Followers, media spotlight are returning to outcast preacher
TULSA, Okla. — Carlton Pearson has still got it. The dapper clothes. The voluminous vocabulary. The toothy smile.
And, perhaps most important, Mr. Pearson still has an unshakable conviction in his controversial “gospel of inclusion” — the belief that everyone will go to heaven, regardless of his or her actions on earth. The high-profile pastor lost followers, his church building, money and prestige — especially among conservatives — after he started preaching a few years ago that the gates of heaven are open to everyone, even, theoretically, to Satan.
In orthodox Christian theology this is considered to be heresy.
One prominent Pentecostal pastor, Clifford L. Frazier of St. Louis, summed up his reaction thusly: “He’s crazy.”
Unbowed by such rejection, Mr. Pearson maintains that he’s on the leading edge of what will eventually become mainstream theology.
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Taking a break?
“Within the next five years, everyone will be preaching inclusion,” he said after a recent service in borrowed space at an Episcopal church in Tulsa
A decade ago, Mr. Pearson was atop the evangelical heap. A pioneer among black televangelists — and a onetime protégé of Oral Roberts — he led Higher Dimensions Family Church of Tulsa, which had a multiracial membership of 5,000 — and weekly offerings of $50,000.
Mr. Pearson’s annual Azusa conferences, a powerful combination of music and ministry, drew as many as 20,000 people to Oral Roberts University. (He’d started his career in the 1970s as a member of Oral Roberts’ World Action Singers.) The “Live at Azusa” recordings that grew out of the conferences became big sellers. Gospel artists from across the country pleaded to be part of them.
But things began to change in the late 1990s. Mr. Pearson, who was ordained in the conservative Church of God In Christ, the nation’s largest black Pentecostal denomination, started preaching a doctrine seemingly foreign to everything he had previously learned and believed. (Another term for the doctrine that he calls “inclusion” is “universalism.”)
In a 2000 interview with The Dallas Morning News, he said he no longer adhered to the “holiness or hell” credo that is a bedrock teaching of the Church of God In Christ and other black Pentecostal groups. He said he’d been having second thoughts for years about whether one needed to accept Jesus in order to be saved. He added that he could support abortion in “extreme situations” and that homosexuality should be “tolerated but not celebrated.”
Three years later, in another interview with The News, he went further. He said it was reasonable to believe that Satan could go to heaven if he would simply repent and tell God, “‘I competed with you, but I was wrong. I’m sorry.’ “
As he continued to preach this “gospel of inclusion,” the attacks grew blistering. Membership in his church plummeted to a tenth of what it had been. The weekly collection fell, too. Top singers suddenly found excuses not to go to the Azusa Conference. Mr. Pearson’s invitations to speak at other churches dropped. Pastors and other friends around the country abandoned him.
The most painful cuts, though, were those closest to home, in Tulsa. When Mr. Pearson ran for mayor in 2002, he finished third in a field of eight candidates, getting 13 percent of the votes. Officials at his beloved Oral Roberts University — where he attended but did not graduate — banned his church from picking up students on campus or using its facilities for Azusa. “I went from hero to zero in a little bit of time,” he said.
“People don’t follow preachers as much as they follow popularity. I always knew that. And as soon as I quit preaching what was popular, the people were gone. But I didn’t expect them to leave so fast.”
But now, the irrepressible Mr. Pearson believes the tide is turning in his favor. His old church building has been foreclosed upon, but Tulsa’s most prominent Episcopal church, Trinity Episcopal, opened its doors to him and what remains of his congregation. Mr. Pearson holds services there on Sunday afternoons. He said Trinity doesn’t charge him rent.
“We like him and we agree with what he’s saying,” said the Rev. Bill Wiseman, a Trinity minister. “He’s welcome as long as he needs to be here.”
Mr. Pearson, grateful for the warm reception at Trinity, said the Episcopalians are showing themselves to be true Christians. “We would have basically been a homeless church without them.”
He said his membership is inching back up. Soon, he said, he may have to add a second service or move to larger quarters.
“When God says stay, you stay. That’s why I’m here,” said Julia Nowlin, a Higher Dimensions member since 1991.
She said she was unfazed by the criticisms of her pastor.
“He’s the truth and I’m sticking to the truth because the truth will set you free.”
Wes Reynolds, lead guitarist for Mr. Pearson’s services, said he originally played for the preacher in the 1980s, then left to pursue interests in secular music. He returned to the church about a year ago.
“It’s open arms here,” the musician said. “There ain’t no judgment if you don’t believe the way someone else believes.”
