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Oral Roberts’ Empire Built on Promises of Prosperity

I learned of the death of Oral Roberts through a Twitter post that said: “Celebrating with Oral Roberts as he came face to face with Jesus. Your mansion is sooooo big. I’m sure of it!”
 

The news was jarring. Not that Oral Roberts was dead at age 91, though, I imagine for those who loved him his passing on to Glory was still very hard. What troubled me was the remark about the size of Roberts’ mansion.

 

Up until Roberts died on Dec. 15 and I read that stupid tweet, I never gave a second thought to the real estate market in heaven. I just assumed we’d all get an equal share of prime property. Surely God knows me well enough by now to know that in order for me to be eternally happy, I need a piece of beachfront property.

 

What if that peep is right, though? What if God awards us mansions according to our earthly legacy? If that’s the case, Jesus is probably stacking cinder blocks next to some run-down single-wide that he got on trade-in from a manufacturer named Buddy, with me in mind.

 

But then again, Roberts may have awoken to find himself in a large holding cell while God sorts through 70 some years of financial records, making sure there was no fiduciary misconduct, no falsifying of documents, no false testimony, no staged healings in an effort to bilk millions from the unsuspecting.

 

When Roberts first started his healing ministry, people were dying in those tent meetings, much like those that died recently at the hands of so-called healer James Arthur Ray in that Sedona sweat lodge.

 

According to Roberts’ biographer, David Harrell Jr., during the early days of Roberts’ healing ministry, several people died while seeking a touch from him. In 1951, an Alabama businessman died while attending a campaign in Atlanta. In 1955, an elderly man died at a tent meeting in Calgary. And in 1959, there were several deaths reported, but the saddest may have been the 3-year-old who died in her parents’ arms at a tent meeting in Fayetteville, N.C.

 

“Such tragedies struck with some regularity during the 1950s and were generally accompanied by flurries of bad publicity,” Harrell reported.

 

Like a lot of sons, Roberts became a preacher because that’s what his daddy before him did. But his ministry really took off in 1947 after Roberts realized something he’d been overlooking – God called him to be prosperous. He read it right there in the Bible: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” (3 John 1:2).

 

It was nothing more than a salutation. A way of saying, “Hey buddy, hope all is well with you.” But Roberts took that Scripture out of context and built a gilded empire on it, with the help of millions of hard-working people hoping to build an American dream for themselves by sending in “seed-faith” money to Roberts.

 

The revelation that God wanted Americans to prosper was the first of many such revelations to follow. Roberts found a welcome audience among post-war Americans. Raised up capitalists with a Calvinistic work ethic, and now abetted by a view that God really was on their side, Americans were primed for the prosperity gospel.

 

Roberts reportedly responded to God’s revelation about prosperity just exactly the way one would expect any good-hearted American would. He went out and bought a Buick. Roberts later said that car represented to him what a man could do if only he had enough faith in God.

 

And that notion – that buying or building things, bigger and better things – as proof of a person’s faith in God marked Roberts’ entire life.

 

Or marred it, rather.

 

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It was his faith in a God who favored him and all that he did that guided Roberts to build Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, a television and radio ministry that he claimed reached a billion people. No one dared question the veracity of such a claim.

 

This favor of God was also the impetus for building Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. Roberts claimed God told him to build it. While other students were marching in favor of civil rights and protesting the war in Vietnam, ORU students were abiding by a loftier calling, pledging they wouldn’t smoke or drink or engage in premarital sex and that they would go to class every day dressed in business attire.

 

In 1979, former employee Jerry Sholes wrote a book titled “Gimme that Prime-Time Religion” criticizing what he claimed was Roberts’ hypocrisy:

 

“Here is a portrait of the real Oral Roberts, the man not too many of his admirers know. He dresses in Brioni suits that cost $500 to $1,000; walks in $100 shoes; lives in a $250,000 house in Tulsa and has a million dollar home in Palm Springs; wears diamond rings and solid gold bracelets employees ‘airbrush’ out of his publicity photos; drives $25,000 automobiles which are replaced every 6 months; flies around the country in a $2 million fanjet falcon; has membership, as does his son, Richard, in the most prestigious and elite country club in Tulsa, the Southern Hills (the membership fee alone was $18,000 for each, with $130 monthly dues) and in the ultra-posh Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California (both father and son joined when memberships were $20,000 each – they are now $25,000); and plays games of financial hanky-panky that have made him and his family members independently wealthy (millionaires) for life.”

 

Yet Roberts was able to press on and prosper. The first hint of economic trouble didn’t surface until the mid-1980s when the City of Faith hospital, built with funds from his partners, opened to only 130 of its 294 beds.

 

Despite Roberts’ claims that a 900-foot Jesus had told him to build a hospital where people would be treated both the conventional way and through the healing power of prayer, the people did not come. They’d still seek healing from

Roberts’ directly but not from his staff of wellness physicians. The hospital operated in the red for eight years before they had to lock the doors.

 

More trouble followed after Roberts announced in a January 1987 broadcast that God had told him in March 1986 that he had a year to raise $8 million or he would be struck dead. He claimed he had raised $3.5 million but if he didn’t get the extra $4.5 million he’d die by March 31.

 

What’s a follower to do with a message like that?

 

Apparently nobody thought Roberts had lost favor with God. I guess they just figured God was having a cash flow problem because they sent in the money right quick like, and Roberts’ life was generously spared.

 

For a while anyway.

 

Learning of Roberts’ recent demise makes me nervous. I’m sweating all up underneath my armpits. Up until that peep mentioned the expanse of Roberts’ mansion, I’ve never thought of heaven as a place where size mattered. I just assumed that heaven is like Trumanville, a place where everybody’s mansion is the same size. You don’t suppose they have double-wides in Heaven, do you? I mean, Jesus never mentioned needing to go away to spruce up the trailer court.

 

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming “Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? ‘Cause I Need More Room for My Plasma TV.”