Billy Graham’s Critical Hour of Decision—and How God Used It to Change the World

As you go through this world with all its storms and its trials…keep your eyes on the Bible, keep your eyes on Christ, and you won’t go wrong. Don’t you follow your feelings. You follow Christ.
Billy Graham (November 7, 1918–February 21, 2018)—

 

Billy Graham’s evangelistic ministry began in 1947. Although the man who would become the world’s best known evangelist had been the preacher at seven evangelistic campaigns prior to the crusade that began in September, 1949 in Los Angeles, it was during the Los Angeles campaign—his eighth—that the press took notice. When it did, Graham was thrust onto the national stage.

Interestingly, the series of meetings held just prior to those in Los Angeles didn’t go well at all, at least not according to human standards. That crusade was held in Altoona, Pennsylvania. On one hand, apathy seemed to prevail, just as it could in any city or town. On the other, various ministries in the area were competing with one another, and squabbles broke out over insignificant issues. Also, the larger religious community was polarized. Altoona was home to several advocates of a strong fundamentalist perspective, and tensions erupted between them and others on the opposite side of the theological spectrum. And as if all that weren’t enough, during one of Graham’s sermons, a woman in the choir with obvious mental problems yelled repeatedly—then she wouldn’t cooperate when members of the evangelistic team tried to calm her down. Billy Graham later wrote that after the services in Altoona, “I pondered whether God had really called me to evangelism after all.”1

Billy decided not to quit—not yet. Looking ahead to Los Angeles, Graham and his team evaluated the most common criticisms people had offered regarding evangelistic meetings. They took steps to address those issues, which included complaints about finances and concerns about a lack of follow-up for people who indicated they wanted to know Christ.

Two large circus tents were erected together as one in a parking lot in downtown LA. The resulting canvas arena could seat 6,000 people. The first service of what was originally planned as a three-week campaign was held on Sunday, September 25; but near the conclusion of the three-week period, several of the organizers asked Graham to extend the effort one more week. Billy agreed to do so after a well-known radio personality attended one of the services, came under great conviction, and committed his life to Christ.

William Randolph Hearst

During the fourth week, the news media took notice, which represented a sharp contrast from news reporters’ prior indifference to the crusade. William Randolph Hearst, an influential power broker in the newspaper industry, eyed the meetings and told reporters to “Puff Graham

The evangelistic services became the talk of the city. Stories of changed lives—including those of numerous well-known individuals—abounded. The tent was enlarged so it could hold up to 9,000. Yet as massive as it became, even this coliseum couldn’t accommodate everyone who attended. Loudspeakers had to be set up outside the tent for those who couldn’t get inside. The time was extended as well, until, eight weeks after it started, on Sunday, November 20, the last meeting of the Los Angeles crusade was held. Graham was thirty years old at the time. In these eight weeks, 350,000 people had flocked to hear him—and about 3,000 individuals made decisions for Christ. The Los Angeles crusade was a turning point for Graham and his ministry. As it turned out, it was a turning point for the nation and the world as well.

Billy Graham in 1954

An Even Bigger Story

Poster for a 1946 Youth for Christ Rally in Detroit that alluded to the European Tour

As newsworthy as the Los Angeles meetings were, perhaps the bigger story is what happened in Graham’s life between Altoona and Los Angeles. Billy Graham was struggling. Chuck Templeton, a close friend with whom he had ministered in England during an effort led by Youth for Christ several years earlier, had begun to doubt the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Templeton was no lightweight. He had been pastor of one of the largest churches in Toronto. He was an unusually gifted communicator, and people had sensed God’s hand on him. In fact, before Chuck Templeton began vocalizing his doubts, many people who had heard both Templeton and Graham preach were especially impressed with Templeton. But now he’d resigned his church. He had become a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and was captivated by intellectual arguments against the trustworthiness of the Bible. One of Billy’s friends overheard Chuck say, “Poor Billy, I feel sorry for him. He and I are taking two different roads.”2

At that point, though, Graham was not on a path different from the one Templeton was traveling. Rather, he stood facing a fork in the road, struggling over which path to take. He never doubted Christ’s deity or God’s plan of salvation. Yet He agonized over whether or not the Scriptures could be trusted, whether or not they were fully reliable.

