I had plenty of opportunity to watch Oral close up and in person during my two years at ORU. One thing I could not question was his sincerity. At times he seemed emotionally unstable and suffering delusions of grandeur, but his passion for God's goodness and power was beyond doubt or question. He preached a message of abundance that sometimes bordered on the prosperity gospel, but for him it was rooted not in greed but rather in grace. In spite of all his foibles, he was basically a grassroots evangelical at heart. The message of salvation through Jesus Christ was ever present in his ministry.
Unlike many other televangelists, Oral was never convincingly accused of corruption. He sometimes made astounding and disturbing claims, such as that God would "take him home" unless he raised 8 million dollars for his massive hospital and clinic called "The City of Faith." But he did not live a particularly ostentatious lifestyle, and plowed much of his own income into his beloved university. His ministry was never rocked by scandal as were so many of his imitators'.
In the early 1970s, Oral sought to become a bridge between the Pentecostalism of his youth and early ministry and the Protestant mainline by joining the United Methodist Church. I vividly recall how shocked my Pentecostal relatives and friends were by this apparent betrayal. They thought their hero was seeking respectability from the world. There may have been some truth to that, but Oral's intentions were to help renew the mainline churches, and he never fudged on his firm belief in the supernatural power of God and gifts of the Holy Spirit.