Oral Roberts: A Religious Innovator

Oral Roberts: A Religious Innovator

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Introduction

Oral Roberts was born in poverty in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, in 1918 and
nearly died of tuberculosis when he was seventeen. He was bedridden for five
months, and many members of his family thought he would not recover. Yet he
believed he heard God speak to him, saying, “Son, I am going to heal you, and
you are to take my healing power to your generation. You are to build a univer-
sity and build it on My authority and the Holy Spirit.” Afterward, his parents
and elder brother took him to a tent revival where God healed him. The Pen-
tecostal Holiness Church later ordained him. He pastored until 1947, when he
left to become a full-time healing evangelist and held healing crusades all over

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the country. He became a nationally recognized figure overnight and made the
national headlines after a gunman tried to kill him in 1947. His fame skyrock-
eted in 1955 when he started televising his tent crusades. In 1962, he financed
and built Oral Roberts University (oru), and by the 1980s, his organization was
putting $100 million back into the Tulsa economy.1
Vinson Synan describes Roberts as one who bridged denominational gaps.
He maneuvered himself to become one of the charismatic movement’s key
figures, with his message appealing to Pentecostals, Methodists, and Roman
Catholics alike.2 Alan Anderson notes the same, stating that it was indepen-
dent healing evangelists such as Roberts that made Pentecostalism a popular
subculture.3 In a 2017 article titled “Oral Roberts: Son of Pentecostalism, Father
of the Charismatic Movement,” Synan argues for precisely that. He describes
Roberts as one of the most important religious figures of the twentieth cen-
tury.4

He was one of the most prominent American religious leaders of his time,
second only to Billy Graham. His emphasis on healing and prosperity still
inspires millions of Pentecostals and charismatics around the world. In
the end, Roberts was the most famous and influential leader ever pro-
duced by the Pentecostal Holiness Church. At the same time, he was the
one man above all others who brought Pentecostalism to the attention of
the world.5

With such acclaim, one would expect more studies on Roberts to have been
done. However, the few academic studies available are written of his role within
the pentecostal and charismatic movement and focus on topics such as heal-
ing revivals, television, crusade rhetoric, faith, and prosperity. Daniel Isgrigg
says that these few studies do not capture Roberts’s full impact on American
religious life.6 This study seeks to add to the literature and give fresh insight

1 Jim Ernest Hunter, “A Gathering of Sects: Revivalistic Pluralism in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1945–
1985” (PhD diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986), 53. ProQuest Dissertations
and Theses.
2 Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 222.
3 Alan Anderson, Introduction to Penetcostalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,
2017), 158–159.
4 Vinson Synan, “Oral Roberts: Son of Pentecostalism, Father of the Charismatic Movement,”
Spiritus 2, nos. 1–2 (2017): 5.
5 Synan, “Son of Pentecostalism, Father of the Charismatic Movement,” 18.
6 Daniel Isgrigg, “Oral Roberts: A Brief Bibliography,” Spiritus 3, no. 2 (2018): 385. Wonsuk Ma
provides four reasons why studies on Oral Roberts are necessary: to develop oru as a premier

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into Roberts’s contribution to religious life by placing him within a religious
marketplace framework and examining his role as a religious innovator.

1.1 Why a Religious Economic Analysis of Oral Roberts
The theory of a religious economy explains religious activity within an eco-
nomic framework.7 It is built upon the concept of religion operating within a
deregulated open market in which people are free to worship where and how
they choose.8 Within this framework, churches act as firms, pastors as mar-
keters, and church members as consumers whose tastes shape the goods and
services the ministers offer.9 The effectiveness with which suppliers package
and market their products in ways that resonate with the public’s existential
needs and cultural tastes determines the supplier’s level of success in this com-
plex market environment.10 Lee and Sinitiere refer to the most successful of
these suppliers as “holy mavericks.”11 These are innovators who thrive because
they are quick to react to changing cultural and social conditions. They are busi-
ness savvy and resourceful in carving out a niche in which they market spiritual
products that match the religious consumer’s tastes.12

