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Magazine | Okiecentric

The Gospel of John Lennon

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Posted 03.07.11

In Search of Lennon’s Lost Letter to Oral Roberts

In the early 1970s, Oral Roberts’ evangelical TV program was at a peak, with an estimated 37 million viewers. After each show, the ministry commonly received upwards of 500,000 letters. One of those letters in particular has since caught the world’s attention.

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On Friday, January 26, 1973, Roberts stood behind the podium at the Mabee Center and held up a sheet of paper to an audience comprised of his university students and faculty. Nobody could have expected the claim Roberts was about to make.

“I hold in my hand probably one of the most unique letters or documents that I’ve ever shared with anybody in the world,” Roberts said. “It happens to be from one of the Beatles, John Lennon, who was probably the most gifted song writer of the group. And he wrote it by hand.”

Sitting in the audience that day was Scott Aycock, who remembers the chapel service vividly. “The majority of students at that time were converted hippies. We called ourselves Jesus Freaks,” recalls Aycock. “When John Lennon writes to Oral Roberts, you can believe it had a huge impact. There was hardly a dry eye in the place.”

The most commonly cited source for the letter is David Edwin Harrell’s 1985 biography Oral Roberts: An American Life. It appears to offer the full text of Lennon’s letter and cites an audiotaped transcript as its source. The actual transcript, however, is different. Harrell Jr.’s book contains some telling omissions—omissions that add new intrigue and dimension to one of the most trying phases in Lennon’s life.

In the version below, Lennon admits to his disenchantment with being a Beatle. Although he claims to be under the influence of pills while writing the letter, Lennon openly discloses his police record involving drug use and check forgery, and he confesses to prompting the break-up of The Beatles. Additionally, we learn that Lennon’s marriage to Yoko Ono created a major barrier in his relationship with his son Julian, and that Ono is “going crazy” over the disappearance of her daughter.

In this reprinted transcript of the audiotaped sermon, Oral Roberts’ asides appear in italics and any bold text indicates phrases that were omitted from Harrell Jr.’s biography.

This is what Oral Roberts said that day:

Rev. Roberts, this is ex-Beatle, John Lennon.

Aside: And it’s a little hard for me to read, so I had it typed. I don’t mean that in a bad way, don’t misunderstand me. I just don’t always get every word, as people don’t always get every word I write by hand, too. Are you ready? This is quite a letter.

Rev. Roberts, this is ex-Beatle, John Lennon. I’ve been wanting to write you but I guess I didn’t really want to face reality. I never do this, this is why I take drugs. Reality frightens me and paranoids me. True, I have a lot of money, being a Beatle, been all around the world, but basically I’m afraid to face the problems of life. Let me begin to say, I regret that I said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I don’t even like myself anymore, guilt. My cousin, Marilyn McCabe has tried to help me. She told me you were praying for me.

Here’s my life.

Aside: In his letter he said it like so many do over there, here’s ‘me’ life.

Here’s me life.

Born in Liverpool, my mom died when I was little. My father left me at three. It was rough because just my aunt raised me. I never really liked her. I had an unhappy childhood, depressed a lot. Always missing my mom. Maybe if I’d had a father like you, I would have been a better person. My own father I hate with a passion because he left my mom and me, came to me after we found A Hard Day’s Night and asked for some money. It made me so mad, Paul had to hold me down. I was going to kill him. I was under the influence of pills at that time.

Married Cynthia, had a son John. I had to marry her, I really never loved her. She always embarrassed me walking around pregnant, not married, so I married her. Only one regret, John has had to suffer a lot because recently she’s been married again. He and me never get to see each other because she refuses because I’m married to Yoko.

Aside: I hope I’m pronouncing the name right, Yoko.

So life as a Beatle hasn’t been all that great.
[1]

I came out and told them I wanted a divorce [2] because Paul and me never got along anymore and that’s how the four ended. Since 1967 I’ve had a police record for dope and forging 12 checks to America. My wife Yoko and I have searched all over for her daughter, we can find. [3] Her ex-husband took her away, Yoko is going crazy.

As the song we wrote is that we wrote, Paul and me, “Money Can’t Buy Me Love,” it’s true.

The point is this, I want happiness. I don’t want to keep up with drugs. Paul told me once, “You made fun of me for not taking drugs, but you will regret it in the end.”

