December 9, 2014

Billy Graham, Louis Zamperini and the two nights in 1949 that changed their lives

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*ATTN: DO NOT PUBLISH THIS PHOTO!*
Billy Graham's 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign started small, in a rented circus tent, but grew into a life changing event for Graham -- propelling him onto the national stage. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association  *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story "RNS-GRAHAM-LA" written by Cathy Grossman and published on December 9, 2014.

*ATTN: DO NOT PUBLISH THIS PHOTO!* Billy Graham's 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign started small, in a rented circus tent, but grew into a life changing event for Graham -- propelling him onto the national stage. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story "RNS-GRAHAM-LA" written by Cathy Grossman and published on December 9, 2014.

(RNS) Two October evenings in 1949 brought together an alcoholic war hero and a fiery young evangelist. From then on, neither would be the same.

The preaching in that rented circus tent in Los Angeles changed Louis Zamperini, then 32 — who put away the bottle forever and devoted the rest of his life to Christian testimony and good works.

And those Los Angeles nights also changed the preacher, Billy Graham, and the future course of American evangelicalism as well. In Graham’s autobiography, “Just As I Am,” he calls that chapter of his life “Watershed.”

On Christmas Day, a movie directed by Angelina Jolie about Zamperini’s extraordinary survival amid the horrors of Japanese POW camps opens in theaters. “Unbroken,” is based on the award-winning book by Laura Hillenbrand.

The film version of “Unbroken, however, ends before he reaches Graham’s tent revival, the climactic chapter of Hillenbrand’s best-seller.

Yet it was this eight-week sin-slaying marathon where the story of “Billy Graham as an icon begins,” said Duke Divinity School historian Grant Wacker. He’s the author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” published just before Graham’s 96th birthday last month.

*ATTN: DO NOT PUBLISH THIS PHOTO!* Billy Graham's fiery preaching and celebrity converts such as war hero Louis Zamperini at the 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign, propelled Graham to national attention. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story "RNS-GRAHAM-LA" written by Cathy Grossman and published on December 9, 2014.

Billy Graham’s fiery preaching and celebrity converts such as war hero Louis Zamperini at the 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign, propelled Graham to national attention. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story “RNS-GRAHAM-LA” written by Cathy Grossman.

Every element of what became the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s crusade juggernaut came together for the first time in this early campaign, said William Martin, author of the acclaimed biography, “A Prophet with Honor.”

Graham didn’t invent these trends, but he pulled them together to knit a new creation — the prototype evangelistic crusade as a religious, social and political force.

What you see him doing in Los Angeles he began to do all the time — “recognizing and amplifying patterns already at work,” said Wacker.

A genius for networking: Long before that term became a verb, Graham pulled together contacts from his early preaching days with Youth for Christ, the powerful Christian Businessmen’s Committee of Los Angeles, and hundreds of local pastors to support the heavily advertised L.A. campaign.

Personal magnetism: Graham may have been the first evangelist to pace the pulpit with a lapel microphone like a modern talk show host. With a commanding voice, the tall and movie-handsome evangelist seemed to connect eye to eye, ear to ear with every person in the tent.

Celebrity power: The willingness of famous men such as Zamperini and radio host Stuart Hamblen to testify to their “born-again” experience led to massive crowds in Los Angeles. By 2005, when Graham retired from the sawdust trail of evangelizing, it became impossible to count the celebrities who found faith through Graham. On the cover of “Just As I Am,” Graham wears a denim shirt, a gift from Johnny Cash. Years later, critics say he allowed his moral stardust to brush onto the coats of some arguably undeserving folk as well, including close friend Richard Nixon.

A forceful anti-communist voice. The Los Angeles campaign began just days after the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb and ignited fresh fear of the Red Menace. This drew the powerful admiration of anti-communist media giants William Randolph Hearst in Los Angeles and later Time-Life kingpin Henry Luce.

The outlines of what became the 1980s religious right can be seen here, too, said Susan Harding, a retired anthropology of religion professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of a book on the late Jerry Falwell’s rise to cultural power.

