The Architectural Inspiration for Oral Roberts University

One of the most common questions I have been asked in my role as a historian and archivist at Oral Roberts University is, “Why the futuristic look of the university?” Some architecture scholars have studied the campus trying to divine its secrets, noting it as a classic example of Mid-Century Modernist style.[1] But where did ORU’s unique design ideas come from? I have some insights I would like to share on this question.

Oral Robert came to Tulsa in 1947.  His ministry first operated out of his house until they could no longer keep up with the mail and he opened a small building in Tulsa.

But soon, with his popularity growing and his large ministry staff, Roberts decided to build a massive headquarters building at 12th and Boulder. The colossal square, windowless building was designed by Tulsa architect, Cecil Stanfield and was built in 1958.  The large square building was donned with diamonds, which symbolized “broken arrows, the symbol of peace.”

In 1962, Oral began to shift from tent ministry to world ministry and decided to open an evangelism training school in Tulsa called “The Oral Roberts University School of Evangelism.” He chose a property at 81st and Lewis, which at the time was a cattle ranch way outside of town. Roberts asked Stanfield again if he wanted take on the project, but he declined.

Working for Stanfield was a young protégé named Frank Wallace, who eagerly jumped at the chance to design the new facilities.  The first building was the Timko Barton and the two residence halls Braxton and Shakarian, which formed a U-shape campus. The new building contained space for hosting conferences, classrooms and two dorm rooms to house those who would attend the “University of Evangelism.”  The design was mid-century modern, but wasn’t overly radical for the time. Today that building is called Timko-Barton and houses the Music department.  

However, by 1964, the idea of a short-term evangelism training school had shifted to a full-fledged university. Plans for additional academic buildings began to surface in OREA publications. Timko-Barton was tabbed to house the new Graduate School of Theology. Roberts also unveiled a master plan for new buildings including a Library, classrooms, and sports area, each designed by Frank Wallace.

The first drawings of the proposed campus in 1964 were radically futuristic. See this cover of an early ORU magazine called “Outreach” featuring a crown-like concept of the prayer tower. I am sure the futuristic design seemed quite progressive to many of his old-time Pentecostal ministry base.

The next set of drawings captured some of these same ideas, but now featured a complex of buildings with high white columns. The feature building was triangular in shape (no doubt reflecting the Trinity) and contained the main library and classrooms. The John D. Messick Learning Resourced Center (named after the first provost) has continued to serve this function even till today.

The triangular building featured white columns that seemed to reach to the heavens and large porches.  A Tulsa World article by Michael Overall describes the Learning Resources Building this way,

“[Wallace] designed it as a triangle to represent the Holy Trinity, with gold tinting that resembles the color of honey and cream-colored columns that start wide at the top and grow narrow as they come down, like streams of milk pouring off the roof. Wallace envisioned ORU as a land flowing with milk and honey.” [2}

The futuristic feel of ORU’s buildings matched Oral’s positive message of faith and his belief that “all things were possible.”  Seeing this modernistic style certainly portrays that sense of optimism well.  ORU was going to be a place of possibility and miracles.

The Future and the World’s Fair

Where did Wallace get his inspiration for the unique ORU style? Was it simply from the genius mind of Frank Wallace, who dreamed up the futuristic architecture to match his eccentric and optimistic client? Or could it have been revealed to Oral when he famously walked the grounds and prayed in the Spirit? In 2016, Margaret Grubiack gave me some clues when in her research where she accredited the World’s Fair as inspiration. I have become convinced she is right, but for some different reasons than simply observing architectural styles. I think I found some convincing evidence that this is true.

In my three years as Director of the HSRC and now the Archives, I have learned that nothing in an archive is there by accident.  In a file of various materials in the Holy Spirit Research Center, I happened upon an old magazine that seemed out of place. It was a full color magazine with pictures of the buildings that were built for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. When I found it, I felt like it was an odd thing to have in a library on the Holy Spirit.  I placed it on a shelf and forgot about it. Then one day, wondering about ORU’s architecture, I decided to thumb through it and I discovered this photo.

This is the 1933 Federal Building at the World’s Fair. The three towers were fluted, triangle in shape, and represented the three houses of government. Immediately I noticed their resemblance to the City of Faith. Intrigued by the similarities, I searched the internet to find out more about the building. I was shocked to find the postcard from the 1933 World’s Fair below. Its resemblance to the City of Faith, particularly from this angle, was remarkable to me.

The Federal Building towers were all the same size. But what is interesting about the angel of this photo is it gives the impression that the center tower is taller than the two side towers. Is it possible that the City of Faith towers were designed with the center tower as prominent because of a photo of the Federal Building? Its hard to say for sure. But there is more.

