History in the Making — Pentecost at Prime Time

I SAW THIS NEW THING called television,” Rex Humbard later recalled, “and I said, ‘That’s it.’ God has given us that thing . . . the most powerful force of communication, to take the gospel into . . . every state in the Union.” The year was 1952, and Humbard was the first evangelical preacher to launch a successful television ministry out of his church in Akron, Ohio.

Evangelical preachers had taken to radio with gusto in the 1920s and 1930s. The leap from radio to television, however, was huge, and the pioneer evangelists who used the medium in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s faced enormous challenges.

Mainline Opposition

Most religious programming of the early 1950s (with the exception of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s uniquely successful teaching program) was sponsored by the National Council of Churches. The programs were produced on low budgets and presented on Sundays in free time given by the networks to satisfy a public service requirement. The NCC was careful to see that none of the free time fell into the hands of evangelicals. In the early 1950s, Billy Graham purchased time to air an interview program, but few ever watched it.

Oral Roberts did see the Graham programs and was more and more convinced that “the devil must not steal this great medium from God’s people.” In 1954 Roberts and his wife, Evelyn, filmed a series of 30-minute studio programs patterned on his radio program, and they flopped. Roberts was subdued but not vanquished. He remained convinced that “more souls can be reached through TV than through any other means.” What was needed, Roberts believed, was to capture on camera the charged atmosphere of the revival tent.

Two evangelical revivals were underway in the United States in the 1950s. The first was the evangelical revival led by Billy Graham. The second was a healing revival that drew hundreds of thousands into tents and auditoriums across the country seeking miracles. Its most talented leader was Oral Roberts.

In 1954 when Roberts took his big tent to Akron, Ohio, for a crusade, his old friend Rex Humbard persuaded him to film three of the evening meetings. The filming posed technical challenges because of the poor lighting under the tent, but Roberts was ecstatic about the results. The programs included not only his sermons but also the “altar calls, healing lines, actual miracles, the coming and going of the great crowds, the reaction of the congregations.” He believed he had found a way to introduce the nation to the remarkable healing revival.

Billy Graham took a similar step in 1957 when he decided to air his Saturday-evening services from the Madison Square Garden crusade in New York City. Graham contracted with ABC to air four programs, establishing a pattern of broadcasting crusade services he would follow throughout his career.

Graham’s stature was sufficient by 1957 to make him an attractive client to network television, but other evangelical broadcasters found the going much tougher. The television networks and most station owners were satisfied to donate Sunday morning time to the National Council of Churches, and many stations feared that selling time to revivalists would taint their image.

Oral Roberts painstakingly pieced together a television network in the mid-1950s; by 1957 he claimed that his program was being aired on 135 of the nation’s 500 television stations. But he met resistance at every turn. When his program first aired in New York City, New York Times columnist Jack Gould protested, “If Brother Roberts wishes to exploit hysteria and ignorance by putting up his hands and yelling ’Heal,’ that is his affair. But it hardly seems within the public interest, convenience and necessity, for the TV industry to go along with him.”

The Christian Century warned that “the Oral Roberts sort of thing” would harm the “cause of vital religion,” and throughout 1956, the NCC lobbied Congress seeking legislation banning the sale of television time for religious purposes.

Airing a national television program was expensive, but the rewards were enticing. Roberts’s mail nearly doubled after one month on television; his mailing list grew to more than a million names by the end of the 1950s. Billy Graham began receiving between 50,000 and 75,000 letters each week in the wake of his New York City telecasts.

Every up-and-coming evangelist in the 1950s dreamed of launching a national television program to broaden his or her evangelistic ministry. “The people that’s on radio and television,” mused old-timer W.V. Grant, “is the ones that’s getting the crowds.” But no one came close to matching the national television empires of Graham and Roberts in the 1950s.

Sixties Revolution

Religious television changed dramatically in the 1960s; by the end of the decade, the dimensions of the modern electronic church were beginning to appear.

