Before Twitter, Instagram and Facebook existed, faith-healing evangelists used to announce their comings and goings in the local newspapers. And now, thanks to the digital archivists who preserved those records, I’m able to retrace my father’s footsteps along the Sawdust Trail.
Evangelist Billy Graham recalls in his new book the pivotal point in his young ministry when, during a 1949 Los Angeles crusade, a two-word directive from publisher William Randolph Hearst to “puff Graham” made him an instant celebrity nationwide.
The sudden front-page coverage showered on Graham by Hearst newspapers in mid-October (after three weeks of little notice) was quickly matched by other newspapers and newsmagazines–literally a media circus descending on his rallies under a big tent.
My father never achieved Graham’s status, of course, but his promo pieces were printed alongside the greats. It’s like scrolling through a social media feed, but more meaningful, somehow.
Happy 96th birthday to “America’s Preacher,” Billy Graham. Can you spot him on this 1939 Florida Bible College yearbook page?
Hint: Billy Graham’s in the third row; my father’s is the last picture on the page. This is their entire Junior Class.
Florida Bible Institute (aka Trinity College) yearbook, 1939 Junior Class
I spent several hours combing through the newspaper archives at the Los Angeles Central Library last Saturday. Lucky for me, they’ve digitized over a century’s worth of the L.A. Times! Along with other artifacts, I unearthed this classified advertisement for one of my father’s tent revival meetings. It was filed among those belonging to the biggest stars in the evangelical orbit of that time period—Billy Graham and Marjoe among them.
I’m grateful today for the forward-thinking individuals who stored these images where I could find them. Thanks to their efforts, I’m able to piece together certain elements of my past. And in a larger sense, their efforts have kept the Sawdust Trail from being swept into the dustbin of history.
I just learned that Billy: The Early Years will be released in select theatres on October 10th, around the same time Reverend Billy Graham celebrates his 91st birthday. Although his health is failing, he still maintains his reputation as one of the world’s most renowned (and beloved) evangelists. Given his enormous following, plus the sneak-peek screenings in the Bible Belt, I’m guessing this movie will generate a great deal of buzz.
I’m compelled by a more personal connection—a shared history. My father and Billy Graham were classmates at the Florida Bible Institute in the late 1930s. Both entered college as simple farm boys; both exited as God’s evangelists. But while Billy Graham was televising his ministry around the globe via satellite, my father was crisscrossing the Sawdust Trail, revival tent in tow. Same calling, far different trajectories.
I was fascinated by Franklin Graham’s criticisms of this film biography. I’m looking forward to seeing where his memories of his father intersect with—and differ from—those of his siblings, each of whom brings a unique point of view to their collective story. A memoir is different than a biography; I know that. Still, since I have several sisters and brothers, CAN I GET A WITNESS might one day face similar scrutiny.
Are you interested in seeing this movie. I’m curious…why or why not?
These “fishers of men” used to troll for tricks, but they became street evangelists after turning their own lives over to God. They also spread their message from an online pulpit — two former prostitutes, now pimping for the Lord.
Billy Graham once teased Woody Allen about becoming a minister, suggesting that the worst sinners often make the best preachers. Thumb through the books of the Bible, and you’ll find more than a few characters who prove his point. My childhood observations bore witness to that, as well.
I’m not comfortable commenting on other people’s lifestyle choices, nor would I ever feel qualified to judge someone’s spirituality. But I’d sure like to listen in on these women’s sermons, and I’d love to interview them about their personal stories.
Image credit: L.A. Times
I was doing a little research this weekend, and lo, look what I found! In this short outtake from a 1969 Woody Allen Special, evangelist Billy Graham and Woody Allen have an off-the-cuff conversation about sex, drugs, religion, and other hot-button topics. They’re hilarious together — who knew?
(If you enjoyed this part of the interview, I also recommend PART ONE.)
And it came to pass that in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and thirty-eight, two farm boys met each other – and their destinies – at the Florida Bible Institute. They socialized and studied Scripture together, then went out into the world to preach the Gospel.
Yesterday, I received a copy of their 1939 college yearbook in the mail. Just for you, I’ve scanned a picture of their Junior class. Count down 3 rows, and check out the 4th photo to your right. Can you guess who that is?