Oral Roberts was a true pioneer. He founded a multimillion dollar evangelistic ministry and a first-rate university. He proved that a man with deeply Pentecostal roots could change and express a more ecumenical spirit when he became a Methodist and began to embrace other Christians openly.
My first impression of Oral Roberts was formed by the old black and white television pictures of healing lines that are now a part of historic American religion over the last sixty-plus years. Roberts laid his hands on people one-by-one and prayed for healing. This was not new but putting this on television was and Roberts eventually became synonymous with the Pentecostal renewal in America.
But he also became the leading representative of “Seed-Faith” theology and urged people to invest in mission in order to get seed back from God. This principle has clear warrant in 2 Corinthians 9:10–11 but the larger context seems to me to have been abused by the way Oral Roberts employed it. He mixed a good principle, one that encourages free giving with the expectation of getting more seed (for the purpose of giving even more), with the American dream of wealth and success. If I am wrong in my evaluation then I am ready to be corrected but I have reflected on this teaching by this evangelist for some years now.
Jack Hayford told the Associated Press: “If God had not, in His sovereign will, raised up Oral Roberts, the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred.” As much as I love and highly regard Jack Hayford I wonder what prompts a person to say these kinds of things at such times. I believe he means this very sincerely but it strikes me as rather odd when read in the reports of the last few days. The whole movement is that closely connected with this man that it would not have occurred without him. This might be true, at least as one reads history after the fact in a certain sense, but it is a sweeping statement to say the least.
One thing is certain. Oral Roberts rose from humble origins to become a world-renowned preacher. He gave up a local church ministry in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1947 for a ministry of prayer for the healing of the whole person—body, mind and spirit. Some called him a faith healer but Roberts always said, “God heals—I don’t.” Roberts himself overcame tuberculosis at age 17 and a very strong propensity to stutter. He always gave God the glory for this healing.
By the time I was in college, in the 1960s, Roberts was reaching millions of people around the world through television, radio and personal appearances. Perhaps no American, other than Billy Graham, reached more in those decades.
As Roberts aged he brought his son Richard into the forefront of his ministry. In many ways this may have been the decision that most jeopardized his larger ministry. Richard not only divorced his wife, in a well documented account, but later followed his father as the president of Oral Roberts University (ORU). He eventually faced serious allegations about the misuse of funds at ORU through his use of university monies for personal luxuries. This follows the same script his former wife revealed in her deeply moving, and very sad, account of the “inside” of the Roberts ministry. Richard was eventually forced to resign as president of ORU in November of 2007. Billionaire businessman Mart Green eventually donated more than $70 million to ORU and the huge debt hasbeen removed. Green also served as the chairman of the board of ORU, seeking to restore credibility to the institution by restructuring the board itself. An interim president was chosen and in January of this year Mark Rutland was appointed to lead the school as the new president.
Some of Oral Roberts most memorable moments, at least to the public at large, were his passionate appeals for funds. He once told his audience that unless they gave $8 million “God would take him home.” And he built the City of Faith medical center, a $250 million investment, only to have it eventually fail. He even spoke once of building a statue of Jesus knocking at the door of the United Nations. He was given to other similarly outlandish statements but these drew the attention over the years.
Three weeks ago Oral Roberts called Billy Graham, with whom he had what seems to have been a fairly close relationship. He told him he was dying. When he died on Tuesday he was 91. He had survived two heart attacks and a broken hip in 2006. A number of religion writers have commented on his legacy in the last few days but Martin Marty may sum up my response as well as anyone. Marty said Roberts had “genuine faith but lost perspective” along the way. He also said that he accomplished a lot that was good but often “overreached.” There is much that can and will be said about this man’s legacy. I am neither his judge nor a resident critic. I find him one of the most interesting Christian ministers of my lifetime but I also find that the evangelical empire he created was always very troubling in some rather profound ways. Like all well-known men he seemed to do a lot of good while he had more than a few blind spots. Now he is in the care of his much loved Savior.