On a November Monday in 1949 thirty-one-year-old Billy Graham and his wife Ruth boarded a train in Los Angeles. He was exhausted yet thrilled. An evangelistic campaign in a tent had extended from three weeks to eight. An unbelievably large crowd of more than 9,000 had attended the final night. And the national press had actually made front-page news of Christian evangelism.

The train conductor, to the Grahams’ surprise, treated him as a celebrity. At Kansas City reporters badgered him. At Minneapolis he found a hero’s welcome. Only then did the Grahams realize that Billy had catapulted into fame. And he wrote: “I feel so undeserving of all the Spirit has done, because the work has been God’s, not man’s. I want no credit or glory. I want the Lord Jesus to have it all.”

In the quarter-century since, Billy Graham has preached to far more people than any other man in history. His eight-week total of hearers in Los Angeles in 1949 is only a fraction of some of his single face-to-face audiences today, while his message reaches far beyond by television and radio. More than a million persons have come forward at Billy Graham crusades in all parts of the world, and the documentary evidence is overwhelming that a very sizable proportion have made lasting decisions. Without doubt he has increased the population of the Kingdom by hundreds of thousands of souls: “Yet not I, but Christ.”

That first extraordinary response at Los Angeles brought new hope as Americans found afresh that the great truths of the Christian Gospel had power to transform lives not merely by ones or twos but by hundreds—and later by thousands. Nobody can fully explain why one man, however dedicated and disciplined, should suddenly achieve on a large scale what others had been doing in small ways for decades past. One of his team put it well during the Boston awakening in January, 1950: “It was the sovereignty of God in answer to the prayers of all these people.”

Graham’s thirty years of preparation had been hard, from the Carolina dairy farm to the presidency of a Midwest college. The “country boy” image given by the press had never been wholly correct; if it had, the swift rise in the early 1950s to a measure of national fame and influence might have toppled Billy Graham, as cynical commentators expected. Even allowing for the vital factor of the hand of Providence, it is a wonder more mistakes or misjudgments did not occur. Graham and the team were preserved by their complete sincerity, by their roots in devotional life, and by Graham’s firm grasp of the basic truths of the faith.

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Graham has always emphasized that his is a team ministry. Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea had joined before Los Angeles and so had Grady Wilson. George M. Wilson (no relation) organized the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to meet the expanding opportunities. As the ministry grew, the team grew. Graham could pick the right man. In those early days each crusade seemed to add someone. Willis Haymaker, the veteran Carolinian who organized the Colombia crusade in 1950, thereafter joined the team and taught them much about preparation and mobilizing lay workers and prayer. And at Shreveport in 1951 Graham brought in Dawson Trotman, founder of Navigators, to fashion a way by which those coming forward could be more adequately helped and followed up and turned over to the pastoral care of the churches. The early, somewhat haphazard methods gradually developed into the Schools of Discipleship, which have perhaps done more than any other feature to foster local evangelism.

As the numbers attending the crusades and making decisions increased, Graham refused paths that might have led to a personal following. The team members are the servants of the churches—in the Apostle Paul’s words, “your servants for Jesus’ sake.” In consequence the Billy Graham crusades have brought the churches into the sowing and reaping of evangelism on a scale never previously seen, not even in the greatest days of D. L. Moody.

Graham broke into the printed word with his best-selling Peace With God (1953) and his daily syndicated column, “My Answer.” And into films, with Mr. Texas. Graham books and films have had immense influence over the past quarter-century. Yet an equally important opening was not obvious immediately. It took persistent effort by Walter Bennett and Ted Dienert before the evangelist dared to launch his weekly radio “Hour of Decision.”

The year 1954 lifted the Billy Graham ministry to a new level through the historic events of Harringay Arena. Few who lived in England at that time can forget the atmosphere that came over the land. The Greater London crusade opened under suspicion and opposed by the press. It ended three months later with Graham flanked by the archbishop of Canterbury and the lord mayor of London in the largest outdoor stadium, as he preached the same unaffected gospel message. The response of England to this hitherto unknown American was beautifully summed up by a greatly loved national figure (whose name still may not be revealed) in a private letter thanking Billy Graham for “the spiritual rekindling you have brought to numberless Englishmen and women whose faith has been made to glow anew by your addresses.”

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Graham was flooded with requests that he stay on. Britain was hungry for the Gospel of Christ. He now believes he should have stayed that summer of 1954. Undoubtedly Harringay, and the All Scotland Crusade the following year, and the landline relays and the great Good Friday nationwide television broadcast, gave British Christianity a new impetus throughout the later 1950s. Too many churches, however, held back, debating the pros and cons of this evangelism instead of recognizing their own opportunity. Had they grasped it, the sixties might have been as different for Britain nationally, despite the flooding in of secularism, as they were for the thousands who through the crusades of 1954–5 found faith or vocation (the number of ordinands and missionary recruits shot up in the years following Harringay and Kelvin Hall).

Billy Graham was now one of the most famous people on earth. Whether he preached under the starlight in South India by interpretation to huge, attentive crowds, or in the pulpit of the University Church in Cambridge, England, or for sixteen weeks in the sticky heat of the old Madison Square Garden in New York, ordinary people found themselves understanding the issues of commitment to Christ. Theologians might debate the crusades, sociologists might analyze them, but Graham reached the masses, and hundreds discovered that Christ is alive.

The tally of converts was not the only important yield. The Christian community was strengthened and united by the experience of the thousands (including Roman Catholics in the later crusades) who attended Schools of Discipleship and who worked and prayed together for the various crusades and their follow-up. Graham taught them to think big, to expect great things for God. He taught that efficiency and mobilization can march with spirituality. He could not have done it alone; he is the first to emphasize this. But in the wisdom and grace of God, Graham is the focus. I recall a little incident in a BGEA office when I wanted something to be taken downtown. A youth arrived at my desk and announced: “I run errands for Billy Graham!” Graham was a thousand miles away, and probably they had never conversed; but the boy felt he worked for Billy Graham, not for an organization, and through Graham for their mutual Lord and Friend.

