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Oral Roberts, 91; trailblazing, empire-building evangelist

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A01

With emotion-laden prayers, dramatic testimonials and a powerful personal story, Oral Roberts rose from the revival tents of Oklahoma to become one of the most important forces in 20th-century Christianity. Mr. Roberts, who died Tuesday of pneumonia at age 91 in Newport Beach, Calif., helped create television evangelism and "prosperity theology," or the idea that a person's faith could be rewarded by wealth.

For years, he was the most popular evangelist on television, drawing millions of viewers each week. More than 25 million people watched his annual Christmas and Easter programs. On the strength of their donations, he built a far-flung business empire, capped by a university in Tulsa that bears his name.

Mr. Roberts first brought his fervid brand of Pentecostal preaching style to television in 1954 -- soon after Rex Humbard became the first nationally known TV minister -- and attracted a loyal and generous audience. Unlike other ministers, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who attempted to influence politics and social policy, Mr. Roberts focused more on matters of faith and finance.

Mr. Roberts became an evangelist as a teenager, when he said he was cured of tuberculosis and stuttering at a tent revival meeting. Although he did not claim the title of faith healer, his motto was "Expect a miracle." At crusades around the world, people clamored to draw close to the charismatic Mr. Roberts, whose mere touch, his most devoted followers said, cured thousands of their ailments. Some even said he could raise people from the dead.

Although he became a member of the United Methodist Church in 1968, Mr. Roberts was better known for the fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal practices of his youth. Pentecostals maintain that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that they can speak directly to God and that they have a personal relationship with Jesus. Speaking in tongues and healing by touch are common practices. Mr. Roberts disapproved of dancing, cosmetics and circuses, but he did reconcile his faith with modern medicine.

"He brought Pentecostalism out of the backwoods and made it respectable," said Grant Wacker, a professor of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School. "One cannot imagine modern-day Pentecostalism without him. He transformed its image but also its practice."

For Mr. Roberts and his followers, the battle between good and evil was waged every day in a world fraught with temptation and sin. He didn't hesitate to invoke Satan as he asked his listeners for money. As early as the 1950s, he spoke of planting "seeds of faith," suggesting that his followers would be rewarded with material success for giving money to his ministry.

"Christ has no objection to prosperity," he said.

Despite decades of popularity on television, Mr. Roberts had many detractors. Other religious leaders accused him of hucksterism, greed and sheer fantasy. With the rise of Jim Bakker and Robert Schuller, and their slickly produced shows, Mr. Roberts's appeal began to slip in the 1980s.

'The battle is raging'

As his ambitions outpaced contributions, he resorted to his time-tested pulpit histrionics. In 1987, he told his viewers that God would "call him home" unless they sent him $8 million to keep his enterprises afloat.

He raised $9.1 million, proving that he remained one of the greatest salesmen of religious commitment the nation has ever seen.

"The battle is raging!" he wrote in his ministry's magazine. "The devil is coming at me in a way that is almost beyond belief. He is saying, 'I am going to take away your dream. You will not hold on to your vision. It's too late. There is nothing you can do about it.' "

He pleaded for ever greater sums -- $11 million, then $25 million -- and when the money didn't materialize, he said the sins of other evangelists had dried up the well of donations. Other lofty goals fell short, as well. His medical and dental schools closed; his university's law school was sold to Robertson; and in 2007, Mr. Roberts was forced off the board of his namesake university after financial improprieties were linked to his son, Richard Roberts.

Part of Mr. Roberts's continuing appeal was that he was unremittingly good-humored and optimistic. A sign at his desk was emblematic of his theological views and his empire-building ideals: "Make no little plans here."

Granville Oral Roberts was born into an impoverished farming family in Bebee, Okla., on Jan. 24, 1918. His father was a Pentecostal preacher, but young Oral had his most revelatory moment of faith after he became ill and spent five months bedridden with tuberculosis.

In 1935, his brother took him to a tent revival meeting, where Mr. Roberts said his illness, as well as a stuttering problem, was instantly cured by the hand of a visiting evangelist. Then and there, he pledged to dedicate his life to the ministry and healing others.

He attended Oklahoma Baptist University and Phillips University in Enid, Okla., and became the pastor of churches in Georgia, North Carolina and his home state. To reach more people, he bought his first tent in 1948 and began to travel the country. From the beginning, he preached to integrated crowds and appeared on more than 300 radio stations before his television debut.

Mr. Roberts wrote more than 130 books, and his publications were translated into more than 100 languages. His organization was beaming short-wave radio broadcasts into the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, and he was constantly on the go.

He gave up his globe-trotting crusades in 1968 in favor of lavish television specials, featuring such performers as Johnny Cash, Robert Goulet, Anita Bryant and Pat Boone. Mr. Roberts was also among the first religious leaders to use computer technology in his direct-mail campaigns. At its peak in the 1980s, his ministry was taking in $100 million a year.

In 1980, he was deemed the second-most recognizable religious figure in the United States, after Billy Graham. But by 1987, a Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Mr. Roberts. Only Bakker, who had been caught in a sex scandal, had a lower rating among evangelists.

Personal setbacks

Mr. Roberts also endured a series of personal setbacks. In 1977, his daughter Rebecca and son-in-law were killed in a plane crash. His oldest son, Ronald Roberts, committed suicide in 1982 after being ordered by a court to a drug treatment center. His other son's ex-wife, in a tell-all memoir in 1983, said the Roberts family lived like jet-setters, with multiple homes, luxury cars and exotic vacations.

Mr. Roberts's wife of 66 years, Evelyn Lutman Roberts, died in 2005.

Survivors include his son, Richard, and a daughter, Roberta Potts; 12 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

He founded Oral Roberts University in Tulsa in 1963 and said one of his fondest hopes was that its basketball team would win a national championship. It was one prayer that was never answered.

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