“Heal,” he commanded, putting his hands on the woman’s forehead and scrunching up his face in prayer. “HEAL!” And, glory be, she got up from her Wheelchair and walked across the stage.
One of my earliest and greatest TV experiences growing up in a small town near Tulsa, Okla., in the 1950s and 1960s was watching the Oral Roberts show. The music, which even a 10-year-old recognized as corny, and the sermon, full of sound and fury, were just build-ups to the healings. I couldn’t help but wonder each week whether the leg would get untwisted and the backache would go away this time, but sure enough they did. In flickering, grainy black and white, I was watching a man perform miracles. It made for great television.
Roberts was big in rural Oklahoma in those days and kept getting bigger and bigger. He built a college, named after himself, with a design straight out of The Jetsons. Then, following a vision of Jesus, he built a gigantic hospital. By then I was old enough to wonder why he needed to build a hospital if he really could heal the sick. Why couldn’t he just walk through the wards, lay his hands on people, say “Heal … HEAL!” and send them home?
Our pastors didn’t care much for him. They not only questioned his theology, they got irked at the way people sent him money that otherwise might have gone to hard-pressed local congregations. But they could hardly compete with a man of God who could heal the sick.
Long before television, itinerant evangelists went through the South and West, putting on “revivals.” They were not just preachers, they were showmen, mixing the Gospel with signs, wonders, and their own personalities, which they projected with the skill of actors.
The revivals back then were distinct from the churches. They were travelling attractions, like circuses and medicine shows. They were primarily evangelistic efforts, geared for attracting and converting non-believers. Though Christians could not resist going to revivals, their faith was mainly nourished in the churches, which were part of their everyday lives, places to worship and feed on God’s Word. Their pastors may not have been spectacular performers like the itinerant evangelists, but they shepherded their people through the good times and bad times—births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals—and were always there for them, ministering with counsel, admonition, and the comfort of Christ’s forgiveness.
Eventually, though, revivalism moved into the churches. Traditional worship services, with their rich hymns and reverent liturgies, were dismantled, to be replaced by hot gospel music and emotional frenzies. When this happened, the role of the pastor changed as well. It was not his office, or his ordinary ministrations with the Word and the sacraments, that constituted his leadership. Rather, it was the force of his personality. Thus, revivalism gave the church the cult of personality as it never had known it before.