The Legacy of Oral Roberts

From prosperity gospel to Pentecostalism, Oral Roberts helped influence a generation of Christians. (Think Joel Osteen and Ted Haggard, too.) What will his long-term legacy be?

Students at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, don’t have a Gator Chomp or a Tomahawk Chop, but they do have an O: Whenever Oral Roberts would walk onto the stage at the school chapel, students would stand up, raise their arms into the shape of circles over their heads, and shout, "OOOOOOOOOOO!"

I attended ORU during my sophomore year of college, having had a charismatic Christian conversion experience right after high school. I couldn’t remain at the school for reasons of finances and faith—having a shortfall of both—but I’ve always had bright memories of the day Roberts spoke at chapel. For ORU students as for a great many Pentecostal Christians—the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the world—Oral Roberts, who died at 91 years old yesterday, was always something to cheer about.

If you don’t know who Roberts is, consider how three of his university’s students paint a picture of the man’s milieu: Kathy Lee Gifford, Joel Osteen, and Ted Haggard all attended ORU (only Haggard graduated). Gifford’s singing talent and on-camera composure were not uncommon at the school, where televised arts and entertainment for Christian ministry was a heavy educational focus. Osteen and Haggard replicated Roberts’ warm, down-to-earth speaking style and relentlessly positive messages, and they are but two of thousands of Christian ministers who consciously modeled themselves on Oral Roberts. At one time, between the 1950s and 1980s, Roberts was second only to Billy Graham among Christian leaders, and he was, like Graham, a visionary minister with a particular expression of the Christian gospel.

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That expression will be Roberts’ legacy—more than his school, his pioneering work in television ministry, or the memory of his high profile failures in the 1980s, including a debt-ridden City of Faith medical complex and a related embarrassment surrounding his 1987 claim that God would "call me home" if he failed to raise $8 million. Future historians will footnote all that, and be more interested in Roberts’ theological ideas and how they reshaped Christianity.

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