The second thing you notice about this photo is that all three towers come from a common spalling base topped with gold dome. This is similar to the City of Faith, whose gold windowed base ties the three towers together and spans beyond the towers.

Third, note that the color of the flutes on the towers of the Federal Building drawing is remarkably similar the white/gold color scheme of the City of Faith.  The white/gold scheme was a signature already of the campus. But the fact that the sides were golden flutes is similar to the Federal building. Finally, notice that both the Federal Building and the City of Faith towers themselves were triangular, only Oral’s two smaller towers were reversed with flat face toward the front. This triangle shape is significant because it seems to me that most tower buildings are square. All of these factors together suggest to me that this 1933 World’s Fair building may have been an inspiration for the City of Faith towers. And that inspiration may have come from the very magazine I found.

Other World’s Fair Similarities

But there are more connections to the World’s Fair as inspiration for buildings on campus. For example, this is a photo of a Soviet Union building at the 1959 World’s Fair.

Compare that with the Howard Auditorium and its famous gold dome with geometric shapes. While these types of modular buildings were not uncommon, it seems likely that this may have been where the idea for the geodesic dome building may have come from.

Another example of World’s Fair architecture is the Prayer Tower. As mentioned above, the first design was a shaped like a traditional crown. Somewhere between 1964 and 1967, the design of the prayer tower changed from the futuristic crown design to a “cross” design with a crown of thorns.

Margaret Gubiack pointed out that the prayer tower may be modeled after the Seattle Space Needle designed by John Graham Jr. for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. [3] There is some resemblance, for sure, but I wasn’t convinced. That was until I found picture from the 1962 World’s Fair of the Space Needle, also in the HSRC files. Turns out, Grubiack was right. Once again, the archive gave me the clue to connect the dots.

Oral Robert’s Visits the World’s Fair

The discovery that Oral Roberts and Frank Wallace were inspired by the World’s Fair futuristic and modernist designs should not surprise us at all. Oral Roberts was the most forward thinker and innovator perhaps in the Christian tradition. Despite his Pentecostal faith and premillennial eschatology, Roberts did not share a pessimistic outlook on the world or the future. His positive message that “God is a Good God” and his belief in miracles was proof that Oral saw possibilities where others in the evangelical tradition could not.

The connection to World’s Fair is supported by the fact that Oral went to several World’s Fairs in that era. As part of Oral Robert’s growing literature outreach to the world, Oral sent an evangelistic team to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels Belgium. See the cover of the October 1958 Abundant Life.

Roberts’ director of literature, Howard Griffin, was deeply impressed by the “awesome and wonderful architecture.” But what impressed him even more was the “milling multitudes of people babbling in their own language.”  Griffin said he discovered “modern-day Babel.” (Abundant Life, Oct 1958). The futuristic architecture and global nature of the World’s Fair was so inspirational to Oral that he decided his ministry would be present at very World’s Fair.

In 1962, Oral Roberts came to Seattle to do a Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship meeting at the exact same time as the Seattle World’s Fair was going on. There he visited the Fair and no doubt saw the 600 foot Seattle Space Needle towering over the complex. This would have been right during the time he was designing the new campus at 81st and Lewis.

A year later, the first buildings on campus were started to take their futuristic design.  Coincidence?  Probably not.

The Iconic Style of Minoru Yamasaki

Natives to Tulsa know that the Bank of Oklahoma tower resembles the famous World Trade Center towers in New York City.  This is because they were designed by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki.

As mentioned, years before he built those iconic buildings, Yamasaki was also a World’s Fair architect.  At the base of the Seattle World’s Fair Space Needle was the Space Complex buildings built by Yamasaki. Yamasaki’s signature designs featured high arches, futuristic design and white columns, seen below.

Yamasaki was the ultimate modernist-humanist. His designs conveyed a sense of possibility and human achievement as his buildings featured tall pillars that reached for the sky. An example of Yamasaki’s work is the Northwestern National Insurance Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota built in 1961.

Look familiar? It should. It has a remarkable resemblance to the design of the Learning Resources Center, the first building built as part of the official University.

But, there are two more features in the LRC design that are also similar features of Yamasaki. As Professor Dale Allen Gyure documents, Minoru was known for this design of interlocking circles (painted gold) that covered the windows like this 1955 design in Detroit Michigan as seen below

( Photo credit: Dale Allen Gyure).

Compare this with the very similar feature that covers widows of the LRC and dons the outside of the dorms. If this weren’t enough to convince one that Yamasaki was the inspiration for the design of ORU, check out the design of the roofline of one of the McGregor Building at Wayne State built by Yamasaki between 1958-1964. It is very similar to the LRC peaks.

All of these designs were built during the exact same era as Wallace was designing and building ORU. And, of course, it also cant be a coincidence that his name is Min-ORU, can it? (Ok. That’s stretching it. But I just found it humorous). It shows that Yamasaki was indeed a large influence on the architectural imagination of Frank Wallace.

