With the flurry of graduation and commencement events just past, and mindful of the tests, finals, quizzes, papers and dissertations that preceded, another “final” drew me to make a review—an “oral” one, if you will: Oral Roberts.
The “final” prompting me was a “finale”—the passing into eternal glory of Oral’s dear wife, Evelyn, only a few weeks ago. The homegoing of this magnificent woman, so deserving of recognition and regard in her own right, brought forcibly to mind the drama, dynamism and dominance of her husband—both in his impact on the global church, as well as upon my own life.
Though still honored in charismatic circles today, it is an unfortunate fact that “Brother Roberts” (as he was earlier referenced by most until the last 20 years) is generally slighted by much of the larger evangelical community. And, while not disregarded within classical Pentecostal traditions, open acknowledgment of his role in shaping the history of the whole Spirit-filled movement is not given, and sometimes seems to be either neglected or marginalized.
He changed the church
The history of the 20th century is in place now, and without self-congratulation (for few of us living had anything much to do with this fact) the “Spirit-filled” community—the Pentecostal-charismatic movement—has been universally declared to be the century’s most penetrating, shaping and fruit-begetting global Christian influence. In that light, and from the vantage point of a half-century of overview myself, let me offer a review of the traits of Oral’s ministry that initiated his influence on the whole church.
In 1951, Oral Roberts was not a household name in America. But his preaching-healing ministry had already begun drawing thousands to his tent meetings—simultaneous with the tent-revivals beginning to draw throngs to hear Billy Graham.
It is as unnecessary as it would be unwise to make a comparison of the two men’s ministries. Billy’s straight-ahead soul-winning crusades won the hearts and trust of us all, and it is doubtless that he has personally ministered to more people than any evangelist in history to date. But while Graham crusades moved multitudes and made headlines around the world, it was Oral’s unfettered-by-fear “Full Gospel” ministry that changed the direction of the church.
In post-World War II America, the flame of Azusa Street’s Pentecostal revival was beginning to wane among those denominations and fellowships born in its heat. Even though the breezes of the “Latter Rain” movement stirred eddies of spiritual renewal in a few places, the broad stream of Christian ministry was not influenced.
For the most part, traditional evangelical ministry defined the public’s expectation of Bible-centered protestantism, and “ripe-pickings” awaited anyone launching a ministry or planting a church—as long as it maintained a plain-vanilla approach to the gospel.
I remember the “soft-peddling” of Pentecostal distinctives (especially tongues and healing) at that time—the season of my own training and entry to ministry.
But Oral shook the landscape with the inescapable reality and practicality of Jesus’ whole ministry—“teaching ... preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing ... sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics—and great multitudes followed Him” (see Matt. 4:23-25).
And he was unstinting in his posture as a full fledged “Pentecostal”—as a man for whom “speaking in tongues” was neither a silly or optional practice. But while standing solidly for the fundamentals of the “full gospel,” he was a breath of fresh air and a tower of strength at once—manifesting both the simplicity and the dynamism of a pure New Testament ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Focused and substantive
The campaign services of Oral Roberts rarely find a counterpart today, for not only was the whole scope of teaching, preaching, healing and deliverance ministry taking place at once in his meetings, there was also a notable downplay of sensation or the dramatic. His was a no-nonsense, straight-from-the-shoulder, full-orbed-power-of-God presentation that provided a focused ministry with substance.
1. The Word of God was preached with a strong development of the text of the scriptures (not merely a few clever ideas or a superficial glossing of a passage). Though the evangelistic pulpit-platform style of the era in all sectors of the church was usually bombastic, to listen to Oral was to witness a white hot passion that was focused on drilling truth into hearts with no time or space for mere histrionics or spasms of “style.”
2. Biblical order was maintained, with a governance that clearly gave place for the dynamic moving of the Holy Spirit but disallowed the intrusion of fanatical distractions or the indulgence of supposed Holy Ghost-prompted activities then frequently presumed as necessary among many Pentecostals.
