Oral Roberts, founder of “prosperity gospel” and televangelism, died Tuesday at age 91 from pneumonia. Roberts left behind a university, and a legacy of a financially driven evangelism that is still broadcast in those dizzy gray hours of early money channel-flipping. Nestled in between offers for the world’s sharpest knives, or exercise equipment that will finally turn you into that sexy beast you you are inside, are the impassioned pleas of sweaty preachers asking you to “sow the seed” of your hard-earned money into their pockets, and God will reward you ten-fold. You’re asked to suspend your basic knowledge of economics and the marketplace and give this man and this church money, sometimes large amounts, and simply have faith that it will be returned to you.
Unlike many protestant movements that ask you to wait for rewards from heaven, or give your money to the poor or unfortunate, televangelists ask something quite different: they ask you to desire vast riches and great fortune, and to get them through sending in whatever little money you happened to have. It’s really nothing more than your basic money-making scheme, but endorsed with the seal of God.
Oral Roberts perfected this scheme. A poor farm boy from Oklahoma, he achieved his prosperity through taking advantage of the wide reach of television and direct-mail campaign to capitalize on the innate human desires to hope for future happiness and to believe in God. Oral Roberts was a more quiet evangelist than you’ll generally see today, but he was just as bold, blatantly asking for money, promising prosperity, and once he even claimed to raise someone from the dead.
But, in the ’80s he lost the reigns on the public’s desire to believe when he said “God would call him home” if $8 million for scholarships to his Oral Roberts University wasn’t raised by March 31, 1987.