(Granville) Oral Roberts (1918- 2009), healing evangelist and televangelist, was born in Pontonoc County, Oklahoma, the son of a poor farmer and itinerant preacher in the Pentecostal Holiness denomination. At the age of seventeen Roberts believed he had been miraculously healed of tuberculosis and a speech impediment. At age eighteen he received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and was ordained into the Pentecostal Holiness ministry.
By the mid-1940s he was serving as the pastor of a church in Enid, Oklahoma, but left to undertake a full-time healing revival ministry in 1947. Based in Tulsa, Roberts became the most successful of the healing evangelists of the 1950s. He founded his own magazine, Abundant Life, and cobbled together a radio network of over 500 stations. It was in television, however, that Roberts truly found his calling, beginning weekly broadcasts from his crusades in 1955. Buoyed by the financial gifts of his Pentecostal followers, Roberts was able to maintain and grow his own independent network of television stations which reached every part of the United States. The impact of Roberts’s broadcasts on the burgeoning charismatic movement among mainline Protestants and Catholics in the 1960s cannot be overestimated. Such was his success that by 1965 he was able to open his own four year-liberal arts college, Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa.
1968 marked a watershed year in Roberts’s career. Sensing the “moving of the Spirit” within mainline denominations, Roberts startled both his friends and foes as he discontinued his crusades and television broadcasts. Giving up his ordination in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, he sought ordination in, and joined, the Methodist Church. In 1969 he vaulted back into television with a series of hour-long, prime-time specials featuring celebrity guests, a variety show format, and a talented musical ensemble all under the seasoned eye of a top-flight Hollywood producer. Over the next decade, these specials attracted comparatively huge audiences for religious television and made Roberts a household name. Financially they proved a boon and jump-started his vision to expand ORU with a law school and a medical school replete with its own hospital, clinic, and research center–”The City of Faith.” This marked the beginning of a new phase of escalating financial burdens, aggressive fundraising campaigns, and virulent criticism from the medical, legal, and academic establishments. Coming as it did in the midst of media publicity surrounding a growing corpus of financial and sexual misdeeds among other televangelists, Roberts’ ministry and image began to suffer. The subsequent sexual indiscretions of his son and televangelist heir, Richard, only served to further erode Roberts’s image.
In the early 1990s Roberts was forced to sell his City of Faith and his law school, although ORU remained as a stable Christian liberal arts college. Overall, the thrust of Roberts’s overall career made a great impact upon the evangelical subculture, raising the image and self-respect of Pentecostals, enabling the spread of the charismatic movement, and leaving a lasting legacy in evangelical media and education.
For further reading see David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Oral Roberts: An American Life (Indiana, 1985), and Oral Roberts, Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry (Nelson, 1995).