Robert Schuller, ‘Hour of Power’ televangelist, dies at 88

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the televangelist who drew millions of followers with his “Hour of Power” broadcasts from the Crystal Cathedral, the glittering house of worship recognized around the world as the locus of his signature brand of motivational Christianity, died April 2 at a care facility in Artesia, California. He was 88.

Schuller was diagnosed in 2013 with esophageal cancer. His death was announced on the website of “Hour of Power,” now hosted by his grandson Bobby Schuller.

By the time of Schuller’s death, his ministry, based in Garden Grove, California, had filed for bankruptcy and largely crumbled. It was the victim, by most accounts, of overexpansion, declining popular interest and internal strife precipitated by his retirement in 2006.

At his height, he had been one of the most influential preachers in the United States, a feel-good outlier among the televangelists who, at times controversially, harnessed modern media technology to spread their messages and solicit donations.

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“Hour of Power,” Schuller’s internationally syndicated program, began in 1970 and aired for decades, becoming one of the most widely watched television broadcasts of its kind. By design, it aired on Sunday mornings, reaching tens of millions of viewers in their homes at a time when, perhaps earlier in their lives, they might have dressed up in their Sunday best and gone to church.

Many nonbelievers, and believers who preferred a more reserved form of worship, regarded his exploding fountains and “Glory of Christmas” pageants as show-biz theatrics. Some questioned the necessity of his $18 million cathedral, a prototype of the modern megachurch, which was erected from 10,000 panels of glass. But to his faithful, Schuller was an omnipresent source of comfort.

Unlike Oral Roberts, a predecessor in mass-media ministry, he adopted no fiery Pentecostal theology. He distinguished himself from evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by sidestepping politics, and he avoided personal scandals such as those that tarnished the preacher Jimmy Swaggart.

Early in his ministry, Schuller was influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, the minister known for his motivational preaching. Peale had revealed to him the guilt that “unchurched” people harbor in their hearts and that keeps them away from church, Schuller said, “the same way an overweight man avoids stepping on a bathroom scale.”

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While other preachers fulminated about damnation, Schuller offered his congregation a theology that he described as “possibility thinking.” In sermons and books, he invited his followers to “turn your scars into stars,” “turn your hurt into a halo” and to know that “God plus me equals a majority.”

“The mainline has totally and completely failed to use television, and has abandoned it to the independent fundamentalists,” Schuller once told The Washington Post. “That’s why we’re successful – we’re the only alternative. I can’t say that I’m the official voice of the mainline, because that’s not true. But I have become that de facto.”

It often was noted that Schuller employed a degree of possibility thinking in his rise. After growing up on an Iowa farm, he was ordained in 1950 in the Reformed Church in America, a mainline Protestant denomination, and ministered in Illinois before moving to Orange County, California, to found a new congregation in 1955. By his account, he arrived with $500 and a mission statement: “Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it.”

Schuller found the greatest suffering among agnostics who had migrated westward seeking fulfillment and failed to find it, he told Time magazine. To keep within his tight budget, he rented a drive-in movie theater and opened the Garden Grove Community Church.

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“There was no stained-glass window, no gold cross, no choir, no props, just a microphone and Bob standing alone on a sticky tarpaper roof,” his wife and onetime organist, the former Arvella De Haan, once told the Los Angeles Times. “He had to dip into his own imagination and become an entertainer, an inspirer. Call it theatrical presence and you won’t be far wrong.”

Schuller made door-to-door cold calls to attract parishioners and installed parking facilities near the freeway for 1,400 cars. His formula, he said, was “accessibility, service, visibility, possibility thinking and excess parking.”

In the early 1960s, the architect Richard Neutra designed for Schuller a walk-in, drive-in church that would accommodate congregants in a traditional sanctuary as well as in the parking lot, where motorists could listen to the service on their car radios. Neutra also designed the Tower of Hope, a multi-story office and counseling facility topped by a cross.

In 1980, Schuller opened the Crystal Cathedral, a star-shaped structure designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee. The sanctuary held 2,890 and allowed thousands more to follow the services from the parking lot, continuing the pastor’s drive-in tradition. His congregation was estimated to have had a population of 10,000.

Estimates of the church’s annual income ranged from $30 million to $50 million – a sum that, however massive, trailed the results of some other televangelists. In 1986, when Schuller raised $35 million, Swaggart’s ministry collected $142 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Schuller counseled President Bill Clinton and was reported to have prayed with him in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. But mainly, Schuller said, he preached to “people who are flipping dials” on their televisions, those who were “in pain, and dying.” He had known pain in his life. He nearly died in a car wreck, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, his wife had breast cancer and a daughter lost a leg in a motorcycle crash.

In an interview with The New York Times, Schuller recalled a conversation he had with Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who ministered to the destitute of India.

“She said, ‘You and I are doing the same thing, saving people who are dying – in my case, saving them from physical starvation; in yours, from emotional.’

“I said, ‘Who’s got the tougher job?’ She said: ‘You do. If people are physically hungry, they’ll grab the food. If they are emotionally hungry, they’re suspicious.’ “

Robert Harold Schuller was born Sept. 16, 1926, in Alton, Iowa, and grew up in a Dutch farming community. By age 4, it was said, he had decided to become a minister.

He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and history from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, in 1947 and a bachelor of divinity degree from Western Theological Seminary, also in Holland, in 1950.

Schuller’s books included Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do!, The Be (Happy) Attitudes and Don’t Throw Away Tomorrow.

His ministry employed numerous family members, including his wife, who was executive program director of “Hour of Power,” and several of his children and their spouses.

In 1983, California tax officials withdrew the Crystal Cathedral’s tax-exempt status, citing its use for concerts featuring Lawrence Welk, Victor Borge and other secular artists. The church agreed to pay $473,000 in back taxes.

In 2006, Schuller announced that he would be succeeded by a son, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller. Meanwhile, the church faced mounting problems, including debt from the construction of a new welcome center and declining membership. Schuller’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, later succeeded her brother in the midst of what was described as a painful family feud.

In 2010, burdened by $43 million in debt, the church filed for bankruptcy protection. Two years later, amid tensions with the board, the family ended its relationship with Crystal Cathedral Ministries. The cathedral was sold to the Catholic Church.

Schuller’s wife died in 2014 after 63 years of marriage. Survivors include five children, Robert A. Schuller, Sheila Coleman, Jeanne Dunn, Carol Schuller Milner and Gretchen Penner; 19 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Schuller once said that he wanted to be remembered as an “encourager.” Some skeptics found his words of encouragement simplistic, even simple-minded. But Schuller did not “trust skeptics … no matter how brilliant their words.”

“I trust Jesus,” he remarked. “He was the greatest possibility thinker that ever lived.”