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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Write On

For Christmas, Amonda bought me this shirt. It has a simple phrase: “Write On.”  This shirt was such a blessing to me because it has ably characterized this season of my life. My dissertation was finished nearly a year before I submitted it. In the mean time, I found it refreshing to write about other things I was interested in that I couldn’t do when I was focusing on my dissertation. This was when I wrote my first two Spiritus articles on Oral Roberts.  I found a way to channel the energy and rhythms of my life I had developed to work on some new areas of research and writing.

For many PhD students, the relief of completing the thesis is too great to jump back into writing other things. They simply stop writing. I certainly understand that temptation. It is an exhausting journey. But this wasn’t the case for me. The fact is, God called me to write. I always have.  When I finished my MA thesis in 2007, I was also writing my other book I published.  Its just who I am.

But I also recognize that I am very fortunate that my job is such that I am surrounded by materials and conversations that keep ideas fresh in my mind. While I don’t right during my work hours, I am constantly exposed to areas that need to be explored. When I get home at night, I can’t help but dig into these ideas and write about them. This has led me a a remarkable number of publications that are slated for this year. Here are some of the exciting writing projects I have been working on.

  1. I have been assigned to be a special issue editor for the fall Healing Special Issue of Spiritus: ORU Journal of theology. I not only assisted the contributors with their pieces, but I also will write the editorial in which I will focus on the legacy of Oral Roberts to expand the definition of healing to be multidisciplinary.  Oral’s vision was that healing would extend to “every person’s world.” With this outlook, healing could take many forms: medicine, music, evangelism, and other fields and professions. This issue will focus on that legacy.
  2. Also In the Healing issue, I have written an article Oral Roberts and his legacy of racial reconciliation situated in the backdrop of Tulsa, a city that has a tragic history of racial division. I am so excited about this article. I believe that it will showcase the radical vision Oral had for racial inclusion with details about his work that few are aware of, even within the university. This will be my 4th article on Oral Roberts as I continue to strive to become the foremost scholar today on Oral Roberts and ORU.
  3. I was asked by the editors of Brill’s Encyclopedia of Global Pentecostalism to contribute two entries. One is on Alice Luce, a pioneer in the Assemblies of God missions who founded Latin American Bible Institute. She is a remarkable woman who was a missionary strategist and  founder of Latin American ministry in the US. The second was on A.A. Allen, the famous healing evangelist who was an Assemblies of God minister. Allen was a flamboyant evangelist who had amazing miracles take place in his ministry. He was also controversial. The HSRC has a wonderful collection of Allen resources and it was a delight to research and write about his life.
  4. A few years back, my friend and fellow AG scholar, Rick Wadholm, talked about working on an edited volume together. After several ideas, we began to think about compiling some studies on the emerging discipline in Pentecostal studies of Reception History.  Things really came together when it was announced that the theme for the 2019 SPS conference was Reception History.  The SPS program chair and noted AG New Testament scholar, Martin Middelstadt, joined our editorial team to help us assemble some of the studies presented at the conference into a volume to be published with CPT Press. I am just thrilled to be working with these great friends and scholars on this ground breaking volume.
  5. In the Reception History volume, I will publish the SPS paper I wrote on the reception history of “tarrying” for the baptism in the Holy Spirit from testimonies in the Azusa Street Mission paper, The Apostolic Faith. This paper was well received at the conference and I believe gives insights into the dynamics,  methods and struggles for people being baptized in the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement.
  6. I was also approached about contributing a chapter to an upcoming edited volume that is a primer on Pentecostal Theology edited by David Bradnick called Voices of the Spirit. It is a survey of various leading scholarly voices in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement. I was asked to write a profile of Dr. Peter Althouse, one of the most notable theologians of the Pentecostal tradition. Althouse was a very important scholar in my dissertation because of his publications on Pentecostal eschatology.  No one has done more to bring to light the importance and issues surround Pentecostal eschatology. It was a real joy to bring his important contributions to light.
  7. In my role as director of the HSRC, I was asked to submit an article on the HSRC resources pertaining to Canadian Pentecostalism in the Canadian Journal of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity. This too was a joy because it was wonderful for me to become more familiar with my own collection in the HSRC as well as the history of Canadian Pentecostalism.  This should come out later this year.

