He was the son of a traveling preacher, born to the Gospel big top. As a baby he lay swaddled behind the piano while his parents led revival services in the tabernacles and tents of the Bible Belt.
Once, after he had learned to walk, his father collared him as he ran across the stage and spanked him soundly to demonstrate proper child training. Young Rex Humbard reformed, but real conversion had to wait until he was a shy 13, listening to a visiting evangelist call for converts. He went forward, he recalls, “to open my heart to Jesus,” and it happened. “Light flooded my soul and I became a new person. In that moment God took my old shyness away and made me an extravert. He started me talking about him and I haven’t stopped since.”
The Lord, Humbard would probably admit, did a thorough job of it. Now 51, he heads a religious-business empire that deals in millions of dollars as well as souls; he reaches his outposts by private airliner. But the seat of empire is a weekly television show. Each Sunday he is seen conducting a nondenominational service on 335 television stations across the U.S. and Canada, and the number is still growing. Even in New York City, not normally fruitful territory for evangelists, Humbard this month was able to switch his show from 7 a.m. to a choice 11 a.m. slot right before the Mets’ baseball telecasts. He claims an audience of at least 15 million.
Humbard’s sumptuous Cathedral of Tomorrow in Akron was in fact built for television, though it also serves a local congregation of 2,800 families. Opened in 1958 at a cost of $3,500,000, the vast circular structure is lavishly appointed: glass and marble walls, a huge wooden dome, tiers of theater-type seats around a stage that can be raised or lowered hydraulically. The auditorium atmosphere is hardly dispelled by the cathedral’s single mark of religious character: a 100-ft.-long cross, hung horizontally, embellished with 4,700 light bulbs that can be illuminated in 60 different combinations of red, white and blue.
The Technicolor cross sets the tone neatly for the television service, a bland but professional blend of folksy, pep-talk piety and bubbly, inspirational hillbilly music—a Norman Vincent Apeale to a Lawrence Welk constituency. The music is no mere come-on; in the hour-long show, Humbard’s sermon usually takes little more than 15 minutes. The Cathedral Singers—including Rex’s wife Maude Aimee, a pert, peppery, brunette soprano who becomes properly demure for the Gospel numbers—are the stars. Smoothly pancaked, eyelashed, and carefully coiffed in styles of the ’60s, the girls come on in bright gowns or knee-length frocks color-coordinated for the cameras. The songs are as upbeat as the clothes. Last Sunday the group led off with Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee. Then, in bluesy, three-quarter time, the group did The Angels Rejoiced When My Soul Made a Choice. Finally, Rex himself, clear-eyed, square-jawed and steadfastly ingenuous, came on to lighten the tempo, strumming his guitar and singing I Just Steal Away and I Pray.
That kind of joyful, superconfident soul balm is probably the reason many listeners tune in. But as more than 20,000 letters a week attest, many others are troubled people seeking help. For them, an important part of the standard Humbard service begins when Rex walks over to a prayer table piled high with letters and—a scrupulous touch —microfilm copies of all those that could not fit on it. “Every name,” he assures listeners, “is on the table.” After the prayer there are down-home introductions of visiting notables, more music, Humbard’s sermon and the final “altar call” for conversions.
“We’re simple people with a simple message,” Humbard says, and his sermons bear him out. In his Arkansas twang and a blizzard of linguistic barbarisms (“cain’t,” “we’s”), Humbard usually deals in congenial pleasantries about the love of God and what it can do. He touches doctrine only in passing. “People know I’m old-fashioned enough to believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, virgin-born and resurrected,” he explains; he just prefers to stress “moral truths.” Though he worries about such national problems as drugs and pornography, Humbard tries to preach positively. “Seek the Savior,” he urges, in his usual simplification of the evangelical message, and all other moral problems will solve themselves.
He avoids political and social issues like the plague: in comparison, Billy Graham sounds like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Humbard simply will not speak on racism. As for the Viet Nam War, he just shakes his head. “I dunno. Before I’d say anything about Viet Nam I’d have to hear the Lord speak twicet.” That kind of political laissez-faire endears him to many flag-waving right-wingers, who read into it more than Humbard really intends to say. Indeed, in the adult Sunday-school class at the cathedral last week, Humbard’s associate Wayne Jones deplored the huge waste of the war. Humbard’s appeal, as his large Canadian following shows, extends well beyond political loyalties. To many devoted fans, he is mainly a dear friend. One West Virginia woman wrote Rex to say that she puts on her Sunday best to watch his program.
To help cement such loyalties, Humbard once a month packs a small, multipurpose staff* into a four-engine Viscount turboprop to fly to one-night stands around the northern U.S. and Canada. Last week Humbard was in Chatham, Ont. (pop. 33,000) to play to a crowd of 2,700. Both the music and the message were familiar: “I believe that God wants us to be happy ’cause there’s enough troubles in the world,” he told the audience. Afterward, like a candidate on the hustings, he signed autographs and pressed flesh for 25 minutes while the crews packed up.
At home the weeks are no less busy. Part of the cathedral staff spends long hours opening letters and tabulating contributions in three sorting and counting rooms. Others are occupied duplicating tapes of the service and dispatching them to TV stations. The work, up to 18 hours a day for the indefatigable Humbard, pays off. It has been 19 years since Rex dropped out of his parents’ traveling revival troupe to start his own church in Akron with $65 in his pocket. Again and again he has mortgaged the cathedral to buy more television time; eventually listeners become happy contributors. So far in 1971, mail contributions have totaled more than $1,600,000, but air time alone in the same period cost $1,937,000. Humbard’s church also has business interests that contribute a small part of the total income. (One of them, Brooklyn’s Real Form Girdle Co., once inspired a newspaper to headline a Humbard story ROCK OF AGES RESTS ON FIRM FOUNDATION.) Rex receives a $500-a-week salary, in addition to a comfortable home and staff cars provided by the cathedral.
On Good Friday this year, Rex Humbard added to his empire. For about $3,000,000, a knockdown price for a property worth five times as much, he bought the almost new, fully equipped Mackinac College, previously run by Moral Re-Armament, on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. A high school graduate himself, Humbard has launched a study to see if he can reopen the college, and he already has 452 requests for applications if he does. Even some of Humbard’s loyal staffers are concerned about his ability to make this latest project pay. But Rex Humbard himself, obviously, is still a believer.