A group of students on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley are in animated discussion. Are they debating subtle differences between Maoism and Castroism? Between Therevada and Mahayana Buddhism? Listen carefully. They are talking about the “rapture.” Will the saved be caught up in the air with Jesus at the time of his Second Coming, or will the rapture take place before the Second Coming?
This unexpected revival of Protestant fundamentalism among the young (what sociologist predicted it?) is one of the craziest aspects of the current American scene. “Demythologizing”—purging Christianity of the historicity of its great myths—was supposed to keep the young people in the liberal churches. It had a reverse effect. Mythology was what they wanted, not do-good sermonizing that put their heads to sleep. They wanted to be told about heaven and hell, God and Satan, sin and redemption.
The liberal churches are now half-filled on Sunday mornings, mostly with sad-faced elders who are there largely from habit. They sing tuneless hymns with vacuous phrases. They recite dreary creeds they no longer believe. They drink a communion wine that has lost even its symbolic savor. On the other side of town, Pentecostal churches are jammed with bright-eyed youngsters who are belting out the old melodious songs about the Cross, shouting “Thank you, Jesus!” and having a marvelous time. (Pentecostalism is the belief that the “gifts” of Pentecost, especially faith-healing and glossolalia, were not restricted to the early Church but are still in effect as signs of the power of the Holy Spirit. Modern Pentecostalism was confined to Protestant fundamentalist sects until a few years ago when it suddenly became fashionable among conservative Roman Catholics and Episcopalians.)
Riding the crest of this new wave, in part fomenting it, are the great evangelists. Who are they? What are they like? James Morris, who grew up in Tulsa, has written a frightening, funny account of nine of the biggies. “One-man denominations,” he calls them. Their simple-minded books are selling by the millions. Their colorful magazines have larger circulations than Playboy. More psychosomatic ills are being banished in one day by Bible-thumping faith healers than by all the psychiatrists in a year, and the cures are probably just as lasting.
Consider Tulsa, once the proud “oil capital of the world.” Today it is the “fundamentalist capital of the world.” Oral Roberts and Billy James Hargis, two of the country’s most successful one-man denominations, make their homes there. Roberts, the more flamboyant of the two, is now second only to Billy Graham in fame, fortune, and adulation. Morris’s chapter on him, painstakingly documented, tells a remarkable story.
The story begins in 1918 on a farm near Ada, Oklahoma. That was the year both Roberts and Graham were born. Although Oral’s parents were devout members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, Oral did not take his religion seriously until one day when he was playing high school basketball and collapsed on the floor with blood running from his nostrils. Doctors pronounced it advanced tuberculosis of both lungs. Some time later, at a local tent revival, the evangelist touched Oral’s head. A blinding flash engulfed him. He leaped from his chair, shouting, “I am healed!”
Roberts became a Pentecostal minister at seventeen. Eleven years later, when he was pastoring a church in Georgia, he discovered that he, too, had the healing power. A heavy motor had dropped on the foot of one of his deacons. In one of his many autobiographies, Roberts describes how the blood streamed from the man’s shoe, “which was nearly cut from his foot.” Roberts touched the shoe and cried, “Jesus, heal!” “In amazement,” Roberts writes, “I saw him take his shoe off, stamp his foot…. I saw with my own eyes that his foot had been instantly restored.”
It was the first of Roberts’s many miracles. The divine power seemed to flow through his body only when he established what he called a “point of contact” with the sufferer. If present in the flesh, Roberts touched the person with his hand. If there only on radio or television, listeners were asked to touch the loudspeaker or screen. Brother Roberts also became a skillful exorcist. “First, I feel God’s presence, usually through my hand,” he told an interviewer. “Then I catch the breath of a [demon-possessed] 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.”
In the late Forties, Roberts established Healing Waters, Inc., in Tulsa. By the mid-Fifties he had far outdistanced his nearest rival, the Dallas healer Jack Coe, in the size of his tent crowds, sales of literature, number of radio shows, and the amount of money pouring in. In 1956 Healing Waters employed 287 workers, mainly to open envelopes and count the cash. Last year a Tulsa banker estimated the annual cash flow to Roberts as fifteen million dollars.
