Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Oral Roberts, R.I.P.

By Mitchell Hadley

At one time, Oral Roberts was a very prominent man in this country. He was arguably, next to Billy Graham, the most famous evangelist on television. Millions of people watched his weekly program and his holiday entertainment specials. His most famous phrases, such as “Expect a miracle!” were, if not nationwide catchphrases, at least fairly familiar ones. He started a university in Tulsa, which produced a nationally prominent basketball team that once came within five minutes of going to the Final Four.* There was something Midwestern and wholesome about him. (Plus, “oral” was a good first name for a man whose job was preaching the Word.)

* It’s remarkable to think today that Oral Roberts was a major college power in the early 70s. In that regional final, which today we’d refer to as the “Elite Eight,” ORU had a healthy lead against Kansas – Kansas! – late in the second half. Rather than slowing the game down (this was the pre-shot clock era, remember), the Golden Eagles kept playing at the up-tempo pace that had taken them this far. A few missed shots allowed Kansas to tie the score, and the Jayhawks won in overtime. If George Mason’s trip to the Final Four a couple of seasons ago was noteworthy, just think what it would have been like if Oral Roberts had made it.

It all started coming off the tracks for him when, during a pledge drive for his ministry, he said, in so many words, that God was holding him hostage and that if the drive did not meet its goal, God would “call me home.” (I’ve often wondered if that’s where comedians got the idea of posing for ads showing them holding a cute stuffed animal with a gun to its head, telling people to come to the show or else.) Well, that was the beginning of the end for good ol’ Oral, as many people concluded that his elevator had stopped going all the way to the top floor. Other televangelists surpassed him in popularity and political clout. When the scandals of the 80s came and claimed (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, et al), Oral Roberts stayed mostly out of the headlines – primarily because people had stopped noticing him.

In truth though, he never stopped pursuing his mission of saving souls. He wrote 130 books, with millions of copies in print. The university still stands, and its basketball team still wins, albeit on a smaller scale than it once did. I would imagine that a lot of people owe their faith in some degree to Oral Roberts, and whether they remained disciples of his or furthered their belief in other ways, he was the one who helped open the door. He died today of complications from pneumonia, at the age of 91. RIP.

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