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Giving God a Hand

Oral Roberts: An American Life

by David Edwin Harrell Jr.
Indiana University Press, 622 pp., $29.95

Miracles of Seed-Faith

by Oral Roberts
Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, 157 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The Holy Spirit in the Now

by Oral Roberts
Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, Vol. III, 72 pp., $2.50 each (paper)

He’s the God of a Second Chance!

by Richard Roberts
Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, 85 pp., $2.50 (paper)

Ashes to Gold

by Patti Roberts, by Sherry Andrews
Word Books, 171 pp., $3.95 (paper)

I Gotta Be Me

by Tammy Bakker, by Cliff Dudley
New Leaf Press, 138 pp., $3.50 (paper)

Run to the Roar

by Tammy Bakker, by Cliff Dudley
New Leaf Press, 139 pp., $4.95 (paper)

To Cross a River

by Jimmy Swaggart, with Robert Paul Lamb
Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, 244 pp., $4.00 (paper)

The Pre-Adamic Creation and Evolution

by Jimmy Swaggart
Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, $10.00 (cassette tapes)

Salvation for Sale: An Insider’s View of Pat Robertson’s Ministry

by Gerard Thomas Straub
Prometheus Books, 323 pp., $18.95

1.

It is too early, it seems to me, to send the firemen home. The fire is still burning on many a far-flung hill, and it may begin to roar again at any moment…. Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today. They swarm in the country towns…. They are thick in the mean streets behind the gasworks. They are everywhere that learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds.”

—H.L. Mencken

When Mencken suggested that fundamentalism might blaze once more, who took him seriously? Clarence Darrow had made William Jennings Bryan look like the country bumpkin he was. Outside the Bible Belt, many mainline churches were promoting the “social gospel” as they tumbled down the hill of liberal theology toward secular humanism. Remember that hullabaloo over the proposition that “God is dead”? Then a few decades ago, to the amazement of intellectuals, hardline fundamentalism began to roar again.

Sociologists are still trying to figure it out. There is no evidence of a large-scale religious revival sweeping the nation, but within Protestantism there has been an unmistakable decline in liberal theology and an upsurge of fundamentalist dogma. While the congregations of mainline churches dwindle, especially with respect to the young, the old-time gospel churches are bursting at the seams. Scores of fundamentalist magazines, seldom seen in public libraries, have circulations larger than the liberal Christian Century. Fundamentalist books, published by sectarian houses and distributed through Christian bookstores, never make The New York Times best-seller lists even though their sales often far exceed most books on those lists.

Polls taken during the last decade all agree that the United States is one of the most deeply religious nations in the world. Over 95 percent of its population say they believe in a personal God and life after death. Only about 25 percent now believe in hell, a remarkable decline, but 25 percent means a lot of souls who are worried. Many who have abandoned Christianity are still drifting East into reincarnation and the New Age of psychic wonders, but growing numbers of those who remain Christian want more from their ministers than hazy doctrines and dull sermons about beauty and ethics. They want to be told about heaven. They want to sing and shout about the Blood of Jesus that washes away all sins.

This growth of fundamentalism has been a time bomb for the Democrats that exploded in 1984. An estimated eight million white evangelicals switched allegiance that year from Democrat to Republican. The South’s Bible Belt, once solidly Democratic, shifted heavily toward Republican. Last June the Southern Baptists, our country’s largest Protestant denomination, voted itself firmly under the control of fundamentalist leaders. In 1980, its white clergy were 28 percent Republican. In 1984 (see James Guth’s “Political Converts: Partisan Realignment Among Southern Baptists,” in Election Politics, Winter 1985–1986) the percentage rose to 43, with the steepest rise among young ministers.

Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1980 partly because born-again Protestants, black and white, perceived him as one of them. They abandoned him in 1984 partly because they thought Ronald Reagan was even more born-again. Raised by a devout fundamentalist mother, Reagan has often spoken about how she “planted a great faith in me.” Later we shall consider his remarks about the Second Coming. It is always hard, of course, to know when Reagan is expressing actual beliefs, or just skillfully choosing words to win votes, and the same ambiguity surrounds his appointments of ultra-conservative Christians to high posts. James Watt, for example, wasn’t joking when, as secretary of the interior, he told environmentalists not to worry because Jesus would soon be here.

