The First Issue





During my time in the East that spring I had visited the office of Christian Herald magazine and also the Manhattan offices of the Associated Press and United Press International, where I talked with their religion writers. I found that the wire services, generally so impartial toward public figures, were strangely and curiously drawn to the person of Billy Graham. Why was that? Was Billy an attractive kind of surrogate for God to some of these amiable unchurched people, a reminder that they too must die and face the judgment? I don't know; but as for advice for my new job, I got nothing.

    My last stop in New York City was at 405 West 23rd Street, the editorial office of the Watchman-Examiner, a venerable American Baptist publication, now expired. I enjoyed reading the thoughtful editorials in this magazine. They said something. After climbing several flights of wooden stairs, I knocked at the door and was admitted by the longtime editor, Rev. John Bradbury.

    This odd little man with bushy, sandy-colored hair (I'm not sure it was his) pursed his lips and spoke in a high-pitched voice as he invited me to sit down. He then seated himself before a rolltop desk in his high-ceilinged office. As he leaned back in his swivel chair with his feet dangling, it was for me a moment frozen in time. I felt the way Conway

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had in James Hilton's Lost Horizon when he entered Shangri-la and was taken to see the 200-year-old Luxembourg missionary, Perrault.1

    In a few words I told him of the assignment given to me and said that I was seeking advice from experienced editors. These were the days before audio tapes, and as Bradbury began to speak, I reached for my note pad.

    "Mr. Wirt," he said, "there is a hiatus in the magazine publishing business. There used to be Christian publications that lifted up the Lord and carried a theme of devotion, that talked about Jesus Christ and emphasized His work and the Holy Spirit, that explained what it means to walk with God. Our magazines don't do that any more, and it's a pity."

    Those words were talisman to my soul. I thought, By the grace of God, that's the kind of magazine I want to see us publish. I had found what I was looking for.

    A month later on the flight from Geneva to Minneapolis to carry out Billy's instructions, I finally got down to some intensive praying and note-making. From the perspective of church history, what would this magazine be like? From the perspective of journalism, what would shape its unique character? All our months of preparation had reached the moment of launching. But launching what? A tub, like the one the early film comedian Buster Keaton built, that made a nice splash in the water and then sank right to the bottom? Plenty of new magazines do that.

    In September I received a long letter from Billy explaining precisely what he had in mind. It was in effect a confirmation of what I had learned from John Bradbury. In addition to specific details about the first issue, Billy wrote this remarkable statement (which Decision would carry on its editorial page):

    It has been evident for some time that there is a need for good devotional and evangelistic literature that could be made available not only to those who have made inquiries and decisions at our crusades, but also to the whole body of the church. The value of literature in winning the minds of the uncommitted is being clearly demonstrated by the

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Communist. Decision is to be a mass-produced paper translated eventually into many languages, and preparations are now under way for French, German, and Spanish translations to appear early next year.

    The purpose of this paper, therefore, is twofold: to provide spiritual food for Christians who normally do not have much Christian literature available to them and to publish evangelistic messages and articles aimed at reaching the secular mind and winning the nonbeliever to Christ. We shall seek to make the paper attractive and easy to read by "putting the cookies on the lower shelf," as D. L. Moody once expressed it. (Moody added, "So the children can get at them.")

    While there will be an appeal to the intellectual, it is not primarily for the intellectual that this paper is written. It is designed for the ordinary people who are busily engaged in a secular world where there is tremendous competition for their time. I am convinced that profound truths can be stated in simple terms, and to that end we intend to publish carefully selected materials dealing with the Christian life, drawn from the whole treasury of Scripture and Christian writing.

     We shall seek a balanced presentation of the Gospel. Doctrine will be used as the New Testament uses it, to strengthen the life and walk of the Christian.

    There are other things we hope the paper will accomplish. We shall endeavor to maintain a link between the team and those whose prayers, deeds, and gifts have been upholding us through the years. We would like to share with you the results of this ministry as the Holy Spirit leads and blesses and to tell you of our hopes and dreams for the future as God wills. We shall have occasional testimonies of lives that have been transformed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Decision will also have a distinctive ministry to encourage the hearts of pastors and missionaries everywhere. We intend to carry at least two full-length evangelistic messages each month, together with devotional and sermonic material that can be used by busy pastors who are searching for sermon material. We also intend to keep Christians informed of evangelistic strategy within the life of the church and even to help

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the church clarify its definition of evangelism. This paper will not emphasize any particular denomination but will be addressed to the church universal.

