Evangelistic rallies are behind us. The future is local, personal witness.
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.
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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition