So goes the common wisdom in many evangelical circles. Greg Laurie and Luis Palau are exceptions to the rule, but evangelistic meetings and revival services are in the past. Right?
Not so fast.
Jake Hanson’s forthcoming book, Igniting the Fire: The Movements and Mentors who Shaped Billy Graham, zooms in on Graham’s formative, early years. 65 years ago this month, Graham burst onto the national scene at his Los Angeles crusade. Hanson’s work gives us the back story.
How did Billy Graham become Billy Graham?
What were people saying about the days of mass evangelism back in the 1940’s?
And what if an era of evangelistic services is ahead of us, not just a relic of the past?
I invited Jake to the blog to answer some questions about the importance of Graham’s upbringing, the significance of the Los Angeles crusade, and the future of mass evangelism.
Trevin Wax: Billy Graham stepped onto the national stage 65 years ago this month, when the Los Angeles crusade began and then continued for weeks beyond its original vision. What was the significance of this crusade for Graham’s future ministry and for the future of our nation?
Jake Hanson: It’s really fascinating looking back on the 1949 Los Angeles crusade. It was a watershed moment, not just for Billy Graham, but for American Christianity. It wasn’t the first of his evangelistic meetings—those happened over ten years earlier. But they were the first meetings that brought Billy Graham into the national consciousness when newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst began coverage of the campaign in his network of newspapers throughout major cities in the country.
We get a glimpse of the significance of this coverage with the first line of the article from November 2, 1949, “Old-time religion is sweeping the City of Angels with an evangelistic show overshadowing even Billy Sunday” (emphasis added). The mantle of the American evangelist was being passed to Billy Graham at Los Angeles.
There was this sense among American Christians at the time that God had provided our nation with evangelistic leaders from the very beginning—from Jonathan Edwards/George Whitefield in the 18th century, to Charles Finney in the mid-19th century, to D.L. Moody in the late 19th century, and then to Billy Sunday in the early 20th century. By 1949, Billy Sunday had been dead for almost fifteen years, and the peak of his ministry ended several years before that. Many believed that this type of mass evangelism was going to die a slow death with the passing of Billy Sunday.
But among many Christians of the day, there was still this longing for God to continue to bless our nation (and the world) with an evangelistic leader. There is an eerily prophetic example of this in the valedictorian address at Billy’s graduation from the Florida Bible Institute in 1940. With Billy Graham unwittingly sitting in the audience that momentous spring day, the speaker, Vera Resue declared, “The time is ripe for another Luther, Wesley, Moody, —–. There is room for another name in this list.”
So the Los Angeles crusade brought a lot of hope to Christians who had longed for and prayed that the Lord would raise up another name for that list when they opened their newspapers in November sixty-five years ago.
Trevin Wax: In writing about how Billy Graham became Billy Graham, you point to the evangelistic environment he experienced in three schools: Bob Jones University, Florida Bible Institute, and Wheaton College. What was this evangelistic environment like, and why did it matter?
Jake Hanson: Both Bob Jones, Sr. the founder of Bob Jones College/University, as well as W.T. Watson, the founder of the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College of Florida), saw themselves, especially in the 1930s and 40s, as evangelists first, and educators second. The founding of both of the schools came out of a need they perceived in their evangelistic ministries.
The impact that Bob Jones had on Billy’s vision for evangelism often gets overlooked because of the tectonic rupture between the two that began in the late 1950s and was never repaired. But in his early days, Billy Graham regularly looked to Bob Jones for guidance and wisdom. As a student for only a semester at Bob Jones College in 1936, Graham later said, “It was [at Bob Jones College] that I first learned about evangelism.” He was able to see first-hand a veteran evangelist at work as a student there.
The Florida Bible Institute likewise had an evangelist as its head, but at the Institute, there was a particular focus on giving students opportunities for evangelistic ministry. So, not only were they watching their leader do evangelism, almost as soon as students arrived on campus, they were sent out to street corners, trailer parks, camps and churches to find, use and hone their gifts.
Wheaton was a little bit different in that while evangelism was still prized, there was probably a little bit less of an emphasis on it. I think Wheaton offered something different from the other two schools that helped Billy as an evangelist. In particular, I think it opened up a desire to understand a wider range of disciplines, and to understand people in particular. (He chose Anthropology as his major.) But even if the emphasis was less on evangelism, he was still going to churches with Gospel Teams and holding some of his own evangelistic meetings while he was a student.
Trevin Wax: If you had to choose the three most influential mentors and friends in Graham’s life during the formative years of 1934-43, who would you pick?
Jake Hanson: It’s really hard to pick just three! Billy Graham had a fantastic group of mentors and friends who invested in him throughout his life.
But I would begin with John Minder, who was the Dean at the Florida Bible Institute while Billy was a student. It was Minder who gave Billy his very first preaching opportunity in a small Florida church; and when Billy came away from his early preaching experiences with self-doubt, he encouraged him to continue on; and finally, when Billy’s heart was broken by a love interest, Minder offered him a shoulder to cry on and encouragement to trust in the Lord. Minder was one of those mentors in Billy’s life who does not seem to have continued to really become an advisor as others would—even though Billy considered him one of his “very best friends” in 1943. But this early impact on Billy’s preaching set an important ministry foundation.
