Christian Media

Oral Roberts and Early Christian Television

Reader Brian Sinks sends in this interesting historical background on the Oral Roberts Media Ministry – for those who are interested in the early days of religious television:

Oral started his broadcast media outreach on radio in 1947 with his “Healing Waters” program which ran (in some form) until 1989.

Oral’s first (and only) color film (that you are well aquainted with!) “Venture into Faith” (a drama!) was shot in 1952 for $80,000 (I’m including costs because I know you will find it humorous compared to today’s costs).  To make it authentic, parts of two crusade meetings (Oral’s sermons: “You Are What Your Believing Is” and “There Is No Power Like The Power of Faith” and healing lines) were shot in Birmingham, Alabama.  I think it was here because of the problems – first: filming with low light under the tent then – second: after lighting the inside it got so hot under the film lights – that the idea of shooting the tent meetings on an ongoing basis seemed unimaginable.  It was still Oral’s driving desire to be on television.  So they worked out another solution.

Oral started on television in January 1954.   Oral shot 26 half hour programs in Hollywood called: “Your Faith is Power” for a total cost of $104,000.  Evelyn read testimonies and Oral preached to the camera on a living room type set.  The program aired for all of 1954 (a first run and rerun of each – Boy do I wish we had these films!).  It was during this time Oral began his ongoing stuggle with shooting with or without an audience (you KNOW what I’m talking about!).  He hated talking to a camera lens and thought these programs missed “the presence of people.”

Enter Rex Humbard: “Oral, I film and broadcast my Sunday services every week here in Akron.  There must be a way for you to film the powerful tent crusades!”

Enter Pathescope Productions in New York City: “We have a new low-light fast film.  Let’s shoot three pilot films!

So in July of 1954, three meetings were shot in Akron, Ohio:
428-A – 7/13/54 – “Samson and Delilah”
428-B – 7/14/54 – “Demons”
428-C – 7/15/54 – “The Fourth Man”
(It’s unfortunate none of these films are around – especially “Fourth Man.”)

The results were so impressive that the ministry began making inquiries into purchasing their own film equipment that they purchased late that year at a cost of $500,000 (in 1954!).  It’s documented that they shot a group of three more crusades meetings in Portland, Spokane and Oakland before taking at least two cameras over to Israel (Jordan) to shoot three illustrated (dramatized!) sermons during Christmas week of 1954:
1211-A – “Easter Story: If A Man Die Shall He Live Again!”
1211-B – “Pilgrimage To Bethlehem” (shot in Bethlehem)
1211-C – “The Second Coming of Christ”
(I’ve been able to use all but “Second” which is missing – dang.)

February 1955: “ORAL ROBERTS – The Abundant Life Program” began airing on 61 stations (including New York City, Chicago & Los Angeles!) at a cost of $8,350.89 a week.  A month later this grew to 91 stations at a cost of $11,592.04 a week.  Two months later (May 2, 1955) a young woman named Anna Williams watches the program, prays with Oral and is able to walk again.  Her story was carried nationwide in newspapers and magazines.  It only took another year or so for the program to grow to 135 stations (there were only 500 possible then) and 80% of the country!

Also of note: After the films were shot they were edited in Chicago.  Chicago would also be important when Oral found it hard to preach new messages for the programs by late 1959.  Since everywhere he went people wanted to hear him preach the same classic sermons all the time (“The Fourth Man” – “You Can’t Go Under” – “Samson and Delilah” – etc.) he began preaching new sermons for the television audience in a Chicago studio with a tent crusade-like canvas backdrop.  He must have gotten over talking to a lens for a season!  [However, the healing lines were still live from the crusade meetings (and must have helped their film budget!)].  I’ve been told (I don’t remember the source) that the Chicago studio they used became Ophra Winfrey’s Harpo Studios.  It would be a treasure to find the original negatives of the tent crusades in a closet at Harpo or maybe in LA!

Back in 2005 – after 50 years on television – we calculated the ministry had produced over 10,000 programs and over 160,000 hours.

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  1. That is a great walk down memory lane. I remember hearing “The Fourth Man” sermon when I was in a chapel meeting at ORU. He is captivating. I still have issues with some of the techniques and methods of fund raising by Oral and Richard (I remember being in service, on more than one occasion, and being told by Richard that God was speaking to him right then, and telling him to ask us to take out our wallets, and reach in and take out the biggest bill and put it in the offering plate! — true story– God bless him!), but God is still God, and He can take care of His own children if He thinks they’re misbehaving.

  2.      Interesting history. I was the child “David Collins” in Venture Into Faith. The film was actually shot twice, with tent scenes shot first in Fresno, CA and the second time in Birmingham where the congregation’s reaction to my being healed of tuberculosis was as electric as the film reveals. I believe that tent was the world’s largest at the time (larger than Ringling Bros. Circus tent) and held 10,000 people and there was standing-room only for the services.

          My mother was played by Dorothy Faye Ritter nee Southworth, who was Tex Ritter’s wife and the actual mother of John Ritter, the now deceased actor, who was an infant at the time. I still have production stills and even the softball that was played with in the film. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event for a kid to participate in and I hold on to the memories of what was a happy time in my life. This film has been shown all over the world and I have a letter sent to me by Oral Roberts in 1993 that assured me that it was still being shown somewhere in the world. It has been dubbed into hundreds of languages and has perhaps been shown more times than any film in existence.

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