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The Beatle and the preacher

Paintings by Vanessa Sweet
Paintings by Vanessa Sweet

Oral Roberts received a three-page letter in November 1972. The sender enclosed a gift of 10 pounds in English currency.

The letter, written in sprawling cursive, opens with an unusual apology: “Let me begin to say I regret it that I said ‘The Beatles’ were more popular than Jesus.”

Skip to the end and find the signature of self-proclaimed “ex-Beatle” John Lennon.

Roberts read this signed Lennon letter aloud in chapel in front of a rapt audience in the Mabee Center on Jan. 26, 1973.

The televangelist wrote back multiple times but never received a reply from the John Lennon of the letter.

Since Roberts first dictated Lennon’s message to ORU students and faculty, the letter has encountered equal parts awe and skepticism.

Questions over the letter’s authenticity have been raised as recently as this week when Beatles experts in England responded to a request from The Oracle for a handwriting analysis and concluded the script resembles nothing Lennon has written before.

Often lambasted in Beatles forums, the letter has been cited in national publications and in books like Steve Turner’s well received “The Gospel According to the Beatles” and David Edwin Harrell, Jr.’s biography, “Oral Roberts: An American Life.”

The New York Times even used the Beatle-preacher correspondence in Roberts’ obituary as an example of the minister’s scope and renown at the height of his influence in the 1970s.

Janet Carlton, a 1976 graduate, remembers being in chapel the day Roberts read the famous letter. Many in attendance, like Carlton, had grown up listening to the shaggy-haired musicians from Liverpool.

She first experienced Beatlemania in sixth grade after purchasing a magazine with their pictures and learning the words to every early song. In terms of cultural influence, she said the Beatles are peerless.

“They had a huge impact,” Carlton said, referring to Beatles members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. “They just captured a whole generation.”

She remembers students and faculty rejoicing in chapel at the tone of the letter to Roberts.

The writer confesses to forging checks and using dope and says his “life as a Beatle hasn’t been all that great.” He then describes his search for his wife’s, Yoko Ono, missing daughter, explaining, “Yoko’s going crazy.”

He also admits being under the influence of pills while writing the letter.

Then, the most well-known lines: “The point is this I want happiness. I don’t want to keep up with the drugs…. Explain to me, what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony, can He love me? I want out of hell.”

“Part of me instantly believed that,” Carlton said. “But then later I wondered, ‘Was that really John Lennon? Did he really write that? Was it ever confirmed?’ I guess we all assumed it was.”

This is where authenticity gets tangled up in assumption.

After Roberts received the letter in November, he sent the original, hand-written copy to be transcribed so he could read it aloud in chapel. Before sending it for transcription, a Xeroxed copy of the original was made.

The university still has the Xeroxed copy, but the original never made it back to archives, said Roger Rydin of the University Archives Department.

The author of the letter said he was staying with a cousin, Marilyn McCabe, and listed her address on the envelope. Roberts sent future letters to this address.

Beatles experts say it’s possible Lennon fabricated this name and address for privacy concerns.

“My understanding is that all four members of The Beatles would be quite vague about where they were writing from because postmen would tell people who would track them down and know where they were and where their relatives were,” said Richard Hector-Jones, a representative of The Beatles Story, a museum in Liverpool.

Recent handwriting analysis comparisons have also cast new doubt on the author’s identity.

The Oracle emailed a scanned copy of Lennon’s signature to Beatles memorabilia experts in England. They did not hesitate in their analysis.

“Without question, that is not John Lennon’s handwriting. It’s wildly different,” said Jason Cornthwaite.

Cornthwaite works as a memorabilia specialist for Tracks Ltd., a Lancashire business that handles hundreds of Beatles’ signature and handwriting verifications each year.

Cornthwaite has been authenticating Beatles’ autographs for 23 years. He compared the handwriting in the letter to Lennon’s signature on signed albums from 1971 and 1973.

“John’s signature changed massively from the early point in the Beatles career up until his death in 1980, where his signature was totally different. Out of any of the Beatles, it was John’s signature that changed the most,” he said.

Though Lennon’s writing style evolved, Cornthwaite said he is “110 percent certain” the letter sent to Oral Roberts isn’t in the famous musician’s handwriting.

However, it could have been written on his behalf.

“Normally, when it’s a forging, you see the same kind of handwriting, but this is not a hand I’ve ever seen, which I find pretty unusual as well. ”

He suspects that perhaps Lennon’s cousin referenced in the letter, Marilyn McCabe, wrote the message.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, if you came across something like that letter in archives, people would just assume it is Lennon’s writing; but now, people have become more educated about fakes, and everything is studied.”

