Roberts was born in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, the fifth and youngest child of the Reverend Ellis Melvin Roberts and Claudius Priscilla Roberts (née Irwin) (d. 1974). According to an interview on Larry King Live, Irwin was of Cherokee descent. Roberts was a card-carrying member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Roberts began life in poverty and nearly died of tuberculosis at age 17. After finishing high school, Roberts studied for two years each at Oklahoma Baptist University and Phillips University. In 1938 he married a preacher’s daughter, Evelyn Lutman Fahnestock. Roberts became a traveling faith healer after ending his college studies without a degree. According to a TIME Magazine profile of 1972, Roberts originally made a name for himself with a large mobile tent “that sat 3,000 on metal folding chairs” where “he shouted at petitioners who did not respond to his healing.” 1947 came as a turning point. Up until that time Roberts had struggled as a part-time preacher in Oklahoma. But at the age of 29 Roberts claims he picked up his Bible and it fell open at the Third Epistle of John where verse two read: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Roberts decided immediately that it was all right to be rich. The next day, he said, he bought a Buick and God appeared, he said, telling him to heal the sick.
Roberts resigned his pastoral ministry with the Pentecostal Holiness Church to found Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association (OREA). He conducted evangelistic and faith healing crusades across America and around the world, including claiming he could raise the dead. Thousands of sick people would wait in line to stand before Oral Roberts so he could pray for them. He appeared as a guest speaker for hundreds of national and international meetings and conventions. Through the years, he conducted more than 300 crusades on six continents, and personally laid hands in prayer on more than 2 million people. He also ran direct mail campaigns of seed-faith, which appealed to poor Americans, often from ethnic minorities. At its peak in the early 1980s, Roberts was the leader of a $120 million-a-year organization employing 2,300 people. This spanned not only a university but also a medical school and hospital as well as buildings on 50 acres (200,000 m2) south of Tulsa valued at $500 million. Another part of the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, the Abundant Life Prayer Group (ALPG), was founded in 1958.
In 1963, he founded Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, stating he was obeying a command from God. The university was chartered during 1963 and received its first students in 1965. Students were required to sign an honor code pledging not to drink, smoke, or engage in premarital sexual activities. The Prayer Tower, opened in 1967, is located at the center of the campus. Roberts was a pioneer televangelist, and attracted a vast viewership. He began broadcasting by radio in 1947, and began broadcasting his revivals by television in 1954. His television ministry continued with The Abundant Life program reaching 80% of the United States by 1957, and quarterly Prime Time Specials from 1969 through 1980. In 1996, he founded Golden Eagle Broadcasting.
On March 17, 1968, Roberts and his wife were received as members of the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma by Dr. Finis Crutchfield, then pastor. The United Methodist Church offered more leniency in doctrinal and moral issues than the Pentecostalism. This granted Roberts some leeway, as it was expected that the strictness of the Pentecostal tradition may have impeded his rise in popularity. Before Roberts’ switch to Methodism, Crutchfield arranged a meeting between Roberts and Bishop William Angie Smith, at which the Bishop told Roberts, “We need you, but we need the Holy Spirit more than we need you and we’ve got to have the Holy Spirit in the Methodist Church.” Roberts became an elder in the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church. From 1968 through 1987, Roberts was a member of the United Methodist Church’s ministry. Roberts had a vast impact on the American Protestant community. According to one authority, in conservative Protestant culture, his ministry had an impact second only to Billy Graham. His divine healing ministry called for prayer to heal the whole person — body, mind and spirit. Many labeled him a faith healer, but he rejected this with the comment: “God heals — I don’t.” He played a major role in bringing American Pentecostal Christianity into the mainstream. Even though Roberts was often associated with the prosperity gospel and the faith movement because of his close doctrinal and personal ties with Word-Faith teachers, his abundant life teachings did not fully identify him with that movement.
