America’s first televangelist represented the mainstreaming of Pentecostalism — and he avoided the pitfalls that did in some of his contemporaries.
Oral Roberts died peacefully at age 91 earlier this month, with most Americans having forgotten the Pentecostal preacher from Oklahoma who arguably became the nation’s first prominent televangelist. Billy Graham was his contemporary, though Graham never relied as exclusively on television. And where Baptist Graham was stolid, Pentecostal Roberts was flamboyant. Often clad in silk suits and gold jewelry, Robert conducted faith healings, promoted an early version of the prosperity Gospel, founded a university, briefly founded a hospital, and ran an over $100 million education and ministry empire whose television broadcast went globally to millions.
As a child in the early 1970s, I often viewed his flashy Sunday morning broadcast when nothing else was on but cooking shows and art programs. The music, and preaching, were schmaltzy and often spectacular, far more so than the tame Methodist Sunday school to which I was dispatched later in the morning. The program’s theme song, performed by a team of swaying, white-suited entertainers, was the wonderfully upbeat “Greater Is He,” whose refrain was:
God is greater than the wisest man;
Greater than the power of sin;
Greater than the gates of Hell;
Greater than any drunk can tell;
Greater than the richest king;
Greater than anything!
Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world.
My younger brother sang the song as “God is greater than Adam 12,” referring to the popular police program. You can watch one version of it here, with lead singers Richard Roberts, Oral’s son, and Richard’s wife Patti, who later divorced Richard and wrote an embittered tell-all book about the family. Unsurprisingly sharing the stage in this version are Johnny and June Cash, as well as Oral himself. Amid all the 1970s era gloom, apparent even to children, the Roberts’ blast of upbeat Christian showmanship, however garish, was much welcome.
Always controversial, Roberts was for decades a sort of cultural icon. He represented the mainstreaming of rising Pentecostalism, which previously was often relegated to the south side of the tracks. Pentecostalism, along with charismatic Christianity, is now by some estimates the fastest growing religious movement in the world, perhaps involving 500 million. Its appeal to the passions, adamant faith in the supernatural, and unapologetic boisterousness were shocking in the mid-20th century, when staid, and mostly liberal, Mainline Protestants still dominated America’s religious life.
Starting his broadcasts in the 1950s, Roberts opened the way to other televangelists of varying degrees of integrity and effectiveness. Roberts’ ministry had peaked by the early 1980s, if not before, when he became overshadowed by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and others. The energy and populism behind televangelism helped feed conservative Christian political activism, which Falwell helped coalesce in the late 1970s with the Moral Majority. Robertson’s run for the presidency in 1988 was perhaps the zenith of televangelism, or perhaps the initial afterglow.
Televangelism’s implosion began partly with Roberts the year before Robertson’s run, when Roberts told his television audience that God would “take him home” if $8 million were not raised for Roberts’ ministry. Roberts isolated himself in the prayer tower of Oral Roberts University pending the fundraising’s conclusion. The appeal was successful, with $9 million raised, but widely mocked and discrediting to Roberts. Swaggart referred to Roberts as a “dear brother” who was claiming God was going to “kill him” if enough checks did not clear.
Almost concurrent with Roberts’ prayer tower spectacle was the self-immolation of Jim Bakker, another Pentecostal televangelist who founded a spectacularly absurd Christian theme park in North Carolina. Exposure of Bakker’s pre-broadcast tryst with a young secretary compelled Bakker to temporarily turn his ministry over to Falwell, himself an arch Baptist not accustomed to Pentecostal drama. Falwell assembled a new board for Bakker’s Praise the Lord (PTL) empire that included former Reagan Energy Secretary James Watt and former actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. But upon discovering Bakker’s widespread financial fraud and allegedly numerous sexual infidelities, Falwell denounced Bakker as the “greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.”
Swaggart had long denounced Bakker’s theme park and cheesy PTL Club program, where wife Tammy Faye was infamous for her copious tears and melting mascara. Himself a spell-binding entertainer who could fill stadiums around the world, Swaggart was hailed by no less than Dan Rather as America’s best orator. A cousin and close friend to both rock and roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis and country music star Mickey Gilley, Swaggart had a rich singing voice no less compelling, and he deservedly sold millions of Gospel albums. He also had an unfortunate addiction to pornography and to unconsummated visits with prostitutes, with whom he publicly was exposed not once but twice, first in 1988, and later in 1991. Swaggart’s ministry, which included a global television broadcast that purportedly had reached 500 million, shriveled.
Initially Swaggart had criticized Robertson’s run for the presidency but later was persuaded by Robertson’s personal visit. Bakker and Roberts had also been supportive. But after controversies neutralized all three televangelists within months, Robertson lost some of his political momentum. He performed well in the Iowa caucuses but afterwards never really threatened Vice President George Bush, whom Jerry Falwell supported. Falwell’s own Moral Majority had largely ebbed by then, soon to be overshadowed by Robertson’s new Christian Coalition, which itself barely survived the 1990s.
Falwell and Roberts are now gone, Swaggart and Bakker now quietly run smaller ministries, and Robertson, nearly age 80, still helps to host his daily 700 Club broadcast. Roberts was perhaps the progenitor of their movement, and he embodied many of televangelism’s colorful strengths and foibles. Though he sometimes lived lavishly, Roberts avoided Swaggart or Bakker style moral collapses. He also largely shunned the political temptations to which Robertson and Falwell succumbed. Maybe he is again singing “Greater is He” with Johnny and June Cash, but now on a more exalted stage.
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