Rex Humbard, 88; pioneer televangelist with a global reach

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Rex Humbard, an early televangelist whose “Cathedral of Tomorrow” once reached more parts of the globe than any other broadcast ministry, has died. He was 88.

Humbard, who gave his first televised sermon in 1949, died Friday of natural causes at a South Florida hospital near his Lantana home, said family spokeswoman Kathy Scott.

“He was a person who dedicated his life to reaching people in need with a message of grace, hope and love,” said his son, Charles Humbard, president of the Gospel Music Channel, a Christian cable network.

In 1999, U.S. News & World Report named Humbard one of the 25 principal architects of the modern era for his pioneering televangelism.

The son of Pentecostal evangelists, Humbard built a ministry that evolved from church 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.


His weekly program was carried by more than 2,000 stations worldwide in 91 languages for nearly three decades, according to a statement by the ministry.

“The vast majority of people do not go to church, and the only way we can reach them is through TV,” Humbard said in his autobiography, “Miracles in My Life” (1970).

As with his contemporaries Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, Humbard’s ministry began to flourish in the post-World War II era.

In 1952, Humbard founded the nondenominational Cathedral of Tomorrow, one of the country’s first mega-churches. It cost $4 million, seated 5,000 and included a hydraulic stage and a huge electric red, white and blue cross that stretched across the ceiling.

The “Cathedral of Tomorrow” broadcast developed into a mixture of preaching and music, featuring Humbard and his wife, Maude Aimee, an accomplished gospel singer.

Elvis Presley, whose popularity precluded regular churchgoing, called Humbard “his preacher” and often gathered his backup singers to watch broadcasts with him, the ministry’s statement said. When Presley died in 1977, Humbard spoke at his funeral.

Throughout the 1970s, Humbard was the second-most watched televangelist on weekly television, trailing only Roberts, according to the book “Prime Time Preachers” (1981).

In Los Angeles in the early 1970s, his program was shown twice every Sunday morning on KTLA-TV Channel 5.

By 1979, Humbard’s show had a global reach far greater than any of its competitors, the reference book “Religious Leaders of America” (1999) reported. Crusades around the world attracted throngs.

But the TV program faded in the 1980s as viewership and donations dropped.

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.

But his career was never touched by the sort of scandals that engulfed televangelist Jim Bakker and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart in the 1980s. For a time, Humbard served on the board of Bakker’s PTL organization as it tried to regroup after Bakker resigned in early 1987 amid a sex scandal.

Humbard became pastor emeritus of the church in 1983 and moved his family ministry to Boca Raton, Fla. He gave up his weekend on-air preaching in the 1990s and sold the Cathedral of Tomorrow to fellow televangelist the Rev. Ernest Angley in 1994.

Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard was born Aug. 13, 1919, in Little Rock, Ark., and grew up in Hot Springs, Ark.

At 13, he made his first radio appearance, singing gospel songs on a local station as he urged listeners to attend his father’s church.

Humbard organized the family’s revivals, acting as master of ceremonies and eventually preaching. He lacked formal seminary training but was ordained in Greenville, S.C., and received credentials from an organization of independent Pentecostal ministers.

After a decade of itinerant preaching, Humbard decided to settle in Akron in 1952. The same year, he also saw one of the first television programs broadcast live in northeastern Ohio -- a Cleveland Indians-New York Yankees baseball game -- through the window of a downtown department store. He said it inspired him to pursue a television ministry.

In addition to his wife of 65 years, Maude Aimee, and son Charles, Humbard is survived by three other children, Rex Jr., Don and Elizabeth; a brother, Clement; two sisters, Leona and Juanita; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.