OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The founder of a former megachurch in Oklahoma who was branded a heretic and lost one audience — but gained a new one — after he rejected the idea of hell and supported gay rights has died, his agent said Monday.
Bishop Carlton Pearson died Sunday night in hospice care in Tulsa due to cancer, said his agent, Will Bogle. Pearson was 70.
Early in his ministry he was considered a rising star on the Pentecostal preaching circuit and frequently appeared on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, bringing him to an international audience.
From a ministry he started in 1977, Pearson in 1981 founded Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa — later known as New Dimensions Church, whose membership numbered about 6,000 by the turn of the century.
Membership plummeted to a few hundred by 2008 after Pearson began teaching what he called “the gospel of inclusion,” a form of universalism, which does not recognize hell.
In 2004, the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops Congress declared Pearson’s teaching about hell to be heretical. The finding came a year after Pearson defended his views at a doctrinal forum.
“Because of our concern for the many people that could be influenced to adopt this heresy and in so doing put at risk the eternal destiny of their souls, we are compelled to declare Bishop Carlton Pearson a heretic,” wrote Bishop Clifford Leon Frazier, chairman of the joint college’s doctrinal commission, according to Religion News Service.
Pearson’s beliefs also led to his resignation from the board of regents of his alma mater, Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, and a split with the university’s founder and his mentor — evangelist Oral Roberts.
Bogle said Pearson told him that he did not believe he had made a mistake with his theological change.
“People were forced to question what they were saying” about salvation, Bogle said. “And as polarizing as Bishop Pearson has been his whole life … he was a really good guy, he didn’t take himself seriously, he cared about people.”
In 2007, Pearson helped lead hundreds of clergy members from across the nation in urging Congress to pass landmark hate crime and job discrimination measures for gay people.
Pearson was shunned by other evangelical leaders, branded a heretic and later became a United Church of Christ minister. Higher Dimensions ultimately lost its building to foreclosure and Pearson preached his final sermon there in September 2008as the church was absorbed into All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa.
He is now listed as an affiliate minister with All Souls.
“We hope, upon hearing this news, that you will take some time today to reflect on how Bishop Pearson has touched your life. Think about how you will pass on the love and wisdom he has imparted to you,” the church said in a statement.
The Rev. Robert Turner, who pastored at Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa until 2021 said he was “dismayed” to learn of the death of a man he considered a mentor.
“His words were so poignant and prophetic,” said Turner, who said he met Pearson when he arrived in Tulsa in 2017 and now pastors at the Empowerment Temple AME in Baltimore.
After the collapse of his old ministry, his story was chronicled in a lengthy episode of public radio’s “This American Life,” which became the basis for the 2018 Netflix movie, “Come Sunday,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Pearson ran unsuccessfully for Tulsa mayor in 2002, a defeat he blamed on public reaction to his teachings.
He most recently was a life coach with New Dimensions with a weekly live broadcast on Facebook and YouTube.
Pearson, in August, posted a social media video from what appeared to be a hospital room and he said he had been fighting cancer for 20 years.
In a September video he said was diagnosed with prostate cancer two decades ago, but was diagnosed with bladder cancer over the summer.
“I am facing death … I’m not afraid of death, I’m not even afraid of dying,” Pearson said.
“I don’t fear God and if I was going to fear anybody, I’d fear some of his so-called people because they can be some mean sons of biscuit eaters, as my brother used to say,” Pearson said.
In 1995, Pearson called Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” for preaching the opposite of Martin Luther King Jr. and criticized the upcoming “Million Man March” to Washington, D.C., that Farrakhan organized to promote African American unity and family values.
Pearson in 2000 was among a group of 30 clergy who advised then President-elect George W. Bush on faith-based social programs.
Pearson also authored books, including “The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God” and was in the documentary film American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel.
Pearson is survived by his mother, a son, a daughter and his former wife, Bogle said.