At the time of his struggle, Billy also was influenced by Miss Henrietta Mears, who was on the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California. Miss Mears had built a phenomenal Sunday school at her church. In the first three years of her leadership, the enrollment grew tenfold to 4,500. A sincere and humble lady with a positive, enthusiastic manner, Mears strongly believed in the authority and reliability of the Bible and encouraged Billy to do the same. But she didn’t do so with a blind eye to scholarship. Mears was familiar with the arguments being used to discredit the Bible.

Meanwhile, Templeton made no secret of his views: “Billy, you’re fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple. Your language is out of date. You’re going to have to learn the new jargon if you’re going to be successful in your ministry.”3


Billy, you’re fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple. Your language is out of date. You’re going to have to learn the new jargon if you’re going to be successful in your ministry.
—Charles Templeton, who, at one time, was thought to be more likely to influence the world for Christ than Billy Graham—


Billy Graham later recalled, “I ached as if I were on the rack, with Miss Mears stretching me one way and Chuck Templeton stretching me the other. Alone in my room one evening, I read every verse of Scripture I could think of that had to do with ‘thus saith the Lord.’”4 Among other things, he reflected on Jesus’ own attitude toward the Bible—one of wholehearted acceptance and affirmation. Billy knew that if he could not trust God’s Word, he would have to leave the ministry.

Finally, he took a walk. He’d become a Christian years before, but this also would be a critical hour of decision5 for him. He continued to struggle for a while, but at last he came to a point of surrender. He knelt and opened his Bible. It was too dark to read, so he prayed. He recalls that his prayer went something like this: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”

Billy knew he needed to say more, and soon he felt liberated to say it: “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”6


Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.
—Billy Graham, in a prayer of commitment, at a critical hour of decision—


As he rose from his place of prayer, Graham later recalled, he felt God’s power as he had not felt it in many, many weeks. While he had numerous questions that remained unanswered, he now had chosen the path he would take. He writes, “In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won.”7

The evangelistic campaign in Los Angeles would begin one month later. It would be a series of meetings that would set the stage for a ministry God would use to change the world. Yes, that’s how critical Billy Graham’s hour of decision was!

Setting the Record Straight

It’s important here for us to make four clarifications.

First, we do not mean to imply here that if an effort for God “flops,” it was because the person who was seeking to serve Him was having theological problems or struggles. Church history testifies that many initially apparent “flops” actually turned out to be tremendous successes when viewed long term. Yet it is undeniable that if a spokesman for God isn’t sure what he believes, God’s blessing on his efforts will be hindered.

Second, we also are not saying that a trust in God’s Word automatically will bear immediate abundant fruit, as was the case with the crusade in Los Angeles. Of course, God’s promise is sure:

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please.
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

Sometimes, however, fruit does not appear until many, many years after the seeds were planted.

A third thing we are not implying is that a person must or even should believe God’s Word in a total blind leap of faith, without any rational reasons for doing so. Faith in God’s Word is reasonable.


Faith in God’s Word is reasonable.


Lee Strobel

Just ask Lee Strobel, a former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune who was an atheist. He became a Christian after he investigated the historicity and viability of Christianity. After becoming a believer, he wrote an entire book titled The Case for Faith.8

One final word of caution is in order. This is our fourth consideration. While faith is reasonable, we must never approach the Bible expecting all our questions to be answered. If the Bible really does have God as its ultimate author, as the Bible affirms (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) and as Christians historically have believed, should we not expect that at least some parts of it will be beyond our comprehension? God, after all, is infinite, and we are finite. God has revealed Himself in ways we can understand, but part of the understanding we acquire when we learn about God includes the reasonable idea that we cannot fathom everything about Him and must exercise faith regarding what we don’t see or comprehend.

Let’s put it another way. If you had no unanswered questions about the Scriptures, you wouldn’t need to exercise faith. Keep in mind that “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to must believe that He is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Why does God require faith? I believe at least part of the answer is that you can’t have any kind of meaningful, deep relationship with someone you don’t trust!


Why does God require faith? I believe at least part of the answer is that you can’t have any kind of meaningful, deep relationship with someone you don’t trust!


Have you trusted Christ as your Savior, as Billy Graham did when he was 15 years old? If not, you can do so today. Here’s how.

