Roy McKeown (of the Christian youth organization Youth for Christ) called it “holy ground.” The Christ for Greater Los Angeles Committee, of which McKeown was a member, sponsored a tent evangelistic campaign in 1949 at that spot, led by evangelist Billy Graham. The dramatic events of these meetings first brought Graham to the attention of the general public of the United States. This exhibit tells the story of those meetings, making particular use of contemporary recordings of Graham’s sermons and later recordings of the memories of the local Committee members.
On September 25, 1949, the Christ for Greater Los Angeles evangelistic campaign began in a tent at the corner of Hill and Washington Street (at the edge of the downtown shopping district). The meeting grew out of two dynamic forces in postwar American Christianity, one local and the other national.
The local one was the Christ for
Greater Los Angeles Committee (or “the Committee”as
it will be referred to in the rest of this introduction), a nondenominational
group of Protestant Evangelical lay people and clergy. The Committee
had been started as the outreach arm of the local Christian Businessmen’s
Committee. They had organized a series of one-day evangelistic rallies,
week-long or longer campaigns, and prayer meetings around the city
for five years. Among the speakers they had brought in were Hyman
Appelman, Torrey Johnson, Charles Templeton, Merv Rosell and Jack
Shuler. The Committee worked closely with significant Fundamentalist/Evangelical
pastors in the area and also with parachurch ministries which were
becoming more and more significant, especially Youth for Christ,
the Navigators, the National Association of Evangelicals and Christian
The other force was the ministry
of Billy Graham, who was the invited preacher for the campaign.
He was president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota,
but was better known within the Fundamentalist/Evangelical community
as an energetic and personable evangelist who had been holding meetings
for twelve years, even while attending Bible school and college.
He had for several years been one of the leading speakers and organizers
of the Youth for Christ movement and in 1945 had traveled 135,000
miles around the country, more than any other U.S. civilian. He
had also spoken throughout the British Isles and Western Europe.
Starting in 1947, he had begun holding his own independent evangelistic
campaigns in the fall of each year. Each campaign had lasted two
to three weeks and had involved extensive advertising and cooperative
planning with the participating churches. Los Angeles was the seventh
such campaign Graham had held since the fall of 1947. It followed
a two-week summer campaign in Altoona (Pennsylvania), which Graham
later in his memoirs referred to as “in human terms, a flop.”
No one would ever characterize
the Los Angeles campaign in that fashion. Intensive preparation
went into the meetings. By 1949 the members of the Committee had
wide-ranging experience in organizing local and city-wide meetings.
They now gave a maximum effort in applying the lessons they had
learned to the new campaign. Hundreds of churches, most of whom
had a record of working with the Committee on other projects, participated
in regular prayer groups, provided clergy and lay people to various
committees, and supplied hundreds of others as ushers, choir members,
counselors and other staff. Meanwhile Graham and his associates,
particularly song leader Cliff Barrows and associate evangelist
Grady Wilson were also involved in the preparations. The two other
members of the team, soloist George Beverly Shea and evangelist
T. W. Wilson, made their contribution after the meetings began. (Shea was also the lead soloist on the radio program Club Time, broadcast from Chicago, and was therefore flying back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles throughout the campaign.)
Graham was particularly insistent, even to the point of raising
the ire of some members of the Committee, on dramatically increasing
the size of both the meeting tent and the advertising budget. He
also required greater participation by clergy in what had, up to
this point, been primarily a lay ministry.
Flowing into the preparation of the Committee was the prayer ministry that Lutheran minister Armin Gesswein had led for almost a decade, starting with a handful of ministers praying for spiritual renewal. By the time leading up to the campaign, Gesswein was, with assistance from the British evangelist and historian of revivals J. Edwin Orr, speaking and coordinating prayer efforts of thousands of people, particularly focused on the fall meetings.
Graham himself, as described in his autobiography, had been undergoing a crisis of faith for some months, brought on by his reading in contemporary theology and the growing doubts of his close friend and fellow evangelist Charles Templeton. The center of Graham’s struggle was over the authority of the Bible. Shortly before the beginning of the Los Angeles campaign, at the end of August, Graham had been one of the speakers at the annual College Briefing Conference held at Forest Home Conference Center in nearby Forest Falls. During this conference he spent much time alone in prayer and finally was able to say to God that he would accept the Bible by faith. “I am going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.” The campaign began about a month after he had thus rededicated himself.
The meetings were held at Washington and Hill Streets. The Committee had held events there before, but this time the lot had not become available until a few weeks before the campaign started. The campaign, with respectable crowds of 2,000-3,000 a night and some favorable newspaper coverage, went on for three weeks. The Committee was unsure as to whether to continue the meetings after the scheduled closing date. They and Graham, after prayer, took the improved warm weather on October 16th as a sign of favor from God and announced an extension. Immediately afterwards, local radio personality Stuart Hamblen made a dramatic early-morning visit to Graham to commit his life to Christ as a result of attending the service the previous evening. There soon followed, almost simultaneously, a series of “celebrity” conversions (athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini, wiretapper for organized crime James Vaus, local television star Harvey L. Fritts), along with extensive and continuing favorable publicity in the Los Angeles outlets that were part of the national chain of newspapers owned by publisher William Randolph Hearst. Reporters told Graham that William Randolph Hearst himself had sent a telegram to his editors telling them to “Puff Graham.”(Hearst was a newspaper magnate and publisher.
Attendance at the meetings increased dramatically, to the extent that the 6,000-6,500 person tent was filled to capacity each night, with thousands more standing outside. A service, besides solos by George Beverly Shea and Graham’s sermon, might include testimonies from a variety of people about their faith, brief messages from local pastors and Christian leaders, songs by the choir and guest vocalists and musicians, and the singing of hymns by the congregation. A prayer service, often attended by hundreds of people, preceded every service. Afterward, in a smaller tent behind the big tent, people who had come forward during the service to give their lives to Christ were met by volunteer counselors, who talked to them about what their decision meant and how to start on the Christian life. The names and addresses of converts were given for churches to follow up. Some counselors maintained contact with the converts they had counseled for years afterwards. Youth for Christ also combined its weekly Saturday night rally with the campaign, and every Saturday afternoon thousands of boys and girls attended a children’s rally.
The greatly expanded coverage in the Hearst papers, the stories of dramatic conversions, the noticeably large crowds gathered around the tent every evening and the newsreels about the campaign that began to appear in Los Angeles theaters got people talking about the meetings around town and some came out of curiosity, even from hundreds of miles away. The Committee and Graham received calls and telegrams of support from supporters around the country. Syndicated reports about the meetings appeared in papers throughout North America and national magazines Time and Life carried stories with photographs. Graham also spoke at prayer meetings (including that of the influential Hollywood Christian Group started by Henrietta Mears) as well as to civic, educational and church groups around the city. The nightly effort, as well as these additional meetings, exhausted Graham and by November he had long since used up all his supply of sermons. He borrowed sermons from friends and associates and one evening even preached almost verbatim Jonathan Edwards' classic sermon from the 18th century, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” after telling the congregation about the historical significance of Edward’s message.
The meetings ended November 20th and Graham left the city for Minneapolis via train the same night, still somewhat stunned by the dramatic impact of the campaign. For the nation at large, the meetings had above all been the introduction of Billy Graham as a national figure. Over the next half century and more, he would remain perhaps the best known and most influential American evangelist. The campaign also served to introduce modern Evangelicalism as a force in American life and a presence in American culture.