    There will be sections devoted to the discussion of theological, social and evangelistic issues of our day. Some of the articles will be purposely controversial. We believe there is room for high-level disagreement and discussion to arouse the church out of indifference and complacency. It is also our prayer that God will see fit to use this paper to fan the flames of spiritual awakening in many parts of the world.

    We know that many of our friends will have questions to ask after reading this first issue. They will wonder why no mention was made of some particular aspect of Christian truth. Do these pages really make a full-orbed presentation of the Christian faith? Others will have questions to raise regarding policies of publication and distribution.

    To all of you we send Paul's reminders that patience works experience, and experience hope. This issue is the result of months of prayer and labor or the part of many, but it is far from being complete in itself. The Gospel is manifold, as future issues will illustrate.

    Meanwhile we cherish your encouragement and spiritual support. The financial cost of this publication is tremendous — far beyond our present capacities. However, we have taken it as a step of faith. We believe the world situation is getting more desperate with every passing hour. Something must be done on a mass scale, quickly and effectively. We believe as Decision is scattered in many languages throughout the world, seed will be sown that will eventually bring great spiritual results.2 We need your help if the venture is to succeed.

    I trust you will sustain our editorial and publication staff with your prayers. This is an awesome undertaking in many ways. We tremble to think of this added responsibility. We have been encouraged by our friends and advisers all over the world. This first issue of Decision is launched in the midst of a revolutionary world at a time when Christianity is being challenge on a scale unprecedented in its history. We therefore

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covet your prayers and support as we go forward together "with a view to the fitting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for an upbuilding of the body of Christ, until we all advance in the oneness of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God into a man of full growth, into a measure of stature of the fulness of the Christ."

    What an assignment for the one-time city editor of the second leading daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska! You can be sure I subscribed heartily to every word of it.

    While flying back from Switzerland to Minnesota in August 1960, I had done some scribbling of my own about the new magazine. First of all, I wrote, it would be God's magazine. It would be chained to no other pillar than the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Second, it would be Billy's magazine, reflecting his love for Jesus, his evangelistic zeal, his commitment to and understanding of the Bible, his personality, mission, ministry, theology, love for people, compassion, vision, and goals.

    Third, the magazine would be influenced by and would belong to the millions of prayer partners and admirers of Billy Graham around the world who would subscribe to it, read it, digest it, and pass it on.

    Finally, it would be under my stewardship, augmented by the counsel of my superiors and coworkers. Together we would try to please the Father of Lights, the angels, the Graham family (especially Ruth), the BGEA people, the subscribers on the mailing list, the Christian public, the unbelieving public, the postal authorities, seniors, children and just about everybody this side of the principalities and powers of darkness. Then might our new magazine become an inspiring and transforming vehicle of the Spirit of God to this generation!

    Upon reporting for duty at Minneapolis, I was cordially received by George Wilson and escorted to the top floor in the Billy Graham headquarters. There he showed me our huge new computerized machines, the first to be installed in the Twin Cities. These were the "wonders" of the modern world that in 1960 would funnel the message

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of Christ to every post office in the United States and to readers on every continent.

    I was also greeted by the other colleagues who would make up our editorial staff: Dr. Robert O. Ferm, associate editor; Russell Busby, photographer; Robert Blewett, artist; Alice Sundstrom, copy editor; and Martha Warkentin, my new secretary.

    Mr. Wilson, with all his other portfolios, would be the managing editor of the magazine and would oversee the whole physical operation. That included bookkeeping, production, paper, ink, printing, mailing, circulation, transport, personnel, equipment, and costs. Everything except editorial content would be under his direct supervision. So if Billy was the magazine's maker, George was its shaper. He even gave the magazine its name, Decision.

    One of the orders I received from Billy in Australia was "work closely with George." I had already found that this genius George Wilson was a unique individual. Some apparently seemed a bit timid around him. Not so I. I recognized him as my superior and treated him as my friend.

