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Oral Roberts

Champion of God's Healing Power

Oral Roberts

by Dennis Pollock

In his day, the great Babe Ruth hit more home runs than anyone else. He also struck out more times than anyone. A parallel might be made with the ministry of Oral Roberts. Always controversial, loved by many and despised by many, Oral Roberts hit some mammoth home runs in the spiritual realm, but was associated with some significant and highly visible strikeouts as well.

No one would ever have guessed that Oral Roberts would achieve any great measure of fame or success had they seen him in his childhood years. He stuttered terribly and lived as part of a loving but poverty-stricken family. His father was an evangelist who loved to study his Bible, but seemed to show little interest in ever lifting his family above their lifestyle of scarcity and lack. For many ministers and evangelicals in those days in that region of rural Oklahoma, poverty was a badge of spirituality. If you lived too comfortably you must be doing something wrong – a theological view Oral would come to despise with a vengeance.

As he reached his teen years Oral began to chafe at what he saw as his parents' hyper-religiosity, and when his high school basketball coach offered him a chance to live with him in a neighboring community and play for their team, he jumped at the opportunity. Oral quickly threw off the shackles of fundamentalist Christianity and plunged into all the pleasures and vices available to young people whose hormones and emotions exceeded their prudence. It didn't last long.

Tuberculosis!

At the age of 17 Oral was playing in a high school basketball tournament when suddenly he collapsed. It turned out he had tuberculosis, often a death sentence in those days. He was taken home barely conscious, hemorrhaging in both lungs, to either recover or more likely to die. For several months Oral lay in bed becoming progressively weaker and thinner. Well meaning Christians would come by and pray for him, but usually it was not for his healing, but that God would give him patience to endure the ordeal.

As it seemed more and more evident that Oral would surely die, his father became increasingly concerned about the state of his soul. He knew his son had not been born again and he could not face the prospect of young Oral passing out of this life without Christ. Finally, out of desperation, he went into the room of his dying son and told him he was going to pray and continue to pray until Oral would give his heart to Jesus. How long it took, Oral never said, but his father prayed on and on, calling on the Lord to save his rebellious son. At one point Oral looked over at his father and was moved by the tears rolling down his cheeks. Then something supernatural happened. As he continued looking at his dad, it seemed that his father's features faded and somehow he was seeing Jesus' face praying for him. A surge of the love and power of God flooded Oral's mind and body and he found himself wanting Jesus desperately. He believed on Jesus and surrendered his heart to the Savior there and then and became a new creature in Christ.

Oral Roberts had been born again. His spirit was renewed but his body was still that same emaciated, tuberculosis-ridden, 120 pound body it had been before his salvation. He was still dying. But God had other plans for young Oral. A few days later his older brother Elmer showed up at the house and announced, "Oral get, up. There's a man praying for the sick in Ada, and I've come to take you there." Oral was too weak to walk, and so they carried him to the back seat of the car and laid him down. As they drove, Elmer spoke enthusiastically about the healings that were happening in this evangelist's meetings. But suddenly Oral stopped hearing his brother's voice. Things became totally quiet and then he heard another voice, a voice he had never heard before. God spoke to him and told him, "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."

Healed

Oral believed what he heard. That evening the evangelist prayed for many sick people, and somehow Oral was the last one to receive prayer. Actually it wasn't really a prayer – it was a command. Hearing of Oral's condition, the evangelist put his hands on the young man's head and shouted, "Thou foul, tormenting disease of tuberculosis, come out of this boy in the name of Jesus of Nazareth!" The healing took place instantly. Immediately Oral could breathe freely and deeply, without coughing and spitting up blood. In fact Oral was so thoroughly healed that he would live for 74 more years – a pretty hefty extension of life. On top of his healing from tuberculosis, his stuttering and stammering came to an abrupt halt. The young man was being equipped for a lifetime of ministry.

Whereas before Oral would run from preachers and churches, now he could not get enough of them. One thing he possessed in abundance even in his before-Christ days was ambition. From cradle to grave Oral always had a white-hot ambition to make something of himself. Even in the midst of his childhood stuttering and poverty, he had dreamed of becoming a governor. Now, with Jesus Christ in his life, his dreams and ambitions were transformed toward ministry success. As he reached adulthood he was ordained in the Pentecostal Holiness denomination. Marrying a pretty girl named Evelyn, he set out to conquer the world for Christ, first in evangelism and then in pastoring several small churches.

