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‘Kissed By Hearst’

By Andrew Parsons

Odds are most Americans born after World War II have heard of Billy Graham. The 96-year-old preacher has met with every president in the postwar period. He made a positive mark on the Civil Rights movement and hosted religious revivals across the world to crowds that numbered in the millions.

But of course, it wasn’t always this way. Once, he was a traveling revival preacher with an audience only  as big as his tent. So, how did it get to this point? How did one preacher become so influential?

Billy Graham in September, 1949 during the Los Angeles Revival. Source: L.A. Times

Billy Graham in September, 1949 during the Los Angeles Revival. Source: L.A. Times

Duke University historian Grant Wacker, says Graham’s rise to stardom was fast, not a slow boil. “In the 1940s when Graham came into the scene there were dozens of conspicuous revivalists. And by 1950 there was no competition.”

He says this sea change can be pinpointed to one particular event in the fall of 1949. That’s when Billy Graham, this itinerant preacher from North Carolina who had been holding revival meetings all around the country, pitched his tent in Los Angeles.

The revival was supposed to last just three weeks, and at first it seemed like it would be. “In the beginning, the crusade did not fare well,” says Wacker. “The attendance was mediocre. Graham and his associates became discouraged.”

Like any good preacher, Graham prayed for something to happen. Hoping for divine intervention, he kept his tent pitched for one more week.

The fourth week, Graham walked into his tent to find a sea of journalists. “Reporters started writing down his comments and he was astonished. He was a very young man at this point, he was a man in his early 30s,” says Wacker. “Bulbs are popping and these reporters are taking notes. And he asked naturally, what’s happened here. ‘why are you writing down everything I’m saying?’ And one of the reporters said to him: ‘You have been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.’”

Hearst was the owner of a newspaper empire, and all-around media mogul. He had apparently told his reporters to start writing articles about Graham’s L.A. gathering.

“And almost immediately the Los Angeles Times, which Hearst did not own picked it up – the story. In a few days Time magazine picked it up, then LIFE Magazine,” Wacker says. The story even reached audiences in Europe and Asia.

All this press attention attracted scores of gawkers, many of whom came out of pure curiosity. But the crowds continued to build. Wacker describes it as a sort of truck stop mentality. “If there are a lot of cars parked outside, a lot of trucks – this must be good. The press presented this as a landmark in the history of American revivalism.”

Soon a space that could seat 3,000 was expanded to accommodate 9,000. On one occasion, it was estimated that another 15,000 people stood outside listening.

And what of the man at the center of all this attention? Well, the content of Graham’s sermons wasn’t very different from what many others preached at the time. It hit all of the familiar notes of revival preaching — troubles of the world, personal issues, salvation.

What set Graham apart was his presence. And his delivery. He was tall, handsome, and commanding. His voice boomed at a lightning clip. Wacker says that stenographers clocked his preaching at 240 words a minute.

“He did that deliberately because he thought that successful newscasters spoke very very rapidly. He was animated. He paced the platform and one account he often paced a full mile in the course of the sermon. And then the gestures. A flurry of gestures with his fists, hitting into the plumb of his hand, fingers stabbing outward, the crouching of the knees.” One reporter even wrote that he had the energy of a coiled panther.

His sermons were also peppered with appearances from figures — sure to play well in glitzy L.A. Radio personalities, actresses and athletes appeared to testify to the power of Graham’s message. And this was also conscious, says Wacker. “The word of the satisfied customer to put it in marketing terms. And he understood that this was more powerful than technical theological apologetic.”

All this gave the press yet another story to tell. Newspapers across the country, and around the world, were fascinated by the fascination with Graham.

The revival was originally slotted for a three-week run, but it lasted for two months. By the end of November 1949, Graham was an international commodity.

This story of Billy Graham’s lightning fame at the hands of William Randolph Hearst has become something of a legend. It’s been told time and again in Graham’s circles. But to Wacker it does leave one thing unanswered.

“So the question is why? Why did Hearst give him this attention? Hearst was not known to be a particularly religious man and he was not known to be an evangelical figure like Graham.” The truth, he says, is that no one really knows why Hearst turned his attention to Billy Graham.

But nothing in American history happens in a vacuum. Wacker thinks all the attention was actually a response to bigger, international forces.

“Two days before the revival started, the Soviets had successfully exploded an atomic bomb and Harry Truman announced this. And by all accounts people were frightened to know that this nation possessed nuclear weapons and could inflict terrible damage upon Americans.”

About a week later, communists, led by Mao Zedong, toppled the Chinese government. These were both themes that Graham pounded in his eight week revival.

In sermon titled, “What’s Wrong with the World?” he shouted about weapons the Soviets were developing and their shadowy networks. “We’re told today about death rays as far as the light can penetrate it will burn everything under the penetrating ray of that light. And we’re told that there are more subversive forces in Los Angeles than any city in America. Your own mayor told me that just the other day in his office. And I’ll tell you, if there was ever an hour that Los Angeles needs to come to its knees before God it’s the crisis now in which we live in.”

Hearst was a smart newsman. He no doubt recognized the value of a really good story. A story about frightening times, the individual sitting in that tent, and of course, God.

It’s a story that has always been a part of Billy Graham’s sermons. But Los Angeles 1949 was a moment where that story was particularly compelling.

And Graham was talented enough to ride that wave.

Listen to our whole show, Born Again: Religious Renewal in America. To read more about Billy Graham’s influential life, read Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.