He showed great compassion
when ministering to the sick and I believe he was a man of his word in
all his dealings, impervious to any efforts to manipulate him. He was
staunchly loyal to his friends but brusque with his critics. I realised
this when I served on a committee called together to organise meetings
in Durban and the Transkei during his second visit to South Africa. The
Durban meetings never took place, though there was a large gathering
in the Transkei.
He used to testify that God healed him and laid his hand on him for the
ministry when he was a boy bed-ridden with tuberculosis.
His first series of meetings in South Africa was staged in Johannesburg
at Wembley Stadium, which has subsequently been demolished. Up to 30 000
souls gathered every night and in total, several thousand responded to
the altar calls. I’m sure that many of these really came out for
healing. They were not responding to the Gospel appeal, though Oral Roberts’ preaching
was quite specific in his call for repentance and faith in the finished
work of Jesus on the cross. As with the Branham meetings, few of these
thousands were added to the membership of the participating churches.
As one of the many pastors attending, I had a place behind the preacher
on the platform at Wembley Stadium. Thus I had a clear view of all that
Two healings in particular stand out in my memory. One was that of a boy
with a clubbed foot. Oral Roberts prayed for him. Then he addressed the
crowd with these words, “Now if God has heard my prayer and healed
this boy, I will be able to straighten out his foot like the other one,
won’t I?” He removed the special orthopaedic boot encasing
the deformed foot. He kneeled down beside the child and I saw him take
the foot and straighten it out in the palm of his hand until it was like
the other one. All that occurred while I sat directly behind Oral Roberts,
not even 30 feet away. I saw it happen with my own eyes.
I did not actually see the other healing but I knew I was in the presence
of a miracle. It occurred in a boy of about 17 whose squint eyes had been
straightened. I saw the boy being led past me by his father, a man in his
middle years. As I saw the expression on the father’s face and the
dazed manner of the boy himself, there could be no doubt in my mind that
they had experienced a wonder-work. The father passed close to me looking
neither right nor left. I can only say he was visibly awe-struck. So were
those sitting near me on the platform behind Oral Roberts.
Roberts was a powerful preacher whose eloquence was carefully calculated.
I noticed he had a technique. For one thing, he insisted on the P.A. system
being turned up high when he preached. The technicians would adjust the
sound down so that he was only just clearly audible in every part of that
large stadium, but he needed the extra decibels to create what someone
has described as “a cathedral of sound” for his preaching.
The sound had to grip the audience.
Then I noticed how he would structure his sermon in such a way that regularly,
about three or four times as he preached, he would reach a crescendo, bringing
the crowd literally to their feet with a matching roar of excitement that
would abate after a while. He would then quietly begin again with what
was like a new movement in his verbal concerto, mounting steadily in intensity
until there was another crescendo.
He used to preach for at least an hour. His sermons were full of matter,
Biblical, challenging and serious. No-one could call him a trifler. He
was too forthright to preach with any degree of insincerity.
He spoke of his Red Indian forebears. It was well-known that Oral Roberts
was partly American Indian. His friends attributed his austere personality
to his Indian blood. His bearing was grave not at all jocular, but when
he was operating under the anointing of the Spirit he changed noticeably.
This happened after he had preached and when he was ministering to the
sick. Then he often became quite waggish. He didn’t ever manifest
a keen sense of humour but he became affable and congenial, as for instance
when a lady he had prayed for held onto his hand with great enthusiasm.
He said to her, “I’ll thank you for my hand back, Madam, you’re
walking off with it.” In that mood the crowd laughed with glee at
his witticism. Alumni of the Oral Roberts University recall how in moments
of ecstasy in the student meetings he would place his hand to his mouth
ululating in a high pitched Indian war-cry. He depended heavily on the
anointing. He would explain to the crowd that his gifts were not abiding
phenomena but they only operated when he was in the Spirit. He used to
beg people not to come to his hotel seeking prayer from him. “I’ll
pray for you”, he said, “but nothing will happen. It’s
as I preach and pray for the people in the meetings that the Spirit works.”