“Graham was not just becoming a great evangelist, he’s becoming an evangelist with a political profile,” said Harding, noting Graham’s talent for “riding the crest of the moment.”

Equating the American way with godliness: “He was speaking to — and from — the heartland’s moral world. He personified the moral dimension of a Norman Rockwell world of small towns and summer nights — and a clear overlay of right and wrong. He delineated the strongly normative path to salvation for individuals and for the culture,” said Wacker.

*ATTN: DO NOT PUBLISH THIS PHOTO!* World War II hero Louis Zamperini (right) and Los Angeles radio celebrity Stuart Hamblen (second from right beside Billy Graham) were two of Billy Graham's most famous converts at his 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign. Also show, from left, were Graham's staff members, Harvey Fritts, Cliff Barrows and Jim Vaus. Photo courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association  *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story "RNS-GRAHAM-LA" written by Cathy Grossman and published on December 9, 2014.

World War II hero Louis Zamperini (right) and Los Angeles radio celebrity Stuart Hamblen (second from right beside Billy Graham) were two of Billy Graham’s most famous converts at his 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign. Also show, from left, were Graham’s staff members, Harvey Fritts, Cliff Barrows and Jim Vaus. Photo courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story “RNS-GRAHAM-LA” written by Cathy Grossman.

Los Angeles not only changed Graham, but also his audience.

As Wacker details in Christian History magazine:

“He had preached 65 sermons to an aggregate audience of 350,000 — maybe 400,000 — souls jammed into a Ringling Brothers tent pitched near the city’s central shopping district. The meetings ran every night and Sunday afternoons from September 25 to November 20. Around 6,000 people either committed or recommitted their lives to Christ. Graham spoke to countless civic, school, and business groups, making three to four appearances a day. He gave dozens of interviews. He even schmoozed with Hollywood celebrities such as Cecil B. DeMille, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.”

By the time the Los Angeles campaign ended, Graham was rocketing to national and international acclaim.

“He sells papers,” said Wacker.

“Everywhere we turned, someone wanted us to come and do for them what had been done in Los Angeles,” Graham wrote in “Just As I Am.” No longer could he see himself as a “country preacher” leading “a little evangelistic team.” 

He codified the lessons of California, established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and eventually made it a powerhouse of efficiency across multiple platforms — print, broadcast, film, interviews and, of course, more than 400 crusades.

Los Angeles fame opened doors for Graham to a different level of people and power: presidents and the national press.

“People want to come and hear a person who is famous,” said Martin, a religion and public policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Had it not been for the 1949 national exposure, “he would have been a one-night wonder.”

By 1957, Graham could pack Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for weeks on end.

*ATTN: DO NOT PUBLISH THIS PHOTO!* Billy Graham's 1949 crusade in Los Angeles was originally planned for three weeks but ballooned to six with media attention -- and famous conversions. Poster image courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association  *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story "RNS-GRAHAM-LA" written by Cathy Grossman and published on December 9, 2014.

Billy Graham’s 1949 crusade in Los Angeles was originally planned for three weeks but ballooned to eight with media attention — and famous conversions. Poster image courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story “RNS-GRAHAM-LA” written by Cathy Grossman.

And by then, he had the staying power to withstand critics from his fundamentalist early years when he began opening ecumenical doors, first with Catholics, later with Jews.

“What Graham did was normalize the idea that you can cooperate with others,” Wacker said, “He wanted to retain a core of belief without breaking fellowship with everyone else” who believed in God and Christ, moral values and patriotism. He represented the possibility of a consensus, of a bridge.”

He shifted from firing “turn-or-burn” thunderbolts to a mesmerizing, almost crooning, invitation to people to step toward the pulpit and change their lives by seeing them differently, through the prism of a new relationship with God.

“Words. That’s all he’s got,” said Harding, describing the power that Graham mastered so early on.

