American evangelist Oral Roberts (born 1918) was an early pioneer in televangelism, or using television to preach the gospel. Roberts, a stutterer-turnedpreacher who survived a bout of deadly tuberculosis as an adolescent, has been a successful businessman, author, and educator. “There was no doubting his charisma—or his results,” David van Biema wrote in Time magazine.
He was born Granville Oral Roberts on January 24, 1918, in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, near Bebee. David Edwin Harrell, Jr., in his book Oral Roberts: An American Life, called his birth “the most portentous event in the Roberts family history.” He was the third and last child of Ellis and Claudius Roberts, born on the farm of his grandfather, Pleasant Roberts. Oral's cousin, Minnie Lewis, who traditionally named the babies in the family, called him Oral, adding to the succession of “O” names in the family. “In later years, reporters were fascinated by the theatrical sound of Oral's name, but cousin Minnie had no such designs,” Harrell wrote. “When asked in the 1950s if she knew the meaning of Oral's name, she replied, 'So far as I know, I had never even heard of the word before.”
Roberts grew up poor, living first on the family farm, then in Bebee. His family was deeply religious. Poverty restricted him, and for years he recalled one stinging incident that happened after he was named “king of his class” in elementary school. When he appeared to escort the queen, who came from an affluent family, his teacher told him he still had time to go home and change into his good clothes. Roberts matter-of-factly said he was wearing his best clothes. “To his friends Oral appeared unperturbed, but the incident scarred him,” Harrell wrote. “It awakened him to the debasing stench of poverty.”
Roberts emerged from his shyness that was triggered in no small part by a stuttering problem, and became what Harrell called “a consummate salesman.” He drew on that survival skill over the years. He was good in sports, and at times found his parents' emphasis on religious instruction stifling.
Survived Brush with Death
In February of 1935, Roberts collapsed while competing in a basketball tournament. His coach, Herman Hamilton, drove him to Ada, where the family lived at the time. “A pall of death settled around the house,” Harrell wrote. Claudius Roberts's father and two older sisters had died of tuberculosis (TB), a highly contagious bacterium. Roberts was bedridden, subsisting on raw eggs and milk.
One day his family brought Roberts to a preaching tent in Ada set up by roving evangelist George W. Moncey. They encircled Roberts in his rocking chair and told him he would be saved. Roberts survived his brush with TB.
Roberts, through his father, joined the ministry of the Pentacostal Holiness Church and wrote for its publication. He married Evelyn Lutman in 1938; they would have four children, 13 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. She died in 2005. During the 1940s Roberts traveled extensively and published books. He also studied at Oklahoma Baptist and Phillips Universities. Roberts resigned his pastorate in 1947 and purchased his own tent one year later. It began a career that would eventually include more than 300 crusades on 6 continents.
Television Era Commenced in 1950s
During the 1950s, Roberts turned to a new medium, television, filming revival crusades under his mobile tent. Money came in, and Roberts published more books—he has published about 120 overall. He published his biography, The Oral Roberts Story, in 1952. “Oral Roberts insists that far more than mere mortal ambitions are involved,” Landrum R. Bolling wrote in the Saturday Evening Post. “These are clear visions to him, unmistakable commands that God has communicated to him, Anyone who talks in such simple, assured terms in this unbelieving age is bound to be greeted with doubts and derision.”
Controversy engulfed Roberts as his ministry flourished. “The very nature of his ministry, its emphasis upon healing by faith, brought countless reports of physical miracles,” Bolling wrote. “It also brought charges of deception, fraud, and cruel exploitation of the sick, the crippled, and the dying. The media had a field day with him, as they have had with many others who combine preaching, praying, and healing.”
Founded Oral Roberts University
Roberts, who had long harbored the notion of a namesake university, raised $500 million to build it on farmland on the edge of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and an adjoining medical center, City of Faith, which he opened in 1981. The two institutions consumed 500 acres and consisted of “surrealistic buildings dominated by a prayer tower,” Muriel Dobbin wrote in U.S. News & World Report. Oral Roberts University received its charter in 1963 and accepted students beginning in 1965. The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools granted it full accreditation in 1971.