research institute; to assess Roberts’s contribution to American church history; to explore
his contribution to the charismatic and pentecostal movements; and to assess his influ-
ence in the role of global Christianity. See Wonsuk Ma, “Why Oral Roberts Studies,” Spiritus
3, no. 2 (2018): 157–167.
7 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, “The Dynamics of Religious Economies,” in Handbook of
the Sociology of Religion, ed. Michelle Dillon (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,
2003), 99.
8 Stephen Warner, “Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of
Religion in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 98, no. 5 (1993): 1049–1050.
9 Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks (New York: New York University
Press, 2009), 160.
10 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 150.
11 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 19–23, provides a multifaceted profile of a religious inno-
vator that includes: 1) A religious innovator capitalizes on untapped niches using a broad
range of cultural tools to offer appealing messages and ministries to their contempo-
raries. 2) Religious innovators construct narratives of national sentiment and links them
with spiritual integrity and biblical precedents. 3) A religious innovator exhibits “prag-
matic shrewdness” at touching the heart of many Americans’ social and spiritual struggles.
4) Unlike the leaders produced by mainline religious institutions who are not typically
dynamic or relevant, religious innovators are often self-taught. 5) Religious innovators are
pragmatic, focusing on effective communication rather than on doctrinal diatribes, and
are quick to forfeit church tradition if they consider it cumbersome. 6) They have an inert
ability to scratch where people are itching and use their struggles to connect with what
their audience is experiencing. 7) They are always under construction, continually evolv-
ing with culture and investing in their personal development.
12 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 2, 3.

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One of the benefits of studying Roberts within this framework is that it
liberates Roberts from himself. For instance, David Harrell says that many aca-
demics and intellectuals are reluctant to study Roberts objectively because they
struggle to take him seriously. Roberts’s claims that he heard God’s voice, per-
sonally beheld Jesus, and his belief in miracles seem absurd, comical, or dan-
gerous. Harrell also notes that Roberts contributed to the public’s unbalanced
perception of him in many ways.13 However, when a minister is examined using
the marketplace framework, the success of the supplier’s religious product and
ministerial activity is freed from divine endorsement.14 So, rather than seeing
God’s blessing, anointing, or listening to God’s voice as the result of Roberts’s
success, this approach sees his success as lying squarely on the inventiveness of
his role as a religious supplier. This approach frees Roberts from doctrinal and
theological criticisms because doctrinal validity and spiritual integrity are not
questioned within this framework.15 Moreover, locating Roberts within the his-
torical context of the American religious marketplace helps assess his contri-
bution toward today’s current religious-economic climate while also assisting
scholars in understanding the changing needs and preferences of the religious
consumer.16 Essentially, by understanding the supplier, consumers learn a little
more about themselves.17

13 David Edwin Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1985), viii–iv.
14 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 9.
15 Although I highlight one of the benefits of studying Roberts using religious economic the-
ory, it must be said that this benefit can also be a hindrance. For, although doctrinal validity
or spirutal integrity are not questioned within this framework, they remain factors that
contribute to the construction of the product and consumer demand.
16 Many scholars already recognize Roberts’s contribution and his role as a religious sup-
plier in the religious marketplace, but none examines him in depth. For instance, Lee
and Sinitiere Holy Mavericks (2009), provide case studies for five contemporary minis-
ters who operate as religious innovators. They recognize Oral Roberts as a precursor to
their chosen ministers, but the authors only make passing comments to Roberts’s role.
Similarly, Shayne Lee’s T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (2007) and Paul McGee’s Brand-
New Theology (2017), although analyzing T.D. Jakes, also comment on Roberts’s role as an
influential figure. R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God (1994), which explores American reli-
gion, culture, and the marketplace, only pays Oral Roberts passing comment. These works,
and the many others that examine the American religious market and the role of critical
individuals within it, although they recognize Oral Roberts, none thoroughly analyzes his
contributions or captures his impact.
17 This is a good point for me to position myself in the study. I am a first-generation pente-
costal present within a context that is influenced and inspired by Oral Roberts. In some
ways, I am very much a product of his life’s and legacy’s work. However, although I am
grateful for his input, the more I know about him, the more questions I have about him.
I cannot discount his contribution to Pentecostalism and my own life. Yet, I often ques-

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1.2 An Overview of the Study
This article places Oral Roberts within this framework to examine how he fits a
religious innovator’s characteristics. It analyzes four areas of Roberts’s ministry.
The first area explores how Roberts’s innovative use of television is synonymous
with how religious innovators use the cultural tools at their disposal to offer
appealing messages and ministries to their contemporaries.18 The second area
explores how religious innovators use their abilities to touch the modern-day
ills at the heart of America’s social and spiritual struggles.19 Roberts did this
through his stance on racial equality, which shows another quality of Roberts’s
religious innovation—the ability to forecast market trends and market expan-
sion. The third area looks at how Roberts’s product, like all religious innovators’
products, stood on its ability to provide his audience with an experience. The
fourth area explores the global scope of Roberts’s enterprise by showing how
Seed Faith flourished as a religious product in the African religious market
because it offered consumers the fulfillment of their needs and promised spir-
itual rewards.

