The death of Oral Roberts brings to a close one of the more colorful chapters in American religious history. Born into rural poverty in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, Granville Oral Roberts became one of the best-known televangelists of the twentieth century. He translated pentecostalism from the sweaty tents of the revival circuit to the cool professionalism of the television studio.
Roberts was among the first to figure out that television solved forever the riddle of itinerancy. The miracle of television allowed preachers to be everywhere at once. Itinerancy was never the same. Preachers flocked to the television studios the way that the faithful had flocked to the revival tents, and the age of the televangelist was born.
In a sense, Roberts' challenge was far more daunting than that faced by Billy Graham, Roberts' contemporary. Graham was a mainstream evangelical, everything from his boyish good looks and media savvy to his barely discernible touch of Carolina drawl. Graham's "crusades," as he called them, attracted celebrities and extensive media coverage. Although Graham's preaching was energetic, especially in his younger years, it was also measured.
Roberts, on the other hand, was an Okie with a bit of Cherokee blood. His brand of evangelicalism, known as pentecostalism, featured "glossolalia" (speaking in tongues), ecstatic worship and divine healing. Yes, Roberts eventually toned down some of his tent-revival antics for television, but pentecostalism was undeniably a tougher sell than Graham's smooth, corporate-style evangelicalism.
Roberts migrated to television in 1955, just as pentecostalism itself was about to burst onto public consciousness. Roberts himself had been influenced by Kathryn Kuhlman, a healing evangelist; Roberts in turn influenced such "Seed Faith" preachers as Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin, who promised riches to the faithful if they sent money to whichever televangelist was making the appeal.
In the 1980s Roberts was part of the trifecta of televangelist scandals, although he really didn't belong in that company. Whereas Jim Bakker had a tryst with (you can't make this up) a church secretary from Long Island and sought to cover it up with hush money from ministry funds and Jimmy Swaggart was frequenting Louisiana motel rooms for voyeuristic encounters with prostitutes, Roberts' notoriety in 1987 was a very different sort. He informed his followers that God would "call him home" unless God's people ponied up something like $4.5 or $8 million (accounts differ).
This may have been the first time in history that God had taken a hostage and demanded ransom.
Roberts survived the incident and the embarrassment - and he got his money. The funds were supposed to support his City of Faith hospital, an ill-fated venture that turned out to be financially disastrous, especially in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which already had a surfeit of hospital beds.
Roberts was more successful in setting up a university in 1963, although he initially resisted the eponymous designation. A few institutions of higher education in America are named after individuals. Harvard, Yale and Brown come to mind, and Duke and Vanderbilt and Stanford. Oral Roberts University, by some measure, must be included in that roster - along with Bob Jones University. Oral Roberts University had an NCAA division one basketball team in the 1980s, and several of the players went on to careers in the NBA; the joke at the time was that, with Roberts' skills as a healer, the team didn't need a trainer. Some of the university's graduates include Copeland, Ted Haggard (former head of the National Association of Evangelicals) and Michelle Bachman (member of Congress from Minnesota).
Not bad for an Okie who himself never graduated from college.
Any retrospective about religion in the twentieth century must include prominent mention of Oral Roberts, this son of a preacher who became a preacher himself. And beside his name should be included words like minister, educator, pentecostal and one of the pioneers of televangelism.