Aside: He doesn’t mean me personally.

Explain to me what Christianity can do for me? Is it phoney? Can He love me? I want out of hell.

P.S. This address staying at the cousin’s house. Rev. Roberts, also, I did watch your show until Channel 6 took if off the air. Please try to get it back on. A lot of people I know loved your show. I especially like the World Action Singers, your son Richard is a real good singer. George told me he met you and them when he was at the studio.

Aside: This was George Harrison, isn’t it? I didn’t get to meet George, but the singers did at NBC.

Sincerely, John

P.S. I am, I hate to say, under the influence of pills now. I can’t stop. I only wish I could thank you for caring.

After reading the letter, Roberts said, “This handwritten letter of his was three pages and I wrote him four or five back. Would you like to hear a little of what I’m saying to him? The second time, I’m writing to him again because the urge just wouldn’t leave me.”

Roberts went on to read the students a letter he had addressed to both John and Yoko. He said there may have been “some truth” in Lennon‘s infamous “more popular than Jesus” statement at the time, but that “Jesus is the only reality.” He then asks John to keep writing him and expresses his hope that God will save his soul.

“I never dreamed that someone like John Lennon would have been watching the television program,” Roberts said later in the chapel sermon. “Is that the way you feel? It never would have entered your mind and we never know what we are doing for the Lord.”

In addition to writing back to Lennon personally, Roberts also orchestrated a return message from the students of Oral Roberts University.

“Oral asked all of the students to come to the cafeteria where they had a huge roll of butcher paper,” recalls Aycock. “They rolled it out on several tables and asked all of the students that wished to, to write a note to John Lennon, in response to his letter. Of course, being young and a fan, I participated in writing a note to John.”

Lennon’s letter received a tremendous amount of fanfare, both at the time of the reading and since then. It has been mentioned in several books, numerous blog posts, a Christianity Today article, and was even referenced in Roberts’ obituary in the New York Times. However, every reference to the letter cites the incomplete version in the Harrell Jr. biography. And all of these references may actually be wrong. Why?

“We have looked for the original for years, but it is nowhere to be found,” explains Roger Rydin, curator of the Oral Roberts University (ORU) archive. “We have done a good job over the years of keeping up with these kind of items, but this one got away. We had a researcher here in 1985, and it was ‘lost’ then, and has not been found since.”

Without the original letter, it’s impossible to verify whether it was actually Lennon who wrote it. When Roberts read the letter at the chapel, he was reading a typed version of the letter, and when he read it out loud, he frequently interrupted the letter and altered the words. The most accurate record of the letter is Roberts’ audiotaped sermon, but representatives from ORU are oddly skittish about allowing access to the audiotape; their public relations director ignored repeated requests for permission to hear the tape.

While we may never know for certain if Lennon actually penned the letter, there’s an interesting allusion Lennon left for us to consider–and we have audio of John Lennon singing it.

On November 14, 1980, less than a month from his murder, Lennon recorded a song he had written to Yoko called, “You Saved My Soul.” It exists only as a rough demo of the very last recording he ever sang on, passed around as a bootleg recording. The lyrics read:

When I was lonely and scared, I nearly fell for a TV preacher in a hotel room in Tokyo. Remember the time I went to jump right out the apartment window on the west side of town of old New York. You saved me from that suicide and…I wanna thank you, thank you, thank you for saving my soul with your true love.

It appears that Lennon had found the savior he was seeking.

“I know personally, my heart went out to him, and I thought of him often after that and wondered if he was happier later in life,” says Aycock, speaking of Lennon. “It certainly seemed he was happier in the few years leading up to his death.”

 


1. From the transcript, it is uncertain whether this line is an aside from Roberts or a portion of Lennon’s letter.

2. In 2009, a lost interview of John Lennon surfaced, indicating that indeed Lennon had asked Paul McCartney for a ‘divorce.’ Prior to 2009, it was widely believed that McCartney was responsible for the Beatles disbanding. “At the meeting Paul just kept mithering on about what we were going to do,” says Lennon. “So in the end I just said, ‘I think you’re daft. I want a divorce.'”

3. Possible transcription error; the sentence may more accurately state “We can’t find.” Ono was reunited with her daughter Kyoko Cox in 1994.