© 2021 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Local News

Oral Roberts, Pioneer Televangelist Dies


Oral Roberts introduced a fiery Pentecostal style into mainstream Christianity. He tied his faith to his finances, creating a multimillion dollar empire. The 91-year-old Roberts died yesterday in Newport Beach, California of complications from pneumonia. He leaves behind a television legacy and a university that bears his name. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has this profile.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Oral Roberts was born in Oklahoma in 1918. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, he begin his career as a local pastor. But just after World War II, Roberts joined a movement of ministers who held tent revivals and preached the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including faith healing. David Harrell is Roberts's biographer.

Mr. DAVID HARRELL JR. (Author, �Oral Roberts: An American Life�): Oral became the most successful of all of those men and built the first of the huge independent ministries, along with Billy Graham, who was doing the same thing as an evangelical.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Reverend ORAL ROBERTS (Minister): He commandeth the cancer to come out of your body. He commandeth the blindness to leave to your eyes and you receive sight.

HAGERTY: In 1948, Roberts put his revivals on television. Harrell says mainstream Christians scoffed at his flamboyant style and use of so-called prayer cloths to heal. In the mid-1960s, Roberts loosened his Pentecostal ties and became a United Methodist minister. He pulled his revival show off the airways and started a new one with Hollywood producers and guests such as Jerry Lewis and Merv Griffin. Again, biographer David Harrell.

Mr. HARRELL: And that was important because he really proved that religious programming could be as slickly produced as secular, and could compete with secular programming.

HAGERTY: Roberts' ministry flourished. He developed a mailing list of more than a million people. In 1965 he opened the doors to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Mr. JENK JONES, JR. (Tulsa Tribune): Oral Roberts just happened to be in the religion business.

HAGERTY: Jenk Jones, Jr. is the former editor of the Tulsa Tribune and watched Roberts' empire grow.

Mr. JONES, JR.: He was smart enough that had he gone in other directions, he could've been a very successful politician. He could've well been a president or high exec with GE or GM.

HAGERTY: But, Jones says, Roberts overreached. With the university prospering, he says, Roberts decided to build a world class medical complex called City of Faith. In 1987, with fundraising lagging, Roberts announced that if he didn't raise $8 million, God would call him home.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Rev. ROBERTS: 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 that I'll know when March comes I won't be taken. I'll get to live.

HAGERTY: Roberts raised $9 million, although the City of Faith complex eventually closed. Fellow televangelist Pat Robertson says he thinks his friend got carried away.

Reverend PAT ROBERTSON (Televangelist): I daresay he regretted it. I never talked to him about that particular thing, but it was unseemly and - but, you know, we all have a mole or a wart somewhere along the way in our lives.

HAGERTY: David Harrell says except for Roberts' exaggerated appeals, the minister steered clear of scandal. Not so his son, Richard Roberts, who succeeded him as president of the university and resigned after being accused of misusing school money.

Harrell says Oral Roberts will be remember for making Pentecostalism, once considered a backwoods theology, something acceptable, now called the charismatic movement.

Mr. HARRELL: He saw that this movement was going to have a great influence on the mainstream Protestant world, which it has.

HAGERTY: Harrell says probably half of Protestants today are charismatics.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.