Conclusion

The architecture of ORU has earned the University national fame and at one time, ORU was the number one tourist attraction in Oklahoma.  ORU made Frank Wallace famous and his unique designs is part of the Oral Roberts’ legacy. The genius of the futuristic look just adds to ORU’s “expect a miracle” ethos. But Wallace and Roberts may have had some inspiration for ORU’s unique look. ORU reflects the futuristic architecture of Mid-Century Modernists found in the World’s Fair and architects like Minoru Yamasaki. These positive, upward and futuristic designs appear to be the inspiration the LRC design, the original crown prayer tower, and many of the other buildings on the new ORU campus.

Just as Oral Roberts saw first hand that the World’s Fair represented the future and the possibility of global ministry, I believe he was trying to use it a model for what ORU would become. A global community that is optimistic about the gospel’s ability to reach the “uttermost bounds of the earth.” Of course there is no way to know for sure. Now that both Roberts and Wallace have passed away, they have taken that secret with them. But thanks to the secrets of the ORU Archive, we now have some clues as to their inspiration.

(All ORU photos are credited to ORU Media department)


[1] See Margaret M. Grubiak, “An Architecture for the Electronic Church: Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” in Technology and Culture, 57, no 2 (April 2016), 380-413.

[2] Michael Overall, “Tulsa architect Frank Wallace never became famous, but his buildings did.” Tulsa World 6 April 2020, https://tulsaworld.com/news/local/michael-overall-tulsa-architect-frank-wallace-never-became-famous-but-his-buildings-did/article_cc5a0b3d-daa4-59d4-a3a3-6575f1429f26.html

[3] Gubiak, “An Architecture for the Electronic Church: Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” 389. Grubiak had already published her article on ORU’s architecture when I began researching this topic. She noted some of the similarities to the Worlds Fair, Seattle Space Needle, and hinted that Yamasaki may have been Wallace’s inspiration. But she did not give the building examples that I have found as evidence, which I used to make the case even stronger. Never the less, her work on this is the most authoritative study to date.

Why You Don’t Have to Worry About the Mark of the Beast

2020 has been a crazy year.  In times like these, many Christians look to end times prophecy voices to try to make sense of it.  This is illustrated in the recent shortage of coins in America, which has predictably triggered a new wave of speculation that this may be the signs of a new cashless society leading up to the mark of the beast.

I want to assure you, friends, coin shortages, microchips and any other technological advancements like this are nothing to worry about. What this fear represents is a common misunderstanding of the mark of the beast that Christians have needlessly obsessed over for the past century.  As I wrote back in 2008 in my book Why I Want to be Left Behind, the question is not will you accept the mark of the beast. The realty is, you already have a mark. The question is whose mark do you have?  Let me explain.

Biblical Imagery of the Mark

To better understand the nature of this mark, we must understand where this imagery of a mark on the hand and forehead comes from. Every image in Revelation has ties to Old Testament images. So to correctly understand the imagery used here, one must look for similar images in the Old Testament. To a Jewish believer, the imagery of a mark on your hand or forehead would be easily recognizable.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses gave Israel the foundation of their Israelite religion in a passage called the “Shema Yisrael” or the “Hear O Israel” passage. Jews pray this passage every day as a reaffirmation of their faith in the One God, Yahweh. Here is what it says:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-9, emphasis mine)

Here God calls his people to identify with him and be obedient to him. To represent that reality, he asked them to “tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” Of course, we know this tradition continues even today. Orthodox Jews wear a small box on their head and a leather strap on their arm called a “tefillin” or “phylactery.” To a Jewish person, this physical act was a reminder that God’s word should control your thoughts (forehead) and your actions (hands).

When Revelation tells us that the beast puts his mark on the hand and the forehead of those who worship him, Christians in the first century would have known exactly what this meant.  They weren’t worried about technology, they knew this was about allegiance and obedience, either to the beast or to God.

You Already Have the Mark

The New Testament is filled with imagery of a mark as a seal of possession and allegence. When a scroll was sent in ancient times, it bore the image or “mark” of the one who sent it. This is the imagery that Paul gives for someone who comes to faith in Jesus Christ. He says, Christ has “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor 1:22). Again Paul says, “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Eph 1:13-14). This reality is confirmed in Revelation when the angel “put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of God” (Rev 7:3) in Revelation 7. Revelation intends these to be parallel and contrasting images to the reader.  God marks his people and the beast marks his.  So whether you take a microchip or not, you are already marked!

