Televangelists on Tape
By sending his personal archive—300 boxes full of videotapes and correspondence—to Harvard’s library this summer, Bishop Carlton Pearson says he is “taking the old me and putting it in the mausoleum.” He hopes that once Harvard digitizes the collection, “People can see the remains online, all over the world.”
As his former self, Pearson was one of the most prominent African-American Pentecostal televangelists and an award-winning gospel singer. During 40 years of preaching on Trinity Broadcasting Network, then the largest Christian television network, as well as 15 years of hosting a conference for fellow Pentecostalists called Azusa that attracted some of the most prominent names in the field, like Joel Osteen, Pearson accumulated a collection of recordings of televised preaching that he called a “recapitulation of Pentecostal history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries like none other.”
But within a few years in the early 2000s, Pearson lost everything when he announced to the world that he no longer believed in hell. He was declared a “card-carrying heretic” by his fellow Pentecostal bishops. His church’s 5,000 members deserted him. Then he lost his 645-acre ranch. Finally, with his church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, facing foreclosure, Pearson was forced to relocate—and move his archive into a cramped storage unit.
When Jonathan Walton, now the Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, was working on his first book, Watch This: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, he went to Tulsa to interview Pearson. After its publication, Walton said, readers told him they were intrigued by Pearson’s story—and he is now writing another book, centered on Pearson, to be titled “Pentecostalism Made Pretty.”
Walton said finding primary sources for his research on televangelism has been difficult at times. “This is not something that you just walk into a library and ask to see,” he explained. So finding Pearson’s collection, he said, was a major discovery. “I spent many summers and off weeks climbing through the storage unit,” he said, “and I discovered that it was just a treasure trove of primary source material. It’s a who’s who collection of major figures in the world of religious broadcasting and gospel music—Grammy Award-winners, prominent personalities like Oral Roberts, professional athletes, Hollywood stars. They’re all in this material.”
Walton and Marla Fredericks, professor of African and African American studies and the study of religion, realized their graduate students—and future generations of scholars—would benefit immensely from having the archive at their fingertips in Harvard’s library. Walton said he hopes to “bequeath the students something that we did not have access to.” So he asked Pearson to donate the materials, which include raw footage and letters Pearson received from White House officials, to Andover-Harvard Theological Library at the Divinity School. Pearson agreed, and also gave Harvard permission to put digital copies of the videos online for public access.
When the archive arrives at Harvard later this summer, according to library manager Douglas Gragg, staff will begin to process the material so it can be used for research as soon as possible. Gragg said that the tapes “have a limited lifespan, so one of the things we’ll do is quickly assess what would be the best way to preserve, in a more permanent way, the materials we receive. The most likely solution in most cases will be to reformat the film and tape material digitally.”
He added that the library was particularly eager to acquire the archive because “Pearson and his career represent a strand of the American Pentecostal movement whose story is not as well known as some of the more mainstream kinds.” In particular, he explained, this collection depicts a religious movement that is more diverse, both racially and theologically, than the white, conservative Pentecostalism better known to the public. “We really are striving to be a very diverse, pluralistic, multi-religious divinity school,” he said, “and so in the library we try to represent the same rich diversity of perspective that characterizes our faculty and student body and programming.”
Gragg and Walton listed a broad array of disciplines in which study could be enhanced by the newly acquired collection. Gragg suggested scholars conducting research on the sociology of religion, African-American studies, and even the performing arts—he said a number of actors have used Pearson’s style of preaching as a source of inspiration—could take advantage of the archive. Walton proposed that students of religion and sports, of so-called “megachurches,” and of evangelical colleges like Oral Roberts University, might also benefit from having the materials at Harvard.
For his part, Pearson said he hopes future generations will have a better view of the impact that African American Pentecostalism had on twentieth-century America. The sense of transcendence beyond earthly matters that charismatic preachers provided, he said, helped black communities “sustain our sanity and our souls” under Jim Crow and throughout the civil-rights movement, “long before anyone would have even dreamed of an African-American president, or even a female president.”
But even though he still appreciates the fundamentalist movement—which cast him out as a heretic—for its historical significance, Pearson has not reconciled with his former friends and colleagues. “I just saw the psychological deterioration and erosion,” he said, “of a whole culture of people who believed in a God with terrible anger-management problems, who would throw tantrums, cause earthquakes and volcanoes, cancer and AIDS.”
Since his break with the Pentecostal denominations he used to associate with, Pearson has preached what he calls a “gospel of inclusion.” He no longer believes that only a small subset of the population will receive salvation; instead, he has sought to build a more welcoming church, particularly by reaching out to the LGBT community. He said he now realizes LGBT people “need healing ministry and restorative ministry, because of the abuse that the church has given them.” In turn, Pearson said that he and his church have been embraced by the LGBT community in Tulsa.
Today, he preaches to a much smaller congregation, a far cry from the days when, he said, “I was loving my life, going all over the world and preaching to crowds as large as 250,000, and writing books, and I had award-winning albums.” A film on the subject of his illustrious career and dramatic fall from grace, tentatively starring Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave, is now in the works. “I had a great life, and I don’t regret one bit of it,” Pearson said. “But I wouldn’t go back. I’m still putting the pieces together, but it works for me. People thought I had lost my mind. I actually found my mind with all of this.”