- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oral Roberts, one of the world’s pre-eminent Pentecostal leaders and one of America’s top evangelists and educators, died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia. He was 91.

His son, Richard, and daughter, Roberta, were by his side at the evangelist’s Newport Beach, Calif., home.

“The past few months, my father has talked about going home to be with the Lord on a daily basis,” his son said in a statement. “He has run his race and finished his course. Now he is in heaven, and we as Christians have the Bible promise that someday we will be reunited. My heart is sad, but my faith in God is soaring.”

A statement on the Web site of his namesake college, Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., by its president, Mark Rutland, called Mr. Roberts “one of the brilliant spiritual lights of the 20th century and a giant of the Christian faith.”

“It’d be hard to overestimate Oral’s place in history,” said Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan of Regent University. “He rivaled Billy Graham in terms of the crowds he drew. He was one of the three or four most important leaders in the history of the Pentecostal movement. He brought Pentecostalism into the consciousness of the American public and made it a household word.”

Born Jan. 24, 1918, in Bebee, Okla., the same year as Mr. Graham, Mr. Roberts stuttered as a child, then contacted tuberculosis as a teenager.

Then at age 17, his brother, Elmer, took him to a tent meeting in Ada, Okla., where an evangelist was praying for the sick. As the evangelist prayed over him, Oral felt “a blinding flash of light of God that swept over my face and eyes and spirit,” he later wrote.

Then, “Oral jumped on the platform, shouting, ‘I’m healed! I’m healed!’ ” according to David Edwin Harrell Jr.’s 1985 biography, “Oral Roberts: An American Life.” Mr. Roberts no longer stuttered after that evening.

The encounter changed the youngster’s life forever. He became a pastor, then in 1947 founded the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association (OREA) to support his growing ministry as a faith-healing evangelist. OREA officials estimate he prayed for at least 2 million people by personally placing his hands on their heads during his many crusades. He began allowing television into his services beginning in 1954.

By 1960, the healing ministry was “aging and fading,” according to the Harrell biography, and Mr. Roberts turned his sights to new horizons. In 1963, he founded his university on 500 acres at South Lewis and 81st streets in south Tulsa. Architecturally, it is best-known for its 200-foot-tall prayer tower, topped by a gas flame and an observation deck.

With 3,140 students enrolled, it is the world’s largest university affiliated with the charismatic movement, which along with Pentecostalism believes in supernatural “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues.

In 1981, Mr. Roberts founded a $250 million City of Faith Medical and Research Center, a hospital and medical school that sought to merge medicine with the healing power of prayer. By 1984, his ministry was sending out “pilot healing teams” of doctors and evangelists to Latin America, the Caribbean and impoverished parts of the United States.

But the medical center, according to Time magazine, was draining OREA of $30 million to $40 million a year and both closed in 1989 for lack of funding. A law school also opened by the evangelist closed in 1986.

“I’ve known him since I was a kid,” said Mr. Synan, 75, adding that his father, J.A. Synan, was Mr. Roberts’ bishop when he was a minister in the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

The most controversial act in Mr. Roberts’ religious life, according to Mr. Harrell, was the evangelist’s decision in 1968 to leave the Pentecostal Holiness denomination for the Methodist Church. It was Mr. Roberts’ way of encouraging the fledgling charismatic movement, which was just then making its way into mainline churches.

“It’d be hard to overstate Oral’s place in Pentecostal history,” Mr. Synan said. “He was the father of the ‘prosperity movement’ in American Christianity,” Mr. Synan added.

Mr. Roberts had a vast mailing list of “partners” that he encouraged to give out of their own financial need, in what he called “seed faith.” He believed that if supporters planted a “seed” of money in his ministry, they would receive a financial or spiritual windfall back.

In September 1980, Mr. Roberts sent out a partner letter recounting his vision of a 900-foot Jesus who pledged to the evangelist that the City of Faith center would receive enough funding if ministry partners were to respond. That letter, according to Mr. Harrell, “triggered the most resounding outburst of public ridicule and criticism” the evangelist received.

In 1987, Mr. Roberts made a dramatic appeal to supporters to send $8 million to the financially strapped ministry or God would “call” him home. Despite the vast adverse public reaction the appeal received, the evangelist later said he raised $9.1 million.

Oral and and his wife, Evelyn, also endured personal tragedies, including the deaths of their daughter, Rebecca, and son-in-law, Marshall, in a 1977 airplane crash; the 1982 suicide of their eldest son, Ronnie; and the 1984 death of a grandson, Richard Oral Roberts.

In more recent years, the aging evangelist turned his namesake university over to his son, Richard, and retired in California.

However, in late 2007, three former professors sued the school and its leaders for wrongful termination. Richard Roberts resigned as president and the university revealed it was $52.5 million in debt. An Oklahoma family offered the school $70 million to pull it out of debt, and a new governing board was been appointed to take over leadership of the college.

Mr. Roberts will be remembered for his many accomplishments, said the Rev. Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, in a statement.

“If God had not, in his sovereign will, raised up the ministry of Oral Roberts, the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred,” Mr. Hayford said. “Oral shook the landscape with the inescapable reality and practicality of Jesus whole ministry.”

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