Oral history

Since he began his small ‘healing’ ministry in Oklahoma more than 50 years ago, Oral Roberts has taught millions that prosperity and the power of the Holy Spirit are available to them
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Mar. 8, 2003
By Brett Hoffman, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

For more than half a century, TV evangelist Oral Roberts has laid his hands on controversy as well as on the faithful.

But as he marks his 85th year, and his namesake Oral Roberts University celebrates its 40th in Tulsa, Okla., Roberts’ status as a hero to millions of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians is beyond question.

From his earliest days, Roberts has drawn opposition for his belief that a minister’s touch, combined with a bold plea for God to “heal,” can cure the sick. Opposition was so vehement, in fact, that at one of Roberts’ first healing crusades in the 1940s in northeastern Oklahoma, a dissenter registered his displeasure by firing a shot, barely missing the young preacher’s head.

His “seed faith” teaching, which holds that Christians should devote themselves financially and not just spiritually to their churches and interdenominational ministries, also drew fire. Some Christians claim that it leads to a materialistic, self-centered lifestyle.

And money was at the heart of Roberts’ most infamous controversy, when he claimed in the late 1980s that God told him he would call Roberts “home” if the evangelist failed to receive $8 million in donations to pay for a medical complex in his hometown of Tulsa.

Roberts raised the money, but the incident left a bitter taste in the mouths of many believers.

Today, Roberts is semiretired, living in Southern California, and an estimated 600 million-plus Christians belong to the Pentecostal/charismatic movement.

Many of them were drawn to the movement by Roberts’ charismatic preaching, his belief in the power of the Holy Spirit and his assertion that prosperity is available to them.

“Coming out of an impoverished background of poor people, Oral Roberts put a different face on Pentecostalism, stating that you can be successful, prosper and even become wealthy,” says author Vinson Synan. “He took the Pentecostals from the other side of the tracks to the living rooms of the nations.”

Synan’s Jeffery Hadden and Charles Swann (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., $11.95), Roberts was the nation’s leading TV preacher of the day, pulling in an audience of 2.7 million weekly. Humbard, Jimmy Swaggart and Robert Schuller were attracting about 2 million viewers each.

As the 1980s came to a close, financial corruption and sex scandals plagued several televangelists, including Swaggart and Jim Bakker. At the same time, Roberts’ ministry was struggling financially with maintaining the City of Faith Medical Center, a complex of three gold towers adjacent to the ORU campus.

After he told a TV audience in 1987 that God told him his work would be finished if donors failed to give $8 million to his ministry, Roberts’ popularity and support began to wane, even though he raised the money.

In January 1993, following a massive heart attack the year before, Roberts handed the ORU presidency to his son Richard.

A lasting legacy

In his heyday, Roberts was the only leading multimedia minister who preached about divine healing.

But since the 1960s, other ministers such as Christian broadcaster and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson, Fort Worth-based evangelist Kenneth Copeland and Grapevine’s Benny Hinn have followed Roberts’ example. Today, Pentecostal denominations such as Assemblies of God and mainline groups such as the United Methodists have scores of ministers who regularly conduct healing services and readily ask God to heal their sick on Sunday mornings.

Similarly, Roberts’ teachings that encourage Christians to back their faith with money have found an audience.

Copeland, Robertson and San Antonio’s John Hagee today teach that Christians receive abundant financial blessings through divine intervention after they give money to ministries.

The miracle-money faith concept remains controversial. But Roberts has said for years that the concept lifts Christians from a poverty mentality, and that they in turn must funnel their wealth into supporting Christian work.

“My teachings helped turn around the thinking of Christian people and their churches that had taught that giving is a debt that you owe,” Roberts said. “But God says that we are to plant a seed by faith and then we are to look to him for a miracle harvest. That means God multiplies back to us what we give to him, which has produced a joy in giving rather than a feeling of obligation.”

Though his voice has weakened with age in recent years, Roberts says he speaks about twice a month at charismatic churches.

He meets twice monthly with Hinn, whom he views as the future of the healing movement. Roberts occasionally appears on Hinn’s program This Is Your Day, which airs on the Colleyville-based Daystar Network and the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Trinity Broadcasting Network. TBN founders Paul and Jan Crouch have celebrated Roberts’ birthdays in recent years on their talk show Praise the Lord.

Roberts mentored Copeland, who attended ORU and has become a popular Pentecostal/charismatic TV preacher in the past quarter-century. And Euless-based TV evangelist James Robison, who comes from a Baptist background, has learned from Roberts as well.

Roberts says he has thrived on criticism throughout his career.

“I have no bitterness of any kind,” he says. “I should have been criticized. That’s the way you learn and you correct your mistakes.

“If I had not had the criticism, I would not have done as much good.”

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