2 Four Areas Revealing That Oral Roberts Was a Religious Innovator

2.1 Oral Roberts’s Innovative Use of Television
Finke and Stark look at the historical development of Christianity in Amer-
ica and account for its progress using economic terms. Tracing Christianity’s
development from the early settlers to the present day, they observed indi-
viduals who thrived because they had the unique ability to change religious
supply through energetic delivery and effective marketing.20 Like those reli-
gious innovators that came before him, Roberts capitalized using the cultural
tools available to him to offer appealing messages and ministries to his audi-
ence.21 Roberts did this by using television, his use of which, Harrell says, was
“innovative.”22

tion to what extent his success as “God’s man for the hour” was motivated by his tenacity,
desire to succeed, and expertise in fund-raising. In some respects, this study’s research is
part of my journey to understand Oral Roberts and come to grips with my own feelings
about him.
18 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 19.
19 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 20.
20 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers
in Our Religious Economy (New York: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 3.
21 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 19.
22 Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life, viii.

 

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Oral Roberts’s journey into television began in 1952 when he produced a
short film to play in churches and auditoriums that tried to tell a story of
faith easy enough for everyone to understand.23 The film’s success increased
Roberts’s desire to develop a more extensive television ministry, which coin-
cided with his feeling in 1953 that God wanted him on television. He told his
partners about his desire to go on television, and with their backing, he broad-
cast Your Faith Is Power in January 1954. Hunter says that although Roberts had
reservations about the program’s outcome, the program was a success.24 Harrell
paints a gloomier picture, saying that the show was canceled and Roberts was
“not satisfied” with it.25 Roberts wanted to recast the program and add more
atmosphere by shooting the show live in the tent crusades. However, nbc told
him that shooting the tent crusades live was technologically impossible. His
friend Rex Humbard encouraged him otherwise, and Roberts approached a dif-
ferent company (Pathescope Productions of New York). This company worked
with Roberts, and he returned to television in 1955 with the atmospheric for-
mat he wanted. Roberts told his partners, “For the first time in the history of
the world, the healing ministry is being filmed, completely unrehearsed, for
television. And if you love our meetings, you will love the programs on televi-
sion, for you will see the tent services exactly as they are—with the exception
that they will be right in your own home and in the homes of millions of others
from coast to coast.”26 His newly formatted show opened to critical acclaim.
Vinson Synan says this is the point where Roberts’s fame skyrocketed.27
Oral Roberts ended the first phase of his television ministry in 1967.28 He
took a break from television, but his controversial decision to join the United
Methodist Church in 1968 rocked his financial base and reputation so signif-
icantly that he realized how vital his television ministry was as a means of
publicity and financial support.29 Roberts planned a comeback. He wanted to
design a new show format to reach the 190,000,000 Americans who watched
television.30 Roberts asked Ralph Carmichael to help. According to Hunter,
Carmichael was a brilliant artist who assembled a top-notch artistic team to

23 Pete White, “A New Venture into Faith,” Healing Waters, August 1952, 11.
24 James E. Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small: The Development of Oral Roberts’ Tele-
vision Ministry,” Spiritus 3, no. 2 (2018): 241.
25 Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life, 126–127.
26 Oral Roberts, “Second Call to Action,” America’s Healing Magazine, January 1955, 6.
27 Vinson Synan, “Son of Pentecostalism, Father of the Charismatic Movement,” 11.
28 Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small,” 239–240. Hunter identifies three phases of
Roberts’s television ministry, 1952–1967, 1969–1977, and 1977–1985.
29 Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small,” 245.
30 Oral Roberts, “Yes, We’re Back on Television,” Abundant Life, March 1969, 2.

 

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produce a new weekly television series and quarterly prime-time entertain-
ment specials that were the first of their kind.31 Roberts believed that his new
show was a “first of its kind” and would become one of his ministry’s “greatest
outreaches for souls,” reaching people of all “levels and ages.”32 Laurence Moore
quotes Ben Armstrong, who was head of the National Religious Broadcasters at
the time, as saying that the show was “a sparkling new television presentation
that had everything that would guarantee success for any series.”33
That Roberts jumped technological hurdles and produced a live television
show in a way never done before and created a prime-time show in a revolu-
tionary format shows his innovation in this area. That other religious broad-
casters duplicated his formats many times over demonstrates Roberts’s abil-
ity to use cultural tools to capitalize on untapped niches and that he suc-
cessfully changed religious supply through the new delivery method of tele-
vision. Roberts’s innovation with television falls in line with historical religious
innovators who also used the cultural tools at their disposal to offer appeal-
ing messages and ministries to their contemporaries.34 George Whitefield is
an example of such a figure. With his friend Benjamin Franklin, who was a
competent marketer, they printed sermons and journals and built up White-
field’s popularity and the people’s excitement about his next campaign.35 Tele-
vision did this for Roberts in ways previously incomprehensible. As it hap-
pened, Roberts’s innovative use of television was perhaps a little too successful
because it showed others how effective television could be and contributed
toward his ministry’s later decline.36