There were the inevitable tragedies. A diabetic woman, healed by Roberts, threw away her insulin and promptly died. A lady with cancer of the spine expired a few days after testifying about her cure. Roberts came under increasing criticism by doctors and non-Pentecostal clerics.
Slowly Brother Roberts began to change. He phased out his television healing. He collapsed his big tent. Rumpled suits gave way to tailored pinstripes. A Tulsa bank made him a director. So did the Chamber of Commerce. He joined Rotary. He joined the city’s most exclusive country club.
He established ORU (Oral Roberts University) on a large tract of land in suburban Tulsa. Billy Graham was the dedication speaker. The university’s dazzling modern architecture is dominated by a 200-foot-high Prayer Tower with a “crown of thorns” around its observation deck and a perpetual flame on top to signify the Holy Ghost. All day and night, seven days a week, “prayer partners” in the tower pray for and counsel those who telephone from all parts of the world.
Three years ago, to the horror of his old Pentecostal associates, Roberts—now “Dr.” Roberts—became an ordained Methodist minister and joined Boston Avenue, Tulsa’s wealthy, fashionable, middle-of-the-road Methodist church. Does Dr. Roberts, Tulsa’s most distinguished millionaire, have some long-range plan up his natty coat sleeve? No one knows. His major interest at the moment seems to be his TV musical spectaculars, featuring prominent guests and the “now” sound of his singing son, Richard. No one on these shows speaks in the Unknown Tongue.
Billy Hargis, Tulsa’s number two windbag, had more formal training for the cloth than Roberts; he graduated from Ozark Bible College, Bentonville, Arkansas, to become a Christian Church minister at eighteen. Hargis doesn’t practice faith healing. His forte is fighting communism. The Christian Crusade, which he oversees, is the largest Christ-centered anti-Red movement in the land. Indeed, beside it the American Communist Party pales into insignificance. The beautiful cathedral in Tulsa draws almost as many visitors as Roberts’s Prayer Tower. Billy has his own university in Tulsa: American Christian College. The Crusade also runs colleges in Colorado and Maine. New Yorkers may regard this pudgy, moon-faced Tulsan as a bigger buffoon than Roberts, but in the Middle West he is a greatly admired celebrity. The half-million-dollar mansion where he lives, on a hill in Tulsa, has ninety telephone outlets.
Kathryn Kuhlman, Pittsburgh’s aging evangelist (in her sixties though she doesn’t look it), is the only lady preacher in Morris’s book. Although faint thunder compared to Aimee Semple McPherson, Miss Kuhlman is unquestionably the most renowned faith healer in America. Some of Morris’s best writing is his description of her triumphant appearance in Tulsa in 1971, with Dr. Roberts on the platform, and the deaf, halt, and blind being “slain by the Lord” when Miss Kuhlman touches them.
Allen Spraggett, a Canadian fundamentalist who gave up preaching to write preposterous potboilers about the occult, is Miss Kuhlman’s leading hagiographer. Spraggett believes that mediums talk with the dead, and just about every other aspect of the current psychic scene. His 1970 paperback, Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman who Believes in Miracles, is of special interest, Morris suggests, because it approaches Miss Kuhlman’s miracles from the standpoint of parapsychology.
Spraggett has a low opinion of Roberts, but considers Miss Kuhlman a saint. What impresses him most is that so many of those she heals are unbelievers. Could it be, he asks, that what Miss Kuhlman calls the Holy Spirit is really a “field phenomenon,” that her healing is less an act of God than a parapsychological event? This mixing of Christianity with the occult is a rapidly growing trend, not only among professional psychics like Jeane Dixon but also among liberal Protestant leaders such as Norman Vincent Peale and the late Bishop James Pike. It has, of course, long been the stock-in-trade of mediums such as Arthur Ford, about whom Spraggett has also written a book.*
The funniest chapter in Morris’s book concerns the eighty-one-year-old Pasadena prophet, Herbert W. Armstrong. It seems unlikely that a single man, with undistinguished oratory and a patchwork of antique heresies, could build a fundamentalist empire that now has operating funds even larger than Roberts’s. Somehow the old man did it, and he did it all on the radio without a single appeal for funds. He simply drones on about Biblical prophecy and the “wonderful world of tomorrow,” then offers subscriptions to his magazine, Plain Truth, and booklets attacking evolution and other false doctrines—all “absolutely free.” This absence of requests for money is one of his cleverest innovations. He waits patiently until converts are solidly hooked on his Worldwide Church of God, then subjects them to rigid tithing.