In 1977, Roberts claimed to have had a vision from a 900-foot-tall Jesus who told him to build City of Faith Medical and Research Center, and the hospital would be a success. In 1980, Roberts said he had a vision which encouraged him to continue the construction of his City of Faith Medical and Research Center in Oklahoma, which opened in 1981. At the time, it was among the largest health facilities of its kind in the world and was intended to merge prayer and medicine in the healing process. The City of Faith operated for only eight years before closing in late 1989, but the importance of treating the whole person – spirit, mind, and body – was conveyed to many medical professionals. The Orthopedic Hospital of Oklahoma still operates on its premises. In 1983 Roberts said Jesus had appeared to him in person and commissioned him to find a cure for cancer. Roberts’ fundraising was controversial. In January 1987, during a fundraising drive, Roberts announced to a television audience that unless he raised $8 million by that March, God would “call him home.” However, the year before on Easter he had told a gathering at the Dallas Convention Center that God had instructed him to raise the money “by the end of the year” or he would die. Regardless of this new March deadline and the fact that he was still $4.5 million short of his goal, some were fearful that he was referring to suicide, given the impassioned pleas and tears that accompanied his statement. He raised $9.1 million. Later that year, he announced that God had raised the dead through Roberts’ ministry. Some of Roberts’ fundraising letters were written by Gene Ewing, who headed a business writing donation letters for other evangelicals such as Don Stewart and Robert Tilton. Roberts maintained his love of finery and one obituary claimed that even when times become hard, “he continued to wear his Italian silk suits, diamond rings and gold bracelets – airbrushed out by his staff on publicity pictures”.
He stirred up controversy when Time reported in 1987 that his son Richard Roberts claimed that he had seen his father raise a child from the dead. That year, the Bloom County comic strip recast its character Bill the Cat as a satirized televangelist, “Fundamentally Oral Bill.” In 1987 Time stated that he was “re-emphasizing faith healing and [is] reaching for his old-time constituency.” However, his income continued to decrease (from $88 million in 1980 to $55 million in 1986, according to the Tulsa Tribune) and his largely vacant City of Faith Medical Center continued to lose money. Harry McNevin said that in 1988 the ORU Board of Regents “rubber-stamped” the “use of millions in endowment money to buy a Beverly Hills property so that Oral Roberts could have a West Coast office and house”. In addition, he said a country club membership was purchased for the Roberts’ home. The lavish expenses led to McNevin’s resignation from the Board. In 1988, Oral Roberts and his son Richard were sued for $15 million in federal court by patients at City of Faith Medical Center, claiming the two were frauds who did not visit or heal patients in the hospital.
His organizations were also affected by scandals involving other televangelists and the City of Faith hospital was forced to close in 1989 after losing money. Roberts was forced to respond with the sale of his holiday homes in Palm Springs and Beverly Hills as well as three of his Mercedes cars. Oral Roberts’ son Richard Roberts resigned from the presidency of ORU on November 23, 2007 after being named as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging improper use of university funds for political and personal purposes, and improper use of university resources. The university was given a donation of $8 million by entrepreneur Mart Green, and although the lawsuit was still in process, the school submitted to an outside audit, and with a good report an additional $62 million was given by Green. Oral Roberts continued in his role as ORU chancellor, helping in the leadership of ORU along with Billy Joe Daugherty, who was named as the executive regent to assume administrative responsibilities of the Office of the President by the ORU Board of Regents. Oral Roberts continued as the ORU chancellor until his death, but in 2009 eleven months before his death, handed over the leadership of ORU to its incoming president, Mark Rutland. Even though Roberts’ prosperous lifestyle, unorthodox fund-raising techniques, and the expanse of his organizations raised criticism and controversy, there was no credible evidence of malfeasance while he was in charge, he did not have sex-and-money scandals like some other televangelists, and he was not named among the six prosperity teachers in the financial investigations launched by U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) in 2007. The Oklahoma Senate adopted a resolution honoring the life of Oral Roberts, and he accepted this honor in 2009 at the age of 91, seven months before his death. The Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters (OAB) elected Roberts to the OAB Hall of Fame one month before his death.
Roberts was married to Evelyn Lutman Fahnestock (1917-2005) for 66 years from December 25, 1938 until her death from a fall at the age of 88. Their daughter Rebecca Nash died in an airplane crash on February 11, 1977 with her husband, businessman Marshall Nash. Their elder son, Ronald Roberts, committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart on June 10, 1982, five months after receiving a court order to undergo counseling at a drug treatment center and six months after coming out as gay. The other two Roberts children are son Richard, an evangelist and former president of Oral Roberts University (ORU), and daughter Roberta Potts, an attorney. Oral Roberts died on December 15, 2009 at the age of 91. He had been “semi-retired” and living in Newport Beach, California. According to a 1987 article in the The New York Review of Books by Martin Gardner, the “most accurate and best documented [biography] is Oral Roberts: An American Life, an objective study by David Edwin Harrell Jr., a historian at Auburn University. Two out-of-print books take a more critical stance: James Morris’ The Preachers (St. Martin’s Press, 1973) and Jerry Sholes’ Give Me That Prime-Time Religion (Hawthorn, 1979).”
- January, 24, 1918
- Pontotoc County, Oklahoma
- December, 15, 2009
- Newport Beach, California
Cause of Death
- complications from pneumonia
- Memorial Park Cemetery
- Tulsa, Oklahoma