The Call for Pneumatic Discernment

The warning of Revelation is a warning against aligning with the beast, which is the kingdom of this world. Indiscriminate of a person’s station in life or place in the world, believers cannot escape the seductive reach of the beast’s rule. He is after us and our obedience. Loyalty to the beast requires accepting his mark; loyalty to God requires rejecting his mark and being sealed by God ( Rev. 7:14). Through the Spirit who is the mark of God on those who believe, we must discern the world and keep from being seduced by the world into taking its mark of ownership.

In this way Revelation is not warning us to not accept new technology; it is reminding us that Christians need the Spirit of discernment to not be seduced by the world’s morals, values, or political and economic philosophies. As humans, we are easily swayed into idolatry and if we align with these things too closely, it will ultimately demand our allegiance.   Larry McQueen says it well, “The beast is all around us, beckoning us to take its mark and acknowledge the salvific qualities of its promises that political power and the pursuit of wealth is the path to ultimate salvation. Where is the beast? The beast is within our own tradition, perhaps even within our own hearts…’ (McQueen, Toward a Pentecostal Eschatology, 291)

Conclusion

Christians need not fear new technologies, disruption in the financial sector, or even government regulations that would seek to implement new restrictions on everyday life. It is fine to debate whether things things are good for the country, but they are certainly not signs of the times.  The mark of the beast is simply imagery from a very clear Old Testament symbol of allegiance and obedience. Because of this, the issue is not whether you will or will not take the mark of the beast. The fact is that you already have a mark. Which mark do you have?

 

 

Oral Roberts University vs. Bob Jones University: Two Different Responses in History to Racial Moments

There is an interesting article in Politico  that demonstrates how Oral Roberts University’s history is different than other conservative Christian universities on racial justice. In the article, Professor Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College notes that one of the gavanlizeng issues that helped to eventually form the religious right of the 1980s was the debate over religious freedom issues related to racial integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The story goes that when when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and set the course for school de-segregation, the decision was primarily enforced in the public sector. That was until  the 1971  Green vs. Connally decision, when the government began to enforce a new rule: religious organizations who did not integrate their private Christian schools would lose their tax exempt status. As Balmer notes, “The Green v. Connally ruling provided a necessary first step: It captured the attention of evangelical leaders especially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related ‘segregation academies’.”

This decision led to pushback by two conservative Christian schools who openly rejected this mandate: notably Bob Jones University and Liberty University. When Bob Jones University received the questionnaire, they defiantly replied that they would not admit black students.  Liberty University led by Jerry Falwell was also furious that the government would intervene in religious liberty matters.  They were more concerned about government overreach into religious life and the threat of liberalism than the moral issue of racial equality. Ultimately they chose religious rights over civil rights. They used their conservative beliefs and their Christianity to establish themselves on the wrong side of the tide of racial equality in America. But eventually, both schools reluctantly  complied and accepted black students, to various degrees of success, as the article shows.

The response of Oral Roberts University to this government mandate on Christian schools was quite different.  While admittedly a conservative Pentecostal Christian, Oral Roberts did not see equality as a political or cultural issue; it was a moral issue that flowed from his faith.  As I point out in my article “Healing for all Races,” despite the objection from people in the church, Roberts spent his whole ministry career advocating for blacks in America by integrating his healing meetings. He also intentionally modeled this value on television in 1968, praying hand in hand with Mahalia Jackson in prime time during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Oral Roberts prays for racial reconciliation with Mahalia Jackson on national television in 1968

But for Oral Roberts, it was through ORU that his vision was given full expression.  Although ORU was tabbed as a “School for Squares” by the local press for its conservative moral standards, the issue of racial equality was never in question at ORU. When the Washington D.C. officials called to  ask Roberts his position on accepting blacks at ORU, Roberts responded,

“Well, let me give you the bigger policy. ORU is established in three ways. First, to be international. Second to be interdenominational. And third to be interracial.”

Considering how other Christian universities responded, the official at first didn’t believe him and asked him again. Roberts replied, “Didn’t you hear what I said?  Whether we get any federal funds or not we will be international, interdenominational, and interracial.” Oral’s vision was bigger than Liberty and Bob Jones. He saw racial equality as a fundamental pillar of ORU, rather than a threat to its role as a Christian University. Oral Roberts was a conservative, but he was not a Fundamentalist like these other universities.  He was not afraid to acknowledge that racial inequality existed on the institutional level. For Roberts, this was not a conservative vs. liberal issue. Racial justice was a Christian and moral issue.

Roberts believed that ORU would be a place where students, regardless of color or background, could be truly equal and have equal opportunities to succeed. Of course, many times the university fell short of that goal. But, the university worked to actively recruit black students and implement programs to help black students because they knew American education did not provide equal opportunities.

Roberts’ empathy toward the experience of blacks in America also led him to do yearly “Black Awareness Weeks” on the campus where black students could share their experiences to build empathy in white students about justice issues. These values and ORU’s reputation led Civil Rights leader 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.”