The second mentor I would choose is Dr. V. Raymond Edman who was the president at Wheaton College. Edman took Billy under his wing, sensitive to the fact that Billy was in culture shock coming to the Northern school as a thoroughly Southern-bred young man hundreds of miles away from home. Edman gave him ministry opportunities, including his first regular church preaching at the Wheaton Gospel Tabernacle. But more than that, Edman was a gentle encourager who prayed regularly with Billy. Their relationship continued to grow, especially in the 1950s as Billy’s ministry took off, and he began to face severe criticism from fundamentalists. Edman prayed with him when they were together, and wrote him letters when they were apart, encouraging him to keep his “Knees down! Chin up!”
Finally, to this list I would add Dawson Trotman who was the founder of the Navigators and who Billy met while a student at Wheaton. Trotman was a man deeply skeptical of mass evangelism. He believed evangelists were making converts, but failing to make disciples. But he loved Billy. And their relationship, I think, demonstrates how God can use the different gifts in the church as a sort of puzzle that fits together to make a beautiful picture.
Trotman, unlike the other mentors I have mentioned, was at the Los Angeles crusade (he lived in Southern California), counseling those who responded to Billy’s invitation at the end of the meetings. Billy saw in Trotman a man with a vision and gifts that he did not himself have—the gift of what was then called ‘follow-up,’ or discipling the new believers. So in 1951, Billy asked him to create a program to adequately follow-up and disciple the hundreds of people who were making decisions for Christ in crusades around the country which he did until his tragic death in 1956. But the program he put in place remained for the next half-century.
Trevin Wax: The confidence and conviction Graham displayed at the Los Angeles crusade didn’t come easily. You write about the internal struggles Graham faced and his growing commitment to the veracity and power of God’s Word. How were Graham’s distinctive theological convictions shaped during these formative years?
Jake Hanson: Billy Graham had been shaped in the ethos of American fundamentalism. But there was a fracture within fundamentalism in the 1940s that was growing into an outright rupture in the 1950s. In 1948, as the Vice-president of Youth for Christ, he attended the organizational meetings of the liberal-leaning World Council of Churches as an observer. This was seen by many fundamentalists as support for the organization (which it was not). Disgruntled fundamentalists were trying to shout him down during some of his cooperative evangelistic meetings which must have been a shock to him. To add to that, one of his close friends and fellow-preacher, Chuck Templeton, was calling him naïve and “fifty years behind the times” in his thinking and theology.
Templeton, in particular, was casting doubt on the authority of the Bible—the very book that Billy had committed himself to preach. Billy’s very foundation at this point was shaken to the core, and by the time the Los Angeles crusade was about to start, he had to make a choice. He either had to go with his friend, Chuck Templeton and resign from his ministry, or he had to commit himself by faith to believe and trust in the Word of God. The whole of the ministry of Billy Graham rested on this one question—the authority of the Word of God. And of course, in one of his several late-night prayer times on important decisions, he committed himself to accept the Bible as God’s Word by faith.
This is one of the several events in Billy’s life for which you couldn’t craft a better story-line. After he surrendered himself to God and His Word, he held the Los Angeles crusade with that confidence you noted, and it launched his evangelistic ministry into the national consciousness.
Trevin Wax: You make a point in your book that there is a similar void today as there was in the 1940s. What similarities and differences do you see with evangelism today compared with 1949?
Jake Hanson: I have heard people say that the era of mass evangelism is over, and that we are in an era of personal, one-to-one evangelism. But that is exactly what some were saying leading up to the ministry of Billy Graham. That’s not to say that we need to do 1950s evangelism in the 21st century, but I don’t think we need to sacrifice one biblical method of evangelism for another biblical method. And I don’t think it is fair to 1950s evangelism to say that nobody then was doing personal evangelism.
But one of the major differences I see between today and the 1940s is that today we lack some of the emphasis and infrastructure for evangelism. We do some other things really well—apologetics, engaging with the culture, etc. But I don’t think it is wrong to hope for and pray for more evangelists for today. In fact, Jesus commands it: “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest!”
When I was doing my research for this book, I came across an interview with one of Graham’s associates, and a man who personally impacted me, Lorne Sanny. He said that when evangelists come to study the ministry of Billy Graham, that they should not focus so much on his later established ministry, but on his early fledgling ministry. Billy Graham worked very hard to become an evangelist who preached to millions around the world. The crowds did not come easily.
And what I found in researching for my book is that the ministry of Billy Graham is not just about Billy Graham. It is about thousands, and even millions, of committed believers around the world who wanted to support the ministry of evangelism. And they did so by praying, by supporting, by mentoring, and by using their gifts to support the ministry of evangelism.
I wonder if it is not time for us to start to pivot to the future and to lay the foundation for what God wants to do for this generation. That’s my hope and prayer.