Bishop Carlton Pearson, a former megachurch founder in Oklahoma who became a polarizing figure in the evangelical community, passed away on Sunday night at the age of 70. His death was due to cancer, confirmed by his agent Will Bogle. Pearson, once a rising star in Pentecostal preaching, garnered both controversy and a new following after embracing a more inclusive theology.
Pearson’s Shift in Beliefs
Pearson founded the Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa in 1981, which grew to a membership of about 6,000 by the century’s turn. However, his shift towards what he termed “the gospel of inclusion,” a form of universalism rejecting the notion of hell, led to a drastic decline in church membership. This theological change, while costing him a significant part of his audience, also made him a champion of progressive religious thought.
Advocacy for Gay Rights
In 2007, Pearson was at the forefront, leading clergy across the nation to urge Congress to pass landmark hate crime and job discrimination measures for gay people. His advocacy for gay rights and his new theological stance led to his estrangement from other evangelical leaders and his eventual joining the United Church of Christ.
The Fall and Resurgence of His Ministry
The change in Pearson’s teachings led to the foreclosure of Higher Dimensions’ building and the church being absorbed into All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa. However, his story reached a wider audience through an episode of “This American Life” and the Netflix movie “Come Sunday,” based on his life. Despite these challenges, Pearson remained active as a life coach and maintained a weekly live broadcast.
Legacy and Impact
Pearson’s legacy is marked by his bold stance on religious teachings and gay rights, which led to his resignation from the board of Oral Roberts University and a split with mentor Oral Roberts. His life’s work extended beyond the pulpit, including running for Tulsa mayor and advising then President-elect George W. Bush. Pearson authored several books, including “The Gospel of Inclusion,” and featured in the documentary “American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel.”
Carlton Pearson’s passing represents the end of an era for a religious leader who dared to challenge traditional evangelical doctrines and became a voice for inclusivity and love. He is survived by his mother, a son, a daughter, and his former wife.