Jackson encouraged ORU to accept the challenge of leadership and moral authority to become an example of racial equality. I believe ORU has done that.  Not perfectly, but as a Christian University, ORU has maintained its conservative Christian commitment while valuing racial equality. Today, the ORU campus is majority non-white, a result of the legacy of equality and justice that Roberts helped establish.

There are some conservative Christians today who are concerned about the implications of the racial moment that America faces. Oral Roberts demonstrated that being a conservative Christian should include taking up the cause of justice and equality for black Americans. While Bob Jones and Liberty used their Christianity to fight against justice for black Americans in the name of religious liberty, Roberts saw his Christianity as the source for standing up for racial justice.  I pray that conservative Christians (including myself) will learn from history and Oral Roberts’ courage to work for even greater racial equality in our world today.

Bishop Travis B. Sipuel: A Pentecostal Survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

During my research on the history of the Pentecostal movement in Tulsa, I discovered the story of a Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. His story we know because of his daughter Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the famous Oklahoma Civil Rights leader. This is his story.

Bishop Travis B. Sipuel (1877-1946)

In 1917, Elder E. M. Page was commissioned by Church of God in Christ founder and Senior Bishop, Charles H. Mason, to be the State Overseer for Oklahoma churches. Page moved to Oklahoma to establish a church in Muskogee and then came to Tulsa.[2] Page saw that leadership was needed for the fledgling COGIC church in Tulsa invited a young pastor from Arkansas, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, to move to Tulsa with his wife Martha. Bishop Sipuel rented a house on North Greenwood and leased a building for the North Greenwood Church of God in Christ.[3] The building was located at 700 N. Greenwood (presently OSU Tulsa), on the North end of the thriving Black Wallstreet. Sipuel helped to grow the church to 40 people during his time there. Sipuel believed that the beautiful community of Greenwood in Tulsa was the best place to raise a family and build a church.

Home near by where the Sipuel’s may have lived.

When the horrific events of 1921 broke out May 31st, 1921. Sipuel’s family was not immune to the horrific violence. On June 1st , when the mob violence turned to Greenwood, Bishop and Martha Sipuel saw their beautiful house burned by looters. Bishop Sipuel was taken by the Tulsa militia, along with the thousands of black men hands held high, and was marched to an “concentration camp” for black residents in McNulty Park, Tulsa’s ballpark. Meanwhile, Sipuel’s wife was left to watch helplessly and alone as their beautiful house burn to the ground in front of her. One of the white militia men stopped by her as she watched and told her she “better get out of town.”[4]

Photo Credit: Tulsa Historical Society

Although everything they owned was destroyed , thankfully Bishop Sipuel and his wife survived the Race Massacre. They decided to leave town and instead settled in Chickasha, Oklahoma, where he pastored the COGIC church and eventually became a state overseer. His daughter, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, was born in Chickasha and decided to try to enter the University of Oklahoma Law School. When she was denied, she became a civil rights pioneer when her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She eventually won and graduated and eventually became a law professor at Langston University. In 1992, Lois Sipuel Fisher was appointed to the OU Board of Regents and a garden was named in her honor.

Ada Sipuel with Justice Thurgood Marshall

Despite the tragedies of 1921, the Church of God in Christ and black Pentecostal community in Tulsa survived and continued to grow. Just one year later, in 1922, the North Greenwood COGIC  was said to have grown to 250 people; no doubt the community had turned to the church for hope.[5] The Greenwood Community would eventually rebuild and once again became a center for black commerce in Tulsa. Bishop Travis Sipuel led an distinguished career as a COGIC pastor and leader in Oklahoma.

There are more stories to tell about the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa, which I hope can I uncover and tell. But to me, Bishop Sipuel’s story makes this event all the more real and makes me more passionate to uncover all I can about the history of the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa.

(For related research, see my post about Oral Roberts and the story of Beno Hall being reclaimed for racial reconciliation)


[1] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922), 16.

[2] Church of God in Christ Yearbook, (1926), 67.

[3] Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, Matter of Black and White (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 10. The Polk-Hoffhine Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922) notes this as the second COGIC church in Tulsa, although it is hard to know how the two churches were related.

[4] Fisher, Matter of Black and White, 12.

[5] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory, 1922, 16.

Oral Roberts: The (almost) Missionary to Palestine

Oral Roberts has a famous life story.  In fact, he rehearsed this story over and over in his preaching and in his five autobiographies.  But there is one story that has never been told. Oral Roberts was almost a missionary to Palestine.

Oral Roberts was ordained in the Pentecostal Holiness Church  by Bishop Dan T. Muse at the age of 18 and launched out as an evangelist in 1936.  He married Evelyn in 1938 and after a few years of struggling as a traveling evangelist, Roberts decided to try pastoring in 1941.

