TULSA, Okla. – Oral Roberts, who helped pioneer TV evangelism in the 1950s and used the power of the new medium – and his message of God’s healing power – to build a multimillion-dollar ministry and a university that bears his name, died Tuesday. He was 91.
Roberts died of complications from pneumonia in Newport Beach, California, according to his spokesman, A. Larry Ross. The evangelist was hospitalized after a fall on Saturday.
Roberts rose from humble tent revivals to become one of the nation’s most famous and influential preachers. Along with Billy Graham, he pioneered religious TV, and he played a major role in bringing American Pentecostalism into the mainstream.
He also laid the foundation for the “prosperity gospel,” the doctrine that has come to dominate televangelism. It holds that God rewards the faithful with material success. Its critics say it is used by preachers to enrich themselves at the expense of their followers.
“In conservative Protestant culture, he’s second only to Billy Graham,” said Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke University’s divinity school. “Jerry Falwell is important, too, but I think in the long run we’ll see that Oral Roberts had more impact.”
Roberts overcame tuberculosis at age 17, when his brother carried him to a revival meeting where a evangelist was praying for the sick. Roberts said he was healed of the illness and his stuttering.
He said that it was then that he heard God tell him he should build a university based on the Lord’s authority – a promise fulfilled in 1963, with the founding of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.
He gave up a pastorate in Enid in 1947 to pursue a strain of evangelism in which he called for prayer to heal the whole person – 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 1970s, he was reaching millions around the world through radio, television, publications and personal appearances. He remained on TV into the new century, co-hosting the program “Miracles Now” with his son, Richard. He published dozens of books and conducted hundreds of crusades.
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.”
While many of colleagues in healing evangelism were flamboyant in their preaching, Roberts was subdued in his delivery. His long sermons were filled with stories and anecdotes, and at the end of a service, the faithful would form a long healing line. Roberts would clasp his hands on each person’s head, shutting his eyes while he prayed.
David Edwin Harrell, a Roberts biographer and retired Auburn University history professor, said Roberts played a significant role in the rapid growth of charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity – an exuberant faith that exploded globally during the 20th century.
“Oral was a pioneer in opening this whole message up to the mainstream churches and leading a generation of Pentecostals into easier connection with the evangelical world,” Harrell said. “They had been completely estranged prior to that.”
Roberts also espoused his “Seed-Faith” theology, which held that those who give to God will get things in return.
The generation of “prosperity preachers” who followed Roberts point to their own luxury homes and private jets as evidence of God’s favour. In 2007, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa launched an investigation of six prosperity preachers, including three who sat on the Oral Roberts University board of regents at the time. The inquiry is still under way.
The campus of Oral Roberts University is a Tulsa landmark, with its 200-foot (60-meter) prayer tower and a 60-foot (18-meter) bronze sculpture of praying hands, modeled on Roberts’ hands.
Roberts’ ministry hit rocky times in the 1980s. There was controversy over his City of Faith medical centre, a $250 million investment that eventually folded. And Roberts was widely ridiculed when he retreated to his prayer tower and proclaimed that God would “call me home” if he failed to meet a fundraising goal of $8 million.
“This conviction that God speaks to me, and that I have no choice but to obey when He does, has led me into a life of controversy,” Roberts wrote in his 1995 autobiography. “But had I not had this conviction, I don’t believe I could have ever scaled the mountain of my calling.”
His organization also suffered from the effects of sex-and-money scandals involving other televangelists including Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart in the 1980s.
Roberts was semiretired in recent years and living in California when scandal roiled Oral Roberts University.
His son, who succeeded him as president, resigned in 2007 after being accused of spending university money on shopping sprees and other luxuries at a time the institution was more than $50 million in debt. It was the first time in the university’s history that a member of the family was not in charge.
The rocky period was eased when billionaire Oklahoma City businessman Mart Green donated $70 million and helped run the school. Earlier this fall, things were looking up, with officials saying tens of millions in debt had been paid off and enrolment was up slightly.
“He was not only my earthly father; he was my spiritual father and mentor,” Richard Roberts said in a statement.
Graham said: “Oral Roberts was a man of God and a great friend in ministry. I loved him as a brother.”
AP Religion writers Eric Gorski in Denver and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.