    Dr. Robert Ferm was an excellent writer, educator, and Baptist minister who had already published successful books about evangelism and conversions. In Billy's ministry he held many important team portfolios besides associate editor of the new magazine. Bob Ferm was a popular team member and was noted for his singing in quartets, his flashy sport jackets, and his genial sense of humor. He was a most cooperative editor and he became a solid friend. Now he is in heaven, and I miss him.

    Russ Busby had been Billy's staff photographer since the Oklahoma City crusade of 1956. Among his perennial assets even today are a deep faith, a beautiful wife, and a running line of salty comments on life in general that has kept people laughing down the decades. He is still active, still taking superb pictures, and living in southern California. His favorite text as a photographer, he says, is taken (out of context) from Jeremiah 1:18. "Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord."

    Robert Blewett was Decision's art director, an experienced and able painter and illustrator and a highly qualified layout expert. We

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were to work together closely for nine years, and the success of the magazine owes much to him. Another staff artist upon whose talents we drew was young Howard Sanden, now known as John Howard Sanden of Carnegie Hall, New York. After leaving BGEA, Sanden achieved wide recognition and is today considered America's premier portraitist. I had to smile when in a recent letter to me, he referred to his years on Billy Graham's staff as "the glory days." Howard's stunning portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Graham are now hung in the lobby of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, founded by the Grahams near Asheville, North Carolina.

    Alice Sundstrom — faithful, quiet, and dedicated — was the best copy reader I ever knew. She spared me the indignity of a host of embarrassing typos and other errors.

    Billy Graham continued to write me letters after the first issue

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appeared. He wondered if the magazines shouldn't be expanded to twenty-four pages instead of sixteen. He recommended the style of the Roman Catholic publication, Our Sunday Visitor, as being "popular" and "easy-to-read." He urged me to obtain the printed reports of Keswick Week conferences.3 He wanted the magazine to have a strong missionary emphasis, a sound theology, and a "broad out-reach in fellowship."

    "These early issues," Billy wrote, "will be of strategic importance, as they will be analyzed and studied by religious leaders around the world. I hope you will put the best of everything into it." That letter threw a scare into me. The best of what? Put me under the scrutiny of religious leaders, I thought, and see what you get. And what did he mean by "everything"? If I disappointed him, would he ship me back to California?

    One letter from Billy that has meant the most to me came early. It read: "Dear Woody: Just a note to say that I have read through your manuscript for the first issue of Decision. I think it is terrific!" Thank God.

    Billy's refusal to exalt himself and his organization has always been one of his most attractive and endearing traits. Surely here are intimations of greatness. To some extent his modesty even rubbed off on me. When I began working for him, I stopped using the letters Ph.D. after my name. Considering my position, what was the point? I was helping a man who knew the perfect freedom of Jesus Christ. It was not unreasonable to want a piece of that freedom.

    But it did not take me long to decide what should be the magazine's specific content, because the Holy Spirit had already decided it. Of course, it would include a message by Billy Graham in each issue. Where? It didn't matter. As long as I have known him, Billy has never been one to claim the spotlight for himself. His name is often overexposed by publicists but not at his request; quite the contrary. In one of his early letters to me, he wrote, "I insist that my name be taken off the masthead. I must decrease, and He must increase."4

    Because I knew more women than men would read the magazine, I determined to appeal to men by emphasizing both youth and masculinity — not, however, at the expense of the ladies, without

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whose company we would be shorn and shriven. People of every race and color and language and every branch of Christendom would find themselves welcome in our pages. Rich people, poor people, old people, men, women, children would all be appealed to. We would search the pages of church history, we would go into the bush hunting for missionaries, we would seek out the great and lowly asking the same question: "Did Jesus die for you? Is He dwelling in you? Tell us about it. Speak up!"

    Testimonies? Absolutely, but the emphasis would not be on the Christian enterprise in which the person was engaged. Rather it should be on how Jesus Christ affected his or her life, how the Spirit of God entered the soul and brought about conversion, and how that conversion affected other people.

    Because we functioned as the Graham team, not just as individuals, I felt the magazine should highlight the work of different team members. Also, knowing the clergy, I felt the magazine should carry sermon outlines, choice illustrations, and one-liners of hard-pressed ministers. Due to our large Canadian circulation (200,000), I decided we would try to feature Canadians regularly.

