ATLANTIS, Fla. — The Rev. Rex Humbard, a former itinerant preacher whose televangelism ministry once reached more parts of the globe than any other religious program, died Friday, a family spokeswoman said. He was 88.
Humbard died of natural causes at a South Florida hospital near his Lantana home, family spokeswoman Kathy Scott said.
"He was the ultimate role model in showing love and caring about other people over and above himself," grandson Rex Humbard III said.
The son of evangelists, Humbard evolved his ministry from revivals across the country to a permanent home in Akron, Ohio, and television. He realized the potential of the new medium in the early 1950s and became known to millions by the 1970s. But financial overreaching eventually 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.
‘Only way we can reach them is through TV’
"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."
"We must go into their homes — into their hearts — to bring them the gospel of Jesus Christ."
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.
Spoke at Elvis’ funeral
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, according to the 1999 reference work "Religious Leaders of America."
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, the reference said.
However, 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 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 eventually left in 1982 and the congregation dwindled, sometimes with as few as 75 people showing up.
But his career was never touched by the sort of scandals that engulfed the Rev. James Bakker and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart in the 1980s. For a time, Humbard was one of the ministers who 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. He gave up his weekend on-air preaching in the 1990s.
Sold Cathedral of Tomorrow to Angley
He sold the Cathedral of Tomorrow to fellow televangelist the Rev. Ernest Angley in 1994.
Humbard was born Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard on Aug. 13, 1919, in Little Rock, Ark., to Pentecostal evangelists. He and his wife married in 1942.
He grew up traveling with his parents to church revivals across the country and said he came to know God as a youngster while resisting an order from his father to learn to play the guitar in church.
"Then, one night, listening to a visiting evangelist preach, I knew God was speaking to me," Humbard said in his autobiography.
"I walked down the aisle and knelt at the altar and opened my heart to Jesus Christ. Light flooded my soul and I became a new person — I really wanted to live for the Lord."
Humbard organized the family's revivals, doing advance work, handling business details, acting as master of ceremonies and eventually preaching.
"As Dad once said, `The more I preach, the more I want to preach,'" he said.
It was only after a decade of itinerant preaching, sometimes in huge revival tents, that Humbard decided in 1952 to settle in Akron. He and his wife had been impressed with the enthusiastic response they got in the city.
Inspired by televised baseball game
That year Humbard also saw one of the first television programs broadcast live in northeast Ohio — a Cleveland Indians-New York Yankees baseball game — through the window of a downtown department store. It inspired him to pursue his ministry through television.
Although he lacked formal seminary training, Humbard was ordained in Greenville, S.C., where the family had run a revival, and received credentials from an organization of independent Pentecostal ministers.
Humbard is survived by his wife and their four children, Rex Jr., Don, Charles and Elizabeth.
Funeral services will be held in Akron, where he will be buried near his parents and sister.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.