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Remembering Bishop Carlton Pearson, who believed in 'universal salvation'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Who is a heretic, and who is holy? The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. Bishop Carlton Pearson was one of the country's most prominent Black televangelists in the 1980s, but then he was deemed a heretic after he embraced a concept called universal salvation. Here's Pearson on CNN in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLTON PEARSON: My gay friends - and I have several - over the years, I got tired of sending them to hell. It messed with my theology and my heart. And so I started preaching the gospel of inclusion, saying that Hindus, Muslims, Jews, everybody has access to the grace of the God we preach.

MCCAMMON: Pearson was saying he no longer believed in hell, that almost everyone would go to heaven, and that stance cost Bishop Pearson many members of his church in Tulsa, Okla., and the support of many fellow Pentecostals. Carlton Pearson died last week from cancer at the age of 70. To talk about his life, we're joined by his agent, Will Bogle, from New York. Welcome to the program.

WILL BOGLE: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: You know, before you became Bishop Carlton Pearson's agent, you were one of his followers, as I understand it. What drew you personally to his teachings?

BOGLE: Well, I was mostly a fan of his music, and I grew up Pentecostal - Apostolic, fundamentalist. And Carlton's message then was very traditional. The teachings, he formally embraced. So I became a fan and a follower of his early in my teens. I used to play his music for my great-grandmother. She was a convalescent - had a stroke. And she was very, very religious. And those songs that he sang really helped us get closer together in those years of her life. So I mostly learned about Carlton and really started following him before he had a shift in consciousness.

MCCAMMON: And so the shift he went through in his thinking, why did Bishop Pearson come to believe in this idea of universal salvation or the gospel of inclusion, as he called it, the idea that everyone goes to heaven? What did he tell you about how he made that shift?

BOGLE: Well, it's been very well documented, his rethinking, as he called it, of his faith. With the type of person he was - he was a very loving, very kind, very generous person - the way I interpreted some of his messaging was that God was not a worse person than our best people are. And if our best people are kind and loving, then God has to even be more since he was the creator. Not that God couldn't be vengeful, but he was more loving than he was, I guess, I mean.

MCCAMMON: What do you think that was about? Why was the price so high? I mean, why were people so attached to this idea of a God that condemns people to eternal damnation?

BOGLE: They say the first person through the glass is always the bloodiest. So I think Bishop Pearson rocked the boat a little too hard. And some of the responses he's gotten might have been knee-jerk reactions, some people just feeling like they needed to double down to protect their own infrastructure. And some people really felt like they needed to defend the faith, and I think to not allow their institution to be dismantled from externally or internally. And by the institution, I mean fundamentalism, the church, their churches and their way of life.

MCCAMMON: Bishop Pearson also got involved in politics. He advised George W. Bush, ran for mayor of Tulsa. How did his evolving theological beliefs shape his political views, if at all?

BOGLE: I think he also did some work with President Clinton as well. As he shifted theologically, he had more of a tolerance for gays, and not tolerance in the fact that he now can stomach them, but more in terms of what he believed to be inalienable rights for all mankind. So politically, I feel like he started trying to help all mankind find their place in society. And I think the big group that might have been most disenfranchised, at least in that point, would be the gays and lesbians, or the LGBTQ community.

MCCAMMON: We've been talking a lot about Bishop Pearson's ideas, his beliefs and his ministry. But you knew him, of course, personally. He was a mentor and a friend, right? What do you want us to know about Bishop Carlton Pearson, the man?

BOGLE: My regard for Carlton Pearson was that he was a great human being. He was a great friend. He was a great father. He tried to be a great husband, and he was a great support to the people he cared about. He came to Georgia when I got married. He married me and my wife. Just last year, I lost my brother to an overdose - 36 years old - and Carlton showed up at the funeral at his own expense because he wanted to be there with me in New York. This is the measure of the man that I am respectful of, not because everything he said I agreed with. And that was one of his sticking points. He said, we can disagree without being disagreeable. And if society would find a way to disagree without being disagreeable, we would have a lot more tolerance for people that don't share our opinions or don't share our views or don't even share our positions or passions in any respect.

MCCAMMON: That's Will Bogle, the agent and friend of Bishop Carlton Pearson, who died of cancer last week.

BOGLE: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.