Yet I watched him demonstrating his power at a teaching meeting held for
ministers in Johannesburg. He claimed the healing power was manifested
in his right hand. He had people come forward. As he touched them they
would invariably jump as though a spark had gone into them. So much was
this so that one sceptic actually wanted to search Roberts to make sure
he did not have a battery in his pocket wired to his hand. Oral Roberts
cheerfully submitted to his inspection.
Without being unduly clichéed or repetitive, his preaching was full
of slogans such as “God’s man for the hour”, “God
is a good God, the Devil is a bad devil”. “Feed your faith
and starve your doubts”. And in exorcising demons, he claimed he
knew “their name and their number”. Of faithfulness, he said
he had vowed “not to touch the gold or the glory”.
The latter claim became the focus of a serious challenge to his integrity
after his Wembley Stadium crusade when he passed through the customs at
the Johannesburg Airport returning to America. Somebody filled in his customs
declaration for him which he signed. But on his departure members of the
organising committee, all ministers in Johannesburg Pentecostal churches,
gave him a diamond ring worth 500 pounds. He had not asked for any honorarium,
but he accepted the ring and slipped it into his pocket. It was not listed
in the customs declaration.
When confronted by the customs officer, he was asked if he had anything
to declare. Casually Oral Roberts produced the ring saying, “Does
this have to be declared?” It was not listed on the signed form.
The customs officer reacted officiously. Oral Roberts was taken into a
room and questioned severely, accused of attempted smuggling. Of course
the charge was groundless. But the press made a big thing of it. When 30
000 people gathered at Wembley Stadium, the newspapers reported the event
in a mere three inch item somewhere in one of the middle pages. But when
Oral Roberts was questioned for actually declaring a diamond ring, but
not having listed it in his signed declaration, the Johannesburg newspaper,
the “Sunday Times” splashed it as news in banner headlines.
To the public mind, (though an apology was printed later), it appeared
that Oral Roberts had been caught out trying to smuggle a diamond ring,
a great scandal.
Fred Mullan was on the organising committee for the Oral Roberts meetings.
He told me what had happened. He and others enlisted the service of a leading
Johannesburg QC His advice was, “Gentlemen, Oral Roberts is in a
position to sue the press for defamation of character for any amount you
choose to name!” But Oral Roberts would not resort to the law courts.
He had long since resolved as a principle never to have recourse to the
law no matter what pejorative reports might be concocted against him. The
rest of us could but fume at what we took to be the godless bias of the
secular press when reporting on our Christian activities.
When Oral Roberts returned to South Africa in about 1956, I was stationed
in Durban. I was one of a committee of ministers gathered together to make
arrangements for his crusades in Durban and in the Transkei. As it turned
out, everyone on the committee found it an almost insoluble problem to
arrange a massed meeting in the Transkei for Africans to be addressed by
an American. On the committee were such luminaries as Jack Wooderson of
the Full Gospel Tabernacle and Jack Rolands of the Bethesda Indian work.
No-one knew the way through the maze of government regulations governing
such an event. They had expected Nicholas Bhengu to be at the meeting but
he was late in attending. They were left wrangling in vain over arrangements
for more than an hour. Then Nicholas Bhengu did turn up and an amazing
thing happened. He knew every rule and regulation that could apply. He
knew exactly what could and could not be done. He told them precisely who
to approach for permits. Within 20 minutes the whole matter was settled.
The operation was gladly placed entirely in Bhengu’s hands.
Even at that comparatively early stage of my career, there existed a close
relationship between Bhengu and me. Thus unofficially it turned out that
at ground level I had to arrange the official permission for the whole
operation. Nicholas Bhengu did not ask me, he merely told me what had to
be done, and expected me to do it. I was a young man and a relative non-entity
in those days. With unthinking audacity I shouldered the burden for Bhengu
without argument. Thank God every arrangement turned out right. No-one
on the committee realised that I was handling things for Bhengu. Bhengu
himself took it all for granted without a word of appreciation or thanks.
