Skip to main content

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 because of cancer, his agent, Will Bogle, said. Bishop 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, Bishop 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.

Open this photo in gallery:

Bishop Carlton Pearson speaks at a news conference in Chicago, on April 4, 2013.M. Spencer Green/The Associated Press

Membership plummeted to a few hundred by 2008 after Bishop Pearson began teaching what he called “the gospel of inclusion,” a form of universalism, which does not recognize hell.

Mr. Bogle said Bishop 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, Mr. 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, Bishop Pearson helped lead hundreds of clergy members from across the United States in urging Congress to pass landmark hate crime and job discrimination measures for gay people.

Bishop 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 Bishop Pearson preached his final sermon there in September of 2008 as the church was absorbed into All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa.

He is now listed as an affiliate minister with All Souls.

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.

Bishop Pearson’s beliefs also led to his resignation from the board of regents of his alma mater, Oral Roberts University, and a split with the university’s founder and his mentor – evangelist Oral Roberts.

Bishop 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.

Bishop 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,” Bishop 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,” Bishop Pearson said.

In 1995, Bishop 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 coming “Million Man March” to Washington, that Mr. Farrakhan organized to promote African American unity and family values.

Bishop Pearson in 2000 was among a group of 30 clergy who advised then-president-elect George W. Bush on faith-based social programs.

Bishop 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.

Bishop Pearson leaves his mother, a son, a daughter and his former wife, Mr. Bogle said.

Interact with The Globe