As a preacher, Earl Paulk espoused “the kingdom message,” a once-controversial doctrine among evangelicals that renounces the idea that Jesus will return to rescue faithful Christians from an ever more sinful world. Instead, it declares that Christians do not need to be rescued and that they have earthly work to do, spreading their faith through their daily professional and personal lives.
Under Mr. Paulk’s leadership, the Cathedral at Chapel Hill was considered progressive and inclusive; it was racially integrated in the 1960s, long before many other white churches in the South welcomed black congregants. More recently, it has been accepting of gay men and lesbians.
An early example of what has become known as a megachurch, the Cathedral at Chapel Hill reached its peak membership in the 1980s and ’90s, when the congregation grew to 10,000 or more. The church housed a Bible school and broadcast its services through a television ministry.
In 1982, Mr. Paulk was among the founders of the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, a coalition of ministries on six continents. For a time he was its presiding bishop.
But Mr. Paulk’s influence and popularity waned — church membership is now about 1,000 — in large part because of his sullied reputation. At least as far back as 1992, numerous published accounts told of church women who had testified to his marital infidelity and accused him of using his position to manipulate them into sexual affairs. The accusations created a legal tangle for Mr. Paulk as well as a moral one.
In 2005, one woman, Mona Brewer, a church singer, sued him, and Mr. Paulk subsequently admitted to the affair. In a sworn affidavit, he later said that she was the only woman he had had sex with outside his marriage.
That was a lie. In October 2007, a court-ordered paternity test revealed that he was the biological father of D. E. Paulk, by then in his 30s, who had always been told that Earl Paulk was his uncle and that Don Paulk, Earl’s brother, was his father.
In January 2008, Earl Paulk pleaded guilty to lying under oath. He was fined $1,000 and sentenced to 10 years’ probation.
Earl Pearly Paulk Jr. was born on May 30, 1927, in Appling County, in southeastern Georgia. His father was a preacher, and young Earl began his own career in the ministry as a teenager in his father’s church in Greenville, S.C. He graduated from Furman University in Greenville and earned his divinity degree at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. In 1960, with his brother, he founded what was called the Harvester Ministry and later the Chapel Hill Harvester Church, before it assumed its current name.
In addition to his brother, who lives in Decatur, and D. E. Paulk, Mr. Paulk is survived by his wife, Norma; three sisters, Darlene Swilley of Covington, Ga., and Ernestine Swilley and Myrtle Mushegan, both of Mableton, Ga.; two daughters, Roma Beth Bonner of Oxford, Ga., and Susan Joy Owens of Conyers, Ga., eight grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
After Mr. Paulk’s death, his brother told The Atlanta Journal Constitution that Mr. Paulk still loved his wife, and that he had forgiven his brother, whom he hoped would be remembered for his good works.
D. E. Paulk’s paternity “makes no difference in my love for my brother or my son,” Don Paulk said. “In the world that we live in, people are human beings.”