Evangelist Billy Graham was interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAYon the twentieth anniversary of his first large-scale evangelistic campaign, held in the fall of 1949 in a tent in downtown Los Angeles. Mr. Graham made these remarks during the Southern California crusade in Anaheim last month.
What recollections come to mind of the Los Angeles campaign in 1949? What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned in the intervening years?
Those are big questions. At the time we came to Los Angeles in 1949 we were using the names and methods of the so-called old-time evangelism of the early twentieth century and the latter part of the nineteenth. The word crusade was never used—it was called the “campaign,” and the counselors were called “personal workers.” In those days evangelists took love offerings. We used the same Gospel, but it was couched in quite a different framework.
The thing I remember most is the tremendous blessing of God. You have to put it in the context of its times. Mass evangelism was something of the past. During the thirties and the forties there were few evangelists. A crowd of 5,000 was almost unheard of until Youth for Christ came along and got larger crowds on Saturday nights.
There were some evangelists, like Dr. Rice and Dr. Appleman and Dr. Jones, who were having a joint campaign in Chicago about that time. They had three or four thousand people a night. That was considered a very successful meeting.
In those days no evangelist and no religion had much coverage in the press; as a matter of fact, you almost never saw anything about religion except on the back pages. About that time, God, in what I believe was his own way, broke through to give us this start in Los Angeles.
Before we came to Los Angeles, the committee out here put on an evangelistic campaign every year. They invited us for this year (1949) and I had the vision of something larger and greater than the committee had. I suggested they have a budget of $25,000; they said they could never raise that much money. So I wrote them, I remember, from Winona Lake, and I said, “Then I’m going to cancel, because I believe God wants us to do greater things than we’ve ever done before.” They finally said, “All right, we’ll try to make it a $25,000 budget and advertise it more extensively.”
If I remember correctly, the tent seated about 3,000. We started out probably two-thirds filled the opening service. We went on for three weeks, and we prayed each week after that as we extended to eight weeks. The crowds began to come, and the publicity gathered momentum. The Associated Press carried a major story …
Wasn’t it William Randolph Hearst who gave you major publicity?
Yes, Mr. Hearst had given this note to his editors: “Puff Graham.” We think that a maid in his home suggested to him that he get interested in the crusade. We know the name of the maid; she’s in San Diego, and we’ve heard from her. She talked to him, but she doesn’t know if that was the trigger or not. I never met Mr. Hearst. I never had any correspondence with him through all the years.
That was how it started. But the Associated Press, about three days later, carried a major story and said, “A new revivalist has arrived on the scene in America.” That appeared all across America and made the front page in many papers. Then Time carried a story and then Life carried a story. By the time we’d stayed eight weeks, interest had gathered all across America. When we went to Boston early in 1950, the meeting place could not contain the crowds. We moved to four different auditoriums—finally ending up on the Boston Common.
It all began here in Los Angeles, and I believe that it was God. I had a sense of great dependence and fear—I was not used to this type of publicity. I was afraid I would do something that would displease the Lord or make some mistake because people wanted to quote me on everything and I was not used to that.
I went back to Minneapolis, where I was president of Northwestern Bible College, and I remember the faculty met with me and we had a real session of prayer and great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. All of us were broken before the Lord.
The changes that have taken place since then are tremendous. We didn’t get many young people to meetings in those days. Even Youth for Christ was largely middle-aged people. Today it’s become youth crusades. Most of the people attending these crusades today are under twenty-five.
Another change: The team sat down one day and wrote out every criticism of mass evangelism that we could think of. We decided we were going to change all of that and lift the word evangelism back to what we believed to be a biblical position. We set about to do it in different ways. One was doing away with love offerings. I remember my love offering here in Los Angeles was so large that it was about twice what my total yearly salary is now.
As I look back, I can hardly believe that this is the way we did it, because our methods are so different today—far more efficient, more business-like. Of course one cannot help but change as he grows older, and as he travels, and as he meets leaders, and reads and studies.
What do you see ahead in the next decade for evangelical Christianity? There are some who have said that the U. S. Congress on Evangelism in Minneapolis could be a turning point. Do you agree?
I think evangelical Christianity is now “where the action is.” We have seen a breakthrough in Minneapolis, I think. For the first time the world realizes that evangelicals have always had a social concern—maybe not always as strong as they should have had, and certainly there has been a blind spot in many areas on the race question. But there has been a social concern. And missionary zeal.
All of this came out in Minneapolis, and I think many people in some of the more liberally oriented groups were quite surprised. I hope it’s going to have the effect of showing evangelicals that we do have social responsibility, and of showing the liberals that they need to be more orthodox in their faith.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.