2.2 Oral Roberts’s Stance on Racial Equality and Expanding Markets
One characteristic of a religious innovator is their ability to touch the modern-
day ills that lie at the heart of America’s social and spiritual struggles.37 One of
the modern-day ills affecting America at the time Roberts operated was racial
inequality. Roberts grew up pentecostal. Pentecostals tend to have an apocalyp-
tic spirituality that isolates and withdraws them from worldly issues, making
them focus on individualized mission and evangelism. This means that Pente-

31 Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small,” 245.
32 Oral Roberts, “We Are Returning to Television,” Abundant Life, February, 1969, 3, 6.
33 R. Laurence Moore, Selling God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 248.
34 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 19.
35 Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, “Sanctified Business: Historical Perspectives on Financing
Revivals of Religion,” More Money, More Ministry, ed. Larry Eskridge and Mark A. Noll
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 84.
36 Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small,” 251.
37 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 20.

 

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costals are not typically known for their sociopolitical involvement.38 Harrell
criticizes Roberts’s stance against racial inequality using that argument. He
quotes W.E. Mann, who complained that Roberts preached salvation without
any social ethic.39 Harrell also criticizes Roberts for being sectarian and other-
worldly in his response to racial injustice.40 In some ways, Harrell’s accusations
are evident in Roberts’s rhetoric toward social injustice, which tends to redirect
the focus from the social issue onto Christ. However, this trait is consistent with
Roberts’s belief that God had called him to help people of all races, colors, and
denominations to see “Jesus as he really is” and experience the abundant life.41
As Roberts said, “Jesus is the color of everyman.”42
According to Harrell, Roberts was “no social crusader.”43 Daniel Isgrigg has
a more favorable opinion of Roberts. He says that Harrell’s comments do not
fully recognize Roberts’s views on America’s racial issues of that period or how
Robert’s thoughts progressively developed over time. Isgrigg argues that Oral
Roberts was a pioneer of racial integration and describes Roberts as a “voice for
healing and reconciliation at a time when the black church needed a champion
and the white church needed a prophetic voice.”44 Notice that Isgrigg describes
Roberts as a “pioneer” and a “prophetic voice.” These terms are associated with
religious innovators. Religious innovators have societal foresight. They see how
society is developing and move with those developments before others see
what is happening.45 Bearing in mind that a religious economy comprises cur-
rent and potential customers and that religious innovators work within this
economy,46 the innovator’s ability to maintain profitability in the current mar-
ket while projecting market trends is detrimental to their success.
Harrell’s criticism of Roberts as otherworldly and lacking social engagement
does not recognize the tightrope Roberts walked along as a supplier market-
ing a product he wanted to appeal to both whites and blacks during a volatile
social period in America. Yet, it was a tightrope along which Roberts saw value

38 Anderson, Introduction to Pentecostalism, 283.
39 David E. Harrell, Jr., White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South (Nashville, TN: Vander-
bilt University Press, 1971), 102, citing W.E. Mann, “What About Oral Roberts?,” Christian
Century, September 5, 1956, 1019.
40 Harrell, White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South, 102.
41 Oral Roberts, “Oral Roberts Answers Your Questions,” Abundant Life, December 1986, 12.
42 Oral Roberts, “Hate, Love and the Christian,” Abundant Life, March 1968, 13.
43 Harrell, White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South, 101.
44 Daniel Isgrigg, “Healing for All Races: Oral Roberts’ Legacy of Racial Reconciliation in a
Divided City,” Spiritus 4, no. 2 (2019): 247–248.
45 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 24.
46 Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, 9.

 

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in walking because, being a religious innovator, he foresaw where society was
heading. It has got to be said, though, that Roberts remained a realist during
this process and did not lose sight of the fact that his major consumers were
white. For instance, in his special television issue of Abundant Life, which was
an issue meant to represent diversity and healing, most of the photos are of
white people.47 So, although Roberts was keen to expand into new markets, he
did not lose sight of his primary customer base.
The delicacy with which Roberts used his innovative insight to maneuver
himself into a position where he could reap the benefits of America’s social and
spiritual struggles and move with the times paid off. Isgrigg identifies several
changes Roberts made to oru over the following decades, including strategi-
cally placing African Americans in positions of leadership and offering schol-
arships and grants, so that by 1992 the enrollment of African Americans had
risen to 24.3 percent from 4.1 percent in 1980.48 Evidently, Roberts developed an
institution capable of self-propagating his brand while attaining a larger share
of a more open African American religious market. His 1969 prime time spe-
cial prayer with Mahalia Jackson over a specially manufactured golden globe
for the healing of the nations was coming to pass49—at least in market terms.
One characteristic of a religious innovator is their ability to touch the
modern-day ills that lie at the heart of America’s social and spiritual struggles.
Yet, a question emerges concerning Roberts’s motivation/s for wanting to touch
modern-day ills. Was his stance on racial equality motivated by his religious
conviction, or was he motivated by his own ambition to work the system and
get his product into a new market and stay relevant? Depending on how we
approach that question, Roberts’s stance could just as easily be caused by his
religious convictions and have nothing to do with him trying to influence the
market. The question itself best deserves its own study, but it is worth stating
two points on the matter.
The first point is really just an observation. It is crucial to note that Roberts’s
product appealed to African Americans and others because it worked—plain
and simple. The people would never have invested in his product if it did not
speak toward their social and economic needs, and Roberts could never have
expanded into that market. The second point concerns this study’s methodol-
ogy. This study uses a religious marketplace framework to assess Roberts. Using
this framework means that the success of the supplier’s religious product and