Armstrong’s revelations are incredibly old hat. The Anglo-Saxon people are the true descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. There is no Trinity. The dead are truly dead until Judgment Day when God will restore them to life with a new body. (This doctrine of “conditional immortality” has had many distinguished advocates: John Milton and Karl Barth, to name only two. It is a central dogma of Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other sects.) Old Testament food regulations must be observed. Medicines, vaccines, and “Pagan holidays” such as Sunday, Christmas, and Easter are taboo.
Listening to Armstrong explicate Daniel and Revelation, one finds it hard to conceive how anyone could suppose that this smiling little man, with white hair and large eyes, is the only person on earth with a direct pipeline to the Almighty. Yet his Church of God has millions of converts. I used to think Bobby Fischer refused to play chess on Saturday because he is Jewish. Not so. As an Armstrong follower, Bobby shares with Seventh Day Adventists the conviction that God never authorized a Sunday sabbath.
What is one to make of Herbert’s handsome son, Garner Ted, whose voice sounds so curiously like his dad’s? Does he really believe the nonsense he talks, or is he just concerned about the multi-million-dollar empire he will soon inherit if he pretends to keep the faith and Jesus delays His coming for a few more decades?
There are hilarious pictures in The Preachers of other top Bible pounders. A.A. Allen had to abandon plans to raise the dead when it became apparent parent that the faithful would start shipping him corpses. C.W. Burpo once devoted an entire radio program to revealing that H. Rap Brown was none other than John Green, an undercover agent of the Senate Appropriations Committee. (Burpo had read this in Russell Baker’s column and didn’t know it was a joke.) And there is the Right Reverend Father-in-God, His Divine Eminence, Dr. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, better known as Reverend Ike. Ike is a black evangelist from South Carolina whose major revelation is that God wants you to make lots of money. Ike has even found support for this in the Good Book: “A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). A chapter is devoted to Carl McIntire, the irascible New Jersey fundamentalist who has been in the news recently because the government is giving him such a hard time about his pirate radio station.
Billy Graham, the biggest of the biggies, is the only preacher about whom Morris has nothing unkind to disclose. Graham really does practice what he preaches. Others attack him from left and right, but he turns the other cheek and goes his own way, firmly persuaded by his vast pride and ignorance that he, Billy Graham, like Billy Sunday before him, is in firm possession of God’s truth. If he were a clever charlatan he would be more interesting. But the awful truth is that Graham is not a charlatan. He may even be convinced, God help us all, that his friend Richard Nixon golfs with him not to boost his political image but because he, Nixon, actually shares Billy’s evangelical faith.
In spite of its comic scenes, The Preachers is a sad, nostalgic book, and when one finishes it large questions loom in the mind. Why has it happened? How is it that today, when science and medicine are advancing on a thousand spectacular fronts, people seem caught up in every conceivable variety of irrationalism? This new irrationalism seems to be worldwide. It can be found in England, Japan, France, Germany—even in Russia. There is an astonishing article in a recent issue of Time (October 8, page 102) about how Pentecostalism is “spreading like a spiritual wildfire” around the globe, especially in Korea!
One view, ably defended by Father Andrew Greeley in his recent book Unsecular Man, is that the percentage of persons, at any one time or place, who cannot live without faith in the supernatural is a relatively fixed constant. Only the myths change. What we are now witnessing is not an increase of belief in the supernatural; just noisy alterations in the content of such belief. As liberal Protestantism rolls toward humanism, and Catholicism rolls toward Protestantism, unsecular Western souls start looking elsewhere—to the past and to the East—for gods and magic.
Another view is that superstition does indeed fluctuate in intensity, like the business cycle; that a combination of social forces—the bomb, wars, science, future shock, deteriorating education, decline of established churches, and so on—have produced a genuine upsurge of uncritical faith. Whatever is the true state of affairs and the reasons for it, strange things are happening to American Protestantism, and its future now seems as wildly unpredictable as the future of America itself.
February 21, 1974