Oral Roberts University became national news this week when the Men’s Basketball team reached the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. This has many people across the internet asking, “Who is Oral Roberts?” In fact, that question has been one of the top searches on Google in recent days.
Oral Roberts was one of the most important religious figures in the twentieth century. During the 1950s, Roberts became a household name through his large-scale tent crusades, innovative television programs, and dynamic preaching ministry. As a historian who has written several articles on Oral Roberts, I thought I would share this brief look at his story and how he built a university.
From Poverty to America’s Healing Evangelist
Oral Roberts is one of the best known healing evangelists of the 20th Century. But he didn’t start there. Roberts was born in 1918 in Bebee, Oklahoma, a small town outside of Ada. His parents, Ellis and Claudius Roberts, were saved in brush arbor Pentecostal meetings in Southeastern Oklahoma and became evangelists in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. With his father struggling to earn a living in ministry, Oral experienced poverty and difficulty from an early age.
At the age of 16, Oral Roberts was struck with tuberculosis. He collapsed during a basketball and nearly died. However, after several months on his deathbed, his family took him to a tent meeting near Ada, Oklahoma in 1935 and Oral was miraculously healed. Shortly after his healing, Roberts joined his father in evangelistic meetings around Oklahoma. When Oral received his license as a Pentecostal Holiness minister at the age of eighteen, he started his own evangelistic ministry. During his first three years as an evangelist, Roberts reported over 400 saved, 125 sanctified, and ninety-eight received the baptism in the Holy Ghost. He also pastored in various places around the US.
In 1946, Roberts became the pastor of the Enid Pentecostal Holiness Church, but his time there was short-lived. Roberts was growing deeply unhappy with his ministry because he wasn’t seeing the types of miracles that he saw in the Bible and that he had experienced as a teenager. During a sociology class at Phillips University in Enid, he heard God speak: “Son, don’t be like other men. Don’t be like any denomination. Be like Jesus and heal like he did.” From that moment, Roberts determined that he would take God’s message of healing to his generation. He moved his family to Tulsa and began to hold crusades across the US.
From 1947-1962, Oral Roberts’ large scale tent crusades changed the religious landscape of American evangelicalism. Oral Roberts’ name became synonymous with healing. Across the United States, millions of people came to his large tent crusades to hear his dynamic preaching and to witness first hand the power of God as he prayed with people. Millions of people came to Christ and were healed in his ministry.
With the success of his crusades, Oral went on television in 1955 where he broadcast his healing ministry to millions in prime-time television. His pioneering innovation not only exposed many people to Pentecostal spirituality, it introduced a whole generation to the idea that God was willing and able to heal the suffering and afflicted. Oral Roberts, the stuttering boy from small town Oklahoma, had become a household name.
Oral Roberts University
After over a decade of healing crusades, Roberts transitioned from evangelism to higher education. Oral was a brilliant man, but never completed his college degree. But he loved education. Roberts believed that by building a university, he would replicated his ministry in the students who would go far beyond what he could accomplish as one man. That vision included a full liberal arts university and a theological seminary with a Spirit-filled faculty recruited from some of the best schools in the nation.
Oral Roberts’ vision of “whole person” education emphasized the development of the spirit-mind-body together. It was a unique concept in higher education at the time. Equally innovative was his vision for technology in learning. The Learning Resources Center had a state of the art “Dial Access Retrieval System” in which students could access lectures and other media anywhere across campus. When ORU was officially dedicated in 1967, Oral Roberts invited Evangelist Billy Graham to be the keynote speaker. It was clear that ORU was situating itself to becoming one of the premier Christian universities in the nation.
ORU was founded as a different kind of Christian University. Oral Roberts was a conservative Pentecostal minister, but he was not a Fundamentalist like the founders of other conservative Christian universities. ORU drew students from a variety of theological backgrounds, all unified by a belief in the Holy Spirit and healing. This was demonstrated in 1968 when he joined the Methodist Church in order to expand the ecumenical reach of his ministry. Although the move was ultimately detrimental to Roberts’ Pentecostal support base, he believed it fulfilled God’s call to bring healing power to his generation.