Whatever the president’s inner convictions, and however his popularity may be diminishing, evangelical Christians continue to see the Republican Party as the bastion of conservative Christian values. Democrats are perceived as too tolerant of sexual (especially homosexual) freedoms, pornography, abortion, Marxism, liberalism, secular humanism (as reflected in the teaching of evolution and the forbidding of prayer in public schools), and women’s rights. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord,” wrote Saint Paul. “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.” (Ephesians 5:22–23). Every time the Democrats promote ERA they lose evangelical votes.

The religious programs on radio and television are now almost wholly dominated by fundamentalist preaching. It obviously meets the needs of believers in ways that mainline preaching cannot, but there is another aspect that is economic. The FCC’s free-market policies sell air time to the highest bidders, and the highest are the Bible thumpers. They are the only preachers so fired by the Holy Ghost that they are not ashamed to engage in the perpetual, blatant money hustling so necessary to stay on prime time.

Why do so many poor people send them money? Surveys show that there are about five million hard-core donors, most of them women from fifty to seventy-five, with seventy-one as the peak age for giving. Many live alone on social security, some in nursing homes. Many are too disabled for church going. Lonely, neglected, they see the electronic evangelist as their pastor. A widow’s mite dropped in an offering plate is anonymous, but the smallest donation to a TV preacher brings a warm letter of thanks that makes the giver feel that he or she is a true partner in a great soul-winning enterprise.

Of the country’s top six television preachers—Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell,1 and Robert Schuller2—all but the last two are Pentecostals. (Southern Baptist Billy Graham, though still the most admired fundamentalist preacher, has no regular TV program.) But what is a Pentecostal? Before examining the wild careers of the first four, some definitions will be useful.

Evangelicals are born-again Protestants whose views can vary from fundamentalist to liberal. Fundamentalists are evangelicals who regard the Bible as free of all error. Pentecostals are fundamentalists who think the gifts of Pentecost (Acts 2) were given for all time. On the Pentecost (Greek for fifty), which occurred fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Ghost descended on Jesus’ disciples, taking the form of tongues of fire; the disciples began to

speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance…. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

To lead a full Christian life a born-again person must undergo a second miracle, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. This confers upon the baptized the ability to speak the Unknown Tongue, a prayer language understood only by God and the angels. Saint Paul, in First Corinthians, writes at length about the practice, warning against its misuse but thanking God that he speaks in tongues “more than ye all.”

Tongue speaking, or glossolalia, almost vanished after the apostolic age except for a brief revival by Montanus in the second century. Saint Augustine set the pattern for the Catholic Church and the Reformers by asserting that God withdrew the gift after it served its purpose. This was also the view of Thomas Aquinas. There is no evidence that Luther or Calvin spoke in tongues, but early Methodists revived the gift, and it was soon flourishing among the Quakers, Shakers, Irvingites, Mormons, and other fringe sects. After 1900 a variety of churches sprang up in the United States, on fire with tongues and faith healing, to become the denominations now called Pentecostal. Today there are about thirty-five of them. They are the fastest growing segment of Christianity, not only here but throughout the world.

Charismatics, sometimes called neo-Pentecostals, are evangelicals, not necessarily fundamentalist, who accept the gifts of faith healing and tongues. The term applies of course to the old or “classical” Pentecostals, but also to Catholics, Episcopalians, and members of mainline Protestant churches where there has been since 1960 an astonishing inrush of Pentecostal fervor.