OR family 1941sm

By fall of 1942, Roberts was pastoring the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Shawnee with great success. He also enrolled in Oklahoma Baptist Unviersity because he wanted more education. But after a couple years,  Oral began to feel restless (as he often was in this time) and left Shawnee in 1945 to pastor a church in Taccoa, GA. It was a disaster and just a week later, Roberts decided to return back to his home town of Ada in Oklahoma.

Not having a church to pastor and struggling with two small children, Roberts apparently turned to a new calling. The October 18, 1945 Pentecostal Holiness Advocate made this announcement.

“Rev. G. Oral Roberts came before the Board having been called to labor in Palestine. The names of Mr. and Mrs. Roberts are being placed upon the list of our accepted missionaries for Palestine.”

In January 1946, Roberts enrolled in East Central State College in Ada to prepare for his new found calling as a missionary to Palestine. He also traveled on weekends to to revivals to try to provide for his family

It is unclear how long Roberts had been thinking  about being a missionary. We do know he  had a lifelong fascination with Israel. In 1941, Roberts wrote his second book, Drama of the End Time which talks about Israel’s role in Bible prophecy, a subject he often preached about. In his later ministry, Roberts had a ministry to Israel and even printed Hebrew Bibles to distribute in the Holy Land. (See Eric Newberg’s great article here). The post WWII momentum toward the creation of a state of Israel may have also played a role in that calling.

But apparently, that calling was short lived. By the end of the month of January, Roberts appears to have abandoned that calling as he accepted a call to pastor in Redford, Virginia, likely at the suggestion of his friend Bishop J. A. Synan who had been holding evangelistic meetings at the church. Roberts stayed only two months in Virginia and moved back to Oklahoma.

He never mentioned being a missionary again. Instead he  returned to evangelistic work and helped to found Southwestern Pentecostal Holiness Bible College in Oklahoma City, OK. He  re-enrolled in Oklahoma Baptist University to finish his degree in preparation to serve as faculty at the college. In September 1946, Roberts moved to Enid and enrolled in his third college, Phillips University.  Of course, as the famous story goes, in June 1947 he left the church and started his healing ministry. And the rest is history.

To my knowledge, Roberts never mentioned wanting to be a missionary in any of his tellings of his life story.  In fact, in the 1995 autobiography, Expect a Miracle, Roberts talks about that time frame and his troubles in Taccoa, but never mentions wanting to be a missionary to Palestine. He admitted he struggled with depression and feelings of emptiness in ministry during this era. One has to wonder if he was simply trying to find happiness and thought that being a missionary would fulfill that need?  Why didn’t he go?  No one knows for sure.

What we do know is that for three short months, Oral Roberts was almost a missionary to Palestine.  And by all accounts he was headed that direction.  But apparently God had another plan. I am personally glad He did.  Had he gone to Palestine, the world would have missed out on his world-wide healing ministry and most importantly, Oral Roberts University.

 

 

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Spanish Influenza In Tulsa

In conducting my earlier research on Pentecostals and the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 (that has since gone viral around the world through Influence Magazine ), I had wondered if there was anything about the epidemic tied to Tulsa. At that point, my searches had come up empty. However, I decided to look back on some early Pentecostal magazine articles that I had saved that mentioned Tulsa. What  I found is amazing.

Right in the middle of the ‘Spanish Influenza’ epidemic, around January 1919, a young up-and-coming evangelist by the name of Aimee Semple McPherson came to Tulsa. She was invited by  S. A. Jamieson, the pastor of 5th and Peoria Assembly, to come to Tulsa on her way to Los Angeles to conduct a meeting.

The sudden onset of the influenza in Tulsa prompted Jamieson to try to postpone the meeting since Tulsa city officials closed all public meetings. But, McPherson testified that the Spirit urged her to come to Tulsa anyway and “Start immediately,”   Turns out, the same day she arrived the ban on church gatherings was lifted and immediately she started holding services!

Report from Bridal Call, January 1919

The meeting went 22 days and was wildly successful as the Assembly of God church doubled in size. McPherson was a rising star in the Pentecostal circles and her ministry lived up to her reputation. Many came to the Lord and were healed.  One of McPherson’s strategies was to drive her “Gospel Car” around town in between meetings to pass out tracts and minister to people.

According to her own account, while she was in Tulsa, she traveled the streets ministering to “epidemic victims.” Afternoons and evenings, McPherson and her band of workers would roll through the streets and stop to minister to people on the street corners. Men and women came to Christ right on the sidewalk, as many as 20 at a time.

Throughout her two weeks in Tulsa, she testifies the that the calls to come minister to those who were sick with the influenza were “ceaseless.” She says,

“The epidemic still raging, and many having been weakened and afflicted, we stood hours at a time praying of the sick, and Jesus helped those who came to him.”

