God launched Billy Graham into ministry like a V2 rocket. But unlike the rockets of that era, Billy was not about to come back down. Even before his 1943 graduation from Wheaton College, he accepted a call to pastor a church in Western Springs, Ill. Soon he took the helm of the evangelistic radio program Songs in the Night. In May 1944, he preached at his first Youth for Christ rally, and the following year he became Youth for Christ’s first full-time evangelist, taking the Gospel to the world. By 1947 he was also holding his own citywide Crusades. And in 1949, Billy Graham became a household name during his historic, eight-week tent meeting in Los Angeles, where well-known celebrities, a gangster’s wiretapper and thousands of others put their faith in Jesus Christ.
The dust had hardly settled after Billy and Ruth’s honeymoon and arrival at The Village Church in Western Springs when the young pastor was confronted by a host of seemingly golden opportunities to extend his ministry to reach even more people with the Gospel.
Chicago-area pastor Torrey Johnson, with too much on his plate, asked Billy to assume the reins of his Sunday evening evangelistic radio program Songs in the Night. After praying and seeking counsel, Billy agreed. But he immediately realized he needed a recognizable name who could draw an audience to the program, which would be broadcast live from the church. He cast his attention toward George Beverly Shea, a popular announcer for Moody Bible Institute’s flagship station, WMBI. A decidedly persuasive presentation won over an initially hesitant Shea, and the two joined forces—a partnership and friendship that would last through their nearly 70 years of ministry together.
Then, in 1944, Johnson recruited Billy to speak to young people and servicemen at evangelistic Youth for Christ rallies across the country. The following year, Billy became YFC’s first full-time evangelist and in March 1946, at 27 years old, Billy joined a team of evangelists who headed overseas with YFC.
Soon after the death of W.B. Riley, president of Northwestern Schools, on Dec. 5, 1947, Mr. Graham was asked to take over its leadership until a permanent president could be found. Meanwhile, invitations for preaching in evangelistic campaigns kept increasing.
Before heading to Los Angeles for a scheduled three-week tent revival, Mr. Graham became troubled when a friend and fellow evangelist, Charles Templeton, peppered him with questions about whether the Bible could be trusted. In California, while on a walk through the woods under a moonlit sky, Billy came to a tree stump, laid his Bible on it and, before that natural altar, prayed, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith!”
The 1949 Los Angeles Crusade propelled Mr. Graham into the limelight. Six thousand wooden folding chairs, neatly lined in rows, filled a giant tent dubbed the “Canvas Cathedral” at the downtown corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street. Sawdust covered the ground inside, prompting newspapers to describe those going forward to receive Christ as “hitting the sawdust trail.”
The Crusade’s momentum had been building, but the media largely ignored it. Yet, just before the Crusade was about to end, media mogul William Randolph Hearst inexplicably ordered his newspapers to “puff Graham.”
The additional attention fueled interest. With more and more people responding to the Gospel, the Crusade was repeatedly extended. Three weeks became eight, and the tent capacity was expanded to more than 9,000 seats. Some 11,000 people attended the final meeting, overflowing onto the sidewalks and the streets.
What was happening inside was that lives were being changed as people surrendered to Jesus Christ. The media covered those stories, running banner headlines when Olympic track star and war hero Louis Zamperini, twice-convicted wiretapper Jim Vaus, and broadcaster and cowboy singer Stuart Hamblen made commitments to Christ.
As these watershed meetings concluded, the young evangelist had no idea what God intended next!