By Steve Wolfgang
Second in prominence and influence only to Billy Graham, Oral Roberts has had a major impact upon the American religious scene over the past forty years. At least two factors contributed to Roberts’ prominence. First, he was and is the most recognizable “leading light” among the Pentecostal, neo-Pentecostal, and charismatic movements – numerically and dynamically the most amazing international religious phenomenon of the modern age. Second, Roberts (as much or more than anyone else) is responsible for pioneering the mass media evangelism which has spawned the electronic church addressed in these articles.
Born in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma on January 24, 1918, only a few years after it had made the transition Indian Territory to statehood, Roberts has remained proud of his Cherokee heritage. Entering his teenage years at the beginning of the Depression, Roberts resented not only the poverty but the social stigma magnified by his parents’ convictions as Pentecostals. In 1935, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis – a crisis which was resolved by his conversion and subsequent healing later that summer in an itinerant tent preacher’s revival.
Shortly thereafter, Oral decided to preach, joining with his father, who was a licensed preacher in the Pentecostal Holiness church – one of the largest of the Pentecostal bodies, exceeded in size only by the Assemblies of God, Aimee Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel church, and A.J. Tomlison’s Cleveland, TN-based Church of God.
In 1937, Oral launched out on his own, conducting revivals and preaching over the radio. After several years of itinerant evangelism, Roberts worked with a succession of local Pentecostal Holiness churches in Georgia and Oklahoma, claiming to discover an ability to “heal” people of physical maladies, and noticing a “hunger for miracles” on the part of many people. In April, 1947, he began holding Sunday afternoon “healing services” in his church in Enid, OK. Later that year, Roberts moved to Tulsa to begin conducting healing revivals in various churches, including those outside his own denomination.
Upon the astute advice of observant friends and successful businessmen, Oral assembled an organization, Healing Waters, Inc., to handle his various enterprises. He began to publish his own magazine, Healing Waters, advertising his books and promoting his radio broadcasts. Roberts’ use of a large tent for his meetings eriabled him to go many places where there were no city auditoriums. Those cards and letters (to say nothing of dollars) kept rolling in.
Like Billy Graham, some of Roberts’ popularity was due to his willingness to become more “ecumenical” with the passing of time. He was also astute enough to by-pass the denominational hierarchies of the various Pentecostal groups, being instrumental in helping found and develop Demos Shakarian’s “Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International.” As with Graham, who moved steadily from the context of “Southern redneck fundamentalism” into the Protestant mainstream, Roberts allowed this increasing ecumenicity and desire for respectability to lead him into the Methodist church in 1968.
But it was Roberts’ entry into the visual media of film and television that was to set him apart. After producing a film about his ministry to be shown in churches, Roberts launched his television ministry in 1954. In the 1960’s, Roberts abandoned the Sunday morning “religious ghetto” of television programs for a series of slickly-produced, prime time TV specials which vresaged programs like “The 700 Club” and “PTL.”
But “the times they were a’changin.. in the ’60’s, and Roberts changed with them, abandoning his tent evangelism and turning his attention to Oral Roberts University (founded in 1966; indicative of his increasing acceptance by and of the religious world, Billy Graham spoke at the Dedication ceremony) and then to the “City of Faith” which would eventually begin to sap his financial strength seriously.
Roberts efforts on behalf of these enterprises (including his “vision” of a 900-foot Jesus and his recent threat that God would take his life if he did not raise $8 million for his medical school) have kept him in the news lately. However, his fortunes may be declining; Newsweek recently reported that Roberts’ audience had dropped from 2.5 million households in 1977 to 11.1 million in 1985, and TIME reported his 1986 proceeds at $55 million, down from $88 million in 1980.
Oral, however, is probably not finished. As Ed Harrell asks, “How do you top a 900-foot Jesus? Well, he did. I would never bet against Oral Roberts or Richard Nixon” (Newsweek, April 6, 1987, p. 20).
Oral Roberts: An American Life (1985), by David Edwin Edwin Harrell, is comprehensive. Harrell’s earlier work, All Things Are Possible (1975) places Roberts in the context of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements, as does Richard Quebedeaux, The New Charismatics (1976). Interesting perspectives from former “insiders” are provided by Jerry Sholes, Give Me That Prime- Time Religion (1979), and Patti Roberts, Ashes to Gold (1983).
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, pp. 380-381
June 18, 1987