The spot chosen for the gathering was Vietjies Vale. It was a gently sloping
area of waving grass about 30 kilometres from Umtata near an isolated railway
halt, a lonely store and a few dwellings. A large platform was erected.
Workers of Bhengu’s Back to God Crusade had two beasts slaughtered
for roasting. The word was sent out somehow, and the crowds turned up.
The scene was picturesque with huts adorning the landscape neatly set out
in straight lines with military precision. Now and then tribesmen on horseback
cantered here and there in their blankets, somewhat like Brazilian gauchos
clad in ponchos.
On the first day, about 5 000 Transkei tribesmen gathered. Oral Roberts
prayed for the sick and some miracles appeared to take place. Only then
did I notice that the cameramen were active, the cameras whirring busily.
Oral Roberts wanted films for his television program in America.
The following day the crowd had grown to 10 000, an orderly throng seated
on the clean grass. Veteran missionaries from the region were delighted.
They could hardly believe their eyes. What they called the “Red blankets” and
the “White blankets” were there in the same crowd, an unheard-of
coming together of rival clans. I was told that all the tribal chiefs of
the region were present. Some of them were later to play a prominent part
in the political life of the Transkei. The occasion presented a massive
opportunity to strike a blow for the Gospel that could have radically influenced
the future of the region and indeed, of the whole of South Africa itself.
Oral Roberts’ preaching on this occasion was a disappointment. I
found it frustrating. He beamed at the crowd and in essence he told them “I
love you very much. God is a good God, the Devil is a bad devil. How many
of you want to go to heaven?” The cameras whirred as hundreds stood
to their feet. I’m sure the film looked spectacular on TV in America.
I approached Hart Armstrong, Roberts’ manager. I said, “Brother
Armstrong, these people haven’t heard the Gospel. Let Nicholas Bhengu
speak to them for 20 minutes in their own language.” He smiled cordially
and slapped my shoulder, giving me the “glad hand”. “Don’t
worry Brother, we’ve got it all arranged. After Oral Roberts leaves,
these African ministers will address the crowd.” In the event, the
meeting broke up when Roberts left. No further preaching took place.
I suppose it was foolish of me to expect a man to come to Africa raw from
America and to understand the dynamics of the South African situation and
need. No doubt, all he could grasp was that here was a uniquely picturesque
scene of an evangelistic team consisting of white visitors addressing 10
000 blanket-clad tribesmen. Great preacher though he was, communication
failed in such circumstances.
In later years Oral Roberts founded a university and a hospital in Tulsa,
Oklahoma. To some it seemed that he absconded from his truly wonderful
ministry to use his energy in something he was never called to do. God
must judge that.
The Oral Roberts University is a genuine institution of learning with good
accreditation. In fairness to Oral Roberts, be it noted that regularly
(perhaps twice a year) he conducts in his university evangelistic crusades
to which people are invited from far and wide. The university itself has
had a marked impact on Pentecostal teaching, the motivating philosophy
on which Roberts founded it being the dissemination of true and balanced
Pentecostal doctrine. Influential writings such as the book by Dr Howard
Irvine “These Are Not Drunken as You Suppose” came from the
university. The evangelistic song group “The Living Sound”,
well-known in South Africa was launched from there as well.
It has been argued that there was no need at all for his hospital in Tulsa
where more than enough hospitals existed already. The financial burden
of this foundation has weighed heavily on him. It seems to have involved
him in some bizarre fund-raising appeals.
For my part, I can only wish that instead of Oral Roberts the founder of
a university and a hospital, we could have had more of Oral Roberts the
evangelist, in full cry as I had witnessed him in Wembley Stadium, Johannesburg
in the 1950s.