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Oral Roberts, Dean of
Pentecostal Evangelists, Dies
ral Roberts, the pioneering TV evangelist and faith healer who became the dean of America's Pentecostal preachers, died December 15 at the age of 91. He died in Newport Beach, California, of complications from pneumonia, his publicist announced.
One of the nation's first television evangelists, as well as the founder of the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Oral Roberts University, Roberts was the author of more than 130 books, including his autobiography, Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry.
To millions, Roberts' name was synonymous with faith healer. But it was a term Roberts himself disliked; though he once claimed to have healed 1.5 million people, he preferred to emphasize a concept of “seed faith”--the belief that something given in good faith, whether prayer or money, would be returned exponentially in the form of personal happiness.
“If God had not ... raised up the ministry of Oral Roberts, the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred,” said the Rev. Jack Hayford, former president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, in a statement.
Ordained by the Pentecostal Holiness Church--he joined the United Methodist Church in 1968 and left after 19 years--Roberts drew nationwide attention during his 60-plus-year career for his healing services and “discussions” with God.
Ever since Roberts came to Oklahoma's second largest city six decades ago and established what would become a $500 million empire that included an ornate, 200-foot-tall prayer tower, he became a source of admiration to many locals who saw his university especially as a valuable economic addition to the city.
But to Roberts' critics, he was an Elmer Gantry-like preacher who manipulated the emotions of his audience for financial gain through claims of repeated personal visits from God. Among Roberts' famous gaffes was his 1986 appeal to his television audience to contribute $8 million to a medical missionary program or God “would call me home,” as well as his claim that Jesus appeared to him as a 900-foot-tall person.
But Roberts never faced the sort of criticism leveled at the likes of Jim and Tammy Bakker for their personal excesses. Criticism of him was often tempered by the belief that Roberts was no outright charlatan, but rather a sincere, if maybe misguided, man motivated by his theology, as well as his mounting personal tragedies -- the loss of a daughter in a plane crash in 1977, the 1982 suicide of his eldest son, Ronnie, who had battled drug addiction, and the death of a grandchild, the only heir to be named after him, who died two days after birth in 1984.
Roberts often said that his own fate was sealed before birth, but his slew of professed visions over the years may have colored his early history, making it seem more parable than fact.
A preacher's son, Granville Oral Roberts was born January 24, 1918, in Pontotoc County, near Ada, Oklahoma, the youngest of five children.
Roberts later recalled that his mother was pregnant with him when she was asked to pray for a neighbor's seriously ill child. A Cherokee Indian, his mother vowed that if God healed the child, she would dedicate her own unborn child to the ministry. She prayed, too, that she deliver a blue-eyed son (her other children had black eyes). According to Roberts, every wish came true; the sick child recovered, Oral was born with blue eyes and his mother told him early on that he was set to do God's work.
But Roberts had much to overcome, including a stuttering condition and the constraints of poverty. In his book, “My Story,” Roberts said that one of his first encounters with faith healing occurred at 17, when stricken with tuberculosis he was healed by a traveling evangelist.
On Christmas Day 1938, Roberts married Evelyn Lutman Fahnestock, the daughter of a minister. Over the next few years, Roberts served as pastor of several small churches and attended Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee. In 1947, Roberts, then 29, moved to Tulsa from Enid, Okla. His ministry flourished when he began traveling nationwide, laying hands on the sick in revival tents and proclaiming the newly faithful healed in the name of God.