Friday 15 March 2013

Billy Graham's Canvas Cathedral Crusade

Photo courtesy

Billy Graham arrived in town as a relatively unknown 30 year old preacher from North Carolina. With the backing of the Youth for Christ organization, he pitched his tent at the corner of Washington and Hill Streets.  The city of Los Angeles, nestled between the Sierre Madre Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, had doubled in size in the previous 20 years, now standing at 4 million.  However, the press, thinking the crusade would be an non-event, did not even show up.  Even Billy Graham himself had harboured doubts.  He had attended a conference at Forest Home just a couple of weeks before where he had questioned whether or not evangelism was right for him.  But the answer God had given him that day was an overwhelming "Yes!"

So, Billy Graham opened his Bible that first night in September and read Scripture:  "Build it and they will come."  And that is exactly what happened.  The tent slowly filled up.  People from all walks of life came to hear the young preacher:  young and old, male and female, businessmen and housewives -- even gangsters.  Jim Vaus, the former right hand man to the Mafia's Mickey Cohen, showed up one evening.  He took the altar call, giving his life to Christ.  Vaus was transformed and joined the crusade shortly after.

There was a hunger in the souls of Los Angeles citizens that Fall.  While the Second World War was over, the Cold War had began.  The atomic age was an unsettling time for Americans.  They kept coming, filling the canvas cathedral to overflowing.  Thousands sat inside while hundreds more waited outside.  The crusade planned to run three weeks, but on the last night, something happened.  The press arrived, en masse.  Apparently William Randolph Hearst had given the order to "Puff Graham".  What had been considered a non event eight weeks before was now front page news.

Olympic runner Louis Zamperini circa 1936 came to Christ at the Los Angeles Crusade courtesy

Billy Graham and his staff decided to extend the crusade.  And each week more people came.  A former Olympic runner named Louie Zamperini came in the eighth week.  He had been an Air Force man shot down over the Pacific during World War II, drifted on the ocean for 47 days, rescued by an enemy ship and then languished for two years in a Japanese concentration camp.  Returning to his wife in Los Angeles, he was a "broken" man; he turned to the bottle and he and his wife were about to separate.  His wife invited him to the  big tent one night.  After a week's persuasion, Louis relented.  After hearing Billy Graham, he gave his life to Christ.  He stopped drinking and he reconciled with his wife.  According to Louie, the preacher "saved his life".  (For more about Louie Zamperini, read my blog post "Unbroken" at

As the Youth for Christ workers packed up their tent, the numbers told the story.  Three hundred and fifty thousand people had visited the canvas cathedral in eight weeks.  Three thousand converts had given their life to Christ.  Eighty two percent were non-churchgoers.  And Billy Graham, who eight weeks before had been known only in Baptist circles, was now a household name.

Photo courtesy

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