Segment from Born Again

A Big Tent

Historian Grant Wacker recalls the moment that propelled America’s most successful preacher, Billy Graham, onto the national stage.

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BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is “BackStory,” and we’re marking the Easter season withstories about Christian revival in America, from the First Great Awakening to the age ofbroadcast evangelism.

We’re going to move on now to one of the best-known figures in American Religious history,Billy Graham.

MALE SPEAKER: One of the most inspirational spiritual leaders in the 20th century.

MALE SPEAKER: We need you. We love you. Thank you for coming, Billy Graham.

MALE SPEAKER: What is your purpose?

BILLY GRAHAM: Going to the whole world and proclaim this message.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

BRIAN: This epic montage is from a 2013 Fox News special about the Reverend Billy Graham.It includes comments by Johnny Carson and Larry King, as well as a few of the 12 USpresidents– 12– that he’s met over the years.

Graham, who’s now 96 years old, has held revivals all over the world. His audiences havenumbered in the millions. It’s safe to say his influence is unparalleled by any preacher inAmerican history.

But his rise to stardom was sudden.

GRANT WACKER: In the 1940s when Graham came into the scene, there were dozens ofconspicuous revivalists. And by 1950, there was no competition.

BRIAN: This is Grant Wacker, a historian at Duke, and the author of a recent book on Graham.He says the sea change can be pinpointed to one particular event in the fall of 1949.

That’s when Billy Graham, this itinerant preacher from North Carolina, pitched a tent in LosAngeles. The revival, which he actually called a crusade, was supposed to be a three-weekstint.

GRANT WACKER: In the beginning, the crusade did not fare well. The attendance wasmediocre, and Graham and his associates became discouraged.

ED: Like any good preacher, Graham prayed for something to happen. Hoping for divineintervention, he kept his tent pitched for one more week.

GRANT WACKER: And it was in the fourth week that Graham came into the tent one afternoonand there were reporters all over. The reporters started writing down his comments, and hewas astonished. He was a very young man at this point in his early 30s. Bulbs are popping andthese reporters are taking notes.

And so he asked, naturally, what’s happened here? Why are you writing down everything thatI’m saying? And one of the reporters said to him, you have been kissed by William RandolphHearst.

BRIAN: William Randolph Hearst, owner of a newspaper empire, an all-around media mogul.He’d apparently told his reporters to start writing articles about Graham’s LA gathering.

GRANT WACKER: Almost immediately the “Los Angeles Times,” which Hearst did not own,picked it up. Within a few days, “Time” magazine picked it up. Then “Life” magazine. And thestory went to Europe and it went to Asia.

BRIAN: The press attention attracted scores of gawkers, many of whom came out out of purecuriosity. But the crowds continued to build. Graham’s popularity, Wacker says, wascontagious.

GRANT WACKER: The kind of truck stop mentality. If there are a lot of cars parked outside, a lot of trucks, this must be good. The press presented this as a landmark in the history ofAmerican revivalism.

ED: Soon, a space that could seat 3,000 was expanded to accommodate 9,000. On oneoccasion it was estimated that another 15,000 stood outside listening. And what of the man atthe center of all this attention?

Well, the content of Graham’s sermons wasn’t all that unique. He hit all the familiar notes ofrevival preaching– troubles of the world, personal issues, personal salvation.

What set Graham apart was his presence and his delivery. He was tall, handsome andcommanding. His voice boomed at a lightning clip. Here’s a sample from the LA revival.

BILLY GRAHAM: And I shall give thee the heathen for thy inheritance, and the [INAUDIBLE] part of the earth for thy possessions. Thou shalt break them on the rod of iron. Thou shall dice themto pieces, like a potter’s vessel.

GRANT WACKER: Stenographers clocked his preaching at 240 words a minute. Very, veryrapidly announce, and he did that deliberately because he felt that successful newscastersspoke very, very rapidly.

He also was loud. And at volume, gave the sermon a commanding quality. He was animated.He paced the platform. One account, he often paced a full mile in the course of a sermon. Andthen the gestures. With his fists, fingers stabbing outward. One reporter said he had the energyof a coiled panther.

