Oral Roberts Made Pentecostalism Mainstream

The YouTube video is almost too corny to believe. The year is 1955. A young boy, about 6 and afflicted with polio, is sitting on Oral Roberts's lap. With praise and prayer, the preacher touches the boy all over his legs, ankles and feet, begging the Lord to restore movement to the limp and paralyzed limbs. "Oh, Jesus," he says, "let his little limbs be healed." Then a look of astonishment crosses the boy's face. He lifts his legs, one by one. And it happens: in one of perhaps millions of miracles Roberts performed in his lifetime, the little boy hops off the preacher's lap and walks away.

Believe what you want about Roberts's healing powers. One of America's most important preachers died Tuesday at the age of 91. He brought ministry to television, spawning generations of followers. "He was a televangelist before the word 'televangelist' was invented," says Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Ministers as different, in theology and personality, as Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Robert Schuler are all in his debt. Roberts brought legitimacy to Pentecostalism by founding an accredited university in his name: the television personality Kathie Lee Gifford and the disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard both attended the Tulsa, Okla., campus. He initiated millions into the theology of what we now call "the prosperity gospel," the idea that God wants his people to be healthy and well off. His famous slogan was this: "Something good is going to happen to you today."

Most important: he did more than anyone in America to bring Pentecostalism—broadly defined as a branch of Christianity that emphasizes the healing powers of the Holy Spirit—out of the lower classes, and the woods and hollows of the Bible Belt and into the mainstream. "He made Pentecostalism respectable," says Grant Wacker, a scholar of American Pentecostalism at Duke's Divinity School. "Whereas other kinds of independent faith-healing evangelists ran off the rails and brought a measure of public doubt, Roberts was upfront; he was public. There was no shady side to Roberts."

Critics will laugh, as they long have done, at Roberts's antique prudishness about sex. (In one famous speech against homosexuality, he goes on at great length about "orifices," pronounced "orifyces.") They will accuse him of bilking millions out of their hard-earned dollars, for a contribution to the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, he always said, was an investment in heaven. According to biographer David Edwin Harrell Jr.'s Oral Roberts: An American Life, a former member of Roberts's ministry in the 1960s wrote an attack on healing ministers—implicating Roberts—who "had 'gained incredible wealth,' channeling money to 'their own comfort and ease' which had been raised 'for God's service.' "

But though Roberts's children did face scandal, Roberts himself never did. Wacker insists that Roberts represented the essential American spirit, a man born in poverty who through entrepreneurialism built a Christian empire. There are others who made a bigger impact. On television and in the evangelistic sphere, of course, it was Billy Graham. (In a statement, Graham called "a great friend in ministry. I loved him as a brother…I look forward to the day that I will see Oral and Evelyn Roberts again in Heaven—our eternal home.") In politics and social movements, it was Martin Luther King and Jerry Falwell. But Roberts, says Wacker, was "terribly important." He was an American original.