Oral Roberts, a dirt-poor, Oklahoma farm boy who popularized the idea of a "prosperity gospel" while becoming one of the world's most recognizable televangelists, died Tuesday. He was 91.
Roberts, founder of the 5,400-student university in Tulsa, Okla., that is named after him, died of complications of pneumonia at a Newport Beach, Calif., hospital, family spokeswoman Melany Ethridge said.
Roberts became one of the most famous preachers of the 20th century by pioneering the use of television and computerized databases to spread the gospel and raise hundreds of millions of dollars - a formula followed by other ministries.
Using sophisticated direct-mail campaigns, Roberts popularized the use of the "prosperity gospel," which asserts that God generously rewards financial acts of faith done in his name. "It gives people hope and expectation that seeds sown to God will be multiplied back in every area of life," Roberts wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry."
Roberts brought Pentecostalism - which promotes charismatic worship, including faith healings and talking in tongues - to the American mainstream, giving it a sense of legitimacy among the middle class and within other denominations.
"More than any other person, he should be credited with starting the charismatic movement in mainline religion," said Vinson Synan, dean of the divinity school at Regent University in Virginia and historian of the Pentecostal movement.
In the 1970s, Roberts' prime-time specials drew 40 million viewers, and he appeared frequently on talk shows. By 1980, he was recognized by 84 percent of Americans, close behind the U.S. president and fellow evangelist Billy Graham and twice as known as the next religious figure.
At the time of his death, however, Roberts' ministry and celebrity had been in decline for years, a drop accelerated by a prophecy the preacher made 22 years ago that "God will call me home" unless $8 million was raised for scholarships to Oral Roberts University by March 31, 1987.
The money was raised, but by then, Roberts had become a laughingstock to many inside and outside the Christian world.
A heart attack in 1992 forced him into semiretirement. He spent most of his final years in a Newport Beach condominium with his wife of 66 years, Evelyn, who died in April 2005.
The youngest of five children, Roberts was born in a log cabin near Ada, Okla., on Jan. 24, 1918. He was raised in a Pentecostal-flavored Methodist church, and the family later joined the Pentecostal Holiness church.
He is survived by his son Richard and his daughter Roberta Potts of Tulsa, 12 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.