    Finally, I was determined that the magazine be something other than a solemn religious periodical. The presence of the Lord should give it a bright glow, a flair, a cheerful tone that would imbue issue after issue. Instead of interminable threats, warnings, and foreboding, we would keep turning up the music of God's love and would occasionally shout for joy!

    I also spent hours reading the books Billy had written and others that were being written about him. In his classic Peace with God, published in 1953, he quoted from 1 Peter, characterizing the Christian's fellowship with Christ as "a joy unspeakable and full of glory."5 He also described heaven as "a time of joy, service, laughter, singing, and praise to God." In one of his early sermons he spoke of the "desperate need" of Christians for "exuberance and vitality in their loyalty to Christ." That exuberance was what I missed in many current Christian periodicals. I found it in the New Testament and coveted it for our new magazine.

    Soon huge carloads of paper began arriving at our St. Paul

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printer from paper mills in northern Minnesota. The printing salesman who handled our account told us a true story about two salesmen from different paper companies who met in a coffee shop in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, about this time. Naturally, one asked the other how his business was going.

    "Slow," was the reply, "except for one thing. We just got a contract to deliver twelve carloads of paper every month to Billy Graham in the Twin Cities, and it helps to beat hell!"

    He spoke better than he knew.

    The business office of BGEA was expanded to handle the mailing operation. Advance subscription began rolling in at two dollars apiece. Excitement was in the air. On October 18, 1960, a front-page article in the Minneapolis Star newspaper announced the publication of the first issue of Decision magazine by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. It carried photos of George Wilson, managing editor, and myself — not Billy even though the whole thing was his idea. Billy wired his congratulations and repeated his desire that the praise and the glory be God's.

    A group of us drove to the Jensen Printing Company plant to see the first copies come off the press. It was a moment for reflection and also for celebration. In the great press room my hands shook as I held

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the cover page. I had chosen a dramatic picture of the Matterhorn to illustrate Billy's page one sermon, "Rising Above Conformity." But while I studied the color work, I was really reflecting on the uneven trail of my own past and thinking, Where am I? Do I belong here?

    That night as I lay in bed, I further reflected. I reviewed the kind of writing I had done for a living as a young reporter: murder trials, police and hospital beats, divorces, football games, waterfronts, fires, embezzlements, bridge parties. I thought of the famous people I had chased after for quotes: Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Cecil B. DeMille, Irving Berlin, Melvin Belli, Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson, and the sad impoverished widow — Marguerite Carmack — whose husband in 1896 had discovered gold in the Klondike.

    As a new Christian, I had always scorned those futile years spent typing inanities and dismissed the time as wasted. But now I was beginning to see their worth. Unknown to me, a greater Hand than mine had used the seven years of frustration to prepare me as a writer. In the decades ahead I could clearly distinguish truth from error and right from wrong and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ in a way pleasing to Him. The verse came to me: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.6

    I snapped on the light and looked again at the Matterhorn picture on the magazine cover. During a trip to the Stony Brook School where our son was a student, I once visited with the headmaster. This great man, Dr. Frank Gaebelien, was an educator, Alpinist, musician, and devout Christian. I knew Frank had scaled the Matterhorn, and I had always wanted to hear how he did it. I confessed to him I still had a yearning to attempt it.

    Frank had looked at me and smiled. "You could make it, Woody," he said. That thrilled me, but I kept quiet, knowing that I never would. Now looking at the picture of that well-nigh impossible Matterhorn summit on the cover of Decision magazine's first issue, I felt a warm tickle somewhere in my diaphragm. "Yes, Frank, I could make it." And I had! Thank you, Billy, and thank You, Lord.

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1. James Hilton, Lost Horizon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963).

2. At the time of my own retirement in 1976, Decision was published monthly in six languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese (Hong Kong and Taiwan editions), and Japanese. In addition Decision appeared in the English language in American, British, Canadian, and Australasian editions and in Braille.

3. For information regarding the Keswick Convention Bible Conferences in England's lake country and their spread to other countries, see J. C. Pollock, The Keswick Story (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964).

4. Cf. John 3:30.

5. 1 Peter 1:8 (KJV)

6. 1 Corinthians 2:9

Chapter 11  ||  Table of Contents