2007-10-06 / Columnists

A Look at History

Rev. Humbard
BY FRANK STRAUS

In the early 1970s, "Brother Rex," the Reverend Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard, was the largest private landowner on Mackinac Island. The Protestant minister died Friday, September 21, 2007, at his home in Florida. During this period of time, Humbard changed the face of the Island.

Rex Humbard was born in August 1919 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He describes his Pentecostal upbringing in his 1970 autobiography "Miracles In My Life." Humbard learned at an early age, from his family, the importance of tireless background work to evangelize effectively and convey the message of the Bible.

In 1942, he married a talented gospel singer, Maude Aimee.

As a young tent preacher, Humbard traveled all over the United States. In 1952, he successfully settled in Akron, Ohio, rebuilding a worn-out movie theater into a nondenominational church from scratch. Humbard's optimistic, aggressive preaching style, which concentrated on personal faith testimony, matched the spiritual searches of many "Baby Boom" parents. The "Calvary Temple" attracted a growing number of worshipers in Akron.

Rev. Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard purchased the Mackinac College in the early 1970s. Rev. Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard purchased the Mackinac College in the early 1970s. Rev. Humbard was one of the first Protestant ministers to recognize the importance of television. Using his tent revival experiences to maximize the entertainment value of his services, he reached out at once to a northern Ohio television station with an offer to have his services shown over the air. By 1953, only one year after Humbard began preaching in Akron, his services were being broadcast every week. From Humbard's point of view, he was simply reaching out to more Americans.

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

Faithful to this vision, Humbard refused to get involved in issues of religious worship that divided Christian churches from each other. This made his televised services more attractive for broadcasting.

Humbard's non-denominationalism was no bar to the growth of his church. His live services grew in popularity in the 1950s, with many worshipers driving some distance in Northeast Ohio to attend Sunday worship under the direction of the charismatic minister. In 1958, Humbard opened his new 5,400-seat "Cathedral of Tomorrow" in Cuyahoga Falls, north of Akron. In his autobiography, Humbard took justifiable pride in successfully opening this large house of religious worship in the face of pessimism and nay-saying. The new suburban church had cost $3.5 million to build.

Mission House was one of the buildings Rev. Humbard purchased. Mission House was one of the buildings Rev. Humbard purchased. Humbard worked with his church staff and private donors to increase television distribution of his services beyond Ohio. In 1956, Ampex had introduced the first practical system for making broadcastquality videotapes; the new technology was a sharp technological improvement over the earlier kinescope system. Rev. Humbard could now send taped copies of his church services to broadcasters all over the United States. By 1970, the Akron preacher was a full-fledged syndicator who could pay for air time and whose Sunday worship services were rebroadcast across the United States. The jacket blurb for "Miracles in My Life" boasted: "He's seen on more TV stations than Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, or Oral Roberts!" By this time, Cathedral of Tomorrow services were being rebroadcast on 335 stations in the United States and Canada.

This was the man who emerged upon the scene when the first Mackinac College ceased operations in 1970. Complex factors had caused the active operations of this fledgling Mackinac Island place of higher education to shut down, leaving behind a campus complex on Mission Point valued at $17 million, but offered for sale for only $3 million. Thrown in as part of the deal was a large parcel of property, Stonecliffe, on the western side of Mackinac Island. Rex Humbard acquired these assets in April 1971 as part of the Cathedral of Tomorrow's expanded growth push. At approximately the same time, the Humbard organization also acquired a 23-story office building, the Akron National Tower, and a private jet plane.

Humbard's twin goals for Mackinac Island were to reopen Mackinac College as a nondenominational Bible college and to develop Stonecliffe as a winter ski resort. In the fall of 1971, bulldozers went to work to clear swathes of old-growth cedar and other tree life from sections of Mackinac Island's far West Bluff. In early 1972, the cleared strips of bluffland were redesigned into ski slopes, and a chair lift was erected. Rev. Humbard's Ohio money created jobs for some Mackinac Islanders who would otherwise have had trouble finding employment during the cold winter months. The preacher would be flown from Akron to Mackinac Island in his jet to inspect the work. In fall 1972, the second Mackinac College opened at Mission Point; 140 students were present, hoping to study in a Christian environment, and maybe go skiing up at Stonecliffe.

Severe challenges, however, soon faced the Cathedral of Tomorrow organization. Rev. Humbard, in 1971, had also broken ground for a 750-foot-high broadcasting tower in Cuyahoga Falls near the church. Governmental permits were required to build this large structure. The Cathedral of Tomorrow had already begun to face significant criticism from those who mistrusted the evangelist's financial optimism and the aggressive material growth of his ministry. The church leader was defiant in the face of these critiques. As he explained in "Miracles in My Life": "I don't worry, because miracles happen every day and, with God's help, I shall continue to borrow and build, borrow and build, so that more souls can be born again in Jesus Christ."

Various governmental regulatory agencies began asking questions

about the financial stability of the Cathedral of Tomorrow financial empire, and the legal validity of Humbard's claim that all of it was exempt from property and income taxes. These inquiries uncovered the fact that Rev. Humbard's assets had come to include a wide variety of properties, including a women's girdle factory in Brooklyn, New York. Ohio securities regulators reportedly discovered that the Rev. Humbard's church had borrowed quite a lot of money in that state and did not have the means to adequately service its debts.

Under these circumstances, the news that Mackinac Island's far West Bluff was completely unsuitable for skiing was one of Rev. Humbard's smallest problems. The Akron-based Humbard organization was reported to be facing severe financial challenges. In 1973, work on "Humbard Tower" stopped and never resumed. Mackinac College also closed its doors that spring.

Beginning in the summer of 1973, the Cathedral of Tomorrow and its creditors reorganized the Mission Point campus as a summer resort complex, and began to take steps with a Michigan businessman, George Staffan, to have Stonecliffe developed for summer housing. These steps continued throughout the 1970s as the Humbard organization unwound its more diversified interests. Under post- Humbard owners, the Mission Point Resort and the Inn at Stonecliffe are key Mackinac Island assets today.

Rev. Humbard continued to preach on television until 1999.

Upon his death in September 2007, "Brother Rex" was honored as one of the founding fathers of televangelism. He is survived by his widow, Maude Aimee, and many children and grandchildren.

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