John Shearer: Billy Graham’s 1950 Gathering Here Also Trail-Blazing

Monday, March 5, 2018 - by John Shearer

While the story of the Rev. Billy Graham coming for a month-long crusade at Warner Park in March and April 1953 was well documented and remembered over the years, not so much was said in later decades about his one-day visit in 1950.

But on Sunday, Oct. 22, 1950, he spoke at a gathering at Engel Stadium that, despite the rainy weather, was still attended by 20,000 people.

As he was being laid to rest late last week amid continuing praises for his life and appreciated style of spreading the message of Christ, I decided to head back to the library to find more information on that visit.

And what I found was that Mr. Graham’s 1953 crusade in Chattanooga might not have been his first one in the Deep South that was integrated.

An email mentioning about the 1950 visit had come from longtime radio host Earl Freudenberg, who had access to some old pictures taken at the time by then-Chattanooga News-Free Press photographer Delmont Wilson.

Rev. Graham that year came to Chattanooga a few days before a multi-week crusade was to be held at Atlanta’s old Ponce de Leon Park.

The idea for the Chattanooga visit had evidently been initiated by the Fishers of Men group and seconded by the Gideons, who were to hold a gathering in Chattanooga during that time. The official invitation was apparently extended by the Chattanooga Pastors Association.

Rev. Graham was evidently in Portland when he was contacted in August 1950, and he said he would come to Chattanooga in October if he did not go to Germany, a visit that was evidently being pondered at the time.

When the word went out that he was coming to Chattanooga, excitement and anticipation prevailed. By then he had become quite famous as a spreader of the Gospel, due in part to some favorable press for him by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

That had come about after Mr. Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade got off to a slow start in attendance, but popular singing radio cowboy Stuart Hamblen, a former alcoholic, spoke on the air of being converted at the crusade.

Since Mr. Graham’s 1950 visit to Chattanooga was to be at a baseball stadium, the Chattanooga News-Free Press described the one-day revival in baseball terms, saying it was going to be Rev. Graham’s team taking on the devil’s team.

Covering for the News-Free Press at various times leading up to and during the service were George Burnham, Hilda Spence and Jim Callaway. Mr. Callaway in one article called the Rev. Graham “the greatest of our time” in terms of spreading the word of God effectively.

Chattanooga Lookouts head Joe Engel had offered to let the organizers use Engel Stadium free of charge and he provided free parking.

A stage in the middle of the field was erected, and it included a Hammond organ and grand piano provided by Fowler Brothers furniture company. Also, some extra chairs were brought in from Memorial Auditorium.

Among those involved in the planning of the event were such people as J. Park McCallie of McCallie School, Provident insurance official R.L. Maclellan and the Rev. Carl Giers of First Baptist Church, among others.

Others on the Graham team helping put on the Chattanooga service were trombone soloist and music leader Cliff Barrows and his wife, Billie, an organist. The two had met at Bob Jones College when it was in Cleveland, Tenn.

Others involved in Chattanooga were organist William Bernsten, Canadian pianist Tedd Smith, singer George Beverly Shea and associate evangelist the Rev. Grady Wilson.

Public relations person Jerry Beavan and sound engineer Jim Vaus were unable to be there, with Mr. Beavan suffering an illness.

Mr. Wilson spoke at a Youth for Christ program at Central High before the event. Mr. Graham and his wife had flown in on an airline plane from Asheville, N.C., and the Barrows drove in from Greenville, S.C.

When the revival service took place, the pouring rain continued. But that did not stop the people from coming, as enthusiasm remained high. The event was to begin at 3 p.m., but some began arriving at 10 a.m. and the stadium was full by 1 p.m. That included 1,000 or more choir singers from the various churches.

People were saying that if the weather had been nice, the event might have drawn 40,000 people. The Rev. Lee Roberson of Highland Park Baptist Church had been quoted a few days before saying that he thought 50,000 might come from the Scenic City and beyond.

It was obviously a momentous time, as Chattanooga Mayor Hugh Wasson had declared that Sunday as Billy Graham Day in Chattanooga.

To pass the time waiting for the service to start, some brought their own picnic food or munched on concessions sold by Ruby Williams’ crew at the stadium.

At the service, which was taking place the same week that the Interstate Life insurance company building opened on McCallie Avenue and when noted entertainer Al Jolson died, an offering was taken up for Mr. Graham’s radio ministry he was launching. It would be called the “Hour of Decision” when it went on the air in early November and would become very popular.

Dr. James Fowle from First Presbyterian Church offered a prayer before Rev. Graham spoke.

Mr. Graham spoke from Isaiah 1 and one of his sermon lines included, “If you died today, would you be prepared to meet your God?”

Only 31 years old, Mr. Graham was described as being handsome and wearing a nice suit and Argyle socks.

Unfortunately, due to the constant rain, he had to cut short his sermon and did not have his usual altar call.

But he did add some words that might have set the stage for the 1953 crusade, saying he hoped “in God’s time” he could conduct a series of meetings here.

All in all, the one-day visit was considered a success among organizers in inspiring listeners.

As a News-Free Press editorial, apparently written by Brainard Cooper, said, “The effects of Dr. Graham’s brief, simple service here will be felt in our city.”

And one other point mentioned in the newspaper article by George Burnham might have shown that to be true in more ways than people realized at the time. He mentioned in that story that whites and blacks were seen sitting together in some areas, which was quite unusual for that time period.

Mr. Graham later mentioned that the 1953 crusade at the Warner Park field house was where he first took down the seating ropes separating the races, but perhaps he was remembering the 1950 event as well or had been inspired by it.

For a brief period in 1950, all of the Chattanooga Christians and others had come together as one.

As Mr. Burnham wrote, “Both were seeking the word of the same God.”

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