Altoona, Pennsylvania: 65 Years Ago, It Was Billy Graham’s Crucible

MBR - 1952 MCT FILE PHOTO In 1952, evangelist Billy Graham emerges from the Pirates dugout at Forbes Field to deliver a sermon in his first visit to Pittsburgh. In 1949, a revival in Altoona had left him so despondent, he wrote in his 1997 memoir, "Just As I Am," that he questioned his mission.
MBR – 1952 MCT FILE PHOTO
In 1952, evangelist Billy Graham emerges from the Pirates dugout at Forbes Field to deliver a sermon in his first visit to Pittsburgh. In 1949, a revival in Altoona had left him so despondent, he wrote in his 1997 memoir, “Just As I Am,” that he questioned his mission.

In fall 1949, Charlotte native Billy Graham led an eight-week series of revival meetings in Los Angeles, drawing multitudes and making converts of celebrities and commoners. He rocketed into public view and hasn’t left, even today at age 95 and in frail health.

But there almost was no Los Angeles, no epochal career preaching to hundreds of millions as the 20th century’s dominant personality in evangelical Christianity.

Sixty-five years ago in June, before most people had ever heard of him, Graham’s career was nearly buried in the Central Pennsylvania railroad hub of Altoona.

He arrived to conduct a two-week revival from June 12-26, 1949, counting on broad support from the city’s churches. But as he recalled it, pastors quarreled with him and each other, conversions lagged behind his expectations and services were disrupted. He recalled leaving the coal-burning town “discouraged and with painful cinders in my eyes.”

“If I ever conducted a campaign that was a flop, humanly speaking, Altoona was it!” Graham wrote in his 1997 memoir, “Just As I Am.”

“We could not help but sense that Satan was on the attack,” he wrote. Graham, by then 30 years old and a veteran of more than 10 years on the revival trail, thought of quitting and focusing on his day job as president of a Minnesota Bible college.

“I pondered whether God had really called me to evangelism after all,” he wrote.

His song leader, Cliff Barrows, said the crusade team could only “pray and wonder what had happened and wish the meeting would get over with so we could get out of town,” according to author William Martin’s biography of Graham, “A Prophet With Honor.”

Graham was also undergoing a crisis of faith that compounded his ordeal in Altoona.

Even so, longtime Altoona-area residents who participated in the crusade recall it more positively. And at the time, the Altoona Mirror published glowing accounts of the services, with Graham reaping hundreds of converts and volunteers to the mission field.

‘People were getting saved’

There’s no way at this distance in time to verify such numbers, but “the services were well-attended,” recalled John Luciano, 94, a retired Pennsylvania Railroad mechanic who served as an usher at the crusade. “People were getting saved. … Most of the fundamental churches backed him up, all the Brethren churches, the Assemblies of God churches, even some of the Presbyterians.”

But some pastors refused to sit on stage with others of different doctrinal views. Other ministers, including a visiting radio preacher, protested with placards, objecting to Graham’s cooperation with churches that “didn’t believe as they believed,” Luciano recalled.

“It was the churches that were supposed to be preaching the Gospel that were against him,” Luciano lamented.

On a recent quiet afternoon, Bob Leidy returned with a reporter and photographer to the Jaffa Shrine 4,000-seat auditorium owned by local Shriners.

Leidy stood on the same stage where he sang in the crusade choir. The wooden folding chairs with the leather upholstery remain as they were then, as do the auditorium’s ornamental Arabic lettering and Moorish trim.

Leidy, 88, is a retired school custodian who keeps busy tending his backyard greenhouses. He has regularly attended church since childhood and has long been a song leader at revival services.

The Altoona Mirror gave regular front-page treatment to the services. It praised the revival’s musical performances led by soloist George Beverly Shea and the volunteer choir. The paper made no mention of any behind-the-scenes conflicts.

Graham’s sermons bore titles like “Hell Fire and Brimstone” and carried fiercely anti-communist themes. Headlines about his revival shared space with stories of an Alger Hiss spy trial and other Cold War drama.

On June 27, the Mirror reported: “The two-week evangelistic campaign conducted by the Laymen’s Association of Altoona came to a successful conclusion. Thousands of persons heard the soul-stirring messages of the renowned evangelist Billy Graham and participated in the song services.”

Faith under siege

 SOURCE: Charlotte Observer/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Peter Smith

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