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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 ...

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Why the Oral Roberts Obituaries Are Wrong
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December 2009

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