“No ritual. No liturgy. No paperwork. Graham speaks the gospel, and invades the listeners’ minds to strip away their old ways of understanding and experience. He adds their life up anew and asks them to tell their life stories from now on in gospel terms.”

On the night of Oct. 23, Zamperini heard Graham say: “If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.”

Hillenbrand, drawing on more than 70 interviews with Zamperini for “Unbroken,” tells how he recalled all the miraculous moments when his body might have broken and yet did not.

But on that night, Zamperini’s broken soul was touched. He walked down the sawdust aisle toward the Graham.

Over the next six decades, hundreds of thousands heard those words and did the same.

“God has spoken to you,” Graham said then, and ever after. “You come on.”

KRE/AMB END GROSSMAN

  • Terri Kraus

    Atheist Max: If you had heard the sermon you would have knoen that Billy Graham was not saying that HE was granting the grace, but that GOD does. BIG difference.

  • Michael Glass

    The old photographs reveal a lot. The Billy Graham crusades happened then but not now. Times have changed and the issues facing humanity have also changed.

  • Hellsgift2u

    Jesus is the way, not by some world favored guy dressed nice giving long speeches to the masses. Hmm think there’s a verse about that, ya know from the guy your always dissing.

  • Dawn

    Wrong Max. Billy Graham clearly and passionately referred to GOD giving the grace. You (nor anyone else) can twist the message of the gospel that Reverend Graham has been delivering – with humility and love – for six DECADES. He has done more to bring people to Christ than most, I’d say. Christianity is not a ‘cult’… it is the living profession of faith by Christians – people who know that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior – and we aren’t going anywhere.

  • Charles Manion

    While I have not seen the movie Unbroken, I understand that Billy Graham is not mentioned in the movie. Having read the book, it is my feeling that Hollywood missed what was one of the greatest parts of book. I never before realized the total success that Billy has had on the thousands that he has helped.

  • Billy Graham only became popular due to the backing of William Hurst- the FOX NEWS of the day. Then Graham hired the top advertising man in the country. I don’t have a problem with marketing, but anyone who says his “ministry” was from God doesn’t read history. And if you want more proof. The marketing genius who sold Billy, only worked with one other person. His name. Rick Warren. Yep, the guy that sold America the biggest selling Christian book of modern history. Who needs the power of the Holy Spirit, when you can have the power of solid marketing.

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  • God used Graham to accomplish His purposes. He has the gift of evangism. He isn’t in the ministry for money or fame or power or anything else. He was called by God to be an evangelist and thats what he is, thats what he does. Its amazing what can happen when we use the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God gives to those of us who have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. God bless.

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  • John Brown

    The internet is rife with with uninformed biased remarks like this unfortunately. Now for the facts. The “marketing genius” referred to as “selling Graham” and “only one other person, “Rick Warren” is Larry Ross. Now the problem is Ross is just 61, Graham is 96. Ross wasn’t even born in 1949 when Graham became nationally known in the LA Crusade discussed in this article. Ross began representing the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1981…THIRTY-TWO YEARS after 1949 by my count and long after Graham needed “selling”. And not only has Ross represented Warren and Graham but many other entities including Promise Keepers, Passion of the Christ and many other faith-based movie releases, Rod Parsley, TD Jakes, etc. (Not all of whom I agree with btw). PR firms are used for a number of reasons.

    Don’t let biases get in the way of facts.

  • John Brown

    @ Donovan Moore – I failed to mention one other thing…Graham indeed benefited by the direction of Hearst to Hearst News affiliates to “puff Graham” but to say that “Billy Graham only became popular due to the backing of William Hurst (sic)” is to negate a sovereign God. Do you not give any thought to the possibility God moved in the actions of Hearst to do so?

  • Pingback: Billy Graham & Louis Zamperini – The Story Behind the Film Unbroken | Blog | Church Leader Insights()

  • Goody

    I agree with atheist Max. Good for anyone who gets inspiration when needed, but it is such a farse for an evangelist to take credit for “god’s word”…whatever that is. I feel it is immoral to prey upon those in weak mindset. Cult is the right word for it. They are like junkies.