Oral Roberts and Sol Price: Depression Legacies

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What Oral Roberts and Sol Price would have thought of each other's often side-by-side obituaries we'll never know. But the politically conservative Pentecostal Protestant faith healer and the liberal Jewish retailing multimillionaire had much in common. Each challenged  establishments -- religious and commercial, respectively. Roberts once remarked that he had more friends among doctors than among other ministers, and Price overcame great opposition from traditional retailers and manufacturers in discounting name-brand goods, developing store brands to gain leverage. Each helped create a controversial and emphatically American category -- televangelism and warehouse retailing, taking advantage respectively of new media and suburban roads.

Price, born in 1916, and Roberts, born in 1918, were formed by their 1930s teenage years. Price, from a middle-class pro-labor family in the New York garment industry, never lost his Left convictions and became a model progressive philanthropist. Roberts, who experienced poverty directly, taught that faith could bring not only eternal salvation but this-worldly prosperity. Price and Roberts were part of a generation that included Sam Walton (1918-1992) on the merchandising side, and Billy Graham (also born in 1918) on the spiritual.

Roberts and Price share more than membership in a birth cohort. Both men's lives were changed by tuberculosis when the disease was still often a death sentence. Roberts suffered from ill health as a child, with an apparently terminal case of TB at 16, and recovered after prayers by a traveling faith healer. He later wrote of  hearing God's promise, on his way to the tent meeting, that he would be cured so that he could grow up and minister to others.

Roberts' career after his recovery needs no miraculous explanation.. Psychologists studying the US astronaut candidate program in the early 1970s found that childhood illness could have surprisingly positive outcomes; they called the phenomenon the Teddy Roosevelt Effect, after the self-transformation of the future President from asthmatic youth to Rough Rider.

Price's life was changed by a different aspect of TB. This obituary from the Washington Post explains how Price first came to California, where freeways and vacant space helped make his merchandising approach possible.

His father, who became ill with tuberculosis, relocated the family to San Diego in the late 1920s.

After high school, the elder Price's mother decided to take the children back to New York. They traveled by car, and Sol Price, who did the driving, got a firsthand look at the results of the Great Depression. "I saw with my own eyes farmers standing with guns pointed at the sheriff, keeping them from coming on the land and foreclosing the land," he recalled.

Mr. Price received undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1938. By that time, he and his girlfriend, Helen Moskowitz, had eloped and married in Las Vegas and after law school eventually moved back to San Diego for good.

Without the move, Price might have become a great success in law and real estate, but his retailing revolution would have faced an even greater initial challenge in his native Northeast.

While Price's version of noblesse oblige was hardly controversial, Roberts' promise of material blessings was ridiculed by nonbelievers and disputed by many other Christian clerics. The London Telegraph may have the best analysis of Roberts' turning point:

For the first nine years of their marriage [1938], the Robertses subscribed to the doctrine "blessed are the poor", yet they secretly longed to escape the poverty into which they had been born. Roberts toured the evangelical circuit and held four brief pastorates before he found justification for their suppressed desires in the biblical passage: "I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth."

Roberts considered it a revelation, and immediately went out and bought his first new car, a Buick, which he regarded as "a symbol of what a man could do if he would believe in God".

Roberts' gospel of success reflected the yearnings of the people, especially the young people, of the Depression. Scarlett O'Hara's terrible vow that " they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again" resonated for the millions who had lined up to see Gone with the Wind (1939). And her character also shows the dark side of some resilience -- ruthlessness. Even Sol Price, a model employer and philanthropist often generous to individual workers, could appear "tough, even tyrannical" to employees, according to the Post. The two lives are a reminder that the "Greatest Generation" was as diverse and complex as any other. Whether the present world economic crisis will shape its own responses as today's young people get older, or whether it will join the smaller nineteenth-century panics now known mainly to connoisseurs, remains an open question.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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