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Famed Televangelist Known for Building a Massive Christian Empire Dies

Robert Schuller (Facebook/Hour of Power)

ARTESIA, Calif. (TheBlaze/AP) — The Rev. Robert Harold Schuller, a popular televangelist known for building a massive audience centered around his famed Crystal Cathedral — a California megachurch — has died. He was 88.

Schuller, who started out in ministry by preaching at a drive-in movie theater and ended up building an empire, died early Thursday at a medical facility in Artesia, California, the New York Times reported.

In 2013, Schuller was diagnosed with a tumor in his esophagus that had spread to his lymph nodes and began treatment; he was hospitalized that same year after falling inside of his home. Schuller previously suffered a mild heart attack in 1997, but was quickly back on the pulpit.

His family confirmed his death on Thursday.

See the first-ever episode of Schuller's "Hour of Power" below:

"I always had a special relationship with my grandfather. He was so warm with all of his grandchildren; we all felt special," Schuller's grandson Bobby Schuller said in a statement. "I remember he used to love calling me 'Robert Schuller the Third' like it was special to him that I carried his name. That made it special for me, too."

Bobby Schuller, who runs Shepherd's Grove Church, an off-shoot of the Crystal Cathedral and who now hosts "Hour of Power," his grandfather's famed TV program,  said that he is honored to continue the church's work.

"I have the incredible honor of carrying on my grandfather’s legacy by teaching people that they are not what they do, not what they have, and not what people say about them," he said. "They are the beloved of God. This message is going to millions around the world as we carry on the work my grandparents and parents began exactly sixty years ago."

Known as one of TV's first televangelists, Robert Schuller inspired millions of people through his preaching and encouraged audiences along the way, though he faded from view in recent years after leaving his leadership role in 2006 and watching his church collapse amid a tough leadership transition and sharp declines in viewership and donations.

The Crystal Cathedral ended up filing for bankruptcy and the building was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2011. 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.

Despite pitfalls during his later years, Schuller's evangelical Protestant ministry, part of the Reformed Church in America, was a product of modern technology during its heyday. He and his late wife, Arvella, an organist, 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 — a "walk-in/drive-in church" — and Schuller began broadcasting the "Hour of Power" in 1970. In 1980, he built the towering glass-and-steel Crystal Cathedral to house his booming TV ministry, which was broadcast live each week from the cathedral's airy and sunlit 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. It was inspired by late author Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote "The Power of Positive Thinking." Schuller also wrote more than 30 books, including several best-sellers.

Schuller had admirers that ranged from fellow evangelist Billy Graham to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. He also was among the first foreign religious figures invited to preach on Russian television.

Fundamentalists attacked him as a heretic and humanist for statements they believed denied the need for personal repentance of sin and for his tolerance of Jewish, Roman Catholic and other theologies. And his friendship with President Bill Clinton raised some eyebrows among the conservative Republicans of his Orange County congregation and prompted a deluge of irate letters and telephone calls.

In response, Schuller gave a sermon on tolerance.

"I do let people know how great their sins and miseries are," he said in a 1992 radio interview. "I don't do that by standing in a pulpit and telling them they're sinners. ...The way I do it is ask questions. Are you happy? Do you have problems, what are they? So then I come across as somebody who cares about them."

In 2006, Schuller's only son, 51-year-old Robert A. Schuller, was installed as senior pastor, the start of a carefully choreographed leadership transition. Although a father-son succession is rare in the Reformed Church in America, the Schullers considered the church a "family business" and the move was sanctioned by the national church, officials said.

But the organization fell on difficult times after the younger Schuller's installation, and he left amid a bitter family feud in fall 2008. His father had removed him from the "Hour of Power" broadcasts, and he quit as senior pastor a few weeks later.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, one of Schuller's daughters, took over as the church's top administrator, and a stable of preachers, including her and her father, handled preaching duties on the "Hour of Power." She, too, ultimately left, taking some congregants with her to start a new ministry.

The Rev. Robert Schuller (Facebook/Hour of Power)

The tumult in the pulpit 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.

In 2012, Schuller and his wife quit the board of directors in a dispute over copyright infringement and breach of contract. That same year, they lost a legal bid to recover more than $5 million from their former ministry.

Schuller's grandson, Bobby Schuller, took the remaining congregation and founded a new church. Bobby Schuller also took over the "Hour of Power," broadcasting from a new location.

The famed pastor was born in Alton, Iowa, in 1926, and was ordained by the Reformed Church in America in 1950. He was pastor of Ivanhoe Reformed Church in Chicago from 1950 to 1955 before moving to California.

Schuller's wife, Arvella, died Feb. 11, 2014, after a brief illness.

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