Oral Roberts

Oral Roberts has had more rises and falls from grace than a world-class roller coaster. A quick check of Christian sites places him anywhere from prophet to heretic. Roberts began his life in Oklahoma, the youngest of five children, born in 1918, the last year of fighting for WWI. Roberts left high school and eventually took the equivalent of about two years of college level courses at various Bible schools in Oklahoma. Married at the age of 20 on the Christmas after Hitler's Kristallnacht in Germany, Roberts and his wife eventually had four children. His daughter, Rebecca, and her husband Marshall Nash, died in an airplane crash in 1977, leaving an estate of more than $10 million dollars. (The size of their estate as well as Roberts' own lifestyle has led many to question the financial dealings of the ministry.) His oldest son, Ronald, committed suicide in 1980. Today, son Richard and his second wife, Lindsay, are very active parts of the Oral Roberts' ministry, while not much is ever written about daughter Roberta.

Oral began preaching in tent revivals and eventually took on four short-lived pastorates before he had his first "revelation" from God. Roberts and his wife, who had both grown up in poverty, had become involved with a denomination that believed that in order to be truly Christian, one had to be poor. But neither of the Robertses wanted to remain poor and during a prayerful plea for help, Roberts says God led him to III John 2: `I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.' Shortly thereafter, Roberts claims he had a second talk with God in which God told him directly that he would have the power to heal and to cast out devils.

The focus of Roberts' ministry from 1947 onward then became faith healing. Within months of his revelation, his services were drawing crowds so desperate for relief from pain and suffering that he had to move his services to a larger building. The following month, he resigned his pastorate to take his healing "show" on the road. By 1950, Roberts' healing services were being broadcast across the country and attended by more than 15,000 people.1

Roberts also branched out into some innovative marketing somewhere in this same time period. He began distributing prayer cloths that he claimed he had prayed over, asking Jesus to heal those who put it against their skin. These prayer cloths are still available today from the site, free of charge. (There's actually a whole page of items you can receive free of charge. Except of course that you have now given them your name and address and I'm not quite sure what they do with that. We'll see what happens now.2) In 1949, more than 100,000 of these clothes were distributed. Roberts' innovation manifested in other areas as well. He was one of the first to make extensive use of television for spreading his message and even used ham radio to broadcast his services overseas. One of the most interesting methods of spreading the message was the "Cathedral Cruiser", a futuristic bus that GM had built for a series of shows in the 40s and 50s called Parade of Progress. Oral Roberts bought one of these "Futureliners" and converted it into a traveling cathedral. His students and followers used the bus to reach remote areas of Central and South America.

Controversy began following Roberts around almost as soon as he started his healing ministry. His claims to have talked to God directly led many to call him a fraud, suggesting that God only speaks to humans though the scripture. But Roberts had been raised in the Pentecostal/Charismatic faith and saw nothing untoward or unscriptural about God speaking directly to him. He evidently saw his calling as that of a prophet of God and over the course of the next four decades, Roberts has claimed to have some strange and highly controversial visions.

One of those visions compelled him to start Oral Roberts University in 1965, and the university was dedicated by none other than Billy Graham. Graham's acceptance of Roberts as a peer and equal seemed to "mend the fences" (at least for a while) between the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches and the evangelical/fundamentalist churches. But that fence was bound to be torn down again given the very different beliefs about the foundation of Christian teachings: the Bible. To Roberts, the Bible is not the literal, inerrant word of God. It is more of a "here's what happened" and is seen more as a guidebook. The Pentecostal/Charismatic movement relies more on the present day influence of the Holy Spirit and see proof of that presence in the "supernatural events" that often take place at services: speaking in tongues, laying of hands, faith healing and other gifts of the Holy Spirit as outlined in the Bible. To evangelicals and fundamentalists, this rather free interpretation of the Bible is akin to heresy. And indeed, Roberts' name appears on may fundamentalist/evangelical sites as a modern heretic and his teachings are often classified as apostasy.

In 1977, Roberts announced that God has sent him another message: to build a medical research center to be named "City of Faith". [Ironic, I'd say. A faith healer instructed to build a medical complex?] It was meant to be the means by which faith and medicine were brought together to produce "medical miracles". Roberts even told people that God has instructed him to find a cure for cancer using the City of Faith research facilities.

In 1980, a discouraged Roberts, with mounting debt and lagging construction, may have doubted that the City of Faith would ever open. But then Jesus himself appeared to Roberts, towering over him (by about 894 feet— according to Roberts, Jesus was about 900 feet tall), and lifted up the unfinished medical building and restored Roberts' faith that it would be complete. The medical complex finally opened in 1981, but never reached its full potential or opened all of its facilities. It drew in medical students and patients with the promise of no tuition and free care.