As you can see, I have been very busy. But I have loved every project. Some have asked how I have time and energy to do all of this. The answer is simple: Write On.  Although its not every day, it is not unusual for me to spend a couple hours a night several times a week working on research and writing (not binge watching Netflix certainly helps!). This was the pattern I developed when I was working on my dissertation. I just kept the same pace and have stayed curious about what is out there that needs explored. But beyond that, I love to do it. This is what I am called to do and I am thankful for the opportunities that I have been given to do it. I hope I can keep up this pace. I feel like I can because I found the secret.  “Write On!”

AG Eschatology, Oral Roberts, and Reception History: A Research Update

I have great news about my PhD journey! On April 16, 2019 I will finally be defending  my PhD dissertation on “The Origin, Development, and Future of Assemblies of God Eschatology”.  It has been nearly a year since began the process of submitting my final draft.  After several delays and snags, I will finally be sitting for my defense (called a viva in the UK) and hopefully bring this journey to a close that began over ten years ago. I welcome your prayers for me!

I am truly excited that I will soon be able to share my research after everything is finalized. I am extremely proud of the work I have done in tracing how the AG has expressed their belief in the second coming of Jesus throughout 100 years of AG literature.  This will be the first study to chart the development of official doctrinal statements and the various changes that have been made in the past century (and yes, there have been many changes!) I am also the first to create a narrative of how these beliefs were expressed  by leaders, pastors and individuals in the AG through the hundreds of articles in over 5,000 issues of the Pentecostal evangel from 1914-2014. I am also the first to chart the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping how these beliefs have been expressed.  To wrap up my study, I offer a comprehensive integration of the past and the future to re-imagine how AG doctrine can continue to develop a Spirit-focused eschatology consistent with the past but also embraces the  future for the AG.

The second area of research I am focusing on right now is Oral Roberts Studies.  For over two decades, Oral Roberts studies have fallen into the background of the Pentecostal academy.  Following David Harrell’s monumental biography of Oral in 1985, little research has been conducted on this fascinated and controversial figure in Christian history.  This past fall, forays into this neglected space were made with the publication of a special edition of Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology that honored the centennial of Oral’s birth with twelve new studies on his life and theology. I was able to contribute two pieces to that edition: one on the role of Oral Roberts’ view of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit and one on a shockingly different early account of his healing testimony that I co-authored with Vinson Synan. Writing these two pieces awakened me to the vast number of topics on Oral’s life, theology and ministry that are still yet to be explored.  The door is wide open for more research and the time has come for scholars to re-engage with this central figure in Pentecostal and Charismatic history.

Following my first two studies, I have been working on two new areas of Oral’s life and impact. The first is a study of Oral’s legacy of racial healing and reconciliation. His racial views were radical for his era and have been an important factor that led to the  extremely diverse student population on the campus of ORU today.  This study will be part of another special edition coming out in the Fall issue of Spiritus focused on the theme of healing, for which I will be the guest editor.  The second is a study about poverty, Pentecostalism, and Oral’s influence on the prosperity gospel.  I will be exploring how the trauma of Oral’s poverty stricken childhood was the primary motivator for his doctrine of prosperity. It is a challenging study that will wrestle with the implications of Oral’s influence on prosperity gospel, particularly in the majority world.

