Roberts heard a voice:“Son, I am going to heal you, and you will take My power to your generation.”
Claudius Roberts dedicated her son, Oral, to God before his birth in rural Oklahoma early last century. While pregnant, she went to pray for a neighbor’s child who was stricken with pneumonia. Battling a fierce thunderstorm as she crossed a field and crawled through barbed wire, she told God if He would heal her neighbor’s son, she would give Him her soon-to-be-born child.
When Granville Oral Roberts was born to her on Jan. 24, 1918, he survived a raging flu epidemic that killed more people than World War I. Later, as a teenager with a severe stuttering problem, he almost died of a respiratory illness.
His mother prophesied God would release his tongue and that he would speak to multitudes. Then, in July 1935, after suffering with tuberculosis for 163 days, he was healed of both the TB and the stuttering through the ministry of an unknown evangelist, George W. Moncey.
En route to the meeting, Roberts heard a voice that he believed was God’s say: “Son, I am going to heal you, and you are to take My healing power to your generation. You are to build Me a university and build it on My authority and the Holy Spirit.”
Roberts would go on to preach to millions and lay hands on 1.5 million people for healing. Before his life ended on December 15, at age 91, he had written more than 120 books, pioneered television evangelism, spread the doctrine of biblical prosperity and founded the university that bears his name. Christian historians have placed him alongside Billy Graham, William Seymour, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II as a spiritual giant of the 20th century.
“He’s one of the most significant figures in American religious history,” says Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan. “I think he planted the seeds publicly of what became the charismatic renewal after 1960, because the American public first saw Pentecostalism in their living rooms through his televised tent crusades.”
Roberts’ testimony of miracles became the basis of his upbeat theology. He wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Expect a Miracle: “Some believe in miracles; some don’t. Take miracles out of Oral Roberts’ life and I’d be dead.”
His father, Ellis, was a poor farmer who also picked cotton while preaching in Pentecostal Holiness churches. Roberts credited his parents with instilling faith in him. Hearing their early-morning prayers convinced him that he could be so close to Jesus that he could talk to Him.
Strong faith was necessary after Roberts set out to lead his first revival at age 23 with his wife, Evelyn. Lodging in the home of a church member, he shivered nightly for three weeks as subfreezing winds howled through the plank walls.
Over the next six years he bounced between evangelizing and pastoring, settling on evangelism after a startling experience in Toccoa, Georgia. A deacon at his church was injured when a car motor fell on his foot. When Roberts prayed for him, the pain vanished and the man’s crushed toes returned to normal.
Roberts would pastor one last time—at a church in Oklahoma where he experienced miracles of provision that laid the groundwork for his teachings on prosperity. Forced to live with another family, he donated his $55 weekly salary as “seed” money for a parsonage. Early the next day, a farmer gave him $400. Soon after, a Buick dealer gave him a new car.
A year later, Roberts moved to Tulsa and started the evangelistic ministry that later bore his name. Wherever he went across the world, he was confident that when he felt God’s power come on his right hand, people would be healed.
The early years were not easy. He often hauled his family’s furniture on the roof of his car during their frequent moves. While he was on a preaching tour in Virginia in the 1940s, he sometimes took odd jobs, such as painting houses or hanging wallpaper, to make $5 a day.
“That’s how he kept body and soul together,” Synan says.
But Roberts’ fortunes would change in the 1950s after he seized on the potential of radio and television for spreading his healing message. By 1955 his program was on 800 radio stations and 200 TV outlets. Within two more years 1,000 letters a day flooded his ministry. Two years after that he moved his ministry into a seven-story building in downtown Tulsa after outgrowing two previous spaces.
Roberts’ heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s after he pioneered the concept of a multimedia ministry. The circulation of his monthly magazine, Abundant Life, reached as high as 1 million. His monthly spiritual column appeared in 674 newspapers. For almost 30 years his Sunday morning TV program was the No. 1 syndicated religious program in the country—reaching 64 million viewers at its peak.
Though Roberts would be known as a healing evangelist throughout his career, his lasting recognition came because of the university he founded in Tulsa in 1965 (with just 303 students). When he stepped down as president of Oral Roberts University (ORU) in 1993, Roberts remained as its chancellor and a lifetime trustee.
Over the years, the student body grew exponentially while the number of undergraduate majors expanded from 24 to 63. By the spring of 2008, ORU’s rolls included 37,000 alumni and approximately 23,000 graduates.
Each of those students passed through the entrance of the school where its most famous landmark now stands—a 60-foot bronze sculpture of praying hands. It symbolizes Roberts’ belief in the power of audacious faith.
Former student and longtime professor Ralph Fagin, who assumed the interim presidency after Richard Roberts resigned in November 2007, fondly recalls the statement of faith on the sign the first president kept on his desk: “Make no small plans here.”
“The Living Bible says, ‘The godly grow trees that bear life-giving fruit,’” Fagin says. “Oral grew lots of trees. His vision, his message—he would plant them in your soul. His vision is still alive in every student.
One of the school’s less-publicized aspects is its ethnic diversity. Because Roberts was one-eighth Cherokee he was committed to crossing racial boundaries long before it was popular. Though he drew considerable heat for allowing interracial crowds to mingle freely at his meetings in the 1950s, he never backed down.
The fruit of that decision is reflected today in ORU’s enrollment, which in the spring of 2008 included 18.2 percent African-American students and an equivalent number of Indian, Asian, Hispanic or other backgrounds.
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