See pictures of Oral Roberts from Magnum Photos.
One of the great ironies of Oral Roberts’ life was that he could not heal his own broken hip. He spent his glory years in the 1970s and ‘80s performing healing miracles on other people, in giant tent revivals and then later on Christian television. He once claimed a mother had tossed a stiff, dead baby into his hands at a revival in Fresno, Calif., and, thanks to the “fire” in his right hand, the baby breathed again. Yet he spent the last years of his own life hiding out in his mansion in Newport Beach, Calif., slowed down by two heart attacks, shamed by the many financial scandals at Oral Roberts University. God called him home, as he would have said, by way of the pedestrian old-age disease pneumonia.
Many great evangelical luminaries will pay tribute to Roberts this week as the father of the charismatic movement, which embraces ecstatic religious experience. More secular commentators will remember him as a thief for Jesus, inventor of the “blatant money hustling so necessary to stay on prime time,” as Martin Gardner wrote about him in a New York Review of Books essay in 1987. It was Oral Roberts who perfected the screaming and begging for money onstage and paved the way for the televangelist hustlers of the ‘90s: Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn.
Roberts’ memory would be reducible to American religious camp (Tammy’s clown lashes, a bust of his magic right hand). Except that in the last 10 years, Roberts’ teachings have been seeping back into mainstream evangelical life, dominating the religious landscape. One of the great unnoticed shifts of the last decade is how the proto-Calvinist, punitive philosophy of the Christian right has been lately replaced by the upbeat, we-are-all-winners teachings of Roberts.
Roberts was one of the founders of the prosperity gospel, the notion that God blesses faithful believers with riches and good health. This theology has lately been proliferating in American megachurches, as I explained at length in this Atlantic story. Of the nation’s 12 largest churches, three are prosperity—Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, which dwarfs all the other megachurches; Tommy Barnett’s, in Phoenix; and T.D. Jakes’, in Dallas. Osteen’s latest book would not be on the New York Times best-seller list like his others if Roberts had not made it acceptable to believe that God blesses believers with very concrete material gifts—cash, a bigger house, or in Roberts’ case, a shiny green Buick.
A poor farmer’s son turned Pentecostal preacher, Roberts in the late 1940s claimed that his Bible flipped open to 3 John: 2. “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health. Even as thy soul prospereth.” A few months later, Mr. Gustavus, a neighbor who owned a local Buick dealership, promised the hopeful preacher a good deal on a “long, green, slick Buick.” The new car, Roberts wrote in his autobiography, “became a symbol to me of what a man could do if he would believe in God.” That day Gustavus told him, “Oral, you’ll be the biggest man for God this country has ever known.”
Soon Roberts developed his famous concept of seed faith. People would donate money to his ministry, which represented a “seed” offering to God, and God would multiply it a hundredfold. In 1954 he began offering “Blessing Packs”—packets including fabrics imprinted with his right hand, or anointing oils, in return for a harvest, meaning a windfall of cash. Over time his stunts got more elaborate. He once claimed he had to raise $8 million for his ministry or he would be “called home.” A few weeks before the deadline, Roberts claimed Satan had sneaked into his bedroom and tried to strangle him. Eventually his life was spared by a $1.3 million check from a Florida dog-track owner.
Instead of shiny robes or gaudy jewelry, today’s celebrity prosperity pastors wear Italian suits and modest wedding bands when they show up at the White House or on TV talk shows. Instead of screaming and sweating, they smile broadly and speak in soothing therapeutic terms. Few churches use “prosperity” in their name, although many still teach the concept of “seed-faith” and demand faithful tithing, which pastors promise will reap a healthy return. The euphemism, these days, is “abundant,” as in “Every day, you’re going to live that abundant life!” as Osteen likes to say.
That the prosperity movement is one of America’s few homegrown theologies, thanks to Roberts, makes it harder to dismiss. “The idea that you can change your own circumstances, that you should remain optimistic, is so deeply American,” says Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at California, Riverside who calls it the “ruby slipper” religion. In Roberts’ time and now, prosperity is one of the only movements that attract rich and poor, black and white, native born and immigrant. Roberts knew that a large proportion of his audience was black, and he consciously courted black disciples. My favorite is the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, known as Rev Ike, who died earlier this year. Rev. Ike knew he wanted to become a preacher on the day his father drove a “1940 Chevrolet off the showroom floor,” he wrote. The best thing you can do for the poor, he would preach at his Harlem church, “is not become one of them.” Another favorite: “Don’t wait for the pie in the sky by-and-by when you die. Get yours now with ice cream and a cherry on top!”
In his last years, Roberts and his family lived as they preached. Roberts’ son Richard was ousted as head of Oral Roberts University for misusing funds; he was accused of spending the school’s money for sending his daughters to the Bahamas, buying them horses, and hiring staff to do their homework. His wife was known for her expensive taste in clothes. Oral, for his part, limited his luxuries to a mansion and private jet.