In the mid-1970s, a vision came to Paul Crouch, but it wasn’t what a man of the cloth might have expected.
A map of North America appeared on his ceiling, glowing with pencil-thin beams of light that shot in every direction. “Lord,” asked Mr. Crouch, a Pentecostal minister, “what does this mean?”
God, according to Mr. Crouch, had one word for him: “Satellite.”
Mr. Crouch, who belonged to the Assemblies of God, had been trying to spread the Gospel through a small television station in Tustin, Calif., but the vision changed his business plan. He bought more television stations, then piled on cable channels and eventually satellites until he had built the world’s largest Christian television system — the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or TBN.
The controversial pioneer of televangelism, whose broadcast empire was called “one of evangelicalism’s most successful and far-reaching media enterprises” by the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, died Nov. 30, said his grandson Brandon Crouch. He was 79.
Mr. Crouch, who had heart and other ailments, was hospitalized in October when he became ill during a visit to a TBN station in Colleyville, Tex. In early November, the network announced that he had improved enough to return to California. His family did not immediately disclose where he died or the cause of death.
TBN was not the first Christian network — televangelist Pat Robertson had launched the Christian Broadcast Network a decade earlier — but TBN surpassed its rivals in scope and ambition, amassing a global audience of millions.
The son of a poor missionary, Mr. Crouch was known for preaching a gospel of prosperity. His twice-yearly Praise-a-Thons on TBN generated as much as $90 million a year in donations, mostly in small amounts from lower-income Americans.
“When you give to God,” Mr. Crouch said in a typical appeal, “you’re simply loaning to the Lord and he gives it right on back.”
Mr. Crouch channeled much of the revenue into charity, funding soup kitchens, homeless shelters and an international humanitarian organization, Smile of a Child, founded by his wife, Jan. In 2011, he donated more than 150 low-power TV stations to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, which helps minorities, women and others own and operate TV and radio stations.
Mr. Crouch’s main mission was to build an alternative to secular media. TBN, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, is a 24-hour family of networks. Offerings have included biblical cartoons and soap operas, game shows, programs on fitness and faith healing, religious movies and late-night Christian rock videos. Prominent independent ministers such as Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart and Robert Schuller bought airtime on TBN, which also broadcast Billy Graham’s crusades.
The center of Trinity’s lineup has long been the nightly talk show “Praise the Lord.” Hosted by the silver-haired Mr. Crouch and his flamboyantly coiffed wife, it emanates from an Orange County, Calif., studio decorated with stained-glass windows, gilded imitation antiques and plush pews for the audience.
The extravagance carried over to Mr. Crouch’s personal life, provoking criticism from watchdog groups as well as members of his family. He and his wife had access to TBN’s multimillion-dollar private jets and more than two dozen ministry-owned homes, including his-and-her mansions in Newport Beach, Calif., a mountain retreat near Lake Arrowhead, Calif., and a ranch in Texas.
In 2012, granddaughter Brittany Koper, who had been the network’s finance director, went public with detailed allegations of fiscal improprieties, including excessive salaries, four-figure expense-account meals and a $100,000 mobile home for Jan Crouch’s dogs paid with tax-exempt donations.
Koper’s accusations were covered by the mainstream media, as was a charge by her sister, Carra Crouch, who said she was raped by a TBN employee and forced by her family to cover up the crime.
Amid the flurry of negative headlines, their father, Paul Jr., quit TBN, where he had held staff and board positions, leaving his younger brother, Matthew, as heir apparent.
The family disputes were the latest in a series of embarrassing events over recent years, including news reports in 2004 that Mr. Crouch had paid a former employee $425,000 to keep quiet about claims of a homosexual tryst. Mr. Crouch denied having sexual contact with the employee.
Mr. Crouch “has a mixed legacy,” said Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean of the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary, the evangelical graduate school in Pasadena, Calif.
“He has had a wonderful and profound influence on people’s lives individually. His pioneering work with a new technology has been extremely influential. But that gets tarnished by some of the negative issues that damaged his reputation and hurt what I would call the cause of Christ,” Fredrickson said.
Paul Franklin Crouch was born March 30, 1934, in St. Joseph, Mo. He spent part of his early childhood in Egypt, where his father was an Assemblies of God missionary. When Paul was 7, his father died, leaving his mother to support the family on her meager earnings as a seamstress.
When Mr. Crouch was 15, the husband of the woman who gave him free piano lessons taught him to use a ham radio. A few years later, as a student at Central Bible College and Seminary in Springfield, Mo., he formed a ham radio club and built a small campus radio station.
After graduating in 1955, he married Janice Bethany, the daughter of a prominent Assemblies of God minister. They moved to Rapid City, S.D., where he became associate pastor of a tiny church. The job paid so little that he moonlighted as a deejay at a local radio station.
In 1962, he and Jan moved to Burbank, Calif., for a job managing the Assemblies of God’s new motion picture and television division. In 1973, he struck out on his own, investing $20,000 from his savings in a struggling UHF station in Tustin, Calif.
About two years later, he was sitting in his den when he had the vision that changed his life.
Mr. Crouch’s empire eventually included several networks, including one with Spanish-language programs, a Christian entertainment center outside Nashville, a biblical theme park in Orlando and a gleaming headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif., called Trinity Christian City International. Mr. Crouch recently opened a state-of-the-art studio in Jerusalem.
Survivors include his wife, sons and grandchildren.
David Zahniser contributed to this report.