Bishop Carlton Pearson is shown arriving for the premiere of the movie "Come Sunday" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 21, 2018. Pearson died Sunday at age 70. File Photo by George Frey/EPA-EFE
Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Bishop Carlton Pearson, who once led one of the country's largest evangelical megachurches but who later disavowed key tenets of Christian orthodoxy, has died at age 70, his Oklahoma church announced Monday.
Pearson's legacy of "courageous work will live on through all those his remarkable life touched," the Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, said in a statement announcing his death.
His family said Pearson died Sunday of complications from cancer, the Tulsa World reported.
Over a religious career that began in Oklahoma in 1971 with a close personal connection to famed televangelist Oral Roberts, Pearson rose to become a high-profile figure in the Pentecostal Church with the success of his Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, which boasted around 6,000 members at its peak in the 1990s.
He was also featured regularly on religious television broadcasts. Higher Dimensions stood out because Pearson, a fourth-generation Black Pentecostal minister, visibly encouraged the racial integration of its leadership and congregation.
His profile rose further after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, leading the state in prayer while providing advice to both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton on their faith-based initiatives.
But he lost his congregation and was labeled a heretic by the church in the early 2000s when he renounced one of the core tenets of mainstream Christianity -- its firm belief in the existence of hell and eternal punishment for sinners. Instead, he embraced the teachings of the Unitarian Universalist Church, which reject the notion that a loving God would send anyone to hell.
His struggles with his faith and the personal consequences for his ministry became the subject of a segment on the public radio program This American Life and in 2018 was turned into a Netflix movie, Come Sunday, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as the charismatic Black churchman.
The concept of a God "who has terrible anger management problems, freaks out with these tantrums and throws earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis and cancer and AIDS on people, is a very frightening presupposition," Pearson told National Public Radio in 2018.
"It worried me for years. Not the love of God, not the cross of Calvary, but that eternal torment, not just punishment for the time that's worth the crime, but that you eternally... How can mercy endure forever, and torment endure forever? One would cancel out the other," he said.
Pearson "helped people of all cultures and faiths know that God loves us beyond belief," the Rev. Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian said on Monday. "In an era of division, he stood out as a voice of unity and reason."
Former British Chancellor
Alistair Darling arrives for the International Monetary Fund financial committee meeting in Washington on April 25, 2009. Alistair, who served a three-year spell as chancellor in the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and held an array of high-level posts in Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, died at the age of 70 on November 30. Photo by Alexis C. Glenn/UPI | License Photo