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.

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