By 2007 the campus had expanded to 22 major buildings whose value exceeded $250 million. Roberts also founded a retirement complex, University Village. “Roberts's most important credentials are a quick mind, a passion for learning, great curiosity, and great powers of communication—and enormous dedication, faith, and will,” wrote Bolling.
Throughout the 1970s, television was still Roberts's primary medium, and it made him a household name in the United States. As the 1970s wound down, Roberts found himself experimenting with various TV formats and discontinuing others. Cable television stations, which focused on narrowcasting, or targeting viewers in smaller, more intense audiences, crowded the landscape.
“The spread of cable systems complicated the religious programming market, as did the proliferation of programs modeled on Robert's innovative techniques,” Harrell wrote. Television specials, often on prime time, replaced the healing crusades, which critics called antiquated. “But to Oral they remained honored memories, and in the 1980s crusading reappeared in the ministry, primarily because of the metamorphosis of Richard Roberts [his son] as an evangelist,” Harrell wrote.
“God Will Call Me Home”
In 1987 Roberts implored his television audience to send $8 million worth of donations within three months, or God would “call me home,” implying that death loomed if his 1.6 million viewers did not respond accordingly. Roberts received more than $9 million, and “God did not call him home,” van Biema wrote. Dobbin added: “Also rising is the sound of snickering.” Critics pounced on Roberts. “The time has come to laugh,” Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the conservative editor of the Tulsa Tribune, told Dobbin. His newspaper ran a series of investigative pieces on Roberts, parodied the minister in cartoons and lambasted him in editorials.
The Roberts cash flow prospered. His direct mail mechanism at the time was sending out 27 million letters and magazines annually, urging what he called “faith partners” to buy such trinkets as prayer handkerchiefs, carved angels, and even jigsaw puzzles of Roberts riding his horse, Sonny. The ministry even needed its own ZIP code because it handled so much mail. Roberts stretched his meetings into three-day crusades in the early 1980s, with Richard Roberts often at their center. “Although Richard's crusades by no means attracted the same attention from the press that his father's had three decades earlier, they usually were attended by curious, and often respectful, reporters,” Harrell wrote. While the crusades still included their share of conversion and healing testimonials, Richard put his own stamp on them; he was a much better singer than his father, for example. Oral Roberts, meanwhile, wavered between cutting back on his traveling schedule and continuing to do the preaching he loved.
Roberts's organizational structure became more complex after Oral broadened its reach in the mid-1970s. The City of Faith operated under three management boards. Some executives held titles for both the City of Faith and Oral Roberts University. There was also the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, which Harrell called “the cockpit of the entire Roberts empire.” He added: “The lines of real power within the Oral Roberts organization were not always easy to follow (they were obscured by a maze of titles and powerless sinecures), but there was one ultimate source of all authority—the seventh-floor office of Oral Roberts …. All titles aside, power was firmly in Oral's grip, and it trickled down to those in the organization who were closest to him.”
Use of Funds Under Glare
The Roberts empire came under scrutiny again in 2007, when the university said it was $52.5 million in debt. Three weeks earlier, three former professors had announced a wrongful termination suit, claiming they were fired after reporting to the school's Board of Regents what they considered to be “moral and ethical lapses” by Richard Roberts, according to van Biema. Richard had inherited the presidency from his father, who had assumed the title of chancellor. The former professors alleged that Richard and his wife, Lindsay, had used university funds to remodel their home 11 times in 14 years and had spent more than $29,000 to send their daughter on a Bahamas vacation. They also alleged that Lindsay Roberts had several times spent the night at a school guest house with an underaged male.
Harry McNevin said he resigned from the Board of Regents over the alleged misuse of funds, according to the Associated Press (AP). “We were dealing in millions,” McNevin told Justin Juozapavicius of the AP. McNevin, in the AP interview, said the board virtually “rubber-stamped” the use of millions in endowment money to buy a Beverly Hills, California, mansion and provide Oral Roberts a West Coast office and home.
