When Oral Roberts was 16, afflicted with tuberculosis and convinced he was going to die, a voice came to him out of the blue:
“Son, I am going to heal you and you are going to take the message of My healing power to your generation.”
Years later, when he was a discontented pastor in Enid, locked away in his study, the voice came to him again: “Stand upon your feet. Go and get in your car. Drive one block and turn right (to the parsonage). From this hour on you will heal the sick and cast out devils by My power.”
Now a financial and evangelical success, the voice will not let him rest. “I’ve got it right here in my gut,” he said on a local TV talk show. “God told me to do it. I know, I know, I know, I know… God told me to do it.”
God told him, he said, to build a 60-story, $100 million hospital just south of Oral Roberts University, to be named the City of Faith Medical and Research Center.
The news rocked medical circles across the state. Reactions ranged from disgust and nervousness to stark admiration. Critics claimed he was building another mindless monument to himself, while hospital administrators worried that he might cause a severe overbedding crisis. Not one, however, expressed any doubt that he could do it.
In late 1961 when he had announced that he was going to build a national university in Tulsa, he had been greeted by skeptics.
This time he was greeted by a Tulsa World editorial that pointed out when Roberts announces his intentions, it is “tantamount to announcing the completion of the project.”
The evangelist has come a long way.
To promote the center, Roberts assembled thousands of ORU students and faculty members in a vast green field at 81st and South Lewis, site of the proposed center, and had them pose for a newspaper photograph around huge chalked letters spelling “City of Faith.”
He also ordered 1,000 copies of the Tulsa Tribune’s front-page color spread announcement, apparently to use later in soliciting donations. Future television and Abundant Life Magazine campaigns are in the works.
The project struck many people as ironic. After all, a faith healer proposing to build the biggest medical facility in the state?
Actually, Roberts has never been antagonistic toward medicine, although he has been criticized by physicians in the past. He also despises the term “faith healer” because he says it implies that he, not God, does the healing.
The medical center he wants to build would equal, if not overwhelm, the other symbolic, futuristic architecture at ORU (now a dazzling $150 million campus). It was designed by the same architect, Frank W. Wallace.
In the artist’s rendering, three golden towers rise into space, creating a south Tulsa skyline. The middle one is a 60-floor clinic and diagnostic center, the west one is a 30-floor hospital, and the east one is a 20-floor research center. All three are connected to a four-story, 300-by-500-foot base housing surgery and testing services and the best equipment.
The hospital would contain 777 beds, a figure chose by Roberts because seven is supposed to be a biblically pure number. (Sevens also crop up in the address of ORU, 7777 South Lewis; the year in which the go-ahead was given on the medical center; and the first donation toward the center’s construction, $77,777.77 by Michael Cardone Jr., of Philadelphia, an ORU regent.)
A staff of 5,000 would eventually be required to operate the facility, including 300 physicians and surgeons. “What we’re working on is getting some of the best people in the world in here,” said one ORU official.
As ORU has its mirrored Prayer Tower, the City of Faith would have its Praying Hands. The 60-foot-high sculpture would rise from a large fountain in front of the center. One hand would be raised in prayer, the other as a symbol of medicine.
The fountain water would flow north toward 81st Street in a stream 40 feet wide and lined by trees, alluding to the River of Life and Tree of Life. It would be flanked by entrance and exit streets.
The center is scheduled to open partially in 1981. Roberts predicts it will play a major role in finding the cure for cancer because doctors will have divine assistance.
The medical center was conceived years ago. In the mid-1950s, when Roberts’ ministry was booming, he purchased a 175-acre tract of land for $250,000 (the ORU site) and declared his hope to erect a “City of Faith.”
I remember discussions on a hospital 12 years ago,” said Ron Smith, executive vice-president for finance.
Roberts and Dr. James Winslow, vice provost for medical affairs at ORU, have consulted officials from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Roberts was deeply affected by a book on the Mayo brothers years ago, and he has admired the clinic ever since.
Thus the hospital was apparently set in his mind when he told St. Francis officials he wasn’t planning a hospital.
But the origins of the medical center and its grandeur go much farther back. To a great extent the center is a culmination of Roberts’ own life and personality: a golden egoistic monument, a great altruistic feat. Not either one, but both. The evangelist is a complex, dichotomous man.
Roberts’ determination to be the one responsible for conquering a great disease such as cancer stems back to his teenage fight against TB. It is what led to his birth as a fervid Christian and faith healer.
The turnabout began when, at 16, he collapsed on a basketball court at Antlers High School, his lungs hemorrhaging and blood pouring from his mouth.
A coach brought the stuttering youth back to his parents on a farm in Pontotoc County near Ada, which Roberts had left with dreams of becoming a lawyer or governor of Oklahoma.
After Roberts was brought back home and diagnosed by an unknown doctor as tubercular in both lungs, he laid in bed for almost six months, growing emaciated.
With prayers being said frequently by his mother in his room, he gradually came to believe the devil had afflicted his body. He began to pray.
One day his older brother Elmo brought news of a tent revivalist in Ada, and his parents took him there by car for help.
When the revivalist put his hands on Roberts’ head and commanded the sickness to abate, “the next thing I knew I was racing back and forth on the platform shouting at the top of my voice, ‘I am healed I am healed! I am healed!’ ” he wrote.
His stuttering disappeared. He was taken to the Suggs Clinic in Ada where doctors fluoroscoped his lungs and pronounced him well.
Weeks later Roberts was ordained in the Pentecostal church. In 1936 he met Evelyn Lutman in Sulphur, where she was playing a guitar at a camp meeting. They were married on Christmas Day 1938.
