The wages of virtue lead to Millionaires’ Row
Go ye Into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
Apart from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who never gave a thought to their Nielsens, perhaps nobody has pursued that mandate as visibly as Rex Humbard, 61, Jesus Christ’s media superstar. Shepherd of one of the world’s largest flocks, Humbard ministers to some 100 million souls. The weekly television program that bears his name is carried by 620 stations around the world, translated into six foreign languages (including Russian and two Chinese dialects) and transmitted to remote rural areas on every continent this side of Antarctica by more than 2,000 signal-boosting repeater stations. “If Jesus were here today, he’d be on the tube and radio too,” maintains Humbard, who, along with Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, was one of the pioneers in putting the gospel on television. “He said, ‘Go into all the world,’ and there’s no way to reach four and a half billion people other than through electronics.”
Clearly, Humbard is no penny-ante angler among fishers of men. An indefatigable traveler, he is on tour six months a year in his own 38-seat Lockheed jet, Love One, rallying the faithful around the globe. Back home in Akron, Ohio, his multimillion-dollar mini-Jerusalem includes his 3,500-seat Cathedral of Tomorrow, a cafeteria, a 13-story apartment building for low-income senior citizens, a 24-hour hot line counseling service and facilities for radio and TV production. His elegant church-owned home is nestled in the so-called “Millionaires’ Row” section of suburban Cuyahoga Falls; he sleeps in a vast, round bed with a purple velvet cover and gets around town in a gleaming white Cadillac. Still, his life is not without sacrifice. He neither smokes, drinks nor dances, and often fasts on Wednesdays in search of enlightenment.
In the spectrum of TV evangelists, the nondenominational Humbard is not as polished as Billy Graham, as glibly professional as Jim Bakker or as fundamentally intolerant as Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. “We preach love out of the corners of our mouths,” observes Humbard of some of his colleagues, “and then we jump on homosexuals or politicians. We should preach the gospel to everybody.” Humbard’s message—writ simple, as he prefers—is a statement of faith in the power of divine love. “God said there are two roads,” he explains. “If you go down one and keep His commandments, then you’re going to have a better society. If you take the other and break His laws, there will be heartache. People say, ‘If there’s a God,’ ” he continues, ” ‘why doesn’t He do something about this world?’ Well, God doesn’t make us puppets. He said, ‘Choose whom you’ll serve.’ We have all these problems in the world because we’ve picked the wrong road.”
Folksy and soft-spoken, Humbard never loses his temper and confesses to only one vice: coconut cake a la mode. Remote and preoccupied by a consuming vision, he rarely stops preaching, quotes the Scriptures from memory, carries a red leather Bible in his breast pocket and never leaves home without a pocketful of “You Are Loved” lapel pins to hand out to fans. Wherever he goes, he tries to see that the needs of his global congregation are met, whether it means donating a carload of TV sets to a leper colony in the Philippines or making unannounced deathbed visits to members of his flock. “Rex is representative of the grass-roots, Bible Belt, populist movement,” says Ben Armstrong, director of the National Association of Religious Broadcasters. “He really relates to the common man. He gets terrific support from the same kind of people that put the President into office.”
Unlike some other evangelists, however, Humbard is devoutly nonpartisan. “Jesus would never get into politics,” he says, taking aim obliquely at the Moral Majority. “When He was here, the Roman empire was ruling the world with an iron hand, but He never preached a sermon against Rome. He said, ‘Pray for the leaders, that we might live a quiet and peaceful life.’ I’ve taken that attitude. A lot of people have twisted my arm, but I will never go into politics or criticize any man’s religion. Is a minister there to take the message of Christ to people or to divide his audience?”
This month Humbard celebrates his 48th anniversary in radio and begins his 30th year on TV. In addition to his 52 weekly television shows, he produces four prime-time specials each year. “We try to make our programs entertaining as well as spiritual,” he says. To that end, the shows star his lavishly costumed family—his wife, four children, two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren—and offer a homespun blend of gospel songs, sermonizing and prayer. Until last year the programs were telecast from the Cathedral of Tomorrow, with its hydraulic stage and 100-foot-long cross glowing with 4,700 red, white and blue lightbulbs. But when the ratings started to slip, Humbard began shooting the show outdoors at lush Callaway Gardens in Georgia. “We’re competing in a world of show biz,” says his peppery wife, Maude Aimee, 58. “You have to have a better line than the next balloon seller. Religion isn’t any different.”
