The Prayer Base




— 1 PETER 4:11

What would you say," a reporter asked Billy Graham during a sit-down interview in a place that shall not be named, "if I told you I was Jesus Christ?"

    Billy stared at the man for a moment and then said, according to another reporter present, "First, I would like to see your hands." Then he added, "Jesus said that when He came, He would come in glory. I'd like to see some of your glory."

    This was the Billy Graham whom his religious opponents labeled the "Antichrist." A Christian editor wrote in his paper in 1957, "The New York crusade has set back the cause of evangelism for at least fifty years." A Christian educator declared that Billy was "the worst thing to happen to the Christian church in two thousand years." Another said, "He has done more harm to the cause of Christ than any living man."

    Billy took such invective lightly. At first I didn't understand how he could. He continued to write friendly letters to his opponents, all of whom he knew, for they were people who earlier had supported his work. I wondered what made him do it. What made him publicly praise people who had insulted him repeatedly with abuse, lies, and innuendoes? I had watched him on television honor a man who had

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written a large, unpleasant book about him, insinuating that Billy was a racist, a fascist, and (of all things) impotent!

    Years of friendship with Billy finally produced the only satisfying explanation for me. The answer lies in his prayer base, which is built upon the Bible. That foundation stratum of prayer, which always supports him, also enable him to answer the reporter's question about Jesus as he did.

    During the months of 1958 when the Graham team was in San Francisco, and later during the weeks in Australia and New Zealand, I spent some time (when it was appropriate) observing Billy's treatment of people and listening to his informal conversation. I found that he mixed easily with people of high and low station and never seemed to think of himself as a celebrity. Despite the obvious vigor and authority of his pulpit ministry, he personally lived in an atmosphere of quiet joy and good cheer.

    For example, once when I was in their hotel room, I heard him gently teasing his wife, Ruth. There were three of us in the room. The fact that I was there on magazine business meant nothing to them at the moment. They were in love and having fun. Again, being around Billy Graham and Grady Wilson, Billy's longtime friend and associate, often would put a smile on my face.

    Grady would take particular pleasure in pointing out to Billy certain grammatical slips and inconsistencies, such as his tongue tripping on the name of King Saul's grandson Mephibosheth and his mispronunciation of "nuclear" as "nucular." Billy in turn would talk before the team about the necessity of "enduring hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" and then make a subtle reference to Grady's well-known girth. This kind of gentle repartee impressed me as what the church needs to offset the heavy theological atmosphere. It comes through as a good working basis for the manifesting of God's grace and love. Billy, like Nathaniel, appeared to me as man in whom there was no guile.1 From what I have since learned of life, I can see that such freedom comes naturally from a healthy prayer base.

    My pastor, Mike MacIntosh, is a friend of Billy's. He has recently published a beautiful book, The Tender Touch of God, and in it he writes, "One day I asked Billy Graham about his personal prayer life.

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He told me that God had taught him to pray all day long — in the shower, driving in an automobile, flying in an airplane. In fact, he said that he had been asking God for wisdom while talking to me. He wanted to know what he could say or do to encourage me. Basically, he prayed unceasingly.2

    Once when I was on the West Coast, I learned something more about Billy's prayer base from a great intercessor, Armin Gesswein, and his wife, Reidun. Armin was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who had independently organized a "Revival Prayer Fellowship" in southern California. He played a key role in Billy's 1949 tent crusade. Twelve years earlier God had used him in massive spiritual revival in Norway. Even today, as I write, Armin is still active, although he is nearly ninety years old. The man's entire adult life has been spent teaching Christians how to pray effectively and with power in the Holy Spirit.

    Armin told me in my 1961 interview with him about a historic prayer meeting twelve years earlier involving Billy Graham. The many books about Billy missed it, even though it seems to have had a significant effect on his future ministry as an evangelist. Let me tell it as Armin related it to me and as I published it in Decision magazine.3

    The scene was the Westminster Hotel's Rainbow Room in Winona Lake, Indiana, and the day was Wednesday, July 13, 1949. The occasion was the fifth annual convention of Youth for Christ, a movement that had been holding Saturday night evangelistic rallies for young people across the United States and Canada was now spreading abroad. It was three o'clock in the morning, and the young leaders of those rallies had been in that room for five hours praying.