While there were no testimonies of healing reported, the fact that McPherson ministered to so many in Tulsa is a great delight to discover.

From Tulsa, McPherson stopped in Stroud and Oklahoma City on her way back to LA.  McPherson agreed to return to Tulsa in May of 1919 to hold another revival. This time she would return to a packed 3000 seat Tulsa Convention Center. This became one of the most important meetings that built the Pentecostal community in Tulsa.

As I said in my last blog, I think it is right for churches to close and to obey current regulations to protect people.  However, I am also thankful that McPherson listened to the Spirit to come, not knowing what would happen. Turns out the Spirit’s timing was perfect.   Had she not listened and the epidemic deterred her from coming in January of 1919, Tulsa may have missed out on one the of the greatest events that established the Pentecostal community in Tulsa.

 

 

How Pentecostals Responded to the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

(Note: This blog was also published in Influence Magazine and can be viewed on their website https://influencemagazine.com)

Hear a podcast about this topic with Steve Strang of Charisma Magazine.


 

Right now the whole world is feeling the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic.  It seems like every institution in our society is closing down to protect people from the spread of this virus. Many people have been commenting on the church’s response to this current crisis from different angles. Yet, every day, more and more churches are deciding to close down and provide services online. How should people of faith and who believe in healing handle this crisis? Should we cancel church? Should we stop ministry in the midst of a pandemic?

What is interesting about this current pandemic is that it is just over 100 years ago that the world was overtaken by the Spanish Influenza. During 1918-1919, an estimated 500 million people contracted the virus and 50 million died as a result. Knowing that this was in the early days of Pentecostalism, I decided to look back to how Pentecostal believers in the Assemblies of God reacted to the Spanish Flu pandemic. Turns out, Pentecostals had a lot to say about the topic.

Beginning in 1918, tales of influenza and the Spanish flu filled the pages of the AG’s newspaper, The Christian Evangel (later known as the Pentecostal Evangel). In Springfield, Missouri, where the AG and Pentecostal Evangel headquarters had recently re-located, a great outbreak took place. The paper recorded all the Assemblies were closed.

It is interesting to note that Churches and ministers  complied with Health Department mandates to close their meetings and quarantine this who are sick. They recognized that they needed to protect people in the cities they lived in.  On several occasions, revivals had to be canceled as the Influenza was spreading across the town. Some saw it as the direct resistance to the great work God was doing. Even so, they viewed the painful reality of human mortality as a greater impulse to reach the loss.

Yet, these believers also went to the homes of those who were sick to pray and saw many answers to prayer. They weren’t afraid to pray for the sick. In some cases, they ministered to them even in death, as is illustrated below.

The paper had many accounts from ministers, but also included on the last page of the paper a list of prayer requests, many of which were of people asking for prayer for themselves or their children because of the virus. Sadly, I am sure many of these died.

Yet, there were also stories of triumph of Pentecostal saint who made it through. One particularly important testimony was that of E.N. Bell’s wife, who contracted the Spanish Flu but was healed. She testified, “The Spirit Himself interceded for me” and she made it through.

On another occasion, the notable early leader, Robert Craig of San Francisco, shared this testimony that although many died in the city, not one in their mission died from the influenza.

Some of the hardest hit areas were global, particularly India. Accounts of the tragic loss of life filled the paper. One in particular article even describes the progression of the sickness, recording that a person would die in as little as three days.

Sadly, many missionaries also died from the Spanish Flu.  One in particular, named Nellie Andrews Norton, died because of her ministry to people with the Spanish Flu.  The tribute records, “When the Influenza came into our midst last month, she did not spare herself, but worked night and day caring for the sick until she herself came down with the disease.”  But accounts like these always acknowledged that for the believer, death was a “promotion” to heaven for sacrificing their life here on earth.

How Should Spirit-empowered Believers Respond Today?

As believers (particularly as Spirit-empowered believers) are considering how we should response to the current crisis, I think there is a couple things to take away  from this example. First, Early Pentecostals endured the worst pandemic of the flu to that point in history. Although they believed in healing, they didn’t promise that their faith in God would protect them from the disease. Many people caught it; many people died. Yet, they also testified that God was also a healer and many were preserved through it or were healed from it. In either case, it was their faith in God and prayer that got them through.

Second, their worship and ministry was interrupted by the crisis. Missions were closed. Revivals were canceled. Even the paper was delayed in being printed. Yet, they followed the guidelines of the city or health department and closed their churches and missions when instructed to. They were not careless with the lives of people during the pandemic. They were willing to stay home and pray, knowing that that was just as valuable in the crisis.

