Oral Roberts: From Pentecostal to Charismatic

QG001124Obviously, one of the major religion stories of the day is the death of the Rev. Oral Roberts at the age of 91. I would imagine that the major newspapers have had obituaries ready for a decade or more. This another one of those stories about the passing of a landmark figure in American and even global religion. However, we have to ask: What is the key "story" inside the larger story that is the life of Oral Roberts?

Clearly, his role in the creation of the "prosperity Gospel" is crucial. However, Roberts was a major figure in another story, one that has had a much larger global impact in all Christian churches -- from Pentecostalism to Catholicism. And what is that story?

Well, let me ask two questions that I think are crucial. First, what is the most controversial thing that Roberts did in his life, from the point of view of his Pentecostal supporters? If you look at his life from their perspective, then we are not talking about the (justifiable) media storm that surrounded his life-and-death vision of a 900-foot Jesus and, eventually, that divine threat to call him home. The second question is linked to the first: Oral Roberts was a minister in what denomination, during the final decades of his life?

The answer to the second question: The United Methodist Church.

The answer to the first is clearly: His decision to join the United Methodist Church.

OK, one more question: From a global perspective, what is the biggest religion story in which Oral Roberts played a major role?

Well, the answer that one is pretty obvious: The growth of Pentecostalism as a major force in mainstream Christianity, with an emphasis on the word mainstream. In other words, Roberts lived to see Pentecostalism move out of the fringes of world Christianity and become the mainstream Charismatic renewal movement. It's impossible to write about the past few decades in the Catholic, mainline and evangelical worlds without digging into how "Pentecostalism" evolved into "Charismatic renewal." Ask the researchers at the Pew Forum.

Now, you would expect to be able to find the answers to these kinds of big questions in the lengthy Roberts obituary at the New York Times. But I cannot find the words "United Methodist" in this story, can you? We are, however, told this:

Mr. Roberts's will to succeed, as well as his notoriety, helped to elevate Pentecostal theology and practice, including the belief in faith healing, divine miracles and speaking in tongues, to the religious mainstream. ... Oral Roberts University estimated that Mr. Roberts, its founder and first president, personally laid his hands on more than 1.5 million people during his career, reached more than 500 million people on television and radio, and received millions of letters and appeals. Among those seeking counsel and prayer were Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter. John Lennon wrote a letter to Mr. Roberts in 1972 seeking forgiveness for famously remarking that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" and asking him to "explain to me what Christianity can do for me."

Mr. Roberts's prominence and will to succeed were important factors in building the Pentecostal and charismatic movements and combining them into the fastest-growing religious denomination in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s and, by 2000, the largest Protestant group in the world. "No one had done more to bring the Pentecostal message to respectability and visibility in America," David Edwin Harrell Jr. wrote in "Oral Roberts: An American Life" (Indiana University, 1985).

The problem, of course, is that the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements are not "religious denominations," let alone a single united "religious denomination." Let me be clear that there are denominations that have deep roots into Pentecostalism. Then there are other churches and denominations that contain thousands or even millions of Christians who embrace key Pentecostal or Charismatic beliefs.

That's the whole point. Roberts was both powerful and controversial because his beliefs -- preached by scores of others, as well -- soaked into the fabric of mainstream Christianity in America and around the world. The man became a United Methodist, which says quite a bit about him and the United Methodist Church -- at least the United Methodist Church far from the newsroom of the New York Times.

Many loyal followers of Roberts were appalled by this decision to join a mainline church.

Many United Methodists were probably appalled that he joined their flock, too. I mean, watch this space -- the United Methodist News Service. As I write this, the website has not published an obituary for the man who was, yes, the most famous United Methodist clergyperson (of some kind) in the world. How long will it take for one to appear?

This is an interesting hole in the Times obituary, to say the least, and I am happy to report that many other newspapers didn't leave the same gap.

Other GetReligionistas will be chiming in during the next day or so with other posts about the coverage of the death of this fascinating and controversial figure. Anyone want to point us toward some coverage worth discussing, both the good and the bad? And let's keep the comments focused on the content of the press coverage, please.

Please respect our Commenting Policy