Billy Graham, Louis Zamperini, and the Movie “Unbroken”

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

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.

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.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Cathy Lynn Grossman

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