By 1986, the City of Faith was deeply in debt. In January, Roberts announced he had received another message from God: a message that lost him a great deal of his credibility with many folks. Roberts claimed that God told him that 10 months ago that he had one year to raise $8 million dollars or God was going to "call him home." Roberts said he had already raised $3.5 million of that and only needed to raise $4.5 million more. In April, Roberts announced they'd raised a total of $9.1 million and that God had spared his life. This money was to be used for full scholarships for medical missionaries to be sent overseas according to still another command from God. But those scholarships never materialized and no one is quite sure what happened to the $9.1 million that was raised. By the end of 1989, Roberts had closed the medical school and the City of Faith hospital (the clinic had closed at the beginning of the year) in order to pay off the staggering debt.

Certainly, there is reason for speculation regarding the financial dealings of the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, the official name of Roberts' ministry. Charity Navigator, an online site that rates charitable organizations, gives OREA an overall rating of one star (out of four) and indicates that OREA's net assets are about $10 million dollars of debt. One of the cornerstones of Roberts' teachings is that of the "seed faith donations". The principle behind the teaching is that if you give, God gives back to you in kind— and multiplies it. So the more you give to do God's work (through Roberts' ministries) the more God will give to you. In other words, you'll get wealthier, financially, the more you give to Roberts' ministries. But despite the tens of millions of dollars in donations that pour into the ministry each year and the 5600 students enrolled in its various programs, when Richard Roberts took over as president of Oral Roberts University, the university was more than $40 million in debt. Yet despite the debt, the Roberts' live a luxurious lifestyle.

Many of Roberts' critics cite the debt of the university, the failure of the City of Faith, the death of Roberts' grandson despite his healing efforts as well as Roberts' own heart attack in 1999 as proof that his teachings are false prophecy. The vast majority of cases of "miraculous healings" are for things like headaches and other pains that are difficult to prove have gone away. (And they may very well have gone away given the power of the mind.) But there have been no verifiable cases of a blind man who can now see after a healing by Roberts, or of a limb regrown after a service. Yet despite the lack of any real proof, and despite the outrageous claims he has made, Roberts is still the spiritual leader to millions. Why? What is it that appeals to so many? What need in themselves do they find in following Roberts? For answers to these questions, please read my thoughts on the matter.

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1 Biographical information compiled from several sources.
  • The Life and Ministry of Oral Roberts
  • Oral Roberts: Founder of ORU[Note: This is on the Oral Roberts Ministries homepage. My thanks to the individual who pointed out the dead link. Contrary to their assertions, the link was dead not because I misrepresented the beliefs of Oral Roberts but because the ministry moved the information. Of course, this individual did not have the courage of their convictions to put a return email address on the form so I could thank them, so I have to do it here. I hope they see it.]
  • On Doctrine: Oral Roberts
2 Well, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone but I have already received my first "won't you please help so we can spread the word of Jesus" mail from Richard Roberts. I eventually got everything I ordered (I think), but you can bet they won't be getting any "seed money" from me. They're the modern day equivalent of the money-changers Jesus threw from the temple. Requests for donations are coming about once a month.

Click on any of the links below to read more articles about Oral Roberts.
Wake Up Call Wake Up Call
Synopsis: This is a pdf file and you will need a reader like Adobe Acrobat in order to read it. If you don't have Adobe, you can download it free of charge. Or you can do a google search for Oral Roberts Wake Up Call and open the file in html format. This is a transcript of his latest vision along with some supporting words from Kenneth Copeland regarding the future of America and the second coming of Jesus. [Note: I'm having trouble opening the file in my browser— I keep getting a "file does not begin with '%PDF-'." error message. (I can open other .pdf files in my browser and I do have the latest updates of Adobe, so I don't think it's on my end.) If this happens to you, right click on the link above (either the button or the wording), go to "save link target as..." and save it to your own computer. Once saved to my own computer, the file opened just fine.] UPDATE: This is now a DVD that's being sold on yet another televangelists website. I found an article called Oral Roberts: Wake Up Call Vision but I'm not sure it's the same thing. I just searched my reference articles on my computer and I do have a copy saved, so if you want a copy (no charge, of course), please feel free to email me.
The Internet Monk The Internet Monk
Synopsis: A Christians perspective on the growing gulf between Pentecostal/Charismatic Christian churches and "mainstream" Christianity.
Prophecy Timeline Prophecy Timeline
Synopsis: This site presents a timeline for some of the more famous of Oral Roberts' prophecies as well as their outcomes.
Oral Roberts Ministries Oral Roberts Ministries
Synopsis: The official homepage of Oral Roberts Ministries. You can read biographies here of not only Roberts, but his wife, his son Richard and Richard's wife, Lindsay.

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