Oral Roberts and the Rise of the Prosperity Gospel – Jonathan Roots

Oral Roberts and the Rise of the Prosperity Gospel by Jonathan Root
Series: Library of Religious Biography
Published by Eerdmans on April 20, 2023
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Biography
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In 1946, God gave Oral Roberts a new Buick.

And this just one of many miracles the young, broke preacher learned to expect, as Oral Roberts would go on to build an evangelistic ministry worth millions of dollars, a medical complex, and a university. How do we interpret the life of a man who seemed to combine rampant consumerist excess with a sincere devotion to the gospel?

Seeking to answer this question, Jonathan Root weaves together accounts of Oral Roberts’s life in a balanced and engaging narrative. This fresh biography covers Roberts’s early life during the Great Depression in Oklahoma, his family’s financial struggles during his early career as a Pentecostal preacher, his healing ministry’s explosive growth in popularity via the new media of radio and television, and his empire’s eventual collapse. Root pays special attention to how Roberts introduced the “prosperity gospel” to American Protestants with his affirmation that God intends his followers to be both spiritually and physically fulfilled.

Root’s engaging narration looks to primary sources on Roberts’s life as well as the mythologized stories he told years later. The man who emerges is both deeply flawed and entirely earnest in his devotion to Christ. Oral Roberts and the Rise of the Prosperity Gospel will be an absorbing read for all those interested in American religious history and one of its most colorful figures.

Oral Roberts is probably one of the most overlooked and understudied figures in American evangelicalism. His legacy—particularly within Tulsa, Oklahoma—is as big as his personality. Not quite as irenic as Billy Graham, not quite as political as Jerry Falwell, with not quite the television reach of Paul Crouch or Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts represented “twentieth-century Christianity’s greatest hopes and its worst failures.”

While a lot has been written about Oral by himself, the Roberts family, or others in the ORU circle, there is markedly fewer resources that approach the man from the perspective of history rather than legacy. Oral Roberts and the Rise of the Prosperity Gospel means to add to those scholarly resources. Written by Jonathan Root, a postdoc teaching fellow in history at the University of Missouri, this take on the often-bombastic televangelist is pretty much everything Oral wasn’t.

Unfortunately, that sometimes means that it’s boring. It’s really quite incredible that you can take a life story of someone like Oral Roberts and make it boring. Maybe that’s the nature of academic biography. Maybe it’s to serve as a tonal corrective to any of Roberts’ six published auto-biographies. It probably has a lot to do with relying on archival newspaper and other media for sources and eschewing first-hand accounts or claims. But the end result is—though it’s impeccably sourced—the medium of the message doesn’t match the man. Root occasionally sounds like Roberts’ accountant: “In the first six months alone, he answered approximately 25,000 letters, mailed 30,000 anointed handkerchiefs, distributed 15,000 copies of his book…and 90,000 copies of Healing Waters magazine, mailed 100,000 gospel tracts…[and on and on and on].” These are impressive facts, to be sure. But what do they mean? Whom did they affect?

Root also—particularly early in the book—seems to skip over what could have been interesting details into Roberts’ life. Again, this may be because of the reliance on newspaper archives and Oral wasn’t exactly making the papers in his early years. The narrative is disjointed and skips around, with Root picking up what information he could. Combined with the academic tone, the result is a book that makes a very compelling (whatever else you think of him) person seem not compelling at all.

Oral Roberts and the Rise of the Prosperity Gospel is an academic biography. It’s not written as journalism, not written with an expressed agenda (though it is implied), and not written as a religious book. It doesn’t condone or critique, praise or punish. And therein is the uniqueness of this biography. Most of what is written about Oral falls into one of two extremes. Root is level-headed, relies on facts, and allows the reader to interpret. There’s neither an idol to praise or an axe to grind.

But at the end of the book, while I feel like I know a lot more facts about Oral Roberts, I don’t feel any closer to understanding the man, his theology, or his vision. This biography has its place, it fills a needed gap in the literature, it’s well-researched—I just wish it had a bit more heart. Maybe that means this style of biography just isn’t for me.