Editor’s Note: The author is Mitch Horowitz , editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin. He is the author of “One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.”
Televangelist Oral Roberts is often remembered as the founding father of the “prosperity gospel,” the doctrine that prayers and affirmations can deliver wealth. He is also remembered as a religious pitchman and gung-ho fundamentalist, tainted with greed and ignorance. But his full story is both more complicated and positive than that, and it’s worth recalling on the five-year anniversary of his death this month.
At the dawn of the modern media age, Roberts expanded the evangelical message from saving souls to helping seekers find happiness in the here and now. In a revolutionary departure, the minister encouraged people who grew up in punitive brands of faith, where disobedience led to hellfire, to instead see God as a powerful—and practical—force for good in their earthly lives.
Roberts’s transformation from small-town pastor to media eminence began in 1947, when he was a 29-year-old minister in Enid, Oklahoma. The young Pentecostal was torn between a “feeling of destiny” and the grim outer reality of living near the poverty line, a situation faced by many Southern preachers in the first half of the century.
During a period of personal depression, Roberts spent days and nights poring over Scripture—which he randomly opened one morning to 3 John 2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” For the young Roberts, the verse cast Christianity in a fresh light, challenging the emphasis on guilt and repentance in which he and many of his ministerial contemporaries had been raised. “We have been wrong,” he told his wife. “I haven’t been preaching that God is good.”
Roberts’s new message of “positive faith,” in which religion could help with personal needs—from addictions to job searches—took him to a larger congregation in Tulsa and eventually around the world and on television. In 1963, he founded Oral Roberts University. He eschewed the sin-and-salvation sermonizing of Billy Graham, whose decades-long dominance of American evangelism was rivaled only by Roberts’s. “I don’t believe in the judgmental gospel that Billy preaches,” Roberts said in 1972. “I ran away from it as a boy. Billy meets the needs of a lot of people… I reach other needs.”
Roberts also gained fame—and notoriety—for his healing crusades. In his heyday as a religious healer, from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, thousands would wait on long lines at tent revivals to be prayed over by the minister. At the same time, Roberts discouraged the movement’s worst excesses, urging followers never to resist medical care and to follow up with doctors. He readily acknowledged the psychological dimension of his healing campaigns, too. Even critical journalists never detected fraud.