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Religion: Raising Eyebrows and the Dead

4 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

So far, 1987 has been a checkered and chastening year for the Rev. Oral Roberts, 69. Last January the Tulsa-based TV evangelist announced that if he did not receive $8 million from donors by March 31, God would “call me home.” The money was raised, but Roberts’ dramatic ultimatum provoked widespread derision. He drew additional gibes by declaring that his wife Evelyn had come to his rescue when the devil visited his bedroom and tried to strangle him. Then, in May, Roberts mailed 1 million packets of “healing” water to followers, advising them to use it to “anoint your billfold” to solve money problems and “anoint your body” to allay physical ills.

The controversy produced by those episodes, however, has been overshadowed by Roberts’ latest extraordinary claim: God has used him to raise the dead. Before an audience of 6,000 at Oral Roberts University, the evangelist said, “I’ve had to stop a sermon, go back and raise a dead person,” adding good-naturedly, “It did improve my altar call that night.” Roberts provided no details. Later his son Richard, 38, expanded the revivification claim, asserting that in 50 or 60 cases Oral and other ministers had raised the dead.

Then Oral began to hedge. During a TV appearance with a physician from his university’s medical school, Roberts explained that a baby he had raised “years ago” appeared to have died during a service. “Only a doctor could say” whether the infant was “clinically dead,” he said, but “the mother thought it was dead, I thought it was dead, the crowd thought it was dead.”

The speech that started it all was delivered to an emotional throng of Charismatics and Pentecostals whom Roberts is trying to unite into some sort of loose coalition. Defending himself on money questions in the wake of the PTL scandal, Roberts said he had raised more than $1 billion during his career and “kept less than one-tenth of 1%” for himself.

“My accountability is the same thing as Jesus’,” Roberts said. When John the Baptist asked Jesus through intermediaries for his credentials, Roberts was indicating, Jesus replied that he had healed the sick and raised the dead. Roberts also said that in the “world to come,” he expected to return to Tulsa. He added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if God did not bring me back to these 400 acres of Oral Roberts University he has built and would let me reign over these 400 acres.”

Pentecostals can cite Scripture to support miraculous claims. Three raisings of the dead are reported in the Old Testament; the New Testament tells of three raisings by Jesus and one each by Peter and Paul. (The “resurrection” of Jesus is distinguished from the “raising” of persons who eventually died again.) Nonetheless, Pentecostal Scholar Russell Spittler of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., protests that “miracles are better left to speak for themselves — Oral is the last person who should mention it.”

David Edwin Harrell Jr. of the University of Alabama in Birmingham, author of a Roberts biography, notes that in the 1950s, raisings were claimed by several revivalists. To Harrell, the surprise is not that Roberts is making the claim but that he did not do so before.

Roberts, says Harrell, had a “flirtation with respectability in the 1960s and 1970s,” when he left the faith-healing circuit to build Oral Roberts University, of which he is president. The 4,650-student campus includes an 11,500-seat arena and schools of medicine, theology, business, education and nursing. The overall complex, with its 60-story clinic and other medical buildings, retirement apartments and two visitors’ centers, is valued at $500 million.

Roberts seems to be instinctively returning to his roots in revival-tent Pentecostalism. He is re-emphasizing faith healing and is reaching for his old-time constituency as his income slides (from $88 million in 1980 to $55 million in 1986, according to the Tulsa Tribune) and his largely vacant City of Faith Medical Center continues to lose money ($10.7 million last year). Roberts has quietly tried to sell or lease the medical complex, and is negotiating with a subsidiary of National Medical Enterprises to manage it.

As part of his move toward the mainstream, Roberts in 1968 left the Pentecostal Holiness Church and joined the United Methodist Church. Lately, the Methodists have become increasingly vexed about Roberts’ drift toward eccentricity and sensationalism. The regional Methodist unit in Oklahoma has asked the church’s Judicial Council to decide who should supervise a “local elder” such as Roberts — the regional unit or the local congregation. Anti- Roberts rumblings are spreading across the denomination. Last month delegates representing 104,000 Methodists in western Tennessee condemned his fund raising as “offensive, inappropriate and objectionable” and “harmful to the reputation” of the United Methodist Church.

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