BILLY GRAHAM: And I hope that Jesus designates to me a little part of Los Angeles. There aretwo things I’d like to clean up around this town if you could put me in charge.

BRIAN: Peppering his sermons were appearances from figures sure to play well in glitzy LA.Radio personalities, actresses and athletes took turns testifying to the power of Graham’smessage.

GRANT WACKER: The word of the satisfied customer, to put it in marketing terms. And heunderstood that this was more powerful than any kind of technical theological apologetic.

BRIAN: And all of this gave the press yet another story to tell. Newspapers across the countryand around the world were fascinated by the fascination with Graham.

The revival, originally slotted for a three-week run, lasted for two months.

GRANT WACKER: And by the end of the crusade, Graham was an international commodity.

ED: The story of Billy Graham’s lightening fame at the hands of William Randolph Hearst hasbecome something of a legend. It’s been told time and again in Graham circles. But it doesleave one question unanswered.

GRANT WACKER: So the question is why? Why did Hearst give him this attention? Hearst wasnot known to be a particularly religious man, and he certainly was not known to be anevangelical figure like Graham.

BRIAN: The truth is no one really knows why Hearst turned his attention to Billy Graham. ButGrant Wacker has an idea. He doesn’t buy the notion that Hearst just saw Graham’s geniusand promoted it. He thinks all the attention was actually a response to bigger forces,international forces.

GRANT WACKER: Two days before the revival started, the Soviets had successfully explodedan atomic bomb, and Harry Truman announced this. And by all accounts, people were frightened to know that now another nation that was in the grip of this atheistic, aggressiveideology known as communism, possessed nuclear weaponry and could inflict terrible damageupon Americans.

BRIAN: About a week later, communist, led my Mao Zedong toppled the Chinese government.

GRANT WACKER: And this was an evidence to people, including Graham, that communismwas aggressive, it was expansionist, and they intended to conquer the world, including theUnited States. The world is in dire condition.

BILLY GRAHAM: And one of these days an earthquake, a tidal wave, an atomic bomb is going to wipe this city off the face of the globe [INAUDIBLE] and face the judgment of God.

GRANT WACKER: That was the background of anxiety, fear, awareness that it was possiblethat the world really could be destroyed.

BILLY GRAHAM: And we’re told that there are more subversive forces in Los Angeles and anycity in America. I tell you, it’s a [INAUDIBLE] that Los Angeles needs to come to its kneesbefore God. It’s the present hour which we live in.

BRIAN: Hearst was a smart newsman. He, no doubt, recognized the value of a really goodstory, a story about frightening times that individuals sitting in that tent, and, of course, God.It’s a story that has always been a part of Billy Graham’s sermons.

But Los Angeles 1949 was a moment when that story was particularly compelling. And Grahamtapped into that energy.

BILLY GRAHAM: We see starvation around the world that testifies that something is wrong. Wesee a bleeding China–

ED: Thanks to Grant Wacker for helping us tell that story. He’s a historian at Duke University.His most recent book is “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.”



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Born Again Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

The lesson materials that follow focus on helping students become discriminating readers of text material, learning the value of reading widely and critically in order to frame questions and evidence-based perspectives. The materials are designed to help students learn to write concisely and persuasively. They also give students an opportunity to discover how things change and how they remain the same, often differing more in the words and media used than in the purpose and message.

The materials and activities in this lesson ask students to look critically at the words chosen to convey the message, the context in which information is presented, and the effect these choices have on their understanding and feelings about individuals and their times. As students read critically to discern differences between evidence and assertion and to frame useful questions, they will engage in reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation. The materials provided include primary sources from the 1920s and 1930s as well as history and biography from 1931 to 2015. Students are asked to consider how these accounts differ in regard to word choice, descriptions of the time period, and the impressions created by the writings. Change over time can be observed in evolving narratives constructed from available sources, cogent inferences, and changing interpretation.