Non-Christian glossolalia is a problem for charismatics. Ancient soothsayers, and devotees of Greek and Roman mystery cults, often gurgled meaningless sentences. In the Aeneid (Book 6) Virgil describes tongue speaking by a Roman sibyl. Some Moslem sects and primitive cultures practice glossolalia. In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler gives a rousing speech in German double talk. None of this, charismatics maintain, is the real thing. Non-Pentecostal fundamentalists think the babbling of their Pentecostal brothers isn’t the real thing either, and may even be inspired by Satan.

Roberts, Bakker, Swaggart, and Robertson all speak in tongues, as do their wives and most of their children, but no one has stressed the gift more than Oral Roberts, the oldest and best known Pentecostal preacher of the four. He and his wife, Evelyn, pray in tongues daily, though you’ll never hear them do this on camera. Pentecostal televangelists discovered early in the game that glossolalia frightens too many viewers.

Ye ked ee aky shangda” was how Time reported a phrase spoken at the first international assembly of charismatics at Kansas City in 1977, but you can put down your own nonsense syllables and they’ll sound as authentic as anyone’s glossolalia. Linguists who have studied tongue speaking find nothing the tongues have in common except the sounds and rhythms of a natural language. Visit any Pentecostal church and you’re likely to see someone stand up and babble the prayer language, often followed by a person with the “gift of interpretation” who will explain what has been said.

2.

Oral Roberts was born in 1918 on a farm near Ada, Oklahoma, of Pentecostal parents, both part-Indian.3 At seventeen he collapsed on a high school basketball court, bleeding through his nose. Local doctors told him his lungs were in the “final stages” of tuberculosis. Home in bed, watching his father’s face miraculously become the face of Jesus, Oral was reborn. Soon thereafter, when a traveling evangelist touched his head, Oral was instantly healed. My Story, one of Oral’s numerous autobiographies, reproduces medical documents proving that a few months later his lungs were perfect, but there is no shred of evidence that he ever had TB. There is only his memory of what some country doctors told him.

Before the year ended Oral was ordained by the Pentecostal Holiness church, but it was not until after a decade of pastoring that he discovered a supernatural healing energy in his right arm. His rise to fame was swift, and his books swarm with lurid accounts of how God used the “fire” in his right hand to heal the sick and cast out demons.4 During a crusade in Fresno a “little baby died.” The mother tossed the “stiffening” body to Brother Roberts, and when he touched the baby it began to breathe. “God,” Oral asked, “how could I ever limit you again?”

  1. 1

    Jerry Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, the right-wing Moral Majority (now called the Liberty Federation), and Liberty University. His Old Time Gospel Hour televises his Sunday sermons over some 350 stations. A noncharismatic, Falwell takes a dim view of tongue speaking and faith healing.

  2. 2

    Robert Schuller is a noncharismatic minister of the Reformed Church in America, with misty doctrinal views as hard to pin down as those of his mentor Norman Vincent Peale. Instead of Peale’s positive thinking, Schuller calls it “possibility thinking,” but it’s the same thing. Avoid negative thoughts, trust God, and you’ll be healthy, happy, and make lots of money. Like Peale, he has written dozens of breezy books peppered with such snappy slogans as “Turn your scars into stars” and “It takes guts to leave the ruts.” His mammoth Crystal Cathedral, in Garden Grove, California, is filled with flowers, fountains, chirping canaries, and the world’s largest pipe organ.

  3. 3

    Among several biographies of Oral Roberts, the most recent, most accurate, and best documented is Oral Roberts: An American Life (Indiana University Press, 1985), an objective, impressive study by David Harrell, Jr., a historian at the University of Alabama. The strongest critical attacks are in two out-of-print books: James Morris’s The Preachers (St. Martin’s, 1973) and Jerry Sholes’s Give Me That Prime-Time Religion (Hawthorn, 1979).

  4. 4

    How does Oral recognize possession by demons? “First I feel God’s presence, usually through my hand, then I catch the breath of a person—it will have a stench as of a body that has been decayed. Then I notice the eyes. They’re—they’re like snake eyes.” During one of Oral’s wild exorcisms in Brazil, he tells us, a demon levitated a woman in midair, “horizontally between me and the audience.”

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