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Pat Robertson Remembers Evangelist Oral Roberts


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And we now mark the passing of a pioneering televangelist. Oral Roberts, who died today at age 91, was one of the first. He moved from revivals in the 1940s that packed thousands of people into the tent to a radio and television ministry that reached millions. And he founded Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.

In 1987, he made a famous appeal to followers. Roberts said if he didn't raise $8 million, God would call him home.

Mr. ORAL ROBERTS (Televangelist): I need some very quick money. I mean, I need it now. I'm desperate to turn this around. I need to turn it around enough so I'll know, when March comes, I won't be taken; I get to live.

SIEGEL: Well, we're joined now by another famous televangelist, a label he doesn't especially like. Pat Robertson is former presidential candidate and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network. He's host of the "700 Club," and he joins us from his office in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. PAT ROBERTSON (Founder, Christian Broadcasting Network; Host, "700 Club"): Thank you. Thank you so very much.

SIEGEL: How would you assess the importance - the significance of Oral Roberts' life in ministry in American life?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, Oral was an incredible pioneer. He went out into the highways and byways of America and introduced people to faith. He was a great exponent of faith in God. And along with it came faith and physical healing, and he had some dramatic healings out of his tent meetings. So he was very, very popular while he was doing that and then he branched off into television. And again, his television program was just electric.

SIEGEL: His biographer told me earlier that one thing Oral Roberts did was go to Los Angeles, retain first class producers and produce television that was high-quality. In that sense, I guess, he broke with people's expectations and he seems to blaze the trail that you followed pretty well.

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, that's right. He had some primetime specials that were just outstanding. They had big audiences and they went up against the best in the industry.

SIEGEL: What did you make of that 1987 episode, to his detractors, it was a case, you know, I need $8 million or God's going to take me home. It was an unseemly mix of faith and money. How did you understand it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, I think, you know, people get carried away sometime. I think he got a little bit carried away, I'd dare say he regretted it. I never talked to him about that particular thing. Obviously, I will think the Lord works that way in our lives, but Oral thought, in that case, that's what was going to happen. But it was unseemly and - well, you know, we all have a mole or wart somewhere along the way in our lives.

SIEGEL: Personally, what do you remember about him, about his personality?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, he was a very warm-hearted person. I knew him, I was with him at a big meeting in England. I've been with him at his home. I've spent a good deal of time with him. I was involved in Oral Roberts University. And everywhere he was an extremely gracious, warm-hearted person and love people. He was from the common roots of this nation. His ancestors, some were Indians, Native Americans from Oklahoma. He never forgot the fact that he came from humble beginnings.

SIEGEL: People have said you - with a career as a broadcaster, with a university that you founded - that in a way, you were following the role of -the role model of Oral Roberts. Fair?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Yes and no. I think that God's calling me to television ministry and we were what I consider professional broadcasters. We have more of a talk show and information format. We have news. I think he pioneered the way. Whether exactly I followed in his footsteps or something else again. But certainly in terms of faith, in terms of praying for people to be healed and to be blessed, I certainly went along with that. I think it was a great pioneer.

SIEGEL: Do you think that he made a Pentecostal faith something more mainstream, something more familiar to all Americans, and frankly, more part of mainstream Protestantism?

Mr. ROBERTSON: There's no question about it. You know, later on, he left the Pentecostal Holiness Church and joined the Methodist Church. But I do think that by the fact he was on television every week and was seen by probably millions of people, I don't know how big his audience was, but it was quite large, I do think that people began to accept the fact that this wasn't some weird thing and went on in a tent back in the backwoods.

SIEGEL: So much attention is paid, obviously for good reason, to the medium, not just broadcasting, but also creating a university that the message seems almost secondary. Did he contribute in substance to the message of American Protestantism?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Without a question. You know, right now, the largest expression of Protestantism in the world is the charismatic Pentecostal group. There are about 600 million. It's the fastest growing expression of Christianity in the world. So Oral gave that a big push. I think he was one of the pioneers and the leaders. But without a doubt, that is a big thing. It has far (unintelligible) some of the so-called mainline denominations, Presbyterian, Methodist, et cetera, and the Assemblies of God, these other Pentecostal denominations, are huge and going even faster who are overseas.

SIEGEL: Did he talk to you of when he was founding Oral Roberts University? Did he discuss with you the sense he had a commandment from God to do that?

Mr. ROBERTSON: I think that he said that the Lord told him to build a school and train people to go where God's message was them and really hadn't heard of Him. So I think he felt a call to train missionaries.

SIEGEL: For people who are not evangelical in their own faith, I want you to explain, when a man - when a ministry like Oral Roberts speaks of what the Lord has asked of him, does he assume that all people might equally receive inquiries or commandments from the Lord? Or does he believe himself to have a special relationship with God that was different from that of others?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, I think, without question, if you read the bible, it's clear that all believers have a relationship with God. It's made clear in the New Testament. But I think Oral himself thought that he had a special calling and that he said, God put power in his right hand, and when he lay hands on people, they would be miraculously healed. So I think he felt, in his own life, he had a special call, but there was nothing that he will ever say that was not available to all people who are people of faith.

SIEGEL: Did you believe that he could heal with his touch, with his hands?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, I've been in meetings where people have been healed. I believe in that myself because I've seen not just a few hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of people who've received healing and answered a prayer, hundreds of thousands. And it's certainly true overseas, more so, possibly in America.

But George Gallup told me some years ago that there were about seven and a half million people in America who said they had received healing and answer a prayer by faith. So I think it's not an uncommon experience here in America.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Robertson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ROBERTSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Pat Robertson speaking to us from Virginia Beach, Virginia about Oral Roberts, who died today at the age of 91. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.