God’s General | ORAL ROBERTS
Oral Roberts, the evangelist who rose from humble tent revivals to found a multimillion-dollar ministry and a university bearing his name, died Tuesday. He was 91.
Roberts died of complications from pneumonia in Newport Beach, Calif., according to his spokesman, A. Larry Ross. The evangelist was hospitalized after a fall on Saturday. He had survived two heart attacks in the 1990s and a broken hip in 2006.
Roberts was a pioneer on two fronts — he helped bring spirit-filled charismatic Christianity into the mainstream and took his trademark revivals to television, a new frontier for religion.
Historian of religion Martin Marty, professor emeritus at University of Chicago, also noted Roberts’ astute and innovative use of broadcasting to bring a religion once associated with the least educated in society into the mainstream.
“He proved before Rev. Jerry Falwell built Liberty University that you could build something more than a little bitty Bible college to train missionaries and learned Greek not to read Plato but to read Luke,” Marty said.
When Roberts opened his university to students in 1965 “it was the first to offer a full academic vision.”
But Marty also noted that while Graham saw his reputation rise across the decades, Roberts “overreached.”
The university has struggled. According to the Associated Press, last year Roberts settled with two professors who alleged that they were forced out after detailing financial and ethical wrongdoing by Oral’s son, Richard, the school’s former president, who resigned. And this year the university is cutting 10% of its workforce.
Roberts will also be remembered, says Marty, for his “clownish moments, like an idea to build a 900-foot-tall statue of Jesus to knock on the windows of the United Nations. He would stop at nothing to make a point, didn’t worry about manners or prestige. He had a genuine faith — but he lost perspective along the way.”
Roberts is survived by his son, Richard, his daughter, Roberta Potts, and 12 grandchildren, all of Tulsa.
David Edwin Harrell, Jr., author of Oral Roberts: An American Life, told NPR’s Robert Siegel that Roberts was one of the most important Protestant figures of the 20th century because he moved the Pentecostal message into mainstream Protestant churches in the U.S. and around the world.
“His legacy is that he changed religious television … by first broadcasting his healing tent revivals and then, in 1968, going to Hollywood and hiring professional producers and starting prime-time specials that included celebrity guests and competed with secular television,” Harrell said. “That really introduced the modern electronic religious church.”
Roberts overcame tuberculosis at age 17, and credited that triumph with leading him to become one of the country’s most famous ministers.
He gave up a local pastorate in Enid in 1947 to enter an evangelistic ministry in Tulsa to pray for the healing of the whole person — the body, mind and spirit. The philosophy led many to call him a “faith healer,” a label he rejected with the comment: “God heals — I don’t.”
By the 1960s and ’70s, he was reaching millions around the world through radio, television, publications and personal appearances.
Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, called Roberts a pioneer.
“He went into the highways and byways of America and introduced people to faith,” Robertson told NPR’s Siegel. “He was a great exponent of faith in God and along with it came faith in physical healing.”
Roberts remained on TV into the new century, co-hosting the program, Miracles Now, with son Richard. He published dozens of books and conducted hundreds of crusades. A famous photograph showed him working at a desk with a sign on it reading, “Make no little plans here.”
He credited his oratorical skills to his faith, saying, “I become anointed with God’s word, and the spirit of the Lord builds up in me like a coiled spring. By the time I’m ready to go on, my mind is razor-sharp. I know exactly what I’m going to say and I’m feeling like a lion.”
Unity of body, mind and spirit became the theme of Oral Roberts University. The campus is a Tulsa landmark, with its space-age buildings laden with gold paint, including a 200-foot prayer tower and a 60-foot bronze statue of praying hands.
His ministry hit upon rocky times in the 1980s. There was controversy over his City of Faith medical center, a $250 million investment that eventually folded, and Roberts’ widely ridiculed proclamation that God would “call me home” if he failed to meet a fundraising goal of $8 million. A law school he founded also was shuttered.
Semiretired in recent years and living in California, he returned to Tulsa, Okla., in October 2007 as scandal roiled Oral Roberts University. His son, Richard Roberts, who succeeded him as ORU president, faced allegations of spending university money on shopping sprees and other luxuries at a time the institution was more than $50 million in debt.
Richard Roberts resigned as president in November 2007, marking the first time since Oral Roberts University was chartered in 1963 that a member of the Roberts family would not be at its helm.
The rocky period for the evangelical school was eased by billionaire Oklahoma City businessman Mart Green donated $70 million and helped run the school in the interim, pledging to restore the public’s trust. By the fall of 2009, things were looking up, with officials saying tens of millions of dollars worth of debt had been paid off and enrollment was up slightly.
That September, a frail-looking Oral Roberts attended the ceremony when the school’s new president, Mark Rutland, was formally inaugurated.
“He was not only my earthly father; he was my spiritual father and mentor,” said son, Richard Roberts, in a statement.
The Rev. Billy Graham said in a statement that he spoke to Oral Roberts three weeks ago by phone, and that Roberts told him his “life’s journey” was ending.
“Oral Roberts was a man of God, and a great friend in ministry. I loved him as a brother,” Graham said.