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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,000

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This is the grave of Oral Roberts.

One of the most unrepentant grifters in American history, someone who would make Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell seem like serious religious thinkers, Oral Roberts was born in 1918 in Ada, Oklahoma. The family was very poor. His father was a preacher who evidently believed in the basic values of Christianity and didn’t seek profit. Let’s just say young Oral did not replicate his father’s beliefs. He was not a particularly healthy child, came down with tuberculosis and nearly died in 1935. But he recovered from the illness and went on to attend two different Christian colleges–Oklahoma Baptist and Phillips. Never graduated though. Baby Jesus doesn’t need that.

Young Oral took after his father in going into the ministry. He was an itinerant preacher in the era when this was still a pretty common thing in the South. This made him a good hustler, which was his real calling. He did have a permanent job at a church in Shawnee, Oklahoma for a bit but resigned in 1945. This also makes me wonder why he did not serve in the military in World War II. I assume it was the consumption’s effects. But for all the Jesus and America stuff he would puke out through his long and disreputable career, this is worth noting. Anyway, he went back out on the road for camp meetings. He was in a North Carolina revival later that year and was asked by an attendee to take over his church in Tococa, Georgia. This was a Pentecostal Holiness Church and the board that governed it later had Roberts kicked out because he was not actually a member of their denomination. But in the short time that he was there, he engaged in a practice that would later define his grfiting: faith healing. He supposedly had two occasions of healing while he was there. This would become his core method of raising money.

In 1947, God supposedly appeared to Roberts, the same day he bought himself a Buick (God’s favorite GM model?), and told him to go into faith healing full time. Yeah, sure thing. So he started his own organization, the Oral Roberts Evangelical Association and led faith healing crusades across the United States. As this was the beginning of the Cold War, Roberts was able to tap into fears about communism and big government and build a religious empire based on God intervening in the world if only you believed enough. The sad thing is that millions of people wanted to hear this. The extent to which Roberts really believed all this himself is somewhat unclear to me, but he certainly had no compunction about taking advantage of his own beliefs. He started his own faith healing magazine, Healing Waters, in 1947 and got that sent around the world. That led him to places such as apartheid South Africa to run crusades. Roberts most certainly did not support civil rights or oppose the apartheid regime. All the people who were on the committee to bring him to that nation were white Afrikaners. But holiness did have a biracial tradition, if one that was completely apolitical. So some of the crusades were mixed race, which did anger the most hard-core racists in that nation.

Now, these faith healing revivals were no more realistic than the medicine shows of the 19th century. He’d preach himself into a sweat, roll up his sleeves, and lay his hands on the bodies of the “sick,” urging God to cure them. When Roberts “healed” the deaf and speechless, where the lame could not walk, this was all hooey. But it sure played well with the rubes. And the rubes had money. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of money. But they would give what they had. Roberts made sure that money went to what they wanted–him showing off his wealth. Roberts became famous of his ostentatious dress. He would wear fancy Italian suits. Tons of rings. Real expensive jewelry. The class of a mobster, but he was better at bilking cash than the mafia because it was all legal and technically a nonprofit too. Heck, he was the Godfather.

On top of this, Roberts was one of those preachers of his generation who realized the money was through embracing technology. He wasn’t the only one–Billy Graham is the most famous. But Graham wanted an aura of respectability and so used his enormous audience to become influential with the powerful. Roberts didn’t care so much about this. He knew the real power was in the money he could get from the morons. So he started his own television ministry in 1954. The Abundant Life made Roberts probably second only to Graham in terms of preachers with a television audience by the late 1950s. But that wasn’t the only way to increase his ministry and money. He also went into direct mailings, well before conservative Republicans such as Richard Viguerie pioneered this in the political realm. Direct mailings were a great, low-cost way to get dumb people to hand over cash.

Roberts was very into empire building. So he started his own college, Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa in 1963. I recommend a visit. That’s because the architecture is completely bonkers. First of all, the entrance to campus is a gigantic (and I mean huge) statue of praying hands. Then the rest of the campus is a panoply of tasteless modernism that can probably only be matched by Persian Gulf states and their endless oil money. It’s really amazing. Here is the Prayer Tower, for example.

