A Legacy of Faith

In 2002 the university won the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ Racial Harmony Award for building relationships and serving students of color and other minority groups.

Tulsa pastor Billy Joe Daugherty, who died a few weeks before Roberts, served as acting president of ORU before Fagin and pastored 17,000-member Victory Christian Church across the street from the ORU campus. He told Charisma before his death that many people overlook the significance of the school’s birth during the turbulent 1960s. It was an era of upheaval that Daugherty ranked second only to the Civil War.

“In the middle of this, God raised up His standard,” Daugherty said. “Instead of just going into the sunset, Oral developed something. Thousands of young pastors got the same vision to raise up a standard and hear God’s voice.

“Now ORU’s not limited to one tent—it’s in the arts, education, ministry, government, medicine, everywhere you look. I go to Washington, D.C., and all over there are ORU graduates. We go around the world and they’re in leadership, making an impact.”

Not all of Roberts’ faith goals for the school were achieved. His highly touted medical school and City of Faith lasted only a decade. A graduate nursing program is gone, as well as dental and law schools.

However, Fagin thinks that despite its closing in 1989, the medical school achieved a long-lasting impact. Many doctors today recognize the value of combining prayer with conventional treatment, an approach to medicine that was practiced at the ORU medical school.

“He was thinking so far ahead,” Fagin says. “I think about his launching out in terms of TV ministry, but also the City of Faith and merging of prayer and medicine. All these things were ahead of his time.”

Roberts was certainly not perfect, and he admitted that his ego drove him. “To be strong, to be a leader, to obey God with all of your ... ability, you need a considerable ego,” he wrote in his autobiography. That ego could have been part of the reason he made two unusual public statements that landed him in hot water in his later years.

In 1977 the evangelist told his supporters that a 900-foot-tall Jesus had commanded him to build his City of Faith complex in Tulsa. Then in 1987 he announced that God would kill him if he did not raise $8 million for his medical school.

That embarrassing incident, which occurred at about the same time as Jim Bakker’s and Jimmy Swaggart’s sex scandals, tarnished the reputation of American evangelists. Some TV stations refused to run his appeal; others accused Roberts of “emotional blackmail”; others feared he was hinting at a planned suicide. In the end, despite the bad publicity, Roberts raised $9.1 million with the unusual appeal.

Roberts also dealt with lots of personal pain, starting with the death of an older sister at 19. An airplane crash claimed the life of his daughter, Rebecca Nash, while his oldest son, Ronnie, committed suicide after a long battle with drug addiction.

There was also the death of his wife, Evelyn, in 2005 after their 66 years of marriage. He called her the most popular and respected person at ORU, saying when it was time for God to hand out rewards, hers would exceed his.

 

The most public disaster, though, involved ORU years after Roberts retired to California. After a lawsuit was filed against the school that included allegations of financial mismanagement, son Richard stepped down as president of
the university in November 2007.

The next spring, the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association moved its operations off campus after Christian philanthropist Mart Green offered the debt-ridden school a $70 million endowment. The gift hinged on whether the school would remake itself with a new board and president.

Respected Christian educator Mark Rutland stepped in to fill Richard Roberts’ shoes as president, and the donation from Green is now being used to refurbish buildings and re-establish ORU’s credibility. Many people believe the school’s best days are ahead. One of them is Rutland.

“ORU continues to be the pre-eminent charismatic university in the United States,” he says. “The emphasis is not just on evangelicalism in a broad sense, though it is that—and evangelicals attend. It’s a university that embraces and celebrates and lives in the Holy Spirit, present tense, in and among us in the operation of the gifts, and in responding to God’s direction in the world.”

Most observers Charisma interviewed say the 2007 setback will be a blip on the big screen of Roberts’ legacy.

“I think it was devastating to [Oral] when Richard was forced to leave the presidency,” Synan says. “But the fact that he was able to weather that storm and come out with the university intact is a great testimony.” Oral Roberts’ resilience sustained him through tragedies that would have destroyed lesser people, Synan adds.

Daugherty told Charisma that he was so captivated by ORU that he gave up a full athletic scholarship to transfer to the school his sophomore year. He said he would never forget how much the school’s founder taught him.

“Oral Roberts inspired us to believe that God is a good God,” the late pastor said. “That was probably the greatest revelation, that God wanted good things for us. He inspired us to believe that we could do whatever God put in our heart.”

There are some leaders who believe ORU was a distraction from Roberts’ evangelistic calling. Pentecostal historian Bill Menzies never considered the university a crowning achievement, instead terming it a “major blunder” because of the time and energy that fundraising required.

When Roberts got involved in starting a seminary and other expensive programs, the work mushroomed beyond his control, according to Menzies.

“Those sapped his energy and strength,” Menzies says. “I remember hearing him speak at a meeting in Korea some years ago, and he was just overloaded. He had to raise so many thousands of dollars a day to keep that empire afloat. I think he regretted some of the things he got into that weren’t sustainable.”

Yet after you study a list of ORU alumni—a list that includes a renowned cardiologist, a congresswoman and thousands of pastors and leaders of ministries—it seems unfair to call ORU a mistake.

ORU is perhaps the most tangible legacy Oral Roberts leaves behind—built through simple faith by a simple man from Oklahoma who dared to believe that God still does miracles.

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