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Roberts, Granville Oral (1918– ), Evangelist, Television Minister, and College Builder

Roberts, Granville Oral
(1918– ), evangelist, television minister, and college builder.

Oral Roberts has done much to define and spread pentecostal/charismatic religion in the twentieth century. He was born on January 24, 1918, in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma. Roberts's father, Ellis Roberts, was an itinerant evangelist in the small Pentecostal Holiness Church. While a teenager, Oral Roberts believed that he was divinely healed of tuberculosis, and shortly thereafter he became an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. In 1947 he made a bold decision to give up his position as pastor of a church in Enid, Oklahoma, to launch an independent healing ministry. In the second half of the twentieth century, Roberts was the most famous pentecostal evangelist in the world; he developed fresh methods of fund raising and collected hundreds of millions of dollars to support a diverse assortment of ministries. In addition to conducting revivals in many nations, he launched innovative radio and television ministries in the 1950s. In 1965 Roberts opened a university in Tulsa that was named Oral Roberts University. In 1980 Roberts set out to add a hospital and medical school to the university. While the university was a successful educational enterprise, the medical school survived for only seven years. By the end of the 1980s Roberts had turned over most of the responsibility for his ministry and the university to his son Richard Roberts.

Often ridiculed during his early years as a "fake healer" and charlatan, Roberts usually had an uneasy relationship with the press and with mainstream American religious leaders. However, in the late 1960s Roberts made a series of bold decisions that for a time improved his public image. In 1968 he stopped holding tent revivals and discontinued the television programs that had featured the tent healing lines. A few months later, in a risky and expensive venture, Roberts released a series of professionally produced television specials that were aired in prime time. At the same time, Roberts left the Pentecostal Holiness Church to become a member of the prestigious Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa. In the 1980s Roberts's public image once again plummeted. He was criticized by many Tulsa leaders who opposed the building of the huge City of Faith Hospital, and by the media because of the extravagant fund-raising tactics he used to fund his excursion into medical education. In addition, while no hint of scandal ever touched Roberts and his wife, Evelyn, his ministry suffered because of widespread criticism of televangelists following the exposés of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart in the late 1980s.

Oral Roberts was a pivotal figure in twentieth-century Protestantism. He pioneered many of the television techniques that made possible the rapid expansion of religious television in the 1970s and 1980s, and he also devised many of the fund-raising strategies used by later television ministers. His prime-time specials in the early 1970s, which were modeled on the popular variety shows of the decade, were critically acclaimed and encouraged a bevy of imitators to produce religious programming that could compete with commercial television.

Probably more important in the long run, more than any other person, in the 1960s Roberts anticipated the spread of the pentecostal emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and divine healing into main-stream Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. As early as the 1950s, Roberts's tent campaigns included people from many different churches, and in the 1960s he consciously turned his attention to ministering to nonpentecostal Christians. Through his preaching and writing and in scores of conferences at Oral Roberts University, Roberts encouraged a revision of pentecostal theology that made it more palatable to mainstream Christians. By the end of the twentieth century Oral Roberts had become a patron saint to millions of charismatic Christians around the world.


See alsoEvangelical Christianity; Healing; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Swaggart, Jimmy; Televangelism.

Bibliography

Harrell, David Edwin, Jr. Oral Roberts: An American Life. 1985.

Robinson, Wayne A. Oral: The Warm, Intimate, Unauthorized Portrait of a Man of God. 1976.

Roberts, Evelyn. His Darling Wife, Evelyn. 1976.

David Edwin Harrell, Jr.

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