As a Christian, have you experienced doubts about God’s Word? Doubts and struggles occur at times in the Christian life, but we need to make sure we don’t respond to them in the end with unbelief, as Chuck Templeton did. Thus, a critical hour of decision like the one Billy Graham had may be necessary for you.

God can be trusted, and He honors those who put their faith in Him.

You can take that, my friends, to the bank!

 

Copyright © 2018 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.


newsreel on the LA Crusade, 1949


Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

top image: Billy Graham (right) with son Franklin in 1994

Los Angeles Crusade Poster, Billy Graham Library

credit for photo of Billy Graham in 1954

credit for photo of Lee Strobel

 

Notes:

1Billy Graham, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham, [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997], 134

2Graham, 138.

3Graham.

4Graham.

5Hour of Decision would become the title of a weekly radio broadcast produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

6Graham, 139.

7Graham.

8Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2000).

 

Sources cited:

Graham, Billy. Just As I Am. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Pages 98-100,133-143. All quotations in the account of Billy Graham’s struggle come from this work: pp. 134,138,139.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2000.

Additional sources used:

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador, (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1999), 45-54.

http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/exhibits/LA49/01readmore.html

http://articles.latimes.com/2007/sep/02/local/me-then2

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Templeton

Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes, Part 7

Getting the Big Picture of Reality Is a Key Factor in Affirming the Existence of Absolute Truth and Understanding Authentic Liberty

[T]he problem of the 1920s to the 1980s…is the attempt to have absolute freedom—to be totally autonomous from any intrinsic limits. It is the attempt to throw off anything that would restrain one’s own personal autonomy. But it is especially a direct and deliberate rebellion against God and his law.
Francis Schaeffer in The Great Evangelical Disaster, published in 1984—

The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.—John Locke in Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689

View summaries of all the articles in this series here.

In a Family TalkTM booklet titled Discipline, Dr. James Dobson relates a story loaded with lessons for us today. Countering the idea that parents and their children should “be on an even playing field—making decisions by negotiation and compromise,” Dobson recalls observing his daughter’s pet hampster fidgeting in his cage, anxiously trying to escape. The little guy

worked tirelessly to open the gate and push his furry little nose between the bars. Then I noticed our dachshund, Siggie, sitting eight feet away in the shadows. He was watching the hamster, too. His ears were erect, and it was obvious what was on his mind. He was thinking, Come on, baby. Open that door, and I’ll have you for lunch. If the hamster had been so unfortunate as to escape from his cage, which he desperately wanted to do, he would have been dead in a matter of seconds.

Dobson goes on to discuss the difference between the hampster’s perspective and his own: “I was aware of dangers that he couldn’t have foreseen. That’s why I denied him something that he desperately wanted to achieve.”

In this respect, children are like that hampster—but so is everyone else in the human race, regardless of age, before he or she is willing to acknowledge the big picture offered by “nature and nature’s God,” to quote the the Declaration of Independence.

But wait! The Declaration does not just speak of “nature and nature’s God,” but of “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” What? In the Declaration of Independence? Yes! Our founders got it right. True freedom and liberty—on both personal and societal levels—can be established and maintained only when individals and society affirm the laws of nature, or absolute truth. Dr. Dobson’s perspective in relation to his daughter’s hamster parallels the one we need with regard to the world, life, and the universe.


True freedom and liberty—on both personal and societal levels—can be established and maintained only when individals and society affirm the laws of nature, or absolute truth. 


No One Really Believes Truth Doesn’t Exist

Even a relativist has to admit that some truths and falsehoods exist.

  • He knows he’s wearing a blue shirt and not a red one.
  • She lives in Texas, not in Vermont.
  • Go through a traffic intersection when you approach a green light, not a red one.

Truths and falsehoods in the moral and spiritual realms exist, too. These also are evident, but we don’t recognize them with physical senses like seeing and hearing—and they often are even more consequential than realities in the physical relalm.

True Freedom Is Found In a Recognition of Absolute Truth

In their book on apologetics for high schoolers titled Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door, Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler expose 42 myths that have become quite popular in today’s culture. One of them is the “Anarchist Myth.”1 To expose this false belief for the lie it really is, McDowell and Hostetler tell a story. The story also is available online.