The son of itinerant preachers, Humbard was raised in Hot Springs, Ark. under a tattered revival tent. The Lord has been his shepherd since Rex was 13 and “found Christ” during a visiting evangelist’s prayer meetings. “God took away my shyness and made me an extravert,” he says. “I haven’t been able to stop talking about Him since.” After receiving his high school diploma in Dallas, he persuaded his brother and two of his four sisters to form the Humbard gospel singers, and booked them on radio stations throughout the South. Then, in 1942, he married Maude Aimee Jones, a Dallas beauty named after evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. The newlyweds went on tour with the singing group and later barnstormed the Bible Belt in a 16-foot trailer with their two oldest sons, Rex Jr. and Don.
It was in 1952 that Humbard decided to settle in Akron, then heavily populated with fundamentalist rubber workers up from the South, and to build his own church and begin spreading the Word on radio and TV. “I had $65 in my pocket and a nugget of faith that I’ve never lost,” he says. He made his TV debut on station WXEL in Cleveland and the following year opened Calvary Temple in a rented theater. Soon he was making five radio broadcasts daily and running a thriving tent show on the side.
As Humbard’s ministry flourished, so did his fortune. In 1958 he unveiled his $3.5 million marble-and-glass cathedral and a few years later moved into the stately parsonage, which cost $225,000 at the time. Meanwhile he was selling church bonds to finance his ministry and constantly parlaying the proceeds into other investments. By 1973 his holdings included a girdle factory in Brooklyn, a $10 million office complex in Akron and a college on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. Then, as he was constructing a 750-foot TV tower to transmit his services, the SEC blew the whistle. Over a 14-year period Humbard had sold, through unlicensed agents, $12 million in securities that were not properly registered. Ordered to divest himself of his property, he sold everything but his home, cut off his overseas operations and set up a trust fund to pay off investors. “Somebody thought I was getting too powerful,” says Humbard. “I prayed, and decided that my ministry is preaching, not fooling with securities.”
Many in Akron agreed. “Rex was very much persona non grata,” remembers local journalist Peter Geiger. “He settled his debts, but it has left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.” “I don’t believe I’d be in existence after 48 years,” says Humbard in his own defense, “if I didn’t try to play a fair ball game. Shady evangelism has always existed,” he concedes, “but there are shady doctors and attorneys too. We don’t throw away our good money because there’s some counterfeit.”
Even now the Humbards make no effort to hide their opulent lifestyle. “There’s no reason to be poor or try to act poor,” says Maude Aimee, who has a fondness for diamonds. “I want people to know I serve a God who loves me.” Adds Rex: “I just say I can do a whole lot more with something than without.” Some critics find that rationalization a trifle facile. “The Humbards are ambivalent,” says newsman Geiger. “They have an absolute dedication to their ministry, but they are also possessed of human avarice. They are robust yet frail human beings.”
To guard against any repetition of the financial lapses that have shadowed his past, Humbard today runs his ministry like a corporation, with a board of directors and an executive committee, both made up mostly of family. The organization operates on a $30 million budget and is wholly supported by donations. Humbard and the 470 Akron employees, including his grandchildren, are paid salaries recommended by a Chicago consulting firm, and the books are audited by independent accountants.
Though Humbard’s brother-in-law Wayne Jones serves as pastor of the cathedral, allowing Rex more time for spreading the gospel outside the U.S., Humbard refuses to slacken his withering pace. In the past five months he and his family have filmed an Easter special in Israel, led a six-city crusade through Chile, appeared at religious conventions in New York and California and taped 14 Sunday shows in Georgia. Back in Akron, Humbard receives some 25,000 letters a week, which are separated by category, prayed over and dutifully answered. All of this allows the Humbards little time to while away at their hideaway in Boynton Beach, Fla., but perhaps it’s just as well. Recently, duffer Humbard took time off to play in the Chet Atkins celebrity golf tournament and hit a wicked slice that leveled a spectator. “I prayed about my game,” says the preacher, “and God told me, ‘When you’re playing golf, you’re on your own.’ ”