Stichomancy is an ancient art of divination. One opens a sacred book at random, then reads. The Greeks consulted Homer. Moslems consult the Koran. Pentecostals, like medieval Christians, love to consult the Bible. In 1947, when Oral flipped his Bible open, his eyes fell on III John: 2. “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.” The passage hit Oral like a thunderbolt. God doesn’t want anyone to be poor!
Soon Oral was proclaiming his famous doctrine of seed-faith. Don’t wait for something good to happen before you give to the Lord. Give money, especially to Brother Roberts, and God will multiply it back many times over. Hundreds of other evangelists have adopted this seed-faith doctrine (calling it by other names), as well as Oral’s ingenious methods of obtaining seed. Roberts’s monthly letters to his millions of “prayer partners” are often accompanied by token gifts designed to involve the partner in a physical ritual that will encourage giving. Here are three typical items Oral has sent to his partners:
A prayer cloth with a print of Oral’s magic right hand. Put your hand on the imprint, send money, and await your blessing.
A tiny bag of cement. Send it back, with a donation, so Oral can mix it with cement from others to symbolize cooperative faith in a building project.
A tiny sack of cornmeal. Pray over it and return it with cash. “I am going to have Evelyn mix the cornmeal…and bake for me God’s representative of the body of Christ.”
Oral folded his circus-size healing tent when God told him to start preaching on radio and television. In the early Sixties the Lord said to him, “Build Me a university.” After ORU (Oral Roberts University) was completed in Tulsa, God told Oral to build beside it a City of Faith—a towering hospital that would combine prayer with medicine. Tulsa doctors opposed it on the sensible grounds that the city didn’t need another hospital, but of course Oral had to obey the Lord. It was when he desperately required money to complete the edifice that he had his most spectacular vision:
I felt an overwhelming holy presence all around me. When I opened my eyes, there He stood…some 900 feet tall, looking at me…. He stood a full 300 feet taller than the 600 foot tall City of Faith. There I was face to face with Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. I have only seen Jesus once before, but here I was face to face with the King of Kings. He stared at me without saying a word; Oh! I will never forget those eyes! And then, He reached down, put his Hands under the City of Faith, lifted it, and said to me, “See how easy it is for Me to lift it!”
The funds poured in—more than $5 million. Posters around Tulsa showed the City of Faith behind a warning sign: “Begin 900-foot Jesus Crossing.” A few years later Oral collected another $5 million for a research center after announcing that his doctors were on the verge of a major cancer discovery.
Roberts’s empire started to crumble in 1985. Hospital patients were few, expenses were skyrocketing, and new electronic preachers were carving up the cash flow. Oral’s TV ratings dipped below those of Jimmy Swaggart and Robert Schuller. Oral closed his dental school. He gave his law school to Pat Robertson.
Next year Oral took an enormous public-relations risk. He said God told him he would be called home if he failed to raise $8 million by a certain date. A few weeks before the deadline, Oral revealed that during the night Satan had sneaked into his bedroom and tried to strangle him. Tulsa bumper stickers urged, “Send Oral to Heaven in 87.” Brother Roberts climbed his Prayer Tower to fast and pray. A few days later his life was spared by a $1.3 million check from a Florida dog-track owner.
Oral’s handsome singing son Richard, who now has his own daily TV show and conducts healing crusades around the world, is being groomed to take over the Roberts conglomerate.5 Richard’s first wife, Patti, who used to warble hymns with him on his father’s show, has written (in her book, Ashes to Gold) about her distress in watching Richard turn into a clone of Oral, and the shameless way that she and Richard rationalized their jet-set ways of life. The Bible says a workman is worthy of his hire, Richard would remind her, and if an ox treads the grain it has a right to eat it. How about “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want“?
There is a horror story in Patti’s book. Before she and Richard left on their honeymoon, Oral summoned them to his study and began to weep. He had a dream, he said, in which God told him that if Patti and Richard ever left his ministry they would be killed in a plane crash. After years of faking the feelings of a loving wife on TV, Patti tells us, she divorced Richard, remarried, and is now living contentedly near Nashville. In 1977, the year Patti left the Roberts organization, Oral’s own daughter Rebecca was killed in a plane crash.
As soon as Brother Roberts came down from his Prayer Tower he had another revelation. God told him to build a $14 million healing center. Construction work has begun, and he and Richard are now pleading for funds to complete it. Last May, God told Oral to raise $1 billion, his largest request ever, as an endowment for ORU.
Oral blundered again last June when he told a conference of charismatics at ORU that he had often raised the bodies of persons who died during a service. “I had to stop and go back in the crowd and raise the dead person so I could go ahead with the service.” There are “dozens and dozens and dozens of documented instances,” his son Richard added, of people resurrected by ministers. Oral also revealed that God has told him he will die before the Second Coming, but that he will return with Jesus to help rule the new earth, presumably from a throne in Tulsa. “Watch what happens to ORU when I get back,” he said.
