Monday, July 15, 2024

Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, an evangelical pastor who was deserted by his large congregation after declaring that hell does not exist and advocating gay rights — and whose story was told in a 2018 Netflix movie — died on Sunday in Tulsa, Okla. He was 70.

His death, in a hospice care center, was caused by cancer, his agent, Will Bogle, said.

Before he was cast out by the evangelical establishment, Bishop Pearson was one of its leading lights: a board member of Oral Roberts University, an adviser to President George W. Bush on faith initiatives and one of the country’s first Black televangelists.

An annual revival that Bishop Pearson led, the Azusa Conference in Tulsa, a mix of ministry and music, drew as many as 20,000 people and spun off best-selling gospel records.

“The night services were always sprinkled with heavy, heavy hitters in the gospel industry,” said Yolanda Adams, a Grammy Award-winning singer whose career took off after an invitation from Bishop Pearson. At the conference in 1996, a group of evangelical leaders declared him “a bishop in the Lord’s church.”

But his fall was decisive once he questioned core doctrines, leading to his formal branding as a heretic and the loss of most of his congregation.

While watching a TV report in the 1990s on children starving during the Rwanda genocide, Bishop Pearson had an epiphany. He could not believe that God would consign innocent souls to hell who had not accepted Jesus Christ as savior before their deaths. He concluded that hell does not exist, except as earthly misery created by human beings; that God loves all mankind; and that everyone is already saved.

It was a view he shared in interviews and preached at his church, the Higher Dimensions Family Church, which he co-founded in 1981 and which grew into one of the largest in Tulsa, known for its multiracial pews in a city and a faith, evangelical Christianity, that was largely segregated.

“I believe that most people on planet Earth will go to heaven, because of Calvary, because of the unconditional love of God and the redemptive work of the cross, which is already accomplished,” Bishop Pearson told The Tulsa World in 2002, adding that he included Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists among the loved. “I’m re-evaluating everything,” he said.

The doctrine, known as universal salvation and which Bishop Pearson called the “gospel of inclusion,” is an old one in theology, but it is rejected by many Christian churches, including the conservative denomination that ordained him, the Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest Black Pentecostal group.

In 2004, the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declared Bishop Pearson a heretic. It said Christians who followed him “put at risk the eternal destiny of their souls.” The evangelical leader Oral Roberts, who had been a mentor to Bishop Pearson, denounced him in a 12-page letter. Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the country’s most prominent evangelical pastors, told Charisma Magazine that Bishop Pearson’s theology was “wrong, false, misleading and an incorrect interpretation of the Bible.”

On Monday, in a statement on social media, Bishop Jakes, the pastor of the 30,000-member Potter’s House church in Dallas, did not mention theological differences but wrote that Bishop Pearson had given him a platform for his preaching at the Azusa gathering when he was just starting out. “I will forever be grateful for his discernment at that time when he was so prominent and I was unknown,” he said.

Following the logic of universal salvation, Bishop Pearson stopped preaching that homosexuality was a sin. “We just love people,” he told his congregation. “And we are the most radically inclusive worship experience in the city of Tulsa.”

In 2007, he and other religious leaders lobbied Congress to pass protections against hate crimes targeting gay people. “The issue of not special but equal rights for God’s same-gender-loving children is a moral imperative in every community in America,” he said across the street from the Capitol. (The measure, which Congress passed, died after a veto threat by President George W. Bush, but it was signed into law in 2009 by President Barack Obama.)

Because of Bishop Pearson’s apostasy, attendance at his church dwindled from thousands to mere hundreds, associate pastors quit, and he lost the church building in a foreclosure. Oral Roberts University, the evangelical institution in Tulsa, denied him use of its campus for his Azusa gatherings, and he resigned from the university board. When Bishop Pearson, a Republican, lost a 2002 race for mayor of Tulsa, he blamed the controversy over his theology.

But he also found a new audience among some liberal Christians and in the national news media. He became a minister in the United Church of Christ, one of the most liberal Christian denominations in America. His branding as a heretic was covered in detail in an episode of the public radio show “This American Life” in 2005.

That broadcast was the basis for the Netflix biopic “Come Sunday,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Bishop Pearson and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts. Simon & Schuster offered Bishop Pearson a book deal, and he wrote “The Gospel of Inclusion” (2009), in which he declared, “We are all bound for glory.” Another book, “God Is Not a Christian, Nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu …,” followed two years later.

Carlton D’Metrius Pearson was born on March 19, 1953, in San Diego to Adam and Lillie Ruth (Johnson) Pearson. Both his father and grandfather were ministers. The Pentecostal church he was raised in forbade smoking and drinking, but he found plenty of excitement in church: As Bishop Pearson told “This American Life,” he once “cast the devil” out of a girlfriend during a youth revival.

He attended Oral Roberts University but left shy of a degree to start his own ministry in 1977. His marriage in 1993 to Gina Marie Gauthier ended in divorce.

He is survived by his mother; five siblings, Antonya Robinson, Renee Godbey, Gail Moore, Monica Pearson and Elector Pearson; a son, Prince Julian Pearson; and a daughter, Majestè Amour Pearson.

Mr. Bogle, Bishop Pearson’s agent, said he often asked him about whether he regretted the loss of prestige, income and worshipers that followed his turning away from Pentecostal Christian orthodoxy.

“I said, ‘You’ve lost a lot of money, don’t you think you should have just shut up?’” Mr. Bogle said. “He would always say, ‘No, I don’t believe I made a mistake.’”

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