Desperation

He saw success in his evangelistic meetings and in his pastoring assignments, but it wasn't the kind of success his heart envisioned. He was ministering to hundreds, but he yearned to make an impact upon hundreds of thousands if not millions. And more significantly, he had heard God's voice telling him that he would take His healing power to his generation, but it didn't seem to be happening. He had preached on healing, prayed for the sick, studied the Scriptures about healing, but people were rarely getting those dramatic healing miracles that were so prominent in the book of Acts and in the ministry of Jesus.

Finally the young pastor became desperate. Feeling led to read through the gospels and the book of Acts three times in three months on his knees, and fasting frequently he sought for a breakthrough in his ministry. So serious was he in his desperation and fasting that he lost 40 pounds and went from a size 46 suit to a 38. At last he got on his face before God and told the Lord he was not going to get up until he heard from Him. He prayed until he could pray no longer and then lay on the floor silently waiting for a word from the Lord. After a season of quietness the voice came to him: "From this hour you shall have My power to heal the sick and to cast out demons."

The Test

Oral was excited but he needed to test this out in very practical terms. He decided to hold a healing service in an auditorium. He was ready to resign his pastorate and launch out in an evangelistic / healing itinerant ministry, but he wanted to make absolutely sure God was on board. He told the Lord he would resign his church and begin this ministry if He would do three things for him at this first citywide healing service. First, he asked God to bring 1,000 people to the meeting. Considering he had been pastoring a church of 175 this was quite a stretch. Secondly he asked that the $160 spent in renting the auditorium be covered by the offering that would be taken. Thirdly he asked that someone would get a dramatic and tangible healing in the service, one that everyone would be able to observe. Something more than a headache going away or a stomach pain improving. If God should fail to provide any of these three requests he planned to walk away from the ministry and become a salesman.

As he showed up for the healing service, the building's caretaker was there to meet him and told him that over 1200 people were present. So far so good. After the offering was taken he had instructed one of the ushers to bring him a slip of paper with the amount of the offering written on it. It turned out to be $163, three dollars over the auditorium rental amount. That left only the major, dramatic healing to be accomplished. After he preached, he began praying for the sick who eagerly flooded forward. One woman showed him her gnarled, crippled right hand. He touched her hand and commanded, "In Jesus' name, be healed!" The woman began flexing her fingers and found that she could move them freely for the first time in thirty-eight years. This was clearly a miracle; one that he and the audience immediately recognized as such. His third request had been granted.

Itinerant Evangelist

With a burning heart and a driving passion Oral Roberts launched out into an itinerant evangelistic and healing ministry. In a very short time he became a national figure. He purchased a tent that would seat many thousands of people and traversed the nation. He did not announce "words of knowledge" to the crowds and have the people who felt healed to come up and give testimony as many do today. Instead He would have the people line up and come before him, where he would pray individually for each one, with the microphone booming out the conversations to the entire audience. Of course, many were not healed instantly, and Oral had no problem with the audience recognizing it. But in those cases where a healing had clearly taken place, it was positively electrifying. Over his lifetime it is estimated that Oral laid his hands and prayed for around one and a half million people – to such an extent that his shoulders were permanently weakened under the strain of holding his arms up for such long periods of time. In time he began putting selected portions of his crusades on television and became more popular still. Even President Kennedy told Oral that he had watched and enjoyed his television program. The former Beatle John Lennon wrote Roberts a letter and told how much he enjoyed his television programs, apologizing for his much publicized comment that the Beatles were more popular than Christ.

Oral was not the only healing evangelist in those days. In fact there was a healing revival that seemed to sweep the nation beginning from the late 1940's, and continuing into the early 60's. Many other evangelists were also seeing some amazing healings and large crowds, but the wear and tear of this intense ministry, both physical and psychological, were wiping them out like flies. Few of them ever made it to old age. Scandals swirled around many. One prominent evangelist was found dead in his hotel, reportedly surrounded by large numbers of pill and liquor bottles.

Oral seemed to have two distinctives that many of the others lacked. First, throughout the long history of his ministry there were no credible reports of scandal: sexual, financial, or otherwise. Say what you will about his decisions, his fund-raising letters, and some of the projects he felt were from the Lord, he managed to keep his nose clean over the course of nearly seventy years of ministry, no small feat. Secondly Oral had the ability to adapt to changing conditions like few ministers possess. One example is his tent revival ministry. What worked great in 1953 was just not going to succeed in 1965. Oral recognized this and turned to television ministry and the building of Oral Roberts University. The tent was laid to rest. As he did less evangelistic meetings, he wrote more books, ministered on television, and became a prominent elder statesman in the body of Christ.

