Death of a Faith Healer: Oral Roberts

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Oral Roberts on Feb. 7, 1958

Twenty-two years ago, the evangelist Oral Roberts launched an appeal for money so that graduates of the Tulsa, Okla., medical school he founded at Oral Roberts University (ORU) could serve in overseas missions. People were urged to send at least $100 apiece within three months to help reach a goal of $4.5 million. Then Roberts dropped a bombshell. If donations fell short, said the preacher, God would strike him down. "I'm asking you to help extend my life," he said. "We're at the point where God could call Oral Roberts home in March." TIME's story on the incident was headlined, "Your Money or His Life."

Roberts was finally called to meet his alleged maker this week, more than two decades after that melodramatic appeal. He was 91 and died after complications from a fall in his home in California, where he lived in retirement. In the interim, the faith-healing evangelist saw his once enormous religious empire crumble and his son Richard resign as head of ORU in 2007 after allegations of financial malfeasance — a scandal that reportedly left the school with more than $50 million in debt. (Another son, Ronald, committed suicide amid drug rehabilitation in 1982.)

Roberts' university and medical school and the even more ambitious City of Faith medical center he envisioned were institutions that could have transformed him into more than another theatrical evangelist, a descendant of the traveling preachers who made questionable careers saving souls and healing ills while spouting spiritual quackery for people desperate for comfort and accessible transcendence. In 1987, TIME reported that the medical center, which cost $250 million to build, was draining Roberts of $30 million to $40 million a year. In his 1995 autobiography, Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry, Roberts revealed that he had undertaken his unorthodox $8 million "Call Me Home" fund drive because God had told him to keep the center afloat or be prepared to perish. There is some irony in the fact that this last-ditch bid for mainstream credibility provided the very ammunition used by his critics to relegate him permanently to the Christian fringe. Despite the cash infusion, City of Faith closed in 1989.

Roberts, however, continued to make non-medical claims. Before an audience of 6,000 at ORU in 1987, 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 expanded the revivification claim, asserting that in 50 or 60 cases, Oral and other ministers had raised the dead. It was, perhaps, not that great a leap from one of the original miracles that helped make Roberts' name in the 1950s: he claimed to have prayed with a crippled 10-year-old boy in Roanoke, Va., and, as the story goes, the boy's withered leg — 21 inches short — grew back to normal overnight.

Born in Oklahoma, Roberts had a disarmingly folksy style. He wrote about his grim days as a preacher's son ("I felt quite sure that Jesus lived with us because Mamma and Papa talked to him so much") and a life that had all the hagiographic basics in it, including his mother's vow to give her child to God in return for the healing of a neighbor's child, and his bloody bout with tuberculosis and miraculous cure. "Son, I am going to heal you," God reportedly told him, "and you are going to take the message of my healing power to your generation."

Despite the plethora of miracles, Roberts was no match for the charismatic, mainstream electricity generated by his contemporary Billy Graham. There was always the reek of snake oil to Roberts' piety, hence his long attempt at seeking respectability: joining the United Methodist Church in the late 1960s and giving up the rootlessness of his evangelism. The Methodists, however, would later condemn his methods. For a while, his hospital and academic empire helped make him a pillar of Tulsa society. But the kind of faith he espoused was made of constant appeals to his audience to prove it to him — at $100 or less a pop. His old-time religion crumbled because it was built with small change.