My Dad, Oral Roberts
Roberts' daughter remembers healer who once preached in Newnan
by W. Winston Skinner
Oral Roberts -- when he died at 91 in 2009 -- was one of the best known figures in the American religious landscape.
Famed first for his traveling faith healing ministry, he tapped into the growing power of television and founded a flourishing university and a medical center. Before that, he was a poor, sickly preacher’s kid growing up in Oklahama and then a pastor and evangelist.
When he was a young preacher, Roberts led a seven-week revival at the First Pentecostal Holiness Church of Newnan in the mid-1940s. The church, which had been organized following a 1935 tent revival, still stands on Jefferson Street just east of Oak Hill Cemetery.
Roberts’ story has now been told by his daughter, Roberta Roberts Potts. Potts is not sparing in her view of certain aspects of her father’s life. She makes it clear that he was often away while she was growing up and that his single-minded vision could be both inspiring and maddening.
Still, “My Dad, Oral Roberts” (cloth, Icon Publishing Group, 301 pages, $24.99) is written from the viewpoint of a daughter who admired her father and followed in his footsteps -- particularly in regard to her own vibrant faith.
Seen from one angle Oral Roberts can be viewed as a far-sighted man of God who fused the “Old Time Religion” with the modern tools of communication and education. Seen from a different angle, he represented, for some, a retreat from the central tenets of the Bible to a market-driven, multi-media ministry. Like all complicated stories, the truth lies somewhere beneath all the hype, hyperbole and hysteria.
The youngest of Oral and Evelyn Roberts’ children, Potts shares the private side of her father, who began life in crushing poverty and went on to become a world-renowned Christian figure.
As Potts wrote in the preface to her book: “Folks either seemed to love him or hate him... All who are brave enough to finish this book will see that while Dad’s critics have demonized him and some of his adherents have deified him, both were wrong.”
Oral Roberts’ boyhood bout with tuberculosis -- and his own miraculous healing at a meeting held by a traveling evangelist -- marked a pivotal moment for the young man. He felt called to preach, took college classes whenever he could and read such thinkers as Kant, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.
As a young pastor, he also had a deep spiritual revelation. “Once Oral Roberts discovered that God was indeed a good God, that God was actually interested in his people living an abundant life on this earth, his entire perspective was dramatically altered,” his daughter wrote.
Although few details of Roberts’ preaching in Newnan have been handed down, Potts wrote about what his traveling ministry was like. The crowds who came to hear him led Roberts to purchase and transport “his own tent for areas of the country which did not contain a sufficiently large auditorium,” Potts wrote. “People often drove hundreds of miles.”
At the peak of his crusades, Roberts had a tent that would seat 10,000.
“Whenever Dad planned a crusade in a certain town, he started with local pastors, and had at least a modicum of their cooperation,” Potts wrote. She also said that when he encountered resistance to preaching to groups that were racially mixed, he would insist on having one night set aside for African Americans.
Potts also wrote about her father’s oratory and how he could captivate audiences. “While many people can memorize long passages, few can say them from memory with such fire in their voices,” she wrote. Though many verses and themes were repeated over and over, Roberts could deliver them “as if he were saying them for the very first time.”
Roberts had “a natural ability to tell stories” -- both from the Bible and other sources. “Dad had a talent ‘on loan from God’ which kept his audiences on the edge of their seats,” Potts wrote. “I personally cannot imagine how anyone could have slept through an Oral Roberts sermon.”
Potts related that her mother was concerned about Oral Roberts’ hands-on healing technique -- fearing he might contract tuberculosis or some other disease.
In her book, Potts has shared her father’s successes and his struggles. There are vignettes where the famous -- ranging from Billy Graham to Elvis Presley -- crossed paths with Roberts. There also is much insight into Roberts’ determined vision for his ministry, his wife’s practicality and support and the interactions within their diverse family.
Throughout the book, Potts’ own faith is clear. Her admiration of her father for his continual service to God shines in each chapter. She wrote:
“Who knows how many people are now in Heaven or on their way to Heaven because of my father? Only God knows. I am so proud of what he did for the world! He did bring God’s healing power to his generation. ... God Himself was longing to touch the people He had created, and He chose my father.”