Some changes were driven by technology. Independent UHF television stations proliferated, and these struggling business ventures were quite willing to provide low-cost time to evangelical customers.

One such station, WYAH, was a shoestring operation begun by young Pat Robertson; in 1961 it became the first all-religious television station in the country. Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network barely survived the early 1960s, but by 1968, CBN had built a new headquarters and had begun an incredible upward spiral that paralleled the secular broadcasting success of Ted Turner.

As technology opened new doors, the most creative evangelists experimented with new ways to use the medium. CBN contributed much to the remodeling of religious television. Robertson began using telethons to raise financial support in 1963, but his most important breakthrough came with the revising of The 700 Club format in 1965. Young Jim Bakker joined CBN in 1965 and began hosting the show now modeled on The Tonight Show. The talk show format attracted audiences far different from those who tuned in to crusade services.

In the late 1960s, Oral Roberts brooded about how to reach a broader audience. In 1967 and 1968, he made a series of stunning decisions: he canceled his television program, ended his crusade ministry, and left the Pentecostal Holiness church to become a Methodist.

Roberts had a strategy that would dramatically influence the course of modern religious television. In 1969 he prepared four prime-time specials produced in an entertainment format, featuring wholesome and talented student singers from Oral Roberts University and recognizable Hollywood guest stars. The scheme was a high-stakes gamble (cost: $3 million), but it was an effort to move religion out of the Sunday morning religious ghetto. The artistic team that put the programs together was headed by Ralph Carmichael, a talented musical writer, director, and arranger, and Dick Ross, who had produced specials for Billy Graham, Kathryn Kuhlman, and secular artists. The early programs claimed audiences of around 10 million viewers (a 1973 special had an estimated audience of more than 37 million), and after each program, the ministry received around a half-million letters.

A new generation of television evangelists soared to ever loftier heights in the 1970s; they owed much to Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. Kathryn Kuhlman began broadcasting in 1967 with Dick Ross as her producer; Robert Schuller aired his first program in 1970, and Jimmy Swaggart his in 1972. In the 1970s, Robertson’s booming CBN was joined by the TBN network, owned by Paul Crouch, and PTL, under Jim Bakker.

Why the Pentecostals?

By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that evangelists from the Pentecostal/charismatic movement had been particularly adept in adapting to television—Roberts, Robertson, Bakker, Swaggart, Humbard, Kuhlman, Kenneth Copeland, and dozens of aspiring stars.

The reasons were partly organizational. The Pentecostal revival of the 1950s and 1960s left behind scores of independent ministries with the financial ability to test their appeal on television. Hundreds of talented and daring evangelists heard the voice of God telling them to take the gospel to the world through the miracle of television. Yet, though many were called, few were chosen.

The medium itself did much to determine winners and losers. Pentecostal evangelists had several advantages in the new world of televised communication. First, many were talented musicians and their religious subculture had deep roots in the music of common people. They were able and willing to offer entertainment on television as they had under their tents. Second, they brought a clear-cut, simple theology to a medium that communicated in ten-second sound bites. Complicated and nuanced theology belonged to the days of print; Oral Roberts’s concise insights—“God is a good God,” “Something good is going to happen to you,” “Expect a miracle”—were memorable television slogans.

By 1970 the ground rules for the expansion of the electronic church were pretty well in place. Established churches were unable and unwilling to compete with the freewheeling entrepreneurs who built independent television empires. Graham and Roberts continued to be major players in the decades ahead, but the competition became increasingly fierce and the stakes incredibly high; some of the newcomers were more talented than the pioneers. By the 1980s, near euphoria reigned amidst the stars of religious television. The next reassessment came only in the aftermath of the scandals at the end of that decade. CH

By David Harrell

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #49 in 1996]

David Harrell is a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama. He is author of Oral Roberts: an American Life (Indiana) and Pat Robertson: A Personal, Religious, and Political Portrait (Harper & Row).
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