The investigative groundswell snowballed. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, announced an investigation into the use of funds by celebrity preachers, which included Oral Roberts University Board of Regents members Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Benny Hinn. Grassley was seeking from ministries such financial records as salaries, spending practices, and perks such as private jets.
Oral Roberts himself, who was semi-retired and living in California, agreed late in 2007 to return and help run the university while Richard took a leave of absence from his annual $228,000 job, pending an investigation. Richard Roberts denied the overspending allegations and said he pays for personal expenses himself. While the university, which charges students $17,580 in annual tuition, is in damage-control mode, the campus is showing its age and construction of a student center, long in the works, is still in question.
Van Biema reported that the school's expensive ventures often bordered on recklessness, citing the buildup of its men's basketball team, which made the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournaments in 2006 and 2007. “But its big-ticket failures in the end have been more telling,” van Biema wrote. The school eventually sold its law program to rival preacher Pat Robertson.
Oral Roberts, in an interview with Cable News Network host Larry King on his Larry King Live show, said he supported an investigation. “If there is anything out of line, we will bring it into order, like we have always done,” Roberts told King, in an article posted on CNN's Web site. Lindsay Roberts, in the same article, called the charges “preposterous.” Bishop Carlton Pearson, a Roberts protégé, said Richard Roberts's privileged upbringing may have contributed to the mess. “These kinds of things are common among family-owned and operated businesses and ministries. They don't cross every T and dot every I,” Pearson said on CNN.com.
Controversy and Legacy
Oral Roberts University's struggles cast a pall on Roberts as he approached his ninetieth birthday. According to van Biema, Charisma magazine editor J. Lee Grady wrote, “I don't know about you, but I'm having flashbacks to 1987.” He was referring to scandals that year that were linked to Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker. But John Schmalzbauer of Missouri State University told van Biema that ineffective management may be the issue. “I think the causes must be deeper and more structural,” he said.
“The whole affair is a sad denouement for one of the pioneers of televangelism, van Biema wrote. He quoted Randall Palmer, chairman of the religion department at Barnard College in New York, as saying: “I feel badly for him. This must be a blow.”
Harrell, David Edwin Jr., Oral Roberts: An American Life, Indiana University Press, 1985.
Saturday Evening Post, September 1983.
U.S. News & World Report, March 9, 1987.
“Oral Roberts' Son Accused of Misspending,” Associated Press, http://www.wtop.com/index.php?nid=104&sid=1288797 (November 21, 2007).
“Oral Roberts' son denies he misspent school funds,” CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/law/10/10/oru.suit/index.html (November 21, 2007).
“Oral Roberts to the Rescue?,” Time, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1677098,00.html (November 21, 2007).
(b. 24 January 1918 near Ada, Oklahoma), evangelist, faith healer, author, educator, and university founder and president.
Roberts, born Granville Oral Roberts, was the fifth and youngest child of Reverend Ellis M. Roberts, an independent Pentecostal evangelist, and Claudius Irwin Roberts, a homemaker. He claims Native American ancestry. Roberts grew up in poverty and struggled with stuttering. In 1933 he left home to attend school in another town but returned two years later when he was stricken with tuberculosis. He attended a revival meeting and says that he was healed when traveling evangelist George Moncey prayed for him. Roberts delivered his first sermon that evening.
Roberts married Evelyn Lutman on 25 December 1938, and the couple had four children. That same year he finished his first book, Salvation by the Blood. Roberts holds honorary law and doctor of divinity degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana and an honorary doctor of divinity from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a master's of divinity from Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, and a B.A. from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee.