The City of Faith

Sadly Oral Roberts’ ministry is remembered by many, not for the good he did or the people he helped, but for what many believe to be a couple of monumental errors made in the 1980’s. Both had to do with the “City of Faith” medical center he felt led to build.

It began with what most Christians would believe to be a noble and reasonable starting point: the desire to merge medicine and doctors with faith and prayer. To fully understand Oral’s passion, you must remember that he cut his teeth, ministry-wise, during the healing revival of the 1940’s and 50’s. He was one of many different “healing evangelists” who dotted the American landscape in those days, albeit the most prominent. Many of these evangelists held to divine healing with such fanaticism that they disdained all need for doctors. They gave you the impression that if you went to the doctor or hospital for your sickness, your faith was seriously lacking. Oral never felt that way. He saw divine healing and the medical profession as complementary, and recognized God as the ultimate healer whether His means was a miracle or a surgery.

In the late 70’s Oral felt it was God’s time for him to add a medical school to ORU, and build a hospital to go along with it. Oral being Oral, this would be no small three-story hospital building, such as you might find in small towns throughout the nation. He envisioned a mammoth three-tower structure that would be the Mayo Clinic of the Midwest. It would take hundreds of millions of dollars to accomplish this, but that was no problem. Until now Oral Roberts had succeeded in nearly every major endeavor, often against the advice of more cautious associates.

To make a long story short, he did indeed raise the money to build this City of Faith, but from the beginning it was a terrible financial drain on his ministry, losing millions of dollars every year. As much as his partners faithfully donated to his calls for “seed-faith” giving, they could not keep up. By 1986 they were eight million dollars behind. Oral became desperate, facing a financial disaster that would become the talk of the nation. He became convinced that the Lord was telling him that his life was bound up with this project, and that if he did not raise the eight million dollars, his life and ministry would end. And then he made what many felt was just as bad a blunder as starting the project in the first place – he publicly announced that if this shortfall was not met within a few months, his life would come to an end and God would call him home.

He went up to the ORU prayer tower and began to pray, waiting for the Lord and His people to respond. What he never imagined was the overwhelming howl of the skeptics, both within the church and without. It appeared as though Oral was using some form of life and death ultimatum to squeeze money out of the naïve and gullible. Even among the television preachers there was skepticism. One prominent evangelist put it this way: “We have a dear brother who has locked himself up in a tower and told us that if he doesn’t get a certain amount of money within three months, God’s going to kill him!”

The reputation Oral had built over years of ministering with integrity and compassion was shattered, irreversibly in the minds of many. The money they needed did come in within the prescribed time frame, but the damage had been done. To make matters worse, within a year they faced another serious shortfall, and within two more years it became clear even to Oral that the City of Faith must be closed. By the fall of 1989 the last patient left the hospital and the City of Faith was no more. A project costing several hundred million dollars, mostly financed by middle class Americans, had nothing to show for it.

Many Americans, including many Christians, were soured on Oral Roberts from that point on. Although deeply stung, Oral continued to minister through television and in conferences. Oral Roberts University continued producing outstanding teachers and preachers who fanned out over the globe to bless the nations. From what I have learned of Oral Roberts I am convinced that his announcement that God was going to call Him home was no gimmick designed to manipulate people to give. His life was so wrapped up with the idea of the medical center, it was probably pretty natural for him to feel that a failure in this area surely must mean the end of his life and ministry. That being said, it seems highly unlikely to me that the Lord would tell one of his servants, “Raise so much money or you die!” But regardless of where this idea came from, it was absolutely disastrous for him to declare it publicly. Far better for him to keep it to himself, give himself to prayer, and wait to see which way God's winds would blow.

Chosen Instrument

Oral Roberts had his share of “strikeouts” and was not without some significant flaws, as even his daughter, Roberta Potts admits in her loving memoir of her father, My Dad, Oral Roberts. He had a quick temper, he was prone to depression, and seemed to feel at one point that nothing he touched could ever fail. Of course the City of Faith debacle cured him of that. And yet we miss much if we write this man off as a buffoon. He was one of God’s chosen instruments to bring the body of Christ to the knowledge that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His calling was genuine and his passion for the healing of the sick was deep-rooted. He gave himself tirelessly for the work of Christ. From being a stuttering, timid, poor little boy growing up in the Depression, he rose up to touch the lives of millions, from presidents and rock stars to farmers and truck drivers.

Let us not be too quick to judge Oral Roberts for his failures. After all, we do not remember Babe Ruth for his strikeouts, but for his home runs.

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