Rex Humbard

Television evangelist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard, television evangelist: born Little Rock, Arkansas 13 August 1919; married 1942 Maude Jones (three sons, one daughter); died Lantana, Florida 21 September 2007.

One day in the summer of 1952, a revivalist preacher stood outside a department store window in Akron, Ohio, watching a major league baseball game being broadcast live on a new-fangled device called television.

This inspired the non-denominational Cathedral of Tomorrow organisation, which turned Rex Humbard into one of the most widely followed of all American television evangelists. More quickly than almost all of them, he realised the immense potential of the new medium. At the height of their popularity in the late 1970s, his Sunday sermons were watched by an estimated 20 million people on some 1,500 television stations in the United States, Canada and many foreign countries.

Humbard belonged to the first and least controversial generation of populist preachers in the US who rode the small screen to national celebrity. His nearest counterparts were his contemporaries Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. Unlike Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, he was never besmirched by personal scandal.

Unlike Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, he never nailed his colours to the mast of the political religious right. "If Jesus were preaching today," he once said, "he would never get into politics."

Instead, Humbard concentrated on God – and, later and less successfully, on business. The son of a preacher himself, he claimed he had been consecrated to the Lord's service when he was just two days old. During the Depression, his family travelled the country as a group of gospel singers, well known on radio, the dominant medium of the day. Humbard himself served as master of ceremonies.

Then came the moment of epiphany in Akron. The town, the booming centre of America's tyre and rubber workers, with its large population of transplanted southerners who had migrated north for work, was fertile ground. Within a year he had set up the Calvary Temple Inc, based in a converted theatre, and whose Sunday services were soon being televised.

Humbard was now a star. He moved his ministry into the Cathedral of Tomorrow, a purpose-built dome in the Akron suburb of Cuyahoga Falls. The building, boasting 5,400 seats, a hydraulically controlled stage 168ft wide and a 100ft-tall cross twinkling with lights in patriotic red, white and blue, was the among the first of the "megachurches" that are now a trademark of American televangelism.

Humbard's style was down-home and, to his followers, spellbinding. "What America needs is an old-fashioned, Holy Ghost, God-sent, soul-savin', devil-hatin' revival," he would say. By the mid 1970s his fame was at its height. Elvis Presley, much influenced by southern religious music, was a keen admirer, and when Presley died in 1977, Humbard spoke at his funeral.

His business ventures were, however, less successful. The organisation diversified into education, clothing, advertising and real estate. But by the mid 1970s, federal authorities accused him of selling unregistered securities to members of his congregation. His ministry was forced to sell off most of its assets, and in 1982 Humbard moved his organisation to south Florida, hoping to establish a new operation in Latin America. In 1994 he sold the Cathedral of Tomorrow to Ernest Angley, another television evangelist.

Rupert Cornwell