Televangelism: A Service or a Show?

Posted on: June 13th, 2014 by Roundabout

In the musical Violet, Violet begins her journey to Tulsa, Oklahoma to seek out a famous Preacher whom she hopes can heal her scarred face.

Violet’s ability to see a Preacher from Tulsa on television in her home state of North Carolina is a result of a rise in religious broadcasting in the early 1960s. The term “televangelism” was first coined by Time magazine to describe the American fusion of television and evangelical Christianity. Hallmarks of evangelicalism include an emphasis on conversions and born-agains, activist spreading of the gospel, strict adherence to the Bible, and a stress on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In 1960, a new ruling by the Federal Communications Commission allowed independent preachers access to more network airtime than previously permitted, and evangelicals seized upon the new technology to spread their word.

Televangelism has roots in the late 19th century urban revival movement. To reach an industrialized, urban society, independent ministers employed emotional preaching styles, along with music and displays of faith healing, to attract converts. Billy Sunday, one of the most popular preachers of the early 20th century, infused his services with showmanship and amusement; he also built one of the most profitable independent religious organizations in his day.

With the advent of radio in the 1920s, evangelists saw the ability to reach more followers. Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, used the radio to spread “the story of hope, the words of joy, of comfort, of salvation.” In 1937, “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour” with Baptist Charles E. Fuller reached around 10 million listeners on 30 nationwide stations. When mainline Protestant organizations took steps to limit the predominance of evangelicals on the air, the national Religious Broadcasters formed in 1944 to advocate for evangelicals’ access to both paid and free airtime.


Aimee Semple McPherson during one of her services.


Television sets became household items by the early 1950s, and the so-called “first televangelist” appeared in 1951. The religious program “Life Is worth Living” with Catholic priest Fulton J. Sheen ran until 1957 and reached approximately 30 million viewers each week. In 1952, Rex Humbard built the Cathedral of Tomorrow in Akron, Ohio to accommodate equipment, a crew, a chorus, and seating for 5,000. Humbard declared that God wished preachers to use television to spread the Christian Gospel throughout the United States, and religious television soon became the domain of evangelicals.

Oral Roberts, whose Healing waters ministry was based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the most famous televangelists of the 20th century. Roberts claimed to have been cured of tuberculosis at age 17 at a tent revival meeting. He began preaching and faith healing in tents before going on radio and then on television in 1955 with his show “Your Faith is Power.” Unlike his contemporaries Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, Roberts did not promote political views on his pulpit and spread a universal message of hope, combined with promises of health, happiness, and prosperity.


Oral Roberts in his office.


Most televangelists preach the “prosperity gospel,” which holds that God rewards the faithful with material success. Critics point at the wealth acquired by these entrepreneurial preachers and a wave of corruption scandals to question the purity of their acts.Televangelists say their “electronic church” is a medium to spread the Gospel to modern American society, offering a clear message that anyone can understand. However one views the phenomenon, televangelism today is a billion-dollar industry that attracts 16 million viewers, nearly 8% of the television viewing audience.


This article features in our Upstage playgoers guide for Violet

Violet plays at the American Airlines Theatre through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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2013-2014 Season, Violet

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