ARTESIA, Calif. (AP) — The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the Southern California televangelist and author who beamed his upbeat messages on faith and redemption to millions from his landmark Crystal Cathedral only to see his empire crumble in his waning years, has died. He was 88.
Schuller died early Thursday at a care facility in Artesia, daughter Carol Schuller Milner said. He was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer in 2013. His late wife, Arvella, was the sister of John DeHaan, long-time Clinton High School music teacher.
Once a well-known televangelist, Schuller faded from view in recent years after watching his church collapse amid a disastrous leadership transition and sharp declines in viewership and donations that ultimately forced the ministry to file for bankruptcy.
The soaring, glass-paned Crystal Cathedral — the touchstone of Schuller's career — was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2011, and Schuller lost a legal battle the following year to collect more than $5 million from his former ministry for claims of copyright infringement and breach of contract.
Schuller, who preached in a flowing purple robe and outsized aviator glasses, led an evangelical Protestant ministry that was a product of modern technology. He and his late wife, Arvella, started a ministry in 1955 with $500 when he began preaching from the roof of a concession stand at a drive-in movie theater southeast of Los Angeles.
The church's motto — "Come as you are in the family car" — tapped into the burgeoning Southern California auto culture and the suburban boom of post-World War II America.
By 1961, the church had a brick-and-mortar home and Schuller began broadcasting the "Hour of Power" in 1970.
In 1980, he built the glass-and-steel Crystal Cathedral to house his booming TV ministry, which was broadcast live each week from the 2,800-seat sanctuary. At its peak in the 1990s, the program had 20 million viewers in about 180 countries.
Schuller's message — that "Possibility Thinking" and love of God overcome hardships — was a uniquely American blend of Bible and psychology.
Unlike other televangelists, Schuller's message lacked fire-and-brimstone condemnations or conservative political baggage. Fundamentalists attacked him for statements they believed denied the need for personal repentance of sin.
Schuller had admirers that ranged from fellow evangelist Billy Graham to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. His friendship with President Bill Clinton raised some eyebrows among the conservative Republicans.
In the start of a carefully choreographed leadership transition, Schuller's only son, 51-year-old Robert A. Schuller, was installed as senior pastor in 2006.
The younger Schuller left amid a bitter family feud in 2008. His father had removed him from the "Hour of Power" broadcasts, and he quit as senior pastor a few weeks later.
The tumult worsened a pre-existing decline in viewership and donations, and in 2010, Crystal Cathedral ministries filed for bankruptcy, citing debt of more than $43 million.
Bankruptcy filings indicated the ministry was paying significant tax-exempt housing allowances to Schuller family members and insiders. The allowances were legal but raised concerns among vendors and other creditors who had gone unpaid for months.
Robert Harold Schuller was born in Alton, Iowa, in 1926, and ordained in 1950. He was pastor of Ivanhoe Reformed Church in Chicago from 1950 to 1955 before moving to California.
Besides his son, Schuller and his wife had four daughters: Sheila, Jeanne, Carol and Gretchen. Wife Arvella Schuller died Feb. 11, 2014, after a brief illness.