That really screams Christianity in its most honest form….

Somewhat surprisingly, Roberts became a Methodist in 1968. This was a huge marriage of convenience for the two. Roberts wanted to expand his power and he knew that mainline Protestants found his Holiness background suspicious. Methodists were losing members to people like Roberts and wanted to bring people like him into the fold in order to keep people in the church and of course giving money to them instead of evangelicals. This also gave Roberts a patina of respectability that he craved. Gone was the medicine show and in was the board meeting. So that’s pretty gross all the way around. Moreover, Billy Graham, mysteriously beloved by respectable non-evangelical America when he died despite being a terrible person on his own, really helped out Roberts over and over again in his career, inviting him to international evangelical conferences and talking him up. There really was no difference between the two except for slightly different styles and points to their limitless ambition. But they were two peas in a pod and Roberts repeatedly thanked Graham for his help. Johnny Cash was a huge fan of Roberts too and would appear on his crusades to bilk the morons.

Now, what made Roberts the most famous he ever was the incredibly embarrassing stunt he pulled in 1987, when he said in January that God told him that if people did not give him $8 million by March, God would call him home. What a naked grift! This made national headlines. Most famously and brilliantly, it sparked Berkeley Breathed to run a whole Bloom County series at the time making Bill the Cat a preacher named Fundamentally Oral Bill who had the same demands. Now this all got pretty interesting. The scam didn’t work that well initially. He did pull in about $4.5 million, but that was definitely not $8 million. Some worried that he would kill himself if he didn’t get the money, which probably would have been the best possible result. But a Florida dog track owner (of course) named Jerry Collins gave Roberts $1.3 million and others chipped in to and he managed to not raise $8 million but over $9 million! Brilliant! That same year, his son Richard claimed that daddy had raised a man from the dead, which got even more attention. But of course even though there was no proof because this was all complete bullshit, it sure kept the idiots forking over their cash.

Now, I don’t want to alarm you about this spiritual holy man, but Roberts was using all of this cash just to fund himself. I don’t know what this was exactly a scandal when it came out in 1988 (the downside of his open cash grab of the year before is that it also attracted attention to what he did with it) because it was obvious this was the use of the money all the time. It turned out that he was using his college’s endowment money to buy himself a mansion in Beverly Hills that he said was to run his west coast operations and I suppose that’s true if you consider the west coast operations finding ways to get Californian idiots to give him money. That same year, his own medical clinic (oh c’mon!) the City of Faith Medical Center was sued by patients families for $15 million because Oral never came by to heal their faithful family members. Huh, funny how that works.

By the 90s, Roberts was aging and had enough bad publicity that it made more sense for the family empire to mostly go to Richard while Oral stayed in the background, spending his hard-bilked fortune. He did remain the ORU chancellor until his death and of course Richard would get in trouble for improper spending too, but again, people still give to this garbage. Oral was mostly living in Newport Beach, California (of course) during his last years, surrounded by Orange County rich people.

Roberts died in 2009, at the age of 91. Seven months before he died, the Oklahoma Senate passed a resolution honoring his life. Because of course they would.

Oral Roberts is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

So this is grave post 1,000. Welcome to the precise point where obsessive-compulsive disorder, the internet, and historians’ love of weirdness intersect. Really, is this the longest running series of any substance on the internet? Doesn’t it almost have to be? In any case, it’s been a lot of fun and I look forward to hitting grave post 2,000 in a few years. If you would like this series to visit other evangelical preachers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Billy Graham is in Charlotte, North Carolina and Aimee Semple McPherson is in Forest Lawn, California. Wait, I am hearing a message from Jesus Christ! SPEAK TO ME JESUS! He is telling me that if LGM commenters do not give this series $1,000 today that HE will call me home to the great graveyard in the sky! Can the world survive without my grave posts? Who would want to live in such a world. YOU HAVE BETTER GIVE TODAY OR JESUS WILL KNOW THAT YOU HATE HIM! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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