By the 1970s, ORU was not only theologically diverse, but also racially diverse. In Tulsa, Oral Roberts University became one of the few places in the 1960s and 1970s where racial integration was intentional. Roberts had spent his whole ministry integrating his meetings, believing that people were just people, no matter their skin color. Roberts wanted more from his university than to simply produce good Christian men and women. He dreamed of a university where students had equal opportunities to succeed regardless of color or background. [Read more here]
These values and ORU’s reputation led Civil Rights leader, Rev. Jesse Jackson, to declare at the ORU Graduation in 1978, “ORU has the opportunity to be the first University in America to establish an educational community where people from around the world can come here and say that you will be judged totally by the content of your character rather than the color of your skin.”
Today ORU continues that inclusive legacy. Under the current president, Dr. William M. Wilson, the student population has grown to represent 114 nations of the world and its majority non-white student population makes ORU one of the most diverse universities in Oklahoma. ORU also has won numerous awards for student engagement, teaching and technology innovation in Higher Education.
ORU is perhaps best known for its unique mid-century modernistic architecture. Modeled after the 1950s World’s Fair style, Frank Wallace designed futuristic feel of the buildings to match Roberts’ positive message of faith and his belief that “all things were possible.” The optimism of the new buildings sent a clear message that ORU was going to be a place of possibility and miracles. (Read More Here)
One of the most iconic structures on the ORU campus is the Prayer Tower. God instructed Roberts to put it in the center of campus to represent that the Spirit will be the “center of the University.” The two-hundred-foot, futuristic, cross-shaped design was crowned with an “eternal flame” symbolizing the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The dramatic height of the tower serves as a constant reminder to the students and faculty that ORU was built on prayer. The tower also has an “upper room” prayer room designed to introduce a new generation to the power of the Spirit.
A New ORU
Some people only know Oral Roberts for the 1980s controversy around the City of Faith Hospital and Medical Research Center. The idea was brilliant. Roberts wanted to bring the best in science and the best in spirituality together to bring healing to people suffering from disease. The problem came when his efforts to raise funds to build the hospital debt free and fully fund scholarships for the medical students became a point of national ridicule. It was during this time that Roberts also became characterized as a prosperity teacher. But much of that was a misunderstanding. (Read more here). Still, it was not good for ORU’s reputation and the university suffered with massive debt for the next few decades. Nevertheless, ORU’s dedicated faculty helped shape the outstanding students that continued to make an impact around the world.
In 2007, a new chapter in ORU’s story began when the David Green family of Hobby Lobby fame partnered with ORU to stabilize the financial situation. Under the new board chair, Mart Green, ORU implemented new governance and welcomed Mark Rutland as the new president. Rutland led the much-needed revitalization of the campus and ethos of the university until 2013.
Under the leadership of the current president, Dr. William M. Wilson, ORU has experienced unprecedented growth through globalization. Wilson has led several capital campaigns for new buildings on campus including the award winning Global Learning Center, track and tennis facilities, nursing and engineering building, and the first new residential building since 1976. Today, the university is debt free and has re-established itself as a leading university in the global Spirit-empowered Movement. After over 50 years of educating students to go into every person’s world, ORU still carries the DNA of its founder, but has found new and even greater ways to impact the world with God’s healing.
ORU: A Winning Program
Today, we get to add to ORU’s story the cinderella run the the NCAA Tournament. But this is not new for ORU. In the early 1970’s, ORU Basketball was a nationally recognized program. They even went to the Elite 8 in 1974 and lost to Kansas. However, for the first time since 1974, ORU has advanced the the Sweet Sixteen with wins over Ohio State and Florida. ORU is back on the national stage once again.
Want to know more about Oral Roberts? You can read some recent studies of his life and ministry in Oral Roberts Centennial edition of Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology.
Want to know more about ORU? Go to ORU.EDU to find out how we are developing Holy Spirit-empowered leaders through whole person education to impact the world.