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US evangelist who pioneered use of TV dies at 88


Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard, who has been called the world’s first televangelist, and who conducted the funeral of Elvis Presley, has died at the age of 88.

A former itinerant preacher who settled in Akron, Ohio in the early 1950s, Humbard was the first US evangelist to build a ministry through television programming. He made his first on-screen broadcast in 1949, the BBC reported after Humbard’s death on 21 September.

"The vast majority of people do not go to church and the only way we can reach them is through TV," Humbard explained in his autobiography, "Miracles in My Life".

In 1953, Humbard began broadcasting from Ohio the programme for which he became famous, "Cathedral of Tomorrow". At its peak, the programme had 8 million viewers and was shown by more than 600 stations. It lasted until 1999.

Humbard built his US$4 million 5000-seater nondenominational Cathedral of Tomorrow, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. The building was designed specifically to accommodate television equipment and crews, as well as a chorus, and included velvet curtains, a hydraulic stage and a cross covered with thousands of tiny coloured light bulbs.

Humbard’s television programmes featured gospel music performed by groups such as the popular Cathedral Quartet. His ministry eventually extended to Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Far East, Australia and Latin America.

The televangelist conducted Elvis Presley’s funeral in 1977. In the 1980s, however, Humbard’s ministry began to weaken under the strain of dissension within his organization and financial pressure.

According to The New York Times, in the early 1970s he was overextended, and financed in part by millions of dollars in loans from the Teamster’s Union pension fund. In 1973, federal and Ohio securities authorities complained that Humbard’s church was selling unregistered securities to the faithful and not telling them that the cathedral lacked funds to cover repayment. The Humbard organisation closed a college it owned, and began selling off other properties.

US News & World Report drew attention, however, to Humbard’s use of television, when the publication produced its list of the "Top 25 Principal Architects of the American Century".

Unlike some other US televangelists, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Humbard avoided the political messages of the religious right. "For me to preach about the Vietnam War would be like going to a blacksmith to get a tooth pulled," he said in the early 1970s.

Humbard wrote two autobiographies, "Miracles in My Life" and, in 2006, "The Soul Winning Century, The Humbard Family Legacy".

Ecumenical News International