Some, however, remain convinced the letter came from the Beatle.

Dr. William Epperson, professor of English, has been teaching at ORU since 1968. He was also in the Mabee Center for chapel that day and can recall students’ amazement that Lennon would write to Roberts.

“I think it was real,” Epperson said. “I think John was reaching for something at the time, at least it seemed like he was.”

Few can argue Lennon’s music was informed by his complex and probing spirituality.

In his book, Turner calls Lennon a “television addict” and said he frequently tuned in to the programs of America’s famed televangelists, including Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts.

By 1977, Lennon told his inner circle he had become a born-again Christian and took Yoko to church on Easter that spring.

According to Turner, Lennon’s “personal interest in Jesus” waned after several months spent at a Japanese hotel while Yoko visited relatives.

For ORU students, however, the writer of the mythic letter seemed acutely interested in what Christ could offer.

After the January chapel service, Roberts rolled out a sprawling banner of butcher paper for students to sign.

The top, in thick blue marker, reads, “As the Spirit leads, write a personal note to John and Yoko.”

About 130 students wrote messages. Some tell of personal struggles with drugs, many calling them a “bad trip.” Others quote lyrics from popular songs. Some cite scripture.

Carlton remembers her peers flocking to the banner in the cafeteria. She signed it as well.

The elementary education major became a Christian at age 21.

Before then, Carlton said she experimented with drugs and found interest in George Harrison’s music as she researched Eastern religions.

In her banner note to John, she writes, “I had listened to your albums before I met Jesus Christ and identified with your frustration.”

In his letter, the self-described ex-Beatle talks of not “wanting to face reality.”

In Roberts’ response, the preacher calls Christ “the only reality” and says Jesus “is not hard to face.”

The alleged correspondence between the two iconic men remains one of the most intriguing of the 20th century, especially for Lennon, whose battles and questions fascinated a generation.

“John is a more flawed character, and I don’t think he was interested in putting up a façade, as a lot of pop stars do,” Hector-Jones said. “That’s what made him more interesting than other pop stars and even other members of The Beatles. He openly tried to overcome his flaws in public and knew he was a flawed character.”

 

Rev. Roberts:

This is Ex-Beatle John Lennon. I have been waiting to write to you but I guess I didn’t really want to face reality. I never do so this is why I take drugs, reality frightens me and paranoids me. True I have a lot of money, being a Beatle, been all around the world but basically I am afraid to face the problems of life. Let me begin to say I regret it that I said “The Beatles” were more popular than Jesus. I don’t even like myself anymore. Guilt.

My cousin Marilyn McCabe has tried to help me she told me you were praying for me.

Heres my life. Born in Liverpool. My mum died when I was little. My father left me at three. It was rough cause just my Aunt raised me. I never really liked her. I had an unhappy childhood, depressed alot. Always missing my Mom. Maybe if I had a father like you I would have been a better person. My own father, I hate with a passion because he left my and mom and me. He came to me after we filmed “A Hard Days Night” and asked for some money. It made me so mad Paul M. had to hold me down I was going to kill him. I was under the influence of Pills at the time.

I was brought up a Catholic. Never went along with they’re teachings.

Married Cynthia had a son John. I had to marry her. I really never loved her. She always embarrased me, walking around pregnant, not married; so I married her. Only one regret John has had to suffer a lot cause recently shes been married again. He and me never get to see each other. Cause she refuses cause I’m married to YoKo. 

So life as a Beatle hasn’t been all that great. I came out and told them I wanted a divorce cause Paul and me never got along anymore. And thats how the four ended.

Since 1967 I have had a police record for dope and forging traveler’s checks to America.

My wife YoKo and I have searched all over for her daughter we can’t find. Her ex-husband took her away. Yoko’s going crazy 

As the song we wrote is that we wrote, Paul and me, “Money can’t by Me Love,” its true. 

The point is this I want happiness, I don’t want to keep up with drugs. Paul told me once you make fun of me for not taking drugs but you’ll regret it in the end.

Explain to me, what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony, can He love me? I want out of Hell!

P.S. This address, staying at the cousins house.

Rev Roberts Also, 

I did watch your show until channel 6 took it off of the air. Please try to get it back on. A lot of older people I know loved your show.

I especially liked the World Action Singers, your son Richard is a real good singer. George told me he met you and them when he was at the studio.

Sincerely,

John

P.S. I am I hate to say it under the influence of pills now. I can’t stop. I only wish I could thank you for caring.

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