I grew up in Tulsa and have been a bemused Oral watcher ever since. Friends there like to say, “Oral may be a charlatan, but he’s our charlatan.” True, his fund-raising tactics are deceptive, and he often stretches the truth, but Oral is not a charlatan. He genuinely believes, I am convinced, that everything he says and does is part of God’s plan for him to heal and save as many souls as possible before Jesus returns. Insecure feelings about his early poverty and lack of education mix with an awesome ego. Oral will never consider that when he hears the voice of God he is listening to himself, that when he builds a bigger monument it is a monument to himself. His visions are too childish to be fabrications. As his financial woes proliferate, his God-told-me’s become more bizarre and self-destructive.
Richard Roberts is trying hard. Last July he sent his partners a tiny plastic bag of “anointed water” from the River of Life, an artificial stream that flows under the huge bronze praying hands near the City of Faith. Richard and his father had blessed the water by placing their palms on the river and praying. The water was then put in fifty-gallon drums and sent to a factory for packaging. Poor Richard is trapped. He couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. The old man would disinherit him and die of a broken heart.
Jim and Tammy Bakker, top bananas in the still unrolling PTL burlesque show, met when they were students at a Bible college in Minneapolis. The letters are supposed to stand for Praise the Lord and People That Love. (Pass the Loot and Pay the Lady are recent interpretations.) Jim had gone there from Muskegon, Michigan. Tammy Faye LaValley came from International Falls, Minnesota. Her Pentecostal mother had fought constantly with her unsaved father. After a divorce, the mother (with custody of Tammy and her younger brother) remarried and had six more children. They all lived in a ramshackle house with no bathtub and a privy in back.
The Bible college forbade student marriages, so when Jim and Tammy took the vows, during their first year, they had to leave. Jim had no further education, but the Assemblies of God ordained him anyway. In 1965 he joined Pat Robertson’s newly started Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), now the largest cable network in the nation. For a while he and Tammy had a Christian puppet show, then Jim founded and hosted CBN’s 700 Club. (The name came from an early telethon that sought 700 pledges.)
In her autobiography, I Gotta Be Me, Tammy is candid about her love-hate feeling for Pat. She loved him, but when “he would do certain things…I built up a terrible, terrible resentment.” Every time she and Jim consulted God’s Word it fell open on Ezekiel 12:1–6, where God tells the prophet to take all his “stuff” and leave a “rebellious house.” Jim and Tammy packed up their stuff and left, taking along their most valuable possession—trade secrets of the 700 Club.
After an unsuccessful effort to start the PTL Club in Los Angeles, Jim and Tammy finally got it rolling in Charlotte, North Carolina. Modeled on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, PTL soon became the nation’s most widely watched Christian talk show and vaudeville act. Jim and Tammy frequently cried on camera, especially when they talked about how poor they were. (In their autobiographies, they sob off camera on almost every page.) Tammy’s mascara dripped from her huge false eyelashes until she started using waterproof clown makeup.
The sixty blue telephones of Jim’s telethons, which he ran about two hundred times a year, were monitored by operators who took down pledges, reports of miracle cures, and prayer requests. Ailments were checked on alphabetized lists (arthritis to ulcers), then a computer would mail out responses. It’s hard to believe, but millions of people actually think that when they get a letter with their name on top, signed in ink, the evangelist has written to them personally. The tens of thousands of letters that go daily to every prominent television evangelist are, of course, mechanically opened, sorted by the kinds of requests, then answered by computers with appropriate form letters. It’s not dishonest, but then it’s not exactly honest either, since the evangelist implies that he reads every letter. Oral Roberts once asked his partners to send photos of themselves so he could see what they looked like when he prayed for them. Can you imagine Brother Roberts studying each face in a million snapshots?
In his autobiography, He's the God of a Second Chance!, Richard tells how his healing ministry started in 1980, a few months after his second marriage. At the close of a preaching service, God suddenly gave him the "word of knowledge" (another gift of Pentecost; see I Corinthians 12:8), and he blurted out "Lord, heal that man's toe." Later he received a letter from a man who had been in the audience. He said he had felt his broken toe pop, and when he got home, the toe was as good as new. Before the year ended, Richard was healing the deaf, blind, and lame.↩
In his autobiography, He’s the God of a Second Chance!, Richard tells how his healing ministry started in 1980, a few months after his second marriage. At the close of a preaching service, God suddenly gave him the “word of knowledge” (another gift of Pentecost; see I Corinthians 12:8), and he blurted out “Lord, heal that man’s toe.” Later he received a letter from a man who had been in the audience. He said he had felt his broken toe pop, and when he got home, the toe was as good as new. Before the year ended, Richard was healing the deaf, blind, and lame.↩