Reverend Robert H. Schuller was an American pastor, motivational speaker, televangelist, and author whose career spanned five decades. Rev. Schuller was also founder of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries and the television show “Hour of Power,” watched in over 165 countries by millions of people. Starting from humble beginnings, Rev. Schuller rose to be one of the most-watched televangelists in the world. Rev. Schuller’s close relationships with renowned architects Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, and Gin D. Wong, led to a collection of unique buildings on the 34-acre Christ Cathedral Campus (formerly the Crystal Cathedral campus). Rev. Schuller will long be remembered for his remarkable legacy.
Robert Harold Schuller was born on September 16, 1926 in Alton, Iowa. His father was a poor farmer with a sixth-grade education and his mother a hardworking farm wife. Rev. Schuller’s Dutch immigrant grandparents stressed the value of hard work. The family attended the First Reformed Church. In his autobiography, “My Journey: from an Iowa Farm to a Cathedral of Dreams,” Rev. Schuller writes that he was born “at the dead end of a dirt road with no name and no number.” The farm had no electricity or plumbing. But from the age of four, Schuller knew that he wanted to be a minister.
Enrolled in Newkirk High School, Schuller found that he was poor at sports but did well in English and debate. He also loved to participate in school theatricals and musical performances. He graduated from high school in 1943 and went on to attend Hope College (a “Reform Church” school in Michigan). He excelled in English, speech and debate, and was introduced to psychology and Calvinist theology. One summer, as part of a religious singing quartet tour with three of his friends, Schuller traveled to California. The beauty of the mountains and the coast affected him deeply, and he had a premonition he would someday return. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree, he went on to Western Theological Seminary. While at Western, he continued his study of psychology and became a scholar of Calvinist theology, creating the first topical and scriptural index to Calvin’s writing. Schuller felt that the Calvinists’ dark view of humanity was a product of Calvin’s followers, not Calvin himself. Schuller instead found “A theology of hope and joy, liberating humanity from shaming, blaming, cowering Christianity.” After receiving his degree, he was then ordained by the Reformed Church in America.
Schuller eventually met and married musically talented Arvella DeHaan and pastored the Ivanhoe Reformed Church in Chicago for five years. The church had only 38 members when they arrived, so to build the congregation, Schuller went door to door in the neighborhood. The congregation grew to 500 in five years.
During this time and because of Schuller’s expanding congregation, a new sanctuary was designed by Chicago architect Benjamin Franklin Olson. Olson was the first who encouraged Schuller to pursue architectural excellence, telling him that he should never let financial considerations force him “to compromise on the fine details of design” when building a church. “Art—not money—must have the last word,” said Olson.
After five years in Chicago, Schuller headed to California and formed a new Church. In 1955 the Schullers drove to Orange County with their two children (Sheila and Robert Anthony), $500 in assets, and their worldly goods towed behind their car in a small trailer. Orange County had a population of 500,000 in 1955, Disneyland would open soon, and tract housing began to replace the orange groves and dairy land.
Orange Drive-in Theater
After their arrival, the Schullers set about finding a building suitable for a church service. However, they were unable to find a hall or building to rent in Orange County, but they did discover the Orange Drive-in Theatre. No one had ever held a church service in such a place, but, Schuller realized, drive-in movie theaters were only used at night. He rented the drive-in for Sunday during the day. His unique call to the congregation was “Come as you are in the family car!” Standing atop the tarpapered roof of its snack bar, Schuller conducted his first open-air sermon to 100 people, all in their cars. Schuller believed this drive-in ministry, its ties to the outdoors, and his experience preaching outside atop the concession stand helped inspire him to later build the all-glass Crystal Cathedral. He often stated, “It was there that I fell in love with the sky!”
An early advertisement from The Orange County Register announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car.”
Schuller’s wife Arvella provided music for each service from an electronic organ. The organ was portable and mounted on a trailer that the Schullers towed to and from their home to the service. Worshippers at the drive-in listened to the Schullers via portable speaker boxes mounted to their vehicles. Church guidebooks for services included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows.
As one congregant recalled about the experience: “Smoke and be in church at the same time, at a drive-in during the daytime. What a trip!”
As the Garden Grove Community Church congregation continued to grow, Schuller searched for land to build what he envisioned would be a collection of buildings. He purchased a 10-acre plot in nearby Garden Grove. Schuller decided to combine the two services by building the world’s first walk-in/drive-up church.
He hired famous modernist architect Richard Neutra to design the Arboretum, a building that would combine the two congregations smoothly. Schuller also felt it was important to have a seamless transition between the natural world and the interior space, a main tenet of Neutra’s ‘biorealism’ philosophy. The parking lot would hold 500 cars that would all be oriented toward an indoor/outdoor platform. This platform would allow Schuller to preach to the indoor congregation and also those in their cars.
The Arboretum’s unique indoor/outdoor design was completed in 1960 and the sanctuary was dedicated in 1961.
Tower of Hope and Ministries
In 1968, in addition to purchasing an additional 10-acres on the north side of the property, Schuller worked with Neutra and Neutra’s son Dion to design a building to hold his congregation’s expanding ministries. The 13-story Tower of Hope was built and with its 90-foot-tall neon cross, was the tallest building in Orange County for more than a decade. The Tower was named after the New Hope Suicide Prevention Crisis Line, the first church-sponsored 24-hour suicide prevention telephone hotline, started by Arvella Schuller.
From Crystal Cathedral to Christ Cathedral
Donations from loyal and grateful “Hour of Power” listeners and the continued growth of the congregation led Schuller to the decision to build the acclaimed Crystal Cathedral. Schuller picked famed architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, whom he felt shared his aesthetic sensibilities. Schuller wanted to continue his established indoor/outdoor sanctuary, and also create a visually stunning building to augment the growing “Hour of Power” television show. Made entirely of mirrored glass and white-painted steel trusses, the Crystal Cathedral was fully paid for on the day that it opened by churchgoer and “Hour of Power” listener donations.
However, when the economic climate brought a downturn in the Crystal Cathedral finances and creditors from the pageant shows sued for payment, Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy in 2010. For a time it appeared that the campus and all its magnificent religious buildings, its gardens and cemetery, might be purchased by a secular organization. However, Schuller spoke to the bankruptcy judge personally when it came time to sell the campus, urging the judge to allow the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange to continue the Christian legacy of the campus. The judge allowed the sale in 2012. The Diocese purchased this architecturally significant campus, blessed and enthusiastically supported by Schuller. The transition of this Protestant campus to a Catholic Campus will be complete with its July 17, 2019 dedication, and the Diocese of Orange will have honored Schuller’s legacy as it continues to share Christ’s message of love to the world.