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12/15/2010

One year ago: Oral Roberts

December 15, 2010 |  6:00 am

Oral Oral Roberts, who popularized the idea of a "prosperity gospel" while becoming one of the most well-known evangelists in the country, died one year ago. He was 91.

Roberts garnered his popularity through international broadcasts, evangelistic crusades similar to those of  Billy Graham and appearances on entertainment shows. He also founded Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., in 1965.

In the 1970s, Roberts' prime-time TV specials drew 40 million viewers, and he appeared frequently on talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore and Merv Griffin.

By 1980, Roberts was recognized by 84% of Americans, close behind the sitting U.S. president and fellow evangelist Billy Graham and 40 points ahead of the next religious figure.

Roberts, who put great emphasis on faith healings in his broadcasts and crusades, helped integrate Pentecostalism into mainstream Christianity worldwide. The charismatic branch of Christianity, of which Pentecostalism is a part, grew from an estimated 20 million to 600 million adherents worldwide during Roberts' seven decades of ministry.

"Twentieth century history of Christianity will name Oral Roberts as the voice that brought the Pentecostal movement to be taken seriously by mainline Christianity," said Robert H. Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral.

At the time of his death, however, Roberts' ministry and celebrity had been in decline for years, a drop-off accelerated by a prophecy the preacher made that "God will call me home" unless $8 million was raised for scholarships to Oral Roberts University by March 31, 1987.

The money was raised, but by then Roberts had become a figure of ridicule to many inside and outside the Christian world.

Despite negative publicity and declining TV ratings, by the mid-1980s Roberts' organization was raising more than $100 million annually and employing 2,300 people. His son Richard continues his father's work through Oral Roberts Ministries.

For more on the charismatic preacher's life and ministry, read The Times' Oral Roberts obituary. Also, see a photo gallery of his life.

--Michael Farr

Photo: Oral Roberts at a Downey tent revival meeting in 1957. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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