Oral Robert died last week. His death was widely noted, but most of the obituaries either overlooked or underestimated the importance of his life and career and his major impact on American religion and life. Many reflected the ridicule that resulted from his claim in January 1987 that God would “call him home” unless his supporters ponied up $8 million by March, and the fact that other, younger, televangelists were now commanding the scene. Notable exceptions were Keith Schneider’s piece in The New York Times and a few of the posts on the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog.
The latter quoted Grant Wacker, professor of Christian history at Duke University, assessing Roberts’ influence on the religious history of America:
I’d say if we set aside Billy Graham and Martin Luther King and Falwell in the sense that their influence was religious but also political and social, outside them Roberts was the most important religious figure in the second half of the 20th Century. Just as a religious figure. And in lots of ways.
The most obvious way was he brought Pentecostalism out of the backwoods and made it respectable. One cannot imagine the modern day Pentecostalism without him. He transformed its image, but also its practice.
And in the Times, Schneider noted that:
His influence derived from his intimate understanding of those who turned to him for worship. They were white and black and Hispanic, the poor and the ill, hard-working people who could not afford an abundance of material possessions but whose dreams of health and prosperity were tied to an abiding love of God.
The rise of his ministry coincided with the development of television. Mr. Roberts was among the first American religious leaders to recognize and deploy this new communications tool to touch people, and he seized on its extraordinary national and global reach. It helped that he was a natural showman, capable of booming, florid oratory. But he could also be intimate and tender, relying on a homespun speaking style, a gentle touch and a deep knowledge of Scripture to connect with his followers, many of whom viewed him as heroic.
He began his television career in 1954 by filming worship services conducted under a traveling tent, the largest of which held 10,000 people.
Mr. Roberts’s will to succeed, as well as his fame, helped to elevate Pentecostal theology and practice, including the belief in faith healing, divine miracles and speaking in tongues, to the religious mainstream. During the 1970s, Time magazine reported, his television program “Oral Roberts and You” was the leading religious telecast in the nation.
Oral Roberts University estimated that Mr. Roberts, its founder and first president, had personally laid his hands on more than 1.5 million people during his career, reached more than 500 million people on television and radio, and received millions of letters and appeals.
Mr. Roberts’s prominence and will to succeed were important factors in building the Pentecostal and charismatic movements and combining them into the fastest-growing Christian movements in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.
By the 1960s, Roberts had a powerful base in Oklahoma. This was partly thanks to the formidable infrastructure he was building there. (By the 1980s, Oral Robert Evangelistic Association and Oral Roberts University were $110 million operations employing more than 2,300 people.)
And it was partly thanks to the fact that Oklahoma congressman Carl Albert was the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives from 1962 until 1971 when he became Speaker of the House, and to the arrival (with RN in 1969) of Henry Bellmon, Oklahoma’s once and future Governor, for the first of his two terms in the United States Senate, followed, thanks to RN’s 1972 landslide, by Dewey Bartlett, another former Governor, to fill the state’s other Senate seat.
Roberts met with President Kennedy in the White House in 1963; in 1972; he gave the invocation at the Democratic National Convention; in 1977 President Carter entertained him to dinner there. In 1972, through the agency of Oklahoma’s newly-elected Republican Senator Dewey Bartlett, Roberts visited with RN. Their meeting was described by David Edwin Harrell in Oral Roberts: An American Life:
Senator Dewey Bartlett of Oklahoma informed Nixon that Roberts would like to meet him, and the president issued Oral three invitations — the first two the evangelist could not accept because of schedule conflicts. When Oral entered the Oval Office, he thanked Nixon for the inspiration he had been to him, recalling that Nixon’s struggle to overcome political setbacks had been an encouragement to him in 1968 when it seemed his ministry was near collapse. The two compared television techniques; Oral gave the president a portfolio of materials about ORU, and Nixon gave him a Bible. “I’m going to pray for you, then I want you to pray for me.” Wallis [sic] Henley, a young White house aide and a former religion writer from Birmingham, Alabama, bolted to attention, wondering “how the president would react.” The small group clasped hands in the middle of the Oval Office, and Oral prayed first. Then Nixon prayed, Henley recalled, “A simple utterance in the straightforward Quaker style.” Oral later described his impression of the prayer: “He opened up in a strong voice, ‘Our Father,’ and I mean he prayed a prayer. He prayed for me. He prayed for my ministry; he prayed for Oral Roberts University; he prayed for the faculty; he prayed for the students. I’ve been considering adding him to our team ever since. In all seriousness, I was deeply moved by the prayer the may prayed.”
Qn article by Erika I. Ritchie in the Orange County Register quoted an interview with the Register last April in which Roberts recalled the presidents he had met.
Q. What presidents have you met with?
A. John Kennedy, (Richard) Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Q. What were they like?
A. John Kennedy, he was the most powerful man. The first question he asked me was, “How are your crusades, Rev. Roberts?”
Nixon was interested in my television ministry. He asked me, “How can I be as relaxed as you are on TV?”
Jimmy Carter was a different breed. He was the first born-again man in the White House. He was not prepared for the job, but he was brilliant and intellectual and he loved the Lord.
And Samuel Rodriguez, founding pastor of Third Day Worship Centers and President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, wrote that:
Roberts repudiated all vestiges of racism and emerged as one of the initial advocates of a multi-ethnic Kingdom culture movement. He refused to participate in evangelistic outreaches if African American churches were not represented, a commitment to diversity that preceded the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Roberts also helped to open and broaden the Pentecostal Charismatic movement beyond specific denominations to welcome independent Charismatics, including Catholics.
Critics of Roberts will remember him for an extemporaneous claim that God would take him home if millions would not be raised for his university. But many Christians will remember him as the leader of a movement committed to healing — not just the body, mind and soul, but communities, nations and a church divided by theological and ethnic differences.