One of America’s first national televangelists, Rex Humbard, whose ministry at one point reached more parts of the globe than any other religious program, died Sept. 21 of natural causes at a South Florida hospital near his Lantana home. He was 88.
The son of traveling evangelists, Humbard evolved his ministry from revivals across the country to a permanent home in Akron, Ohio, and on television. He realized the potential of the new medium in the early 1950s and became known to millions by the 1970s. But financial overreaching eroded his organization.
As with his contemporaries Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, Humbard’s ministry began to flourish in the post-World War II era. “The vast majority of people do not go to church and the only way we can reach them is through TV,” he said in his autobiographical book, “Miracles in My Life.”
His Sunday services were televised by 1953. He began with a renovated theater and eventually built the $4 million domed, 5,000-seat nondenominational Cathedral of Tomorrow, which included velvet drapes, a hydraulic stage and a cross covered with thousands of red, white and blue light bulbs. His ministry eventually expanded to include a Mackinaw, Mich., campus used for religious education and a 23-story Akron office tower.
The broadcast, also called “Cathedral of Tomorrow,” developed into a mixture of preaching and music, with Humbard’s wife, Maude Aimee, an accomplished gospel singer, and the Cathedral Quartet as regular performers. The Humbards’ children also performed. One of Humbard’s admirers was Elvis Presley, who often sang gospel music himself. Humbard spoke at his funeral in 1977.
By 1970 Humbard’s syndicated program appeared on more TV stations in America than any other program and eventually reached more than 600 stations. By 1979, the show was broadcast in the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Far East, Australia and Latin America, giving it a worldwide reach greater than any of his competitors.
Mounting financial problems forced Humbard to leave one dream unfulfilled: Construction was never completed on a 750-foot broadcast tower in Cuyahoga Falls, between Akron and Cleveland. His ministry also suffered from internal disputes and extensive borrowing. In the 1970s, federal and state regulators complained that millions of dollars in notes that he had issued to followers over the years violated securities laws. Humbard was eventually ousted in 1982, and the congregation dwindled, sometimes with as few as 75 people showing up.
Humbard became pastor emeritus of the church in 1983, gave up his weekend on-air preaching in the 1990s and sold the Cathedral of Tomorrow to fellow televangelist Ernest Angley in 1994.
Little Rock, Ark., native is survived by his wife of 65 years and their four children.