Evangelist Oral Roberts Dies in California at Age 91

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TULSA, Okla.—Oral Roberts, a pioneer in televangelism who founded a multimillion-dollar ministry and a university that bears his name, died Tuesday. He was 91. Roberts died of complications from pneumonia in Newport Beach, Calif., according to his spokesman, A. Larry Ross. The evangelist was hospitalized after a fall on Saturday. He had survived two heart attacks in the 1990s and a broken hip in 2006.

Roberts was a pioneer who broadcast his spirit-filled revivals on television, a new frontier for religion when he started in the 1950s. He was also a forerunner of the controversial "prosperity gospel" that has come to dominate televangelism. The evangelist's "Seed-Faith" theology held that those who give to God will get things in return.

"If God had not, in His sovereign will, raised up the ministry of Oral Roberts, the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred," said Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, in a statement.

Roberts overcame tuberculosis at age 17, when his brother carried him to a revival meeting where a healing evangelist was praying for the sick. Roberts said he was healed of the illness and of his youthful stuttering. He said that it was then that he heard God tell him he should build a university based on the Lord's authority and the Holy Spirit.

Roberts rose from humble tent revivals to become one of the country's most famous preachers.

He gave up a local pastorate in Enid in 1947 to enter an evangelistic ministry in Tulsa to pray for the healing of the whole person—the body, mind and spirit. The philosophy led many to call him a "faith healer," a label he rejected with the comment: "God heals—I don't."

By the 1960s and '70s, he was reaching millions around the world through radio, television, publications and personal appearances. He remained on TV into the new century, co-hosting the program, "Miracles Now," with son Richard. He published dozens of books and conducted hundreds of crusades. A famous photograph showed him working at a desk with a sign on it reading, "Make no little plans here."

He credited his oratorical skills to his faith, saying, "I become anointed with God's word, and the spirit of the Lord builds up in me like a coiled spring. By the time I'm ready to go on, my mind is razor-sharp. I know exactly what I'm going to say and I'm feeling like a lion."

Unity of body, mind and spirit became the theme of Oral Roberts University. The campus is a Tulsa landmark, with its space-age buildings laden with gold paint, including a 200-foot prayer tower and a 60-foot bronze statue of praying hands.

His ministry hit upon rocky times in the 1980s. There was controversy over his City of Faith medical center, a $250 million investment that eventually folded, and Roberts' widely ridiculed proclamation that God would "call me home" if he failed to meet a fundraising goal of $8 million. A law school he founded also was shuttered.

Semiretired in recent years and living in California, he returned to Tulsa, Okla., in October 2007 as scandal roiled Oral Roberts University. His son, Richard Roberts, who succeeded him as ORU president, faced allegations of spending university money on shopping sprees and other luxuries at a time the institution was more than $50 million in debt.

Richard Roberts resigned as president in November 2007, marking the first time since Oral Roberts University was chartered in 1963 that a member of the Roberts family would not be at its helm. The rocky period for the evangelical school was eased when billionaire Oklahoma City businessman Mart Green donated $70 million and helped run the school in the interim, pledging to restore the public's trust. By the fall of 2009, things were looking up, with officials saying tens of millions of dollars worth of debt had been paid off and enrollment was up slightly.

That September, a frail-looking Oral Roberts attended the ceremony when the school's new president, Mark Rutland, was formally inaugurated.

"He was not only my earthly father; he was my spiritual father and mentor," said son, Richard Roberts, in a statement.