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If the Graham team was a vehicle of blessing to a land or region, each land contributed to the team’s collective skill and understanding. Thus the British introduced the landline relays and Operation Andrew, which ensured that very many of those attending would come in the company of friends who had already found the Lord Jesus. The ideas of one country would be used in the next and absorbed into the general pattern of future crusades.

The year 1959 made a fitting tenth anniversary, being the year of the first Australian and New Zealand crusades. Graham’s impact on the churches of Australia is a matter of history.

The 1960s widened and deepened the Graham ministry. He had been one of the founders of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, which from the start was entirely independent. To complement its theological and scholarly approach he now founded Decision, his own devotional magazine. Without advertising revenue, which is supposed to be an economic necessity for periodicals, its circulation climbed in the next thirteen years past the five million mark, far beyond that of any other religious magazine, with several foreign-language editions. As a by-product Decision produced the Schools of Christian Writing.

These years saw also the vast increase of the television ministry, the means of Graham’s greatest single impact on his own country. When the videotapes of crusades are shown from coast to coast, hundreds of thousands of letters bring evidence of the power of Christ’s message to modern man.

Schools of Evangelism were yet another product of the sixties. Each crusade since 1961 has included a seminar course for which many experienced ministers, seminarians, and laymen have been grateful. In a country like Japan where Christians are in a minority, the School of Evangelism is particularly important.

From Tokyo in 1968 Graham went to Australia in 1969, where many converts of ’59 served as counselors; and then to New York again, in the new Madison Square Garden, with the crusade shown later each night on television all down the Eastern seaboard. The crusade penetrated the city. I recall the intent faces in New York, of all types and ages, and the variety of the nightly crowds who came reverently forward. That autumn Billy returned to southern California for his third crusade in Los Angeles and its neighborhood.

Japan, New York, California; then the European television crusade of 1970, which linked thirty-six cities in ten countries with Graham preaching in Dortmund; then Nagaland in 1972. This sequence shows a remarkable and incontestable feature of the man: his ability to reach all cultures and ages. The historian who writes the definitive biography long after we all are dead will thoroughly attest this reach of Graham’s voice, exploding the suggestion one hears from time to time that Graham’s message is only for those who already accept his basic beliefs or were bred in the same culture. The documentary evidence to the contrary is irrefutable: Graham’s sermons may be decisive in any culture, can be appreciated by the thoughtful yet digested by the simple.

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His preaching has come a long way since the youthful evangelist’s sermons of 1949. Yet Billy Graham retains the ear of youth; he adapts his style to changing trends without altering his message. The early 1970s were marked by youth training congresses, such as Campus Crusade’s Explo at Dallas, at which Billy Graham gave the main addresses, and the SPREE (Spiritual ReEmphasis) campaign in London in 1973, organized by his own men. This attracted criticism from British churches, partly for being hurriedly arranged, but the haste was dictated largely by the imminent closing, for reconstruction, of Earls Court which was the only suitable place. SPREE encouraged many in effective discipleship.

At the opposite end of the scale, Graham has long had the ear of businessmen, legislators, and community leaders, and like the Apostle Paul he “bears my name before kings.” This friendship with heads of state is costly.

Whether conversing in the privacy of a palace, or addressing an open-air congregation of a million as at Seoul in Korea in 1973, Billy Graham stands as a minister and a witness of the Risen Lord Jesus. The sheer magnitude of his achievement over the years has shown the continuing ability of the biblical Gospel to confront radical theologies, encourage ordinary believers, and bring men out of violence and anarchy and atheism into the light of the Kingdom of Christ.

Graham in his mid-fifties holds shorter and fewer crusades than those of ten or fifteen years earlier, but his dozen associate evangelists are in demand for numerous crusades in North America and around the world. As members of Billy Graham’s team, with the resources and experience of his association in support, they can do more than on their own. And they in their turn have contributed: Leighton Ford, for example, with his appeal to intellectuals and his strong social consciousness, has given sharper points to the intellectual and social thrusts that have long been part of the Graham armory.

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It would be daunting to attempt an estimate of the impact, in any single week of 1974, of the ministries that stem directly from Billy Graham, as men and women throughout the world are drawn to think about Christ while they read, or listen, or watch television or a film, or are in some way preparing, praying for, attending, or following up a crusade. Nor can his indirect ministries be listed—the Christian endeavors started by converts since 1949, the opportunities seized because of his encouragement and example.

Graham’s place in history will be ensured not only by the significance of his crusades but also by God’s use of him to enlarge the horizons and deepen the devotion of men who are already Christian leaders in their own right. Therefore it is fitting that the year of his silver jubilee should be marked also by the recent International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne, which built upon the World Congress on Evangelism held at Berlin in 1966 and its regional sequels in Asia, the Americas, and Europe. These arose as much from the climate generated by the crusades as from Graham’s leadership and the priorities he has emphasized.

And what he said to a skeptical press before Harringay twenty years ago may surely be quoted in this anniversary year as Billy Graham’s own aim for the years to come: “I am going to present a God who matters, and who makes claims on the human race. He is a God of love, grace and mercy, but also a God of judgment. When we break his moral laws we suffer; when we keep them we have inward peace and joy.… I am calling for a revival that will cause men and women to return to their offices and shops to live out the teaching of Christ in their daily relationships. I am going to preach a gospel not of despair but of hope—hope for the individual, for society and for the world.”

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