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The Dimming of American Pentecostalism


Pentecostals have always been the red-headed stepchildren of American Christianity -- holy rollers who were known for speaking in tongues or laughing wildly and even barking like dogs while seized by religious ecstasy, or producing miracle healings on command and handling venomous snakes without fear.

All of that was made possible, of course, by calling on the Holy Spirit -- yet was too embarrassing for sober-sided mainline Protestants and even hellfire Southern Baptists, and incomprehensible to the point of batty for Roman Catholics and other high-church folks.

Or at least it was until Oral Roberts came along.

Roberts, who died Tuesday at 91, was a force in American religious history, a pioneer in mass media evangelism and a mentor -- either directly or by his influence -- to a generation of preachers and politicians who continue to shape American culture and global Christianity. He was second only in popularity and visibility to Billy Graham. But before there was Jerry Falwell, before there was Pat Robertson, and certainly before there were striplings like Rick Warren or Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts was holding forth on television and bringing what had previously been seen as a backwoods religiosity into the homes of America's fast-spreading suburbs.

"Oral Roberts helped bring the movement into the American mainstream," Kim Lawton, managing editor of the PBS show "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly," told me. "He attracted a huge following that included not only evangelicals, but 'spirit-filled' mainline Protestants and Catholics as well." Roberts began broadcasting in 1954, and in the 1970s his program, "Oral Roberts and You," was the most popular religious program in the nation.

"I think he planted the seeds publicly of what became the charismatic renewal after 1960 because the American public first saw Pentecostalism in their living rooms through his televised tent crusades," Vinson Synan, a historian of Pentecostalism at Pat Robertson's Regent University told Charisma magazine. Jack Hayford, former president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, agreed: "If God had not, in His sovereign will, raised up the ministry of Oral Roberts, the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred."

At his death, however, Roberts also left behind significant questions about the future of Pentecostalism and spirit-filled Christianity.

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