Why the Oral Roberts Obituaries Are Wrong
What was Oral Roberts's main legacy? How important a figure was he? Oral Roberts University president Mark Rutland told CT that he and Billy Graham "were the two preeminent luminaries of the 20th century."
Preeminent historian of Pentecostalism Grant Wacker, author of Heaven Below, largely agrees.
"Other than Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr., and maybe Jerry Falwell, it would be hard to name a different religious leader of more importance," he told USA Today. "In the middle of the 20th century, he took faith healing and Pentecostalism away from a frowzy backwoods image and gave it an upbeat face."
Wacker is (justifiably) ubiquitous in the obituaries today. He told The Washington Post, "If we set aside Billy Graham and Martin Luther King and [Jerry] Falwell in the sense that their influence was religious but also political and social, outside them Roberts was the most important religious figure in the second half of the 20th Century. Just as a religious figure. And in lots of ways. The most obvious way was he brought Pentecostalism out of the backwoods and made it respectable. One cannot imagine the modern day Pentecostalism without him. He transformed its image, but also its practice."
Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, isn't so sure. "It's the respectability thing I wonder about," he said of Wacker's assessment. "Roberts' signal contribution to Pentecostal teaching was the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that turning your life over to Jesus and doing good would make you rich in the things of this world. Adherents of this teaching around the world are legion. But, it seems to me, among the cultured despisers of Pentecostalism—religious and secular alike—it's as unrespectable as any Holy Roller ever was."
The New York Timesmakes the same claim: "He was the patriarch of the 'prosperity gospel,' a theology that promotes the idea that Christians who pray and donate with sufficient fervency will be rewarded with health, wealth and happiness."
But Silk and the Times may be confusing Roberts and another Tulsa resident, Kenneth Hagin, who is far more widely recognized as the man who joined Pentecostalism with the Faith Movement (also called "Word-Faith," or derogatively, the Prosperity Gospel or "Health and Wealth" gospel). Many scholars would credit Baptist E. W. Kenyon as the father of the teaching, and many other names would be more closely associated with it than Roberts (Kenneth Copeland, for example). The Dictionary of Christianity in America explicitly states that Roberts is "not fully identified with the movement [but] has close doctrinal and personal ties with many faith teachers." And in fact one of the first major critics of the Word-Faith movement was an Oral Roberts University theology professor, Charles Farah. (ORU's Howard Ervin was another vocal critic.)
"Most charismatics, including Roberts, acknowledged that his theology had never agreed with that of the faith teachers—there had always been more room in Oral's thought for paradox and the inscrutable," David Edwin Harrell wrote in his authoritative biography, Oral Roberts: An American Life.
More or less. The first of Roberts's 130+ books, after all, was titled, If You Need Healing—Do These Things! Harrell acknowledges that Oral's beliefs "were not far from those of the moderate faith teachers," but argues that his identification with them was more in "a return to his cultural roots" and had little to do with theology. "Partly, he was drawn to them and other successful independent religious leaders because he identified with their struggles," Harrell said.