In the late 1940s Roberts affiliated with the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (now the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America). In 1948 he preached the final rally of that fellowship in Des Moines, Iowa. Then, in 1949 in Enid, Oklahoma, Roberts, in his fourth Pentecostal Church as pastor, heard God tell him that he had the ability to heal the afflicted. The following month he healed a woman who had been crippled for thirty-eight years. Roberts then resigned as pastor of the Pentecostal Church in Enid and began radio broadcasts from his large tent meetings. By 1950 he was traveling with an 18,000-seat tent and broadcasting his message on sixty-three radio stations. The Baptist evangelist Billy Graham invited Roberts to lead the prayer at the World Conference on Evangelism in Portland, Oregon, in 1950, and the audience gave Roberts a standing ovation. Two years later Roberts was broadcasting from over four hundred television and radio stations. In 1957 he claimed to be reaching an audience of a billion people. By comparison, radio evangelist Carl McIntire's 20th Century Reformation Hour was carried every day for a half hour in the 1960s on more than six hundred stations in the United States and Canada. Roberts has conducted more than three hundred evangelistic and healing crusades on six continents. He has also written more than 120 books.
The Pentecostal Holiness Church remained divided in their support of Roberts after 1953. Pentecostal leaders such as R. O. Corvin and Oscar Moore worked with Roberts in his evangelistic association. Although the white members of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America had separated themselves from the African-American members in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1948, Roberts, like Billy Graham, welcomed African Americans to his services and did not segregate them from his white audience. At first Bishop Joseph A. Synan of the Pentecostal Holiness Church opposed Roberts, but he did attend the dedication ceremonies of Oral Roberts University in 1967.
Roberts broadcast his ministry on local television in the 1960s from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he also established his evangelical organization. Founded by its namesake, Oral Roberts University was first chartered in 1963, and its first students came in 1965. Seven years later, the school's enrollment had grown from 300 to 1,800 students, and it had a $48 million endowment. In 1963 Roberts was named "Indian of the Year" by the American Indian Exposition of Anadarko, Oklahoma. Roberts led a successful revival in Berlin, Germany (26 October to 4 November 1966). He left the Pentecostal Holiness Church in 1968 and joined the United Methodist Church, which then became the First United Methodist Church. Soon thereafter he supported the founding of the Business Men's Fellowship International, and he had access to their membership lists.
Roberts devised his evangelism around the theme of seed-faith. According to Roberts, those listeners and viewers who contributed to his ministry planted a seed that would grow and produce an abundance of spiritual and material dividends within this lifetime. According to his Miracle of Seed-Faith (1970), seed-faith's three attributes include making a blessing-pact covenant with God, sowing and reaping, and insisting on giving seed money to God so he can make it multiply and serve one's personal financial needs. Beginning in the 1960s Roberts used his huge computers at the Abundant Life Building in Tulsa to facilitate his mass mailings to supporters. In 1969 he produced a record with Senator Mark O. Hatfield with Hatfield reading "The Incomparable Christ" on one side and Roberts reading "Christ in Every Book in the Bible" on the other (Lexicon Music).
Roberts's family has been touched by tragedy. His daughter Rebecca and her husband were killed in an airplane crash in 1977, and his son Richard divorced his wife in 1979. In 1982 Roberts's son Ronald committed suicide.
After a vision from God, Roberts built the City of Faith Hospital in Tulsa. Roberts later had a vision of a 900-foot Jesus who picked up the City of Faith in his hands to encourage Roberts to complete the project; at the millennium, Roberts was continuing work on the institution. In 1987 God appeared to Roberts in another vision and told him to raise $8 million for Oral Roberts University scholarships within the next year or he would die. Roberts raised the money.
In the 1960s Roberts led the country in the founding of successful radio and television evangelism, and from that he built a state-of-the-art hospital and a major university. He is now retired, but his son Richard continues in his father's roles. Oral Roberts Ministry's magazine, Abundant Life, continues to publish articles telling readers that Roberts knows how God creates miracles. In addition to The Hour of Healing television show, Richard's wife, Lindsay, hosts the television program Make Your Day Count.
Roberts's memoir is The Call: An Autobiography (1972). Also see David Edwin Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life (1985) (reviewed in The New Republic, 29 Sept. 1986); James Morris, The Preachers (1973); and Charles H. Lippy, Twentieth-Century Shapers of American Popular Religion (1989).
Larry D. Griffin