Childhood & Early Life
Born on January 24, 1918, in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, Oral Roberts was the son of Reverend Ellis Melvin Roberts and Claudia Priscilla Roberts (née Irwin). He had four older siblings.
Roberts was of part Cherokee descent and carried a membership card of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. His family was impoverished, and when he was 17 years old, he almost lost his life due to tuberculosis.
After obtaining a high-school diploma, he attended Oklahoma Baptist University and Phillips University for two years each. He eventually left his studies to adopt the life of a traveling faith healer.
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In 1945, Oral Roberts left his pastorate in Shawnee, Oklahoma to organise revivals in his locality. However, during his tenure as the minister in a North Carolina camp meeting in the late summer of 1945, Roberts was offered the position of the pastor of a small, eighty-member church in Toccoa, Georgia. After requesting the man who offered him the job to pray with him about it, he agreed.
His service as the pastor in Toccoa was short; it lasted less than a year. However, it had long-term effects on his career. Roberts healed two people during his stay there.
In 1947, he experienced certain drastic changes in his life. He set up the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association (OREA) and embarked on an evangelistic and faith healing crusade around the country and all over the world.
In November 1947, he launched the monthly magazine ‘Healing Waters’ in order to spread the information about his meetings. Thousands of people with various illnesses lined up before him so he could offer a prayer for them. Throughout his career, he held over 300 crusades on six continents and personally touched more than two million people in prayer.
Roberts ran direct mail campaigns of seed-faith, which was aimed at impoverished Americans, especially from ethnic minorities. In the 1980s, the organization was at the height of its prominence with a $120 million annual revenue and 2,300 employees. They had set up, among other things, a hospital, a university, and a medical school on a 50-acre plot south of Tulsa.
Another branch of the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, the Abundant Life Prayer Group (ALPG), was established in 1958. In 1963, he set up Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ostensibly on God’s command.
In 1947, he aired his first radio broadcast. He first appeared on TV in 1954. By 1957, his television program ‘The Abundant Life’ was being watched by 80% of the American population. They also broadcast quarterly Prime Time Specials between 1969 and 1980. In 1996, he set up Golden Eagle Broadcasting.
Oral Roberts and his wife were made members of the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by Dr. Finis Crutchfield, who was serving as a pastor at the time. This church was much more forgiving in doctrinal and moral issues than the Pentecostal Holiness Church.
Later, he was appointed an elder of the UMC. He remained associated with the church till 1987. After an alleged vision of a 900-feet-tall Jesus, Roberts set up City of Faith Medical and Research Center, which became operational in 1981.
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His methods of fundraising garnered controversy. During a televised fundraising drive in January 1987, he declared that God was going to “call him home” if he failed to raise $8 million by March. In the previous year, however, he had said that he would accumulate the money “by the end of the year” or his death would occur. Many people feared that he was contemplating suicide, and it prompted Florida dog track owner Jerry Collins to donate $1.3 million. In total, Roberts accumulated $9.1 million.
Roberts maintained a luxurious lifestyle. He had Italian silk suits, diamond rings and gold bracelets. He became the subject of another controversy when his son Richard asserted that Roberts had brought back a child from death.
In 1988, both Richard and Roberts faced a $15 million lawsuit in federal court from patients at City of Faith Medical Center. According to these patients, the two were swindlers who did not come to perform healing on the patients while they were in the hospital.
His organisations also suffered when other televangelists became involved in controversies. In 1989, the City of Faith hospital was shut down due to poor turnover. Richard was forced to submit his resignation from the presidency of ORU on November 23, 2007, after he was sued for inappropriate use of university funds for political and personal matters and inappropriate use of university assets.
Roberts continued being the ORU chancellor, supporting the leadership of ORU along with Billy Joe Daugherty, who was appointed the executive regent and took over the duties of the Office of the President by the ORU Board of Regents.
Roberts remained the ORU chancellor until he passed away in 2009. However, about a year prior to his death, he transferred the leadership to the man who would succeed Richard as president, Mark Rutland.
In mid-2009, the Oklahoma Senate adopted a written motion to celebrate the life of Oral Roberts. Roberts received this prestigious accolade at the age of 91. A month prior to his death, he was inducted into the OAB Hall of Fame.
Family & Personal Life
On December 25, 1938, Oral Roberts exchanged wedding vows with Evelyn Lutman Fahnestock. Their marriage lasted 66 years until her death on May 4, 2005. The couple had four children together, Richard Roberts, Roberta Potts, Rebecca Roberts, and Ronald Roberts.
Rebecca was killed in an aeroplane crash on February 11, 1977. Ronald committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart in 1982. Six months before his suicide, he had come out as gay. Five months before he died, he was ordered by a court to undergo counselling at a drug treatment centre.