Evangelist Oral Roberts Remembered

Evangelist Oral Roberts died Tuesday at the age of 91, his spokesman said. Roberts rose from tent revivals to found a multimillion dollar ministry and a university. David Edwin Harrell, Jr., author of Oral Roberts: An American Life, discusses Roberts' legacy.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And now, we mark the passing of a pioneering televangelist. Oral Roberts, who died today at age 91, was one of the first. He moved from revivals in the 1940s that packed thousands into the tent to a radio and television ministry that reached millions. And he founded Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.

In 1987, he made a famous appeal to followers. Roberts said if he didn't raise $8 million, God would call him home.

Mr. ORAL ROBERTS (Televangelist): I need some very quick money. I mean, I need it now. I'm desperate to turn this around. I need to turn it around enough so I'll know, when March comes, I won't be taken; I'll get to live.

SIEGEL: Well, we're joined now by David Edwin Harrell, who's the author of the biography "Oral Roberts: An American Life."

Welcome to the program, Mr. Harrell.

Mr. DAVID EDWIN HARRELL, JR. (Author, "Oral Roberts: An American Life"): Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: And first, how important a figure do you think in American religious life Oral Roberts was?

Mr. HARRELL: He's extremely important. He's one of the most important protestant figures of the 20th century because he did so much to move the Pentecostal message into the mainstream protestant churches and around the world.

SIEGEL: You were very much struck by Oral Roberts' personal life story. Where was he from?

Mr. HARRELL: He was from Oklahoma. He was born in a poor section of southern Oklahoma.

SIEGEL: Was it the medium that he used or the message that he promulgated that distinguished him ultimately?

Mr. HARRELL: Well, it was both. But he came along at a time when Pentecostalism was just about to explode out of a subculture that had been very isolated after World War II. And a group of independent, healing revivalists appealed first to that community and then outside that community. And Oral was just the best and the most successful of them.

SIEGEL: He was a faith healer who tried to tried to launch a medical school at Oral Roberts University. It seems contradictory.

Mr. HARRELL: Well, Pentecostals were always divided into two groups: some who believed that they should not consult doctors; and others who did consult doctors, and Oral was from that latter group.

SIEGEL: Who are the people whom he influenced? What do you think his legacy was in terms of other preachers?

Mr. HARRELL: Well, his legacy is that he changed religious television in the first place by first broadcasting his healing tent revivals, and then in 1968, going to Hollywood and hiring professional producers and starting primetime specials that included celebrity guests and competed with secular television. And that really introduced the modern electronic religious church.

SIEGEL: We heard a clip earlier of him from that 1987 episode: We need $8 million, or God's going to take me home. That struck certainly many of his critics as an unseemly mix of faith and money. How important was money to Oral Roberts' ministry?

Mr. HARRELL: Well, it was very important, particularly at that point because he was struggling to finish his medical school, which was, of course, a financial disaster. And he was quite anxious.

Oral doesn't say anything in those days that he hadn't said before. He just says it more shrilly. And he speaks charismatic language, which you have to understand, that is they understand it. And so - well, I was asked at the time, you know, what do you think will happen? And my answer was he'll get the money, which he did.

SIEGEL: In his presence, I gather, he was in another sense a charismatic figure.

Mr. HARRELL: He was. He was, of all of the Evangelists that I've written about; in many ways, the most personally engaging. He was a strong-willed man, but he had a streak of humility in him. And it was just something of an admirable story for a poor preacher's son in rural Oklahoma to go where he went.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Harrell, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. HARRELL: You bet.

SIEGEL: David Edwin Harrell, biographer of Oral Roberts, who died today at the age of 91.

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