LOS ANGELES - The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, 88, who built the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California as the embodiment of an upbeat, modern vision of Christianity, only to see his ministry shattered by family discord and financial ruin, died Thursday at a skilled nursing facility in Artesia, Calif.
He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2013.
After a working life of great success and influence, Mr. Schuller was forced to watch from retirement as much of what he built was laid to waste. In October 2010, his church, then led by his daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, declared bankruptcy. That led to the sale of the cathedral and surrounding property to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in February 2012.
Changing tastes, financial overreach, and squabbling over a successor were factors in the collapse. Mr. Schuller had turned over his pulpit first to his son, Robert A. Schuller, and then to Coleman. In March 2010, he and his wife, Arvella, who died last year, formally cut ties to the ministry they had founded, bemoaning the "negative and adversarial atmosphere" enveloping the church's leadership.
It was an ignominious end to what had been one of the greatest success stories of postwar American Christianity.
The silver-haired evangelist rose from humble beginnings - he held his first Sunday service at a drive-in movie theater in the city of Orange, Calif., preaching atop a snack bar - to become one of the late 20th century's most recognized religious figures.
He created the weekly Hour of Power television show that at its peak popularity attracted an international audience of millions, wrote dozens of books, and built a 40-acre church campus with buildings so striking that the American Institute of Architects gave him its first lifetime achievement award in 2001.
Mr. Schuller's popularity rested in his avuncular public manner, tireless energy and unique approach to Christianity that blended pop psychology, unbridled optimism and the Gospel. Offering an alternative to the fire-and-brimstone preacher, Mr. Schuller taught that believing in Jesus Christ - along with the power of "possibility thinking" - provided the keys to leading a successful and fulfilling life.
Born near Alton, Iowa, on Sept. 16, 1926, Mr. Schuller was the fifth child of Dutch immigrant parents who lived in a farmhouse without electricity or plumbing. Mr. Schuller said he first knew he wanted to be a pastor at age 4 after his missionary uncle returned from China and predicted that was his destiny. Each evening for the next 20 years, Mr. Schuller said he prayed to God to become a pastor.