U of A professor's work spurs movie about popular televangelist's fall from grace

Russell Cobb was back in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla. when he noticed a small article in the local paper about a very popular preacher’s fall from grace.

Russell Cobb's work on Carlton Pearson was made into a movie called 'Come Sunday' on Netflix

The story of Carlton Pearson, inspired by the work of University of Alberta professor Russell Cobb, has been made into a movie now on Netflix. Chiwetel Ejiofor, pictured, plays Pearson. (Come Sunday/Netflix)

Russell Cobb was back in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla. when he noticed a small article in the local paper about a very popular preacher's fall from grace.

Cobb, who teaches cultural studies at the University of Alberta, decided to call Carlton Pearson out of the blue and asked the preacher — who once drew crowds of more than 5,000 people every Sunday — about his fall in popularity, 

"Unlike most of the falls from grace that you hear about from these televangelists, it didn't have anything to do with corruption or sordid sex affairs," Cobb told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "So I decided to look into it."

Pearson began losing followers after he began to question certain aspects of the evangelical church.

Cobb made his story into an episode of the podcast This American Life, which inspired the movie called Come Sunday on Netflix.

Pearson was groomed to be a successful televangelist. Pearson attended Oral Roberts University, a Christian liberal arts school in Tulsa founded by the popular televangelist Oral Roberts. During Pearson's time at the university, Roberts took him under his wing.

Cobb remembered growing up in Oklahoma and hearing Pearson referred to as "Oral Roberts' black son." Some saw Pearson as the eventual heir to Roberts' followers.

But then Pearson began to second-guess some of the evangelical doctrines.

"He said things that probably most Pentecostal preachers wouldn't talk about, so he was always a little bit different," Cobb said. "He really just started to question a lot of the basic tenets of the fundamentalist doctrine that he had been brought up with."

Russell Cobb first told the story of Carlton Pearson in an episode of 'This American Life.' (University of Alberta)

Pearson no longer believed in eternal damnation, for example — a belief that contradicted the views of many of his followers. He started to lose much of what he built, but stood his ground.

"The more people told him to shut up, the more he became aggressive in saying, 'Why are we spending so much money on private jets and this sort of thing when there's so much famine?'" Cobb said.

"Even though he came up with that and he had benefited from that doctrine, he said, 'It's unethical and we need to think around it.'"

Pearson began to question some of the doctrines he was raised to believe. (Come Sunday/Netflix)

Pearson essentially lost everything: he lost the church he preached at and was excommunicated from the evangelist church. But despite his fall from grace, he still preaches his own beliefs in what he calls Metacostalism.

"For someone who lost so much and was told that everything he stood for is wrong, he has a great sense of humour," Cobb said.

The movie stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pearson, and also features Lakeith Stanfield, Jason Segel, Danny Glover and Martin Sheen.

Cobb said the movie did a great job of condensing so much of what happened to Pearson. He said some of Pearson's spark was lost, but that Sheen was terrific as Oral Roberts.

"That, if nothing else, is worth watching on your Netflix queue," Cobb said.

Cobb said Martin Sheen, who plays the role of Oral Roberts, is worth the price of admission. (Come Sunday/Netflix)