47 orea, Abundant Life, February, 1969.
48 Isgrigg, “Healing for All Races,” 243–244.
49 Roberts, “We are Returning to Television,” 7.

 

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ministerial activity is freed from divine endorsement and is placed firmly on the
religious supplier’s innovativeness.50 This makes things easy because it omits
the role of God or religious conviction from our study. However, this does not
overlook the fact that Roberts was as complex as any individual. Harrell says
that obedience to God was the motivating factor behind everything Roberts
did51 and that “the ministry and the man cannot be separated.”52 I believe Har-
rell’s observations are accurate. So, although I claim that Roberts’s interest in
expanding into new religious markets motivated his stance on racial equality,
it is impossible to totally dismiss his religious convictions. I see a unity between
Roberts’s drive for racial equality with the ambition and foresight he displays
as a religious innovator. To paraphrase Asamoah-Gyadu: it is difficult to know
how much of Roberts’s actions were motivated by what he believed his divine
mandate to be and how much by human ambition.53
One can also see Roberts’s foresight for expanding into new markets in his
attendance at the evangelical World Congress on Evangelism held in Berlin in
1966. Roberts’s belief that the historic denominations would be open to his min-
istry reveals his vision for market expansion.54 Also revealing Roberts’s vision
was his wish to open oru’s seminary to students from mainline denominations
and his decision to join the Methodist Church, which also increased his mar-
ket base. That the Methodist Church became the fastest-growing charismatic
denomination after he joined shows that his presence helped the Methodists
grow their market.55 Roberts’s ability and attempts to increase and forecast cul-
tural developments and move into new markets fit the criteria for a religious
innovator. Roberts even saw himself as a forerunner. He described in one oru
chapel service how he was “overwhelmed by God reminding me that He had
set me in the Body of Christ to be a forerunner of that healing and health He is
going to bring to the Body of Christ.”56

50 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 9.
51 Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life, 480.
52 Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life, xi.
53 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “ ‘Your Miracle Is on the Way’: Oral Roberts and Mediated
Pentecostalism in Africa,” Spiritus 3, no. 1 (2018): 22.
54 Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small,” 245.
55 Synan, “Son of Pentecostalism, Father of the Charismatic Movement,” 16.
56 Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life, 475, citing Oral Roberts, Chapel Transcript, Decem-
ber 10, 1982, 15.

 

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2.3 How Roberts’s Product Delivered Experience and Proved Itself
Effective
James Twitchell says that the product religious groups offer in a religious mar-
ketplace is the born-again experience, which is the experience (think sensa-
tion) of a fresh start.57 It is the promise of, “I made a few mistakes Saturday
night, but I’ve got a fresh start with God because I repented and said the sinner’s
prayer on Sunday.” This may be an oversimplification, but the product, accord-
ing to Twitchell, is all about the experience. In Roberts’s terms, the promise is
“[t]hat something good is going to happen to you,” that “God is a good God,
and the devil is a bad devil.” As Lee and Sinitiere say, religious innovators speak
the cultural language of their time and offer a timely message to their audi-
ence.58 The way Roberts used buzzwords and phrases like those above corre-
sponds to product branding, where suppliers and marketers create taglines to
go with their products with which people can identify.59 In a religious mar-
ketplace, an innovator’s product stands or falls on its ability to deliver experi-
ence.
The development of Roberts’s product and his rise in the late forties and
fifties coincided with a sense of optimism for Christianity in America. Holly-
wood helped spread this optimism among the 97 percent of Americans who
believed in God by producing such biblical epics as Ben Hur, The Ten Com-
mandments, The Robe, and other movies. However, a general unawareness of
the practical power of faith in Christian lives countered this public optimism.
People such as Fulton J. Sheen and Norman Vincent Peale capitalized by help-
ing Christians grasp the practical power of God for their own lives and over-
come their inadequacies and insecurities. Some believed this to be a step for-
ward. Still others thought people like Sheen and Peale were diluting the gospel
with culture and creating a new Christianity that identified with the Ameri-
can way of life.60 Roberts emerged in this environment with a message that
was optimistic and practical to his audiences’ needs. Like Peale and Sheen,
Roberts settled into the niche of marketplace culture,61 providing the public
with the product of practical American optimism. The timing in which Roberts
appeared on the scene was no accident. After all, Roberts was “God’s man for
the hour.” He came to the fore supplying the people with a religious product
that provided sensation and experience, which God wanted all the people to

57 James B Twitchell, Shopping for God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 50.
58 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 155.
59 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 152.
60 Moore, Selling God, 239–244.
61 Moore, Selling God, 241.