Roberts spent a decade preaching in small churches and at revivals in the South. He performed one healing on a neighbor’s foot in Toccoa, Georgia. The story was featured prominently in his 1961 biography, but never mentioned in subsequent biographies.
Roberts moved to Enid to pastor a small church and attend Phillips University. But he became restless and dissatisfied. “I began to be consumed with a passion either to have a ministry like Jesus or to get out of the ministry,” he said.
The time was early 1947, when great resurgence in Pentecostal faith-healing had begun.
In a dramatic move, Roberts announced to his church that he was resigning. He went down to a clothing store and applied for a job. Then he rented an auditorium, determined to either make a successful debut on Sunday as an independent revivalist or go to work as a haberdasher.
He prayed for a sign of encouragement: at least a thousand people and enough donations to pay for the rental of the building. He got 1,200 people and $63.03 (the rent was $63).
With that, he “electrified the whole house” with “healing after healing.”
Two men had approached Roberts before his revival wanting to get in on the “racket.”
When Evelyn heard of the offer, she said, “Oral, this is a trick of the devil. He knows God is going to do a great work through you or he would not be attacking you so early.” Her observation was re-written 11 years later in another biography to read, “If you do what is right, God will bless you despite what some uninformed critics might say.”
Roberts had told the men, “I want you men to know that my vow to God is to touch neither the gold nor the glory.”
Touched or not, the gold and the glory came pouring in during the 1950s.
It started literally with a bang in Tulsa when a man took a shot at Roberts in the revival tent with a .45 caliber revolver. “The bullet whipped past my ear, missing me by less than 18 inches,” he said.
Roberts’ Healing Waters, Inc. formed in 1948 and began publishing a monthly called America’s Healing Magazine. In 1951 national magazines reported Roberts was the “flashiest, revivalist” to hit the American scene since Billy Graham and he was packing a 10,000-person tent every night.
Spurred by good advertising and public relations, Roberts’ empire began to expand. He put his big, expensive hands to thousands of heads and prayed millions of words. He discovered that his healing power was centered in his right hand.
In 1954 he developed a television program and money began pouring in. His organization took in a reported $3 million cash in 1955; it employed almost 300 workers to handle the mail. Religious items, including “Jesus Heals” lapel pins and record albums, were sold.
It was at this time that Roberts purchased the land in south Tulsa where he would eventually build ORU. His own salary was substantial, especially with book royalties and a “love offering,” a special donation taken at each revival for the preacher’s needs. His income was around $1 million annually for three consecutive years. He bought a 280-acre ranch called the Robin Hood Farm and built a $60,000 house on it. He also owned a 12-passenger executive airplane.
Soon Roberts got “uncomfortable” with his income. “Our holdings consisted mainly of real estate,” he wrote, and in 1962 he and Evelyn divested themselves of it and gave the money to ORU. They also arranged for any book royalties to go into a trust fund for their four children. Roberts went on a salary of $15,000 a year plus a free home, and the figure has increased steadily since then.
The evangelist then took his healing crusades overseas, to South Africa and Australia. However, in Australia, he closed down his tent and left early because of scathing opposition from the press and others (he called it the work of Communists).
Unexplainable healings have been reported during Roberts’ crusades. He admits he has failed many times to heal, “But I know better than anyone else how many tens of thousands have been saved and healed and are still being reached through this ministry,” he said.
Doctors have attributed some miraculous healings to recoveries from psychosomatic illnesses and renewals of hope.
Today his plush office overlooks the 500-acre ORU campus, which still exudes a shimmering, clean atmosphere. His students wear ties and speak freely and unashamedly of God. Another upcoming basketball season will bring crowds to the Mabee Center, where he also produces his weekly TV shows. His lavish Contactspecials on national TV will probably draw big-name stars.
Roberts and his family were stricken with grief in January when their daughter Rebecca and her husband were killed in an airplane crash. But their other daughter, Roberta, is alive, married, and well. Roberts and his oldest son, Ronnie, have been described as being “worlds apart.” His younger son, Richard, is being primed as the evangelist’s successor.
Roberts’ hair is now iron-gray, but he appeared healthy and tanned on the local TV interview show.
With so much, why then build a hospital?
An obvious reason might be that Roberts must find someplace to invest all of the money his organization collects. One would assume that his association has accumulated enough to get the medical center off the ground, but Roberts leaves the impression that he is starting from the ground floor.
Roberts said that he, Evelyn, their three children and nine grandchildren each contributed $77 to start out the building fund.
Wayne Robinson, a former vice president of ORU and the association, views the medical center as more of a personal than practical endeavor for the revivalist.
“It’s kind of a final dream. He envisions the hospital as a type of mecca for his supporters,” he said. With the university and its various schools, the physical education and basketball program, the Prayer Tower, the hospital, and the retirement center, he would have a complete community “with everything but a cemetery,” Robinson said.
Robinson, now a professional writer in Oklahoma City, wrote an unauthorized biography of Roberts, published last year. Neither a hatchet job nor a hagiography, it brought the evangelist to a human level.
In the book Robinson points to Roberts’ “sense of destiny” and calling, which he says is sincere.
“The one most important key to Oral Roberts’ achievements is his incredible power as a motivator. Sick persons are motivated to be healed; businessmen are motivated to believe they can succeed; students are motivated to seek high grades; and his staff is motivated to perform at a level they never dreamed possible,” he writes.
For those who say Roberts is building a monument, they are probably right. It would be a monument to his success—a word that has become as synonymous with Roberts’ name as healing.
Appeared in This Land: Summer 2015. Originally published in Oklahoma Monthly in 1979. This article has been edited and condensed.