The founder of a former mega church in Oklahoma, who fell from grace and was deemed a heretic after embracing the idea that there is no hell and supporting gay rights, has died, his publicist said on Monday.
Bishop Carlton Pearson died on Sunday night in hospice care near Tulsa of cancer, publicist Will Bogle said. 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, leading to an international audience.
From a ministry that began in 1977, Pearson founded the Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa in 1981 — later known as New Dimensions Church, whose membership grew to about 6,000 by the turn of the century.
Membership sank to a few hundred by 2008, after Pearson began teaching what he called “the gospel of inclusion,” a form of universalism that doesn’t recognize hell.
Bogle said Pearson told him he didn’t believe he had made a mistake in his theological shift.
“People were forced to question what they believed about” salvation, Bogle said. “And as polarizing as Bishop Pearson was throughout his life… he was a very kind man, didn’t take himself too seriously, he cared about people.”
In 2007, Pearson helped lead hundreds of clergy members from around the country in urging Congress to pass historic hate crime and workplace discrimination measures for gay people.
Pearson was rejected by other evangelical leaders, deemed a heretic and later became a minister in the United Church of Christ. Higher Dimensions eventually lost its building to foreclosure, and Pearson delivered his final sermon there in September 2008, when the church was absorbed by All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa.
He’s now listed as an affiliated minister at All Souls.
Following the collapse of his former ministry, his story was told in a long episode of public radio’s “This American Life,” which became the basis for the 2018 Netflix movie “Come Sunday,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Pearson’s beliefs also led to his resignation from the board of regents at his alma mater, Oral Roberts University, and a falling-out with the university’s founder and his mentor — televangelist Oral Roberts.
Pearson unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Tulsa in 2002, a loss he attributed to public reaction to his teachings.
More recently, he was a life coach at New Dimensions, with a weekly live broadcast on Facebook and YouTube.
Pearson, in August, posted a video on social media from what appeared to be a hospital room and said he had been battling cancer for 20 years.
In a September video, he said he was diagnosed with prostate cancer two decades ago but was diagnosed with bladder cancer over the summer.
“I’m facing death… I’m not afraid of death, nor am I afraid of dying,” Pearson said.
“I don’t fear God and if I were to fear anyone, I would fear some of His supposed people, because they can be some naughty sons of biscuit eaters, as my brother used to say,” Pearson said.
In 1995, Pearson called the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” for preaching the opposite of Martin Luther King Jr. and criticized Farrakhan’s upcoming “Million Man March” in Washington, D.C., aimed at promoting black unity and family values.
Pearson, in 2000, was among a group of 30 clergy members who advised then-President-elect George W. Bush on faith-based social programs.
Pearson is also the author of books, including “The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God,” and featured in the documentary “American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel.”
Pearson is survived by his mother, a son, a daughter, and his ex-wife, Bogle said.