The Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in this year’s March Madness tournament. This is especially impressive given that they are a 15-seed, the second-lowest available ranking, and have had to go through the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Florida Gators, 1- and 7-seeds, respectively, to get there. Like most March Madnesses, it appears this year’s tournament has a few Cinderella darlings.
But yesterday as I watched Oral Roberts take down one of my all-time least favorite sports schools in Florida, after taking down my all-time least favorite sports school in Ohio State, I wondered who Oral Roberts was. I had a vague recollection of him being a preacher, and it seems like I remember it being on the news when he died, but other than those two vague tidbits, I know nothing about the man. So, like any good person with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, I did research.
January 24, 1918 – December 15, 2009
Oral Roberts was born Granville Oral Roberts, and for reasons I can’t figure out, chose to go by Oral. He was a Pentecostal televangelist who was one of the foremost figures of the “charismatic” preacher movement. This movement included other well-known televangelists such as Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robertson. Billy Graham is often included in those lists, too, but Billy Graham wasn’t as shrouded in controversy as the others. A more modern televangelist might be Joel Osteen, who famously refused to let folks displaced by Hurricane Harvey into his 600,000+ square foot “church.“
But enough about the likes of Joel Osteen. Oral Roberts was a struggling part-time preacher when he read a specific verse of the Bible that authorized monetary wealth, and the rest is history. He began preaching revival-style sermons and performing healings. Eventually he would be syndicated on television and radio, and be one of the highest-paid televangelists in history.
In 1963 (though not opened until 1965), he founded Oral Roberts University in Tulsa in his home state of Oklahoma. It was meant to be a small, liberal arts college with a strong emphasis on faith. While I can’t find any true support for the last part of this sentence, I would imagine at the time that he was not thinking about athletics and shocking the sports world as a basketball underdog.
By the 1980s, his ministry had expanded to a $120 million per year conglomerate. His message of riches and personal well-being struck a chord with many Americans, including many minorities. In fact, it is believed that Roberts may have had the most ethnically diverse congregation of all of the popular televangelists of the time. But his ministry was not without controversy. Some folks still imply that he never did raise as much money as he claimed to. And he did occasionally have a person die at a “healing” session. There was also at least one time when funds from Oral Roberts University were used to purchase property for Roberts’s personal use. However, Roberts generally avoided the types of scandals that plagued other popular televangelists such as the Bakkers.
He married his wife Evelyn in 1938 and stayed married for 66 years until her death in 2005. But other than his wife his family life was tumultuous. His daughter and her husband died in a plane crash in 1977, and in 1982 his son Ronald, who had recently come out as gay, committed suicide. Roberts himself died in 2009 at the age of 91.
For more in-depth information about the life of Oral Roberts, I suggest reading his New York Times and The Guardian obituaries, and clicking around the links therein. For information on how to handle the success of the Oral Roberts basketball team, click here.