*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 16th of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The story of Christianity in Los Angeles (as told recently on this show) is bizarre, but also grandiose and august. Of course, it was the home to, among other things, Sister Aimee and Dr. Gene Scott. Here in Orange County, we are nothing if we’re not trying to ape L.A. and so it makes sense that Orange County would develop its own shiny Christian celebrity pastor. And it just so happens that this pastor would have the shiniest church of them all. And it just so happens that today is the 95th anniversary of the birth of the pastor of this shiny, shiny church. It was on this, the 16th of September in 1926 that Harold Robert Schuller was born.
Schuller would be a cross of Gene Scott and Norman Vincent Peale. His televised sermons would be the 4th longest-running show before he stepped down from the “Hour of Power” and in a twist that might not shock anyone, it all came crumbling down.
Schuller was born in Iowa in 1926 into a large Dutch Reformed family. While the family farmed, young Bobby dreamed of being a preacher- even stacking hay barrels to preach to the cows. He eventually went to Hope College in Michigan and Western Theological Seminary.
He was ordained in 1950 and in 1955 was sent out to the mission field of the fast-growing Southern California suburbs. Unable to grow his church by conventional methods he began renting the Orange County Drive-In for 10 dollars every Sunday morning. He erected a Cross and pulpit on the snack bar and his wife played the organ from a trailer. It became a hit and thus also a target.
The Dutch Reformed Church was critical of the service, but its growth led to Schuller's decision to double down on the novel spectacle he was building. He would begin preaching what he called “possibility thinking”. This led to the building of a new church that could accommodate worshippers both in pews or in their cars. Schuller would then take counsel from Billy Graham’s media team and soon “the Hour of Power” was a nationally broadcast Sunday service.
Schuller began barking for funds to build the grandest church in the area (which isn’t hard, as we do not have grand churches). The 20 million dollar project would soon project a steeple in the same skyline as the Big A at Angel Stadium and the Matterhorn at Disneyland. The “Crystal Cathedral” was neither made of crystal (it was 10,000 glass panes) nor was it a cathedral. But I suppose in the life of this ministry many words took on new meanings.
Schuller would host presidents at the Cathedral, host a yearly Christmas and Easter extravaganza and take part in the grand tradition of alleged tax fraud. As Robert grew older his son would take over the ministry but only after Robert Sr. angrily stepped down. Roberts daughter would eventually take over and Sr. returned but the ministry was rocked in 2010 with lawsuits and bankruptcy. The church owed over 47 million dollars and stopped paying vendors. All this despite reported very generous salaries still paid to family members. Schuller's wife would die in 2014 and he succumbed to cancer in 2015. The Crystal Cathedral was purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and christened “Christ Cathedral” in 2019.
The story of Bob Schuller is an American Celebrity Pastor story. He was not an evangelical nor fundamentalist, he would even shy away from “Christian” at times. He attempted to find a middle ground between the church and secular culture and many would argue that he got sucked into the mire of celebrity, image, and wealth. We might laugh at some of the peculiarities but we also do well to see where we might see shadows of these tragedies in ourselves or our own church. I’m sure Schuller would have a word to say about throwing stones, after all, he worked from one of the most grandiose of all glasshouses.
The last word for today is from the Epistle to the Hebrews:
22 Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.
23 Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.
24 And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who is so hardworking he could finish the Hour of Power in just 30 minutes. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by… fun fact: Schuller’s grandson now hosts the program from a smaller church nearby- it was the church I was baptized in and married. Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.