3. Evangelism was given foremost priority, and a typical response to Oral’s altar call brought hosts of souls forward to receive Christ. His call to salvation was not muddied by a generic appeal geared to maximize the possibility of filling the altar area, even though he did call the backslider to return home as well as the unconverted to repentance.
4. Every service contained two parts—the teaching-preaching and the ministry of healing. Both resulted in verifiable miracles—(a) in souls being born again to eternal life; and (b) in bodies and minds being healed and delivered from physical and spiritual bondage. Again, the evangelist’s style was pointed and manifestly powerful, but there was a complete absence of “flair” or “showmanship,” and an unmistakable focus was kept on Jesus above all.
It was this kind of balance between pure Pentecostal passion, penetrated with his personal lifestyle of laser-like targeting of pursuing a Christlike ministry of healing and miracles (sans capitalizing on crowd appeal or sensation), that awakened the mid-century generation to the multidimensioned power of God.
Without question, it was Oral’s ministry that confronted and restored focus and passion to the Pentecostal movement and laid the groundwork for what became the global spread of Spirit-filled life and experience in the 1960s and ’70s.
NO ORAL—NO MOVEMENT?
It may seem the rendering of an undue degree of influence to suggest it, but it is dubious to me that if God had not, in His sovereign will, purpose and power, raised up the ministry of Oral Roberts, the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred. This is not to glorify the man, but to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s strategic timing and workings.
Without revisiting the nuances of each readily acknowledged voice which rose in that renewal, birthed amid (1) the healing revival-evangelists of the late 1950s; (2) the spread of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International; (3) the influence of David Wilkerson’s and John Sherrill’s books, The Cross and the Switchblade and They Speak With Other Tongues; and (4) the awakenings on Duquesne’s and Notre Dame’s campuses, I believe an honest review recommends acknowledging Oral Roberts as the human “daddy” who God used to seed the charismatic movement.
Oral’s teaching and concepts were foundational to the renewal that swept through the whole church—some even noting that he may be the one to coin the word “charismatic” in the theological-experiential sense as it came to be used. He taught concepts that spread throughout the world and simplified and focused a spiritual lifestyle that is embraced by huge sectors of today’s church.
To merely note the slogans Oral Roberts used in his teachings, or to miss the real biblical truths he taught by linking his original approach to shallow or sensationalized shadows of those truths too often clouding biblical clarity among some “charismatic” sectors today, is to trivialize what he actually taught and to cheapen what he offered at the time.
For example, whatever today may have been done to the idea of “seed faith,” in circles where it may seem to be advocated as a self-serving easy-way-to-wealth, Oral’s foundational teaching and coinage of the term opened hearts to understand the life-giving, life-multiplying power of God’s Word.
Even his verbal logo, “God is a good God,” was a bludgeon against legalistic patterns of thought that riddled the church at the time, oppressing the souls of innumerable millions. This simple but gospel-true statement became a song and a salutation, opening the doorway of hope to multitudes that the Father’s heart had a place for them!
A DESERVED, LOVING SALUTE
I can only thank God for the influence of this man upon my own life—both directly and indirectly. As a 17-year-old high school grad, I was already accepted for entry into an eastern college, planning to train for ministry in the respected tradition of an evangelical environment.
Though I had come to Christ in a fiery Pentecostal context, I had too often been disappointed by the lack of biblical substance and appropriately governed worship services in my exposures to that community. Consequently, I was “headed elsewhere.”
That’s when I “met” Oral, and instead enrolled in LIFE Bible College—later entering the ministry of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. It would be more than 35 years later until I literally made his acquaintance, but my discovery of a godly man, a gifted man and a greatly graced man lifted my vision to pursue a ministry of unabashed openness to the Holy Spirit’s power, works and wonders.
To my observation, Oral’s rugged individuality and independent ways have occasioned his having received far less acknowledgment by the church at large than he justly deserves. And while he would probably be indifferent to that—never seeking recognition—I lament the fact somewhat.
We would all do well to salute Oral Roberts. Without him, few of us would be the same, and a proper review of his long-term record and influence merits our highest and most loving regards!
Jack W. Hayford, Litt.D., is the founder of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California; chancellor of The King’s College and Seminary and the president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.