Why a fiery evangelist changed his emphasis.

Billy Graham debuted on a national stage during his Los Angeles Crusade in fall 1949. Just 30 years old, Graham met his audience with a fiery call for repentance from sin, boldly announcing on the opening night that “this city of wickedness and sin” had a choice between revival and renewal—or judgment. At first, Los Angeles responded rather coolly to Graham’s ire. But after a publicity boost from news magnate William Randolph Hearst, Graham’s crusade entered its “5th Sin-Smashing Week!” A week later, the “Canvas Cathedral” overflowed as Graham presided over the “6th Great Sin-Smashing Week!”

Graham was no false advertiser. According to The Los Angeles Times, when the sawdust settled, some 6,000 souls had either “re-consecrated their lives” or converted to a life in Christ, “weeping forgiveness for their sins.” Their tears were understandable since, according to Graham, they had narrowly missed hellfire and damnation. “Those who reject Christ,” Graham bellowed in an early sermon, “will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone to spend eternity.” He emphasized the point even more vividly in a sermon about Judgment Day. Upon Jesus’ return, Graham warned, he would condemn the unrepentant with “fire coming from his eyes,” and a “sword coming from his mouth.” The young evangelist rounded off the theme of condemnation near the end of his crusade with a recitation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Such firebrand sermons produced restless nights among some audience members, forcing Graham to employ a “‘swing shift’” evangelist to handle decisions for Christ motivated by nightmares of a terrifying Jesus and a wrathful God.

Along with the thousands who turned to Christ, Graham’s life and evangelism were never the same after Los Angeles. Virtually overnight he went from a well-known minister within the evangelical subculture to a nationally recognized preacher. Amidst a deluge of media coverage, an editor at Life captured the transformation simply but presciently: “A New Evangelist Arises.” Graham’s meteoric rise to prominence awakened him to the burden and responsibility of his national role. That his sermons were scrutinized by the press and analyzed by “hundreds of clergy, laymen, and theologians throughout the world,” Graham recalled later, “baffled, perplexed,” and “frightened” him. Consequently, the Los Angeles crusade was the beginning of the end of the “turn or burn” style of preaching that had characterized many of his sermons there.

If the 1949 campaign marked the beginning of a shift in his preaching tone, the end came a decade later. Graham announced in a 1960 Christian Century article, “What Ten Years Have Taught Me,” that he centered his message on the Cross and its dual revelation of the “sins of men” but also the “unwearying love of God.” Four years later, in 1964, he confirmed the tonal change of his evangelism, remarking, “I stress a great deal the love of God from the Cross saying to the whole world, ‘I love you, I love you, I will forgive you.’ “

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Christianity Today