Why the Oral Roberts Obituaries Are Wrong
Those struggles were not those of sex and money. They were of perceived religious bigotry and intolerance. Roberts's longtime effort was to be God's conduit for healing ("God heals; I don't," said the man who did not like being called a "faith healer") and saving souls. But it was also to be accepted by mainstream American Christianity and by the world at large.
The desire comes across clearly in David Wolpe's recollection of his day visiting with Roberts at ORU. When Wolpe praised The New York Times, he writes, "Rev. Roberts took that opportunity to ask his question. With a genuinely anguished look he said, 'Can you explain why they hate us?'"
The key moment that ignited this desire, according to Harrell, came about because of this magazine. In 1966, Billy Graham invited Roberts to be a part of the Christianity Today-sponsored Berlin Congress on World Evangelism. His opening prayer became a turning point in the meeting and (according to friend and Oklahoma pastor Warren Hultgren) the turning point of Roberts's life. CT reported that he
won a significant measure of new respect through the congress. He made a host of friends among delegates who were openly impressed with his candor and humility. When a panel got around to discussing over-emphasis on healing, Roberts readily acknowledged that he made "some mistakes" in the past. He indicated to a plenary session that he wanted to be identified more with mainstream Christianity.
Two years later Roberts transferred his religious affiliation from the Pentecostal Holiness Church to the United Methodist Church, and in 1969 he decided to stop televising revival services and instead put on prime-time variety shows featuring mainstream celebrities.
Respect aside, it certainly brought him attention. A 1972 Time article, noting one of Roberts's Easter specials, starring Mission: Impossible's Peter Graves, Jane Powell, and Harve Presnell, called Roberts "the real superstar" of the show. "The fast-paced, free-spending ambience of his television tapings, his casual, almost paternal confidence with his guest stars, his natty pinstripes and carefully barbered sideburns are only a few of the signs that the country boy from Pontotoc County, Okla.—who knocked down his last tent in 1968—has left the sawdust trail for good," the magazine said.
Leaving the sawdust trail was a ticket to recognition—64 million viewers tuned in to the shows, and by 1980, 21 out of every 25 Americans knew his name.
Still, this magazine was never as enthusiastic as it had been in 1966. It repeatedly (invariably) used the word "slithering" to describe the dancers on Roberts's variety show, and noted that he had earned "frowns from members of the evangelical old guard who might view it all as a bit too avant-garde, too hip."
And no doubt a lot of what might have been controversial about Roberts at one time is now deeply embedded even in the evangelical churches that like to criticize Word-Faith preachers. Healing ministries, once relegated to Pentecostal churches of the "sawdust trail" sort, are now common in churches across the theological spectrum.
Even Roberts's dream of a national basketball championship (to reach the "40 million men who read the sports pages," he told Time in 1972) has come close in recent years: ORU's team has appeared (albeit briefly) in the last three Men's Division I Basketball Tournaments.