September 2018

Remembering: Oral Roberts on Voices of Oklahoma

“My Dad was a doctor man, he went to doctors, and my Mother prayed…she was the smarter of the two”

On August 11th 2009, John Erling spoke with Granville Oral Roberts for “Voices of Oklahoma,” in what turned out to be Roberts’ final interview before his death in December. Billed by Erling, as “one of the most famous and controversial religious leaders of the 20th century” the interview focuses more on Roberts story as he tells it, and he tells it with passion. Even at 91-years-old the habits of a televangelist instantly ignite back in place, even in a “big blue recliner with a blanket on his lap, and his walker nearby.” Along with Robert’s myth-making of often Biblical proportions, Erling’s line of questioning often reveals more about the inquisitive nature of the interviewer than the subject and his uncompromising ability to stick to the script. Famously ridiculing the sketchiest of Roberts’ fundraising pursuits—involving dreams, a 900-foot-Jesus, and a sort of cosmic hostage situation—Erling certainly has opinions about Robert’s methods. Yet the tone is never interrogative, only hospitable, inquisitive, and full of wonder.

At no other point in the interview does Robert’s excitement exceed the account of his experience of being healed of tuberculosis, in a moment (among many) that defined the life that lay ahead of him. “He prayed for me that night, and when he touched me with his hand and said, ‘You foul, tormenting disease, I command you in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, come out of this boy!’ Just like that. ‘Come out of this boy and enter him no more.’ The presence of God filled my whole being. Filled my lungs, and I could breathe from all the way down to the bottom of my lungs. And I rose up from the chair I was sitting in and ran across the stage and he put a microphone in my hand and I testified that I was healed. And I was really healed.”

Roberts remembers every word God has spoken to Him. And when he said God speaks to him, it isn’t figurative. His accounts of audible divine interventions resonate with several accounts in the Bible, from the explosive conversion of the apostle Paul to the words heard by Samuel in his bedchamber. As Oral tells it, nothing occurred in his ministry without the direct audible approval from God. His various building projects, his marriage, the time of his death, and even being on time to his public events await on divine inspiration: “If He didn’t speak to me, I didn’t move.”

The grandiose quality of Roberts’ story is alluring, as he describes currents of electricity running through his right hand like fire, so intense that critics thought he was attached to a wire that ran under the stage. Even so, Erling consistently hints at more nuanced engagements with questions of the ultimately unknowable divine. Briefly addressing the horrific tragedies Roberts has suffered throughout his life, Erling asks if blaming God was ever a temptation. Roberts quips “I never blamed God for anything in my whole life,” and that was that. When Erling brings up Roberts’ critics, postulating that perhaps God could have been speaking through them, Roberts has an equally quick response: “I’ve never been one to take other people’s words for God’s words.”

As the narrative is spun, it is interesting to see how Roberts shifts the focus in regards to some of the more controversial aspects of his vocation. He sent his son Richard away from the university because “God told him to go into his own ministry,” not because of the allegations of moral failure and misappropriation of university funds. As to his most notorious fund-raising scheme, he claims he never said he would “die” if he failed to receive 8 million dollars, only that “God would take him home.” Also, he didn’t want to build a hospital in the first place, and even “argued with God” about it. He happily visited Jimmy Carter and Bush Sr., but only met Nixon after the President insisted several times. Nixon wanted tips for how to appear on television without being nervous.

Roberts has nothing but accolades for Billy Graham, the revivalist evangelist that perhaps he draws the most comparisons to. Amusingly, Roberts explains that “Billy was the most generous man in the ministry I’ve ever met. He accepted all men, even the Catholic priests.” Though Roberts, due to his controversial reputation as a faith healer, was initially reticent to involve himself with Graham, their friendship lasted both of their lifetimes, recently culminating with Roberts sending Graham a top-of-the-line walker: “Oral, you’ve sent me the Cadillac” Graham apparently responded.

Roberts’ love for Tulsa and Oklahoma runs deep throughout his entire history. Initially he chose Tulsa “because of the airlines,” knowing that his ministry was going to “take [him] to the ends of the Earth.” And every time it comes up, Roberts is quick to acknowledge the generosity, kindness, and love that he always felt from Tulsans: “When I go back to Oklahoma, and my feet touch the ground, I know I’ve come home.” Erling concludes by asking Oral for a favorite verse. “Yes, John 10:10” he exclaims without missing a beat, and recites dramatically, as if onstage again, under lights and cameras: “The thief for the Devil cometh, not except to steal, and kill and destroy. I am come Jesus said. That you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly. That’s the story of my ministry.”

But just before this, Erling asked: “So, as you think about the next life, what do you think you’ll see when you go on to heaven? Do you have any thought about that?” Roberts responds: “Well, I’ll be myself. I’m awaiting the call.”

Listen to the whole interview below, at “Voices of Oklahoma”