God's Man in Tulsa: The Life and Ministry of the Original Televangelist
Oral's ecumenism extended to his hiring practices at his university. When I taught there, the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, now a university vice president, was a Roman Catholic. An Eastern Orthodox theologian taught in the Graduate School of Theology. Virtually every Protestant denomination was represented on the faculty and among the students. So far as I could tell, the only criterion for hiring, besides the usual academic credentials, was basic sympathy with Oral's ministry.
Oral was a complicated person, to say the least. On the one hand, he strongly preached the power of God to heal in response to faith; but on the other hand, he never made disabled persons feel second class. His university had many students in wheelchairs, and Oral invited Joni Erickson Tada to preach in chapel.
No individual did more to represent Pentecostals to the world and to bring the wider world into Pentecostalism than Oral Roberts. He invited Billy Graham to speak at ORU's formal dedication, and Graham accepted. Oral spoke at the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966, and invited Bob Hope to deliver ORU's commencement address in 1983.
Oral's life was filled with tragedy—which, I believe, helps explain some of his more controversial behavior while and shortly after I taught at the university. His daughter and son-in-law were killed in a plane crash, and his son and heir apparent Ron committed suicide. His grandson died the day he was born. His son Richard's first marriage fell apart, and a rift developed within the family over the issue of succession as head of the ministry and university.
Popular myths about Oral include that he was a fundamentalist and that he thought a special power to heal resided in his own hands. In fact, he was far from being a fundamentalist—to the point that he did not allow any formal statement of faith at the university and frowned on doctrinal debates. He also sometimes seemed to imply that his own messages from God added to the revelation of God in Scripture.
Oral frequently stated that all the power to heal was God's and God's alone. He was nothing more than an instrument gifted by God to pray for the sick. To know Oral was to know that many public perceptions of him were distorted.
On the other hand, the Tulsa evangelist had his foibles, and could have done more to soften his public image. He attributed critics' attacks to Satan, and dealt harshly with perceived disloyalty from employees and faculty. At times, it seemed he stood at the center of his worldview, between God and the devil. But he cared deeply about his ministry and its impact; he wanted his students and followers to make a positive difference by spreading the gospel and taking the message of the "merging of prayer and medicine" to the ends of the earth.
Roger Olson is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, and author of The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform and 20th-Century Theology.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today spoke with Oral Roberts University President Mark Rutland about Roberts's legacy.