Mr. Pearson said he’s been buoyed by what he considers positive national press coverage of his travails. He’s been interviewed in recent weeks by National Geographic and Dateline NBC. His fall from grace has been chronicled in Christianity Today and National Catholic Reporter , and he absolutely gushed to members recently about a segment on National Public Radio’s This American Life.
All the attention, he said, is stirring interest in his message and church. The Higher Dimensions Web site had nearly 30,000 hits the week the NPR story aired, he said.
Mr. Pearson said he bears no grudges against those who disagree with him. He said he numbers among his friends such prominent Dallas preachers as the Rev. Anthony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship and Bishop T. D. Jakes of the Potter’s House.
Mr. Pearson is often credited with helping Bishop Jakes’ rise to prominence by inviting him to preach at an Azusa conference early in the early 1990s.
The Potter’s House pastor acknowledges that help, but distances himself from Mr. Pearson’s theology — though not from the man.
“I do not agree with Bishop Carlton Pearson’s doctrinal beliefs,” Bishop Jakes said by e-mail.
“Nevertheless, I still consider him a friend, even though it has been quite a while since I’ve spoken with him. Many ministries, mine included, benefited and were blessed by his earlier work.”
Shayne Lee, a sociology professor at Tulane University, devoted almost a chapter of his biography, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher, to the role of Mr. Pearson.
“Pearson is one of the most significant African-American preachers of the 20th century,” Dr. Lee said in an interview. “He and Fred Price [the founding pastor of Crenshaw Christian Center, one of the largest African-American churches in Los Angeles] have not received the kind of recognition that they should have. But that’s changing.”
Dr. Lee said Mr. Pearson served as a “bridge” between traditional black preachers and the contemporary “neo-Pentecostal” movement. That movement is highly visible on Christian television and in the megaconferences that Bishop Jakes and others sponsor.
“Teaching people how to have a postmodern, interdenominational conference, he really was a pioneer in that with Azusa,” Dr. Lee said. “And getting African-Americans into this whole media age. Pearson was the first African-American to be on national Christian television.”
But Dr. Lee said he thought the pastor would continue to meet with great resistance to his inclusive doctrine — especially among fellow black Pentecostals.
“Their theology is conservative to the core,” Dr. Lee said. “Pearson may have underestimated how conservative that is.
“You can’t take away hell just yet.”
Mr. Pearson said if his teachings make him unpopular in some quarters, so be it.
“My ministry will be inclusive, not exclusive,” he said. “I’m no longer preaching and living under that fear-based gospel.
“I’ve always had something to live for. This is the first time I’ve ever had something to die for.”
Sidebar: Universalist view of heaven has deep roots in Christian history
The view that all will get to heaven is called universalism or universal salvation. It’s a minority view, and controversial. Most Christians, even if they disagree on other subjects, unite on the point that salvation requires a professed belief in Jesus as the son of God.
Universalists in history include the important early Christian theologians Origen (who believed in hell, but also believed that everyone sent there escapes eventually) and Gregory of Nyssa.
Universalists were a prominent denomination in 19th-century America, joining with Unitarians to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.
The UU Web site quotes Thomas Starr King on the two groups: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”
One of today’s high-profile proponents of universal salvation is Philip Gulley, a Quaker minister and writer in Indiana.
Mr. Gulley lost a book contract with a Christian publisher over universalist views. He and co-author James Mulholland went on to publish If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person with HarperSanFrancisco, a secular press.
William Barclay was a popular 20th-century Scottish scholar whose calm, clear Bible commentaries are still relied on by many a struggling Sunday School teacher. Probably few Barclay commentary fans are aware that in his autobiography he wrote: “I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.”
Sidebar: The Rev. Carlton Pearson of Tulsa explains his “inclusion theology.”
“Inclusion is … a religious doctrine held by a growing number of Christians. The term comes from the idea that the love of God includes everyone.”
“Inclusion believes that all people will eventually be reunited with God. This … sets it apart from other Christian religions or denominations, which believe that only some people will be reunited with God …”
“Inclusion does believe in hell; but not the mythological hell of people burning in pits of fire and brimstone for all of eternity.”
“We reject the classical version of hell. … It is completely out of character with what we know about God. …[It] didn’t originate with Christianity or even Judaism, but with pagan religions … “
“The entire Bible is about inclusion. … [It] is about an all-powerful God reaching out in love to the undeserving, sinful human race, not because of anything we have done but in spite of all we have done.”