Prosperity Gospel's patriarch?

Oral Roberts

I sit on the side of the cultural divide that is more familiar with MC 900 Ft. Jesus than Oral Roberts and his 900-foot Jesus. But it's hard to forget Roberts' dramatic televangelism, his faith-healing, the travails of his various ventures, his contributions to the world of direct mail and database management. The man's a legend and many people are mourning his death. But are the obituary writers getting it right? My favorite obituary was in the Los Angeles Times by former staff writer William Lobdell. It's comprehensive and avoids some of the problems that Terry highlighted from that New York Times obituary. It specifically states, for instance, that the charismatic movement can be found in mainline and Pentecostal denominations. Here's a rather interesting portion, following upon some of the controversies that developed out of the faith healing ministry:

The minister was controversial for other reasons as well. In the days of segregation, Roberts, like Graham, insisted that black and white worshipers sit together, a progressive policy he said brought him death threats.

"We didn't think of being ahead of our time," Roberts recalled.

In 1954, Roberts became one of the first televangelists, taping his crusades and then airing them on TV stations across the nation. Within a year, his programs were being carried by more than 200 stations.

At the end of each show, Roberts didn't ask for money but told viewers to send a letter to Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Okla.

One of the challenges of his booming enterprise was how to handle the thousands of letters that poured in each week. Again a trailblazer, he worked with IBM to develop one of the first computerized systems to immediately send out seemingly personalized letters.

The Times piece -- like many other obituaries that ran today -- credits Roberts with popularizing the Prosperity Gospel. In fact, the headline is "Televangelist Oral Roberts dies at 91; pioneering preacher of the 'prosperity gospel'."

But over at Christianity Today, Ted Olsen says the claim may be a bit overstated. After showing how many newspaper obituaries say the same thing (the New York Times, for instance, calls Roberts the "patriarch" of the Prosperity Gospel movement), Olsen writes:

But [Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life,] and the Times may be confusing Roberts and another Tulsa resident, Kenneth Hagin, who is far more widely recognized as the man who joined Pentecostalism with the Faith Movement (also called "Word-Faith," or derogatively, the Prosperity Gospel or "Health and Wealth" gospel). Many scholars would credit Baptist E. W. Kenyon as the father of the teaching, and many other names would be more closely associated with it than Roberts (Kenneth Copeland, for example). The Dictionary of Christianity in America explicitly states that Roberts is "not fully identified with the movement [but] has close doctrinal and personal ties with many faith teachers." And in fact one of the first major critics of the Word-Faith movement was an Oral Roberts University theology professor, Charles Farah. (ORU's Howard Ervin was another vocal critic.)

"Most charismatics, including Roberts, acknowledged that his theology had never agreed with that of the faith teachers--there had always been more room in Oral's thought for paradox and the inscrutable," David Edwin Harrell wrote in his authoritative biography, Oral Roberts: An American Life.

The rest of the piece at Christianity Today is worth a read for those interested not just in Roberts but how he fit in and with the evangelical old guard during various points in his ministry. The piece also shows how some of his practices have been adopted throughout the theological spectrum.

It's hard for people who are not intimately familiar with the Prosperity Gospel movement to break down the family tree. But Olsen's criticism shows why it's important to go to people who are authorities on the movement when writing about it.

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