 

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have. And it certainly delivered. Hunter says that The Christian Century referred
to Roberts’s early television success in 1955 as “sensational.”62 Moore says that
many people watched his television shows “as much out of curiosity as convic-
tion.” Some critics likened the hysteria they saw to the Cane Ridge revivals.63
Hunter, though, says Roberts’s meetings were relatively modest, and hysteria
and emotionalism were not characteristics of his services.64 Nonetheless, many
who saw Roberts’s tent meetings for the first time were “captured by the inten-
sity of the drama.”65
Besides sensation, Roberts’s product promised results, and Roberts’s own life
was one of the most significant proofs. Roberts reminded his audience that
miracles were real because he received one when God healed him from tuber-
culosis as a teenager.66 Roberts wrote in Abundant Life,

He spoke to me, a 17-year-old boy dying with tuberculosis. He spoke to
my heart. He spoke to my sister who said to me, “Oral, God is going to
heal you.” Lying there bedfast for five months with the papers signed to
take me to the sanitarium for tuberculosis in Talihina, Oklahoma. I didn’t
have anything to look forward to. My life was blasted. Forty-five pounds
had gone from my body. I was skin and bones. There was no way for me.
I didn’t know there were miracles. And then I learned the secret of life—
that you can expect a miracle and if you have a miracle it settles the issue!
The most wonderful moment in your life is when you launch out in your
faith and expect a miracle from God.67

The same issue of Abundant Life narrates a few of Roberts’s partners’ per-
sonal testimonies and how acting on Roberts’s message brought results in their
lives. Pamela D. Williams describes how engaging in Roberts’s ministry product
brought healing.68 Mr. and Mrs. Sparks were in financial difficulty. They listened
to what Roberts said in his book The Miracle of Seed Faith and sowed out of their

62 Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small,” 242, citing “Oklahoma Faith-Healer Draws a
Following,” The Christian Century, June 29, 1955, 750.
63 Moore, Selling God, 247.
64 Hunter, “Where My Voice Is Heard Small,” 241.
65 Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life, 95.
66 Stephen Pullum, “A Rhetorical Profile of Pentecostal Televangelists: Accounting for the
Mass Appeal of Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Copeland, and Ernest Angley”
(PhD diss., Indiana University, 1988), 81.
67 Oral Roberts, “The Most Wonderful Moment in Your Life Is When You Launch Out in Your
Faith and Expect a Miracle from God,” Abundant Life, September 1978, 18.
68 Abundant Life, September 1978, 19.

 

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need. Nearly three years later, the Sparkses earned so much that they sowed an
amount greater than their previous annual income.69 Most of Roberts’s partner
magazines are full of the life stories of partners validating the authenticity of
Roberts’s religious product by giving their own testimony of how his message
affected their lives. In these testimonies, we see Roberts’s giftedness at using his
own struggles to bridge the gap between himself and his audience, who then
narrate the effectiveness of Roberts’s message to others. What takes place is a
process of product validation through story and the emergence of a brand com-
munity. That is, “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on
a structured set of social relations among admirers of the brand.”70 Brand com-
munities help consumers know whom they belong to, find their identity, and
communicate it to others while also identifying who else is part of the commu-
nity. But the nucleus of brand communities is the communication of narrative
experience within the brand (that is, storytelling or, in other words, providing
product reviews).
Using stories is something religious innovators excel at, and no story is more
vital for Roberts than his healing from tuberculosis when he was a teenager. The
quote above referred to Roberts’s healing from tuberculosis. The story became
a mainstay of his ministry and is often told in the media his ministry dis-
tributes. However, the widespread testimony that Roberts’s consumers know
differs from the earliest record of Roberts’s healing testimony from 1939.71 The
1939 account describes Roberts’s recovery from two different conditions (flu
and a nervous disorder) through family prayers. It does not mention that he
suffered from tuberculosis and was healed at a revivalist’s tent meeting. Isgrigg
and Synan suggest some reasons for the differences. One reason is that Roberts
tailored his testimony to lend credulity to his evangelistic calling. A second rea-
son is that Roberts may not have wanted to confirm his pentecostal tradition’s
assumptions that disobedience and God’s judgment caused sickness. A third
alternative is that Roberts was uneasy about the negative association between
tuberculosis and Native Americans and how this would affect his popularity as
an evangelist.72
Like all religious innovators, Roberts excelled at tailoring his messages and
using his struggles to bridge the gap between himself and his audience.73 The

69 Abundant Life, September 1978, 20–21.
70 Mara Einstein, Brands of Faith (New York: Routledge, 2008), 86.
71 East Oklahoma Conference News, October 5, 1939, 1. See Daniel Isgrigg and Vinson Synan,
“An Early Account of Oral Roberts’ Healing Testimony,” Spiritus 3, no. 2 (2018): 170–172.
72 Isgrigg and Synan, “An Early Account of Oral Roberts’ Healing Testimony,” 173–174.
73 Lee and Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 22.