A final piece of research and writing will be showcased this upcoming week at the annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.  The theme this year is “Reception History,” which is the methodology of exploring how Pentecostals have read, interpreted, viewed, and performed the Scriptures throughout their history. I will be presenting a paper on the Pentecostal practice of “tarrying.” Specifically I will be exploring how early Pentecostal’s received Jesus’ command to “tarry in Jerusalem” and how that command informed their expectations on the amount of time that one must seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit.  You can read this paper I am presenting next week here: Isgrigg SPS – How Long Shall We Tarry

In addition to presenting at this year’s conference, I am joining fellow AG scholars, Rick Wadholm and Martin Mittelstadt, to compile an edited volume focused on Reception History that will contain many of the studies  from this year’s meeting.  We are very excited to be working together on  this ground-breaking volume dedicated to articulating and demonstrating this emerging discipline within Pentecostal studies. Here is the Reception History Call for Contributions for potential authors.

This is a wonderful season in my life. I love my job as director of the Holy Spirit Research Center at Oral Roberts University. People ask me all the time, “Will you get to teach?”  The truth is I teach every day. That’s what academic librarians do! We teach students how to do academic research using the best sources available to them in ORU’s amazing library.  Every day I have conversations with students about Pentecostal history and its my job to help them to discover the wealth of materials that we have at ORU for them to explore. I get to watch the excitement they experience as they learn the ins and outs of finding information on topics they are passionate about. I also get to be the steward of the amazing collection of books, magazines, audio/video and artifact that have been entrusted to the HSRC for over 50 years.  Every day I am surrounded by the history of the Holy Spirit’s work around the globe. I am grateful to God for his leading in my life to bring me here. I am convinced that Oral was right: God is a good God!

By the way, the HSRC depends on the donation of materials related to the global Spirit-Empowered movement. We need your help! We are glad to take books, magazines, and other artifacts (old or new) from the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement to help us to continue to expand our collection. If you have something to donate, contact me.  https://oru.libguides.com/HSRC

 

A Summer Update

It is July and I haven’t mentioned much lately about the progress on my PhD. I have had several people ask about my PhD and am I done yet.  Well, the answer is yes and no.  I finished writing my dissertation back in March and my supervisor has read it and given the OK for it to be submitted.  However, I am actually trying to submit a year earlier than my acceptance letter had indicated. So, even though I am done, I am still waiting for Bangor to approve me to submit. We are trying to work through the red tape as we speak. Meanwhile, I am just sitting here waiting, thesis in hand.  So please pray with me that I can receive favor to submit as soon as possible. After that, I can proceed on with the Thesis defense process and finally move on.  (Although at times I miss working on my thesis!)

On another note, I am also please to announce that as of August 1st, I am officially the new director of the Holy Spirit Research Center. While this was a large part of my job when I came to ORU in November, I didn’t receive my official appointment until a few weeks ago. I am so excited about this opportunity. I cannot imagine a job I would enjoy more than being the director of the HSRC.  I simply love what I do and feel so privileged to be the steward of what is perhaps the largest and most comprehensive collections of resources on the Holy Spirit in the entire world.  I praise God for his grace in bring this opportunity my way and am grateful to Dr. Mark Roberts for believing in me. I stand on incredibly strong shoulders as I take over this responsibility.

Finally, I am very excited about some other writing projects I have been working on.  I have three pieces on Oral Roberts coming out later this fall in a special edition of Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology in recognition of the centennial of Oral’s birth.  The first is a bibliography of Oral’s works that is intended to provide scholars with a list of items we have at ORU that are available for Oral Roberts studies. The second is a historical piece I wrote with Vinson Synan about an early account of Oral’s healing that was published in the Oklahoma Pentecostal Holiness newspaper, in which his account is curiously different than his later recollections of his healing from tuberculosis.  The third article is a study of the role that the baptism in the Holy Spirit played in shaping the healing ministry of Oral Roberts.  I am so excited about these pieces and look forward to producing more studies of Oral and Oral Roberts University in the future.

What can I say except I feel really blessed right now. This season of my life is a good one for me and my family.  I am pleased to agree with Oral Roberts; “God truly is a good God.”