Herman, the son of a crab named Fred, was growing rather weary of what he believed to be the confinement imposed on him by his shell. “Hey, Dad! This shell is really boxing me in,” said Herman. “I can’t take it anymore! I want my freedom! My friends and I have been talking, and they feel the same way. Some of them are thinking about forming a group called ‘Crabs for Shedding Shells.’ I’m ready to help!”

“Son,” said Fred to his boy, “I understand your frustration. I know it’s easy for you to think your shell is denying you freedom and that you could move around unencumbered if you only could get rid of it—but let me tell you a story.”

“Aww, Dad, come on. I’m too old for that!” complained Herman.

“Now, hear me out,” replied the elder crab. “I think this will make a lot of sense to you. My story is about

Humphrey the human, who insisted on going barefoot to school. He complained that his shoes were too confining. They cramped his style, he said. He longed to be free to run barefoot through fields and streams. Finally, his mother gave in to him. He skipped out of the house barefoot. Do you know what happened?”

Herman opened his mouth, but his father continued before he could answer.

“Humphrey the human stepped on pieces of a broken bottle. His foot required twenty stitches, and some other guy took his girl to the prom while Humphrey sat home watching reruns of Flipper.”

“That’s a pretty lame story, Dad,” Herman said.

“Maybe, Son, but the point is this: Every crab has felt this way at one time or another, thinking life would be better if he could be completely shell-free. But that’s like a sailor getting tired of the confinement of a ship and jumping to freedom in the sea. He may think that’s freedom, but if he doesn’t get back to ship or shore, he’ll drown and end up as crab food. What kind of freedom is that?”

Fred explained to Herman that one day in the not-too-distant future, he indeed would discard his shell. The process, called molting, is a normal part of a crab’s growth into adulthood. “But don’t be fooled,” Fred warned his son. “After your old shell comes off, you’re going to be especially vulnerable. It’ll be a dangerous time. You’ll need to be more careful than ever until your new shell hardens.” Fred tapped his son’s exterior shield a couple of times and then summarized his main point. “The truth, Herman, is that without a protective shell, life will be far more confining than liberating.”

Both the irony and the reality of the situation were beginning to dawn on Herman. After thoughtful reflection, he turned to his dad and said,

“You mean that some things may seem to limit freedom but really make greater freedom possible?”

Fred smiled broadly and patted his son on the back with a mammoth claw. “How’d you get to be so smart, Son?” he asked.

Corporate Liberty Depends on the Affirmation of a Supreme Authority

“The laws of nature and nature’s God” are like Herman’s shell. Coming back now to the larger picture, we note that as a nation, if we don’t return to these, we will lose our liberty. Does everyone have to become a Christian in this nation for America to restore and maintain liberty? No, not everyone was a Christian even at America’s founding, although most were. People believed in God, however, and that was key. In particular, the Founders held beliefs “rooted in the Judeo-Christian values found in the Bible.”

While we might not be able to convince our secular friends and neighbors of the existence of God right off the bat (even though we certainly need to know and be able make the case for God’s existence), if we can help them see the connections between law, liberty, and belief in a divine being, that will be a good first step.

Yet we may need to take at least one step even before that. We absolutely must teach our children about these connections. As the Bible affirms Psalm 119:45: “I will walk at liberty, For I seek Your precepts.”

Have you had a discussion about absolute truth in your home?

Part 8 is available here.

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.


For Further Study


Homicide detective J. Warner Wallace became a Christian after applying principles of forensic analysis to the Gospel accounts and determining that they passed the tests for authenticity. In these videos, he discusses the evidence for God based on the existence of moral truth.


In this video, conservative radio talk show host and devout Jew Dennis Prager argues from the other side of this issue. Prager makes the case that without God, objective moral truth cannot exist.

Both Wallace and Prager are correct, but each deals with the issue from a different angle.


Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

An Open, Urgent Letter to the Pastors in Tennessee

A heated debate over bathroom access similar to what we’ve seen in other states already is playing out in Tennessee.

With very little effort and no publicity, pastors in the Volunteer State can act to protect Tennessee’s children and can make a huge difference in this debate. If you’re a pastor, will you volunteer?

Will you, as a churchgoer, volunteer to send this information to your pastor and encourage him to take action?

Together, we can make a positive difference for the sake of our children and the future of Tennessee.

Thank you.

An Open, Urgent Letter to the Pastors in Tennessee

An Open, Urgent Letter to the Pastors in Tennessee (expanded version)