 

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differences in Roberts’s healing testimonies show his skill at adapting his life’s
events to fit his ministry’s narrative and the product he was developing. Min-
istry narratives are those stories within ministries that communicate the essen-
tial characteristics of that ministry through their products. By adapting his
healing testimony to suit his ministry’s development, Roberts engineered his
story to fit his product. This is a form of product branding. Branding takes
place “to aid consumers in making and maintaining a personal connection
to a commodity product.”74 James Twitchell describes branding as a way of
marketing goods by using stories to produce consumer emotions. He refers to
this process as “storifying things.”75 Oral Roberts excelled at this because he
linked everything he preached back to his own life story. He storified his heal-
ing from tuberculosis into his product of Seed Faith and his broader ministry
narrative. Roberts also used his financial success to prove the effectiveness of
his product. He writes, “If God could raise me up from poverty, from stam-
mering and stuttering, and then heal me of tuberculosis—He can perform
miracles for anybody.”76 Stephen Pullum describes Roberts as the “personifi-
cation of financial healing.”77 Although Harrell says Roberts was not wealthy,78
Roberts’s testimony conveys the rags-to-riches story that makes up much of the
American Dream. As Pullum notes, Roberts “stands as a testimony to “the true
believer” that his message is truth.”79 Therefore, when Roberts asked his audi-
ence to touch the screen or sow their seed, he is living proof that what he said
worked.

2.4 The Success of Seed Faith in Africa as an Example of Roberts’s Global
Scope
This article has explored Oral Roberts as a religious innovator operating within
a North American religious marketplace, but Roberts’s influence goes beyond
North America and is felt worldwide. The African religious market provides
an example of his global reach. In his case study of Reinhard Bonnke, Edlyne
Anugwom talks about transnational evangelism and how Africa’s indigenous
religious leaders’ search for credibility and authority led them to invite lead-
ers from the Global North to the Global South. He describes “religious icons,”

74 Einstein, Brands of Faith, xi.
75 James B. Twitchell, Shopping for God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 74.
76 Pullum, “A Rhetorical Profile of Pentecostal Televangelists,” 88, citing Oral Roberts, The
Miracle Book (Tulsa, OK: Pinoak Publications, 1972), 12.
77 Pullum, “A Rhetorical Profile of Pentecostal Televangelists,” 81, 82.
78 Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life, xi.
79 Pullum, “A Rhetorical Profile of Pentecostal Televangelists,” 84.

 

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that is, “powerful men of God from the West.” Anugwom explains that these vis-
its were significant events that helped improve local churches and the visitor’s
ministry status. People from both sides of the globe saw these events as oppor-
tunities through which Christianity could respond to the needs of Africans.80
Oral Roberts was one “religious icon” who brought with him his product of Seed
Faith.
Seed Faith teaches the believer to demonstrate their faith by the giving of
seed. This involves a process in which the believer (that is, the sower) sees God
as the complete source of their supply, gives their best out of their need, and
then expects a miracle harvest and receives the desired result.81 Roberts says, “If
you want a miracle in your life, back up from the prayers you’re praying … from
the begging you’re doing … from the wishing you’re engaged in … use seed faith
as taught by Jesus.”82 Seed Faith is a branded product in its own right and pro-
foundly embodies Roberts’s life and ministry story. It provides the consumer
with a storified theology that they can take part in, and it promises the results
that Roberts himself embodies.
Seed Faith functions exceptionally well as a religious product because it
resonates with the audience’s existential needs while also offering spiritual
rewards (that is, results). Roberts distributed Seed Faith to the African con-
sumer through his healing crusades, radio, television, and literature, and he
influenced many African Pentecostal leaders.83 Asamoah-Gyadu reports that
receiving Roberts’s free literature thrilled the recipients, who then widely cir-
culated it.84 Roberts’s Seed Faith became a product within the African reli-
gious marketplace. It taught the African consumer that if they sowed seed
(that is, money), God would bless them, and they would reap more than what
they invested.85 Considering that Africa suffers from “endemic poverty, cor-

