It took years for Bishop Carlton Pearson, a groundbreaking African-American televangelist of the late 20th century, to visit the storage locker in downtown Tulsa, Okla., that contained the remains of his once-vaunted ministry.
In 2004, he had been branded a heretic by his Pentecostal peers for declaring that there was no such thing as eternal damnation, that a loving God would save everybody. His epiphany cost him almost everything: his 5,000-member church, his television ministry, his ranch for troubled kids. As his empire crumbled, his staff stuffed some 300 crates of video footage, music recordings, photos, notes, and financial records into storage.
“It was a corpse lying in a coffin,” he recalled. “The record of my existence on this planet was in these crates. It was devastating. Devastating.”
Now, Harvard plans to exhume that corpse and give it a new life online. Pearson’s media archive, which will be digitized by Andover-Harvard Theological Library over the next two years, will offer scholars a rare unvarnished glimpse inside the closely guarded world of evangelical religious broadcasting — and the careers of some of its most notable practitioners.
“You’re talking about a gold mine, a treasure trove, thrown into a storage locker,” said the Rev. Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer professor of Christian morals at Harvard, who discovered the archive while researching a book on Pearson and helped arrange the donation.
Pentecostalism, a revivalist Christian movement born in a working class, multiethnic section of Los Angeles in the early 20th century, is now the fastest-growing expression of Christianity in the world. Classical Pentecostals believe in baptism by the Holy Spirit, experienced in spiritual gifts such as glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and faith healing.
Walton said the crates, which are scheduled to be shipped from Tulsa to Cambridge later this summer, contain raw footage of Pearson’s highly produced television shows; receipts of the speakers’ honorariums at his annual Azusa conference, a festival of preaching and gospel music that drew just about every famous name in late 20th century evangelical broadcasting; and correspondence from the White House on faith-based initiatives.
“From a scholarly-academic standpoint, it’s priceless,” said Robert Darden, director of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor University. “Here is the pastor of one of the largest black megachurches in America. . . . They’ve had enormous political clout, enormous religious clout, and they’re part of a history.”
Harvard’s acquisition of the archive also underscores a growing recognition among academics of the significance of a popular religious movement long scorned or ignored by scholars.
“This lends a credibility to Pentecostalism — and to African-American Pentecostalism more specifically,” said the Rev. Estrelda Y. Alexander, president of William Seymour College in Maryland and a Pentecostal minister and scholar.
Douglas Gragg, director of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard Divinity School, said the Pearson collection will help diversify the library’s holdings, which are strongest in New England religious history and include the papers of 19th century Unitarian luminaries William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker.
Pearson, whose story is being made into a feature film, was born into a deeply religious family in San Diego. Like most classical Pentecostals, he adhered to a strict moral code of conduct that forbade drinking, dancing, smoking, sports, immodesty of all sorts. He became a protege of well-known televangelist Oral Roberts.
In his freshman year at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Roberts identified Pearson as “a gifted vocalist and bright student,” and took him under his wing, Walton wrote in his book “Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism.” Pearson toured with the school’s gospel choir ambassadors, the World Action Singers, sometimes offering testimony on Roberts’s show.
The young Pearson helped Roberts diversify his audience, according to Walton, and as Pearson developed his own ministry, he aimed to bridge the largely segregated black and white Pentecostal churches. Walton likens him to a rhythm-and-blues crossover artist.
The first African-American to host his own show on Trinity Broadcasting Network, an international religious network, Pearson further raised his profile by lifting up new talent — such as a young T.D. Jakes — at his Azusa Conference, a glitzy annual event on the campus of Oral Roberts University, where Pearson was a trustee.
But one day in 2000, Pearson’s long struggle to reconcile how a loving God could condemn people — especially those who suffered — to hell for eternity ended in an epiphany: Hell was right here on earth, he felt God telling him. God would save everyone.
His followers would not accept this line of belief, nor would the white power brokers of Pentecostalism. Charisma Magazine, a Pentecostal publication, labeled him a heretic. In a few short years, he lost his fans, his congregation, his church, his conference, his homes. The Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops’ Congress eventually declared him a heretic, too.
Pearson vividly recalls driving to his office for the last time as the church was being sold. The usually neat space was topsy-turvy, piles of the tapes and photos and audio cassettes and financial records he had saved since the late 1970s — “we kept everything,” he said — were everywhere.
“I stood there for a couple seconds, and the room spun, and I got physically nauseous,” he said. “I said to my assistant, ‘I cannot stomach this. I’ve got to go.’ ”
The comprehensiveness of the Pearson archive is one of its most important features, Walton said.
“You’re always trying to negotiate the willful erasure of history among evangelicals,” he said. “They’re always feeling they’re under attack.
“What we had to help [Pearson] see is this is precious because something that might be considered a radical position or embarrassing statement now — 100 years from now, history may prove you right.”
Some prominent evangelical figures have since joined Pearson in questioning or rejecting the existence of hell, including Rob Bell, in his 2011 book, “Love Wins.” Others sidestep the fire and brimstone sermons of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, said Alexander, many Pentecostal churches have loosened their moral expectations and toned down talk about damnation to compete with hugely successful nondenominational charismatic Christian churches that are less restrictive, more upbeat, and more worldly, she said.
Pearson’s “heretical theology,” she said, “sparked conversation.”
Pearson, now a United Church of Christ minister who does most of his ministry online, said his spirituality continues to evolve; the anthropomorphic view of God he once nurtured “made less and less sense” as he grew older. You can no more anger God, he now believes, than you can anger the wind.
“I question my answers,” he said. “It’s not the most secure place, I’ll admit, but it is the more curious place.”