Billy Graham and the Rest of the Los Angeles Story
Famed evangelist had help with the revival that almost wasn't.
Sixty years ago this summer, Billy Graham reached a decision that changed the course of evangelical events. Shaken by his friend Charles Templeton’s growing skepticism of biblical authority, Graham wondered whether he could continue to preach. The doubts grew so strong that he even considered going back to North Carolina to work as a dairy farmer. With evangelistic meetings being planned for Los Angeles that fall, Graham needed a quick resolution one way or another. He conferred with Henrietta Mears, who founded the Forest Home Christian conference center where he was speaking. He confessed his concerns to God and wrestled for an answer. Fortunately for evangelicals, Graham resolved to accept God’s Word by faith. “I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts,” Graham prayed, “and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. During his first sermon under the tent in Los Angeles, Graham thundered, “God Almighty is going to bring judgment upon this city unless people repent and believe—unless God sends an old-fashioned, heaven-sent, Holy Ghost revival.” He punctuated the end of every description of what ailed America with the refrain, “We need revival!” God heard his pleas. Aided by favorable media coverage of Hollywood conversions, Graham’s tent meetings lasted eight weeks, attracting hundreds of thousands. And the lanky Southern farm boy with the fiery delivery became a national celebrity.
This part of the story is familiar to many evangelicals. But they might not be aware of the people and events that preceded this well-known demonstration of the mid-century revival.
“By the eve of the evangelistic campaign in September 1949, there were some eight hundred prayer groups throughout the region,” historian Joel Carpenter writes in his book Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. “The evangelical forces of the city were mobilized as never before.”
The man most responsible for these prayer groups was one-time Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor Armin Gesswein. Beginning in 1941 and 1942, he organized the Ministers’ Prayer Fellowship for Revival in Los Angeles. Gesswein had seen the Norwegian revival in person in 1937 and 1938 and brought this zeal back across the Atlantic. These prayer meetings became a key rallying point for believers who would welcome the later revivals near the end of the decade. Revival historian and advocate J. Edwin Orr likened them to the businessmen’s prayer meetings in 1857-58, especially in how they avoided controversy and united Christians across opposing views on soteriology, polity, and baptism. They somehow also managed to overcome divisions over Pentecostal teaching on the second blessing and whether evangelicals should strictly separate from liberals. As the pastors prayed together, “theory was abandoned for a practical ecumenicity of seeking together for spiritual revival,” Orr wrote.
But if Graham had followed Orr’s advice, the fall campaign might never have built upon these stirrings of the Spirit. That summer, Orr had discouraged Graham from holding the Los Angeles meetings, believing he should wait to allow the Spirit to continue preparing the way. Afterward, Orr was thankful the evangelist continued as planned. Reporting in December for United Evangelical Action, Orr gave thanks for the work of God in Los Angeles. “It is about time some good people made a choice between their sterile, faith-destroying, eschatological pessimism and the optimism which springs from the sure knowledge that God will revive His work in the midst of the years preceding the Coming, despite apostasy and because of it.”
Image: Billy Graham in Duisberg, Germany, 1954. Bundesarchiv of the Federal Republic of Germany via Wikimedia Commons.