80 Edlyne Anugwom, “The Bonnke Effect: Encounters with Transnational Evangelism in
Southeastern Nigeria,” in Religion Crossing Boundaries: Transnational Religious and Social
Dynamics in Africa and the New African Diaspora, ed. Afe Adogame and James V. Spickard
(Leiden: Brill, 2010), 211.
81 Samuel R. Thorpe, “An Overview of the Theology of Oral Roberts,” Spiritus 3, no. 2 (2018):
271–272.
82 Oral Roberts, “Unlock Your Door to Miracles,” Abundant Life, August 1978, 3.
83 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “ ‘Your Miracle Is on the Way’: Oral Roberts and Mediated
Pentecostalism in Africa,” Spiritus 3, no. 1 (2018): 5–26.
84 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “Mediating Spiritual Power: African Christianity, Transna-
tionalism, and the Media,” in Religion Crossing Boundaries: Transnational Religious and
Social Dynamics in Africa and the New African Diaspora, ed. Afe Adogame and James
V. Spickard (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 88.
85 Asamoah-Gyadu, “Mediating Spiritual Power,” 88.

 

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ruption at the highest level of governance, and broken medical and economic
systems,”86 as a religious product, Seed Faith met the needs of Africans and
promised them a better future. Seed Faith proved very marketable in the Afri-
can market. Its legacy is found within the prosperity gospel (that is, the exercise
of faith for spiritual and material breakthroughs), which still provides Roberts
with a place in the African Christian imagination.87
Resident within the religious economy paradigm is the mutuality of product
exchange and consumer choice, otherwise known as Rational Choice Theory
(rct). In simple terms, rct describes the dynamic of exchange between con-
sumers and suppliers. Within this exchange, the supplier has a product they
think is valuable; the consumer thinks the same and invests in the product.
Questions arise within this interaction about the extent to which the distri-
bution of Seed Faith in an African context might border on exploitation. As
Asamoah-Gyadu says,

Unfortunately, preachers exploit the same vulnerable people with princi-
ples of sowing and reaping that many have practiced for years without the
expected results, keeping the cycle of poverty running by blaming insuffi-
cient tithes and offerings and demons for the unworkable principles that
they are taught.88

The quote from Asamoah-Gyadu is what he witnesses among contemporary
African ministers. He assesses Roberts more favorably, noting how Roberts’s
message was inspiring and motivational.89 Yet, whether Seed Faith functioned
exploitatively under Roberts’s ministry is open to debate, and if it did, was
Roberts aware of it? Moreover, considering he created and distributed the orig-
inal product, what are his and his legacy’s responsibilities with exploitation
cases? One thinks of Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus and how he recom-
pensed those he exploited (Luke 19:1–10). The discussion at this point moves
into the area of ethics. Rules and regulations exist in secular markets that aim to
protect consumers and motivate organizations to behave ethically and respon-
sibly. However, there is little accountability outside the supplier’s conscience or
denominational affiliation within the religious market. Naturally, the deregula-
tion of religion works both ways. It allows freedom of trade, but because trade
is unregulated, there is a higher potential for shoddy products and customer

86 Asamoah-Gyadu, “Your Miracle Is on the Way,” 20.
87 Asamoah-Gyadu, “Your Miracle Is on the Way,” 8.
88 Asamoah-Gyadu, “Your Miracle Is on the Way,” 23.
89 Asamoah-Gyadu, “Your Miracle Is on the Way,” 23–24.

 

exploitation. It is sometimes hard to know when obedience to God ends in a
religious market and human greed and ambition start.

3 Conclusion

The religious economy paradigm sees churches as firms, pastors as marketers,
and church members as consumers whose tastes shape the ministers’ goods
and services. Oral Roberts was a religious innovator who operated and thrived
within this framework because he was quick to react to changing cultural and
social conditions, was business savvy, and resourcefully supplied and packaged
his spiritual products in a way that resonated with the consumer’s needs and
tastes. He was an innovator in television and forged a path for others to follow;
he spoke into society’s struggles by supporting racial integration; he expanded
into new markets and had a global influence.
There were other areas of exploration open to research during this study that
would further reveal Roberts as a religious innovator, but those discussed satisfy
this article’s aim and provide a glimpse into the fruitfulness of viewing Roberts’s
life within an economic framework. There is still much to learn from studying
Oral Roberts within this framework. This article only touched the tip of the ice-
berg. One of the most essential avenues of future study is perhaps his influence
in the global marketplace. Christianity has steadily moved to the Global South
over the last few decades. This move correlates with an economic understand-
ing of religion as a fruitful avenue of study, especially considering the roles
Western religious innovators such as Oral Roberts have played in developing
foreign religious markets. Such studies are essential since scholars increasingly
use the religious marketplace model to describe international and national
religious trends. Besides providing insight into non-American contexts, these
studies help broaden the religious economy paradigm’s analytical scope and
feedback into our understanding of the American religious marketplace’s com-
plexity.

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