I don’t know how long churches will be canceled, stores will be closed, or people will suffer with this virus. But I know that people of faith have endured in the past and made it through. There may be tragic losses, but there may also be dramatic testimonies of healing as well. What I do know is we need to pray for one another. We need to encourage one another. We may even need to visit one another if God leads us.  But most of all, I think churches need to follow the example of those who went before us to keep safe, keep praying, and obey the guidelines that keep others safe. If we can do this, I know we will make it through.

The Origin, Development, and Future of Assemblies of God Eschatology: A PhD Thesis

Last May I completed a my journey through my PhD program.  For 10 years I have immersed myself in the world of Assemblies of God history and doctrine in order to produce the first comprehensive study of AG eschatology that looks at 100 years of official, popular and scholarly expressions of the AG’s position on the second coming of Jesus.  It was a joyful journey with may twists and turns. But in the end, I feel proud of the work I did and the contribution I made to the field of Pentecostal History and Theology.

Today, that thesis is available to the public for the first time.  My school, Bangor University (Wales), publishes all of their dissertations freely online through their open-source digital repository. Unlike Proquest, or other dissertation services, that are only available by subscription to academic libraries, Bangor believes in the value of information justice and sharing research with the world. Anyone can download it free of charge here:

https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/en/theses/the-origin-development-and-future-of-assemblies-of-god-eschatology(9d6fbc67-9a5e-47d5-8226-c7c62e24f609).html (warning, it takes a while to download)

A published print version of this thesis is in the works with ORU Press, which will hopefully be available later this year.

As I say in the dedication: ” I pray this study honors the past, encourages the present, and shapes the future.”

 

Interview on the Deborah Sweetin Show

A few weeks back I was invited to be on the Deborah Sweetin Show, which airs on KGEB. It was a delight. Deborah is a very gracious host and a skilled interviewer. We talked about ORU, the healing movement, and some of the treasures in the Holy Spirit Research Center. I am grateful to Deborah and her co-host Robert for allowing me to share about the HSRC and ORU.

You can learn more about the Deborah Sweetin Show on her website: http://deborahsweetin.com

 

Reclaiming Racial Spaces in Tulsa: Oral Roberts and Beno Hall

In the aftermath of the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa, many of the residential areas surrounding the Greenwood District were still in ruins. Into one of those spaces, the Tulsa KKK built a giant white building in 1923 at 501 N Main called Beno Hall.  The new building that housed the 3,000 member klavern served as a constant reminder to the black community of Tulsa’s racial supremacy. From there, Klansmen terrorized the traumatized black citizens. It was also here that the “Tulsa Benevolent Society,” a front group for the KKK, oversaw the supposed rebuilding of the Greenwood area.

In the early 1930s, the building was sold and became several other businesses until in God’s providence, a revival tent was set up next door at 601 N. Main.

In a vacant lot under the shadow of Standpipe Hill, Pentecostal Holiness pastor, Steve Pringle, set up a revival tent and began conducting services. He invited a popular young evangelist named Oral Roberts to conduct meetings in May of 1947.  There, in the shadows of Tulsa’s past, Roberts reclaimed lives for the gospel. During the nine week campaign, Oral Roberts made front page headlines when a man shot at him during a service. From that point, crowds swelled to over 2,000 a night.  Roberts meetings were so popular that Pringle began to think of a permanent home for his new converts. Naturally, he had his eye on the large building next door, the infamous Beno Hall.  Pringle worked to remodel the 1,800 seat building and named it “Evangelistic Temple.”

Evangelistic Temple (Pentecostal Holiness Church)

Some who have told this story believe that the white Pentecostal congregation would be perfectly at home in a building that was once a symbol of white supremacy. But this  certainly misses the providential power of this moment. The reclaiming of Beno Hall through the popularity of Oral Roberts is not coincidental.  Over the next few years, Roberts became a pioneer in racially integrating his healing meetings around the US.  As a report from a 1949 Tacoma Healing Crusade comments, “They came, old and young, white and colored, from all portions of the tent.”  But when he was home, Evangelistic Temple became the Roberts’ home church.  From this home base, as pointed out in my recent article in Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology, Roberts used his position to challenge racial predjudice in American and in Tulsa.

By the mid-1960s, Evangelistic Temple had moved south to 53rd and Peoria and the old white building was eventually torn down. Today, it is a vacant lot. Whereas Beno Hall was erected as a symbol of white supremacy’s power to tear down a black community, today that vacant lot is a monument of the power of the gospel to tear down prejudice and reclaim spaces.

(The view north on Main. The empty lot  is where Beno Hall/Evangelistic Temple once stood. The building in to the north is where the tent crusade took place in 1947. To the right is Standpipe Hill. To the south is Cain’s Ballroom.)

Read more about Oral Roberts’ legacy of racial reconciliation in Tulsa “Healing for All Races” in Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology  here.