    What were they praying about? Those present said they were praying, among other things, that God would raise up a man through whom He would bring revival. Such a prayer was remarkably similar to the prayer of Billy Graham's father, Frank Graham, and his friends Walter Wilson and Vernon Patterson back in the days when young Billy was still milking cows. Perhaps the Youth for Christ leaders in the Rainbow Room had in mind someone like Evan Roberts, who came out of the coal mines to lead the great Welsh revival of

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1904-06. Whatever their thoughts, the leaders had been meeting all week in the hotel talking evangelism, and they were dissatisfied. They yearned for more power of the Holy Spirit to be manifested. They were fully convinced that the price of leadership in ministry is prayer, not the peripheral prayer that Christians use to open and close meetings, but prayer (in Armin's phrase) that is "frontal." Therefore they had scheduled an all-night prayer meeting, hoping to go beyond human methods and efforts to God Himself.

    At midnight Robert Cook, president of Youth for Christ, challenged the men with the words, "Who is dry? Who feels out of the will of God? Who senses that his work is fruitless?" The response was such that the meeting divided into small groups of men asking for and receiving help through individual prayer.

    By three o'clock things were warming up, and as one participant described it, "the tide was running high." At that point Armin himself stood to his feet and said, "Our brother Billy Graham is going out to Los Angeles for a crusade this fall. Why don't we just gather around this man and lay our hands on him and really pray for him? Let's ask God for a fresh touch to anoint him for this work."

    In response Billy rose without saying anything, walked to the front, and knelt on the oak floor. A dozen men gathered around him to lay on hands, and the intercession began.

    When it was over and the men were still kneeling, Billy opened his Bible to Joel 3:13-14 and read aloud the words: "Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe: come, get you down; for the press is full, the vats overflow; for their wickedness is great. Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision" (KJV).

    Billy then added, "Fellows, I'm taking that passage with me to the West Coast. I believe if we will put in the sickle, we shall reap an unprecedented harvest of souls for Christ." After that the praying continued unabated for another hour.

    Three hundred years earlier Matthew Henry wrote, "When God intends great mercy on His people, He first of all sets then a-praying." The German theologians have an expression heilsgeschicht, which means "salvation history." From the point of view of heilsgeschicht,

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I would suggest that the Rainbow Room prayer meeting may have had more to do with Billy's evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles that autumn than all the human preparations involved. Not that there weren't thousands of other prayers going up as well! But in the counsels of heaven God has His own salvation agenda, and it just might be that the Holy Spirit was present in special power that night in Winona Lake, Indiana.

    What were the results? When September 1949 came, the tent at Washington Boulevard and Hill Street in Los Angeles began to fill with people. A smaller "prayer tent" totally overflowed. Crowds reached to 6,000 then 9,000, then 15,000. The three-week campaign was extended to eight.

    A man in a castle near San Simeon, California, sent the famous telegram, "Puff Graham," to the city editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Express, and the story broke with banners, headlines, and photographs.4 When Billy asked a reporter why they had come, he was told, "You have been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.: The Associated Press teletyped it in a lead spot to several hundred cities. Time, Life, Newsweek, and Quick magazines gave as much as four pages to it. Shanghai's Communist-censored English newspaper carried it on page one. The London Illustrated ran a splash of pictures and a report of a fifteen-minute transatlantic interview. The most popular picture magazine in German-speaking Switzerland featured the "gospel tent."

    When Billy and Ruth Graham took the train for Minneapolis on the Monday after the closing service, the conductor treated them like celebrities. At Kansas City reporters came aboard. All this sudden fame, not because of promotion and flash bulbs, but because of God's inscrutable way of answering prayer.

    Then came the welcome back to Minnesota, the great meetings in early 1950 in Boston and New England that resembled revival, the new friendship with Henry Luce of Time magazine, the huge crusade in Columbia, South Carolina, and the opening up of a spectacular national and worldwide outreach.

    Not many observers would trace all this sudden attention to Billy Graham's personal prayers or to the prayer base of his team, but as

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the New Testament says, spiritual things are spiritually discerned, The Holy Spirit is a quiet monitor.

    It was in Billy's personal times of prayer that two great magazines were born, Christianity Today in 1956 and Decision in 1960. I remember Billy telling me that the idea for C.T. came to him in the middle of the night, and he got up and plotted the whole magazine right then, even to the budget.

    At the time Decision magazine made its first appearance in November 1960, Billy had recently completed some of the major campaigns of his career. He had spent ten weeks preaching in Africa, from Liberia on the west coast to Rhodesia in the south to Ethiopia and Egypt in the northeast, followed by a tour of cities in Israel and Switzerland. In October Billy faced one of the greatest challenges of his entire ministry during a three-week crusade in West Germany. Because of its unusual nature it will be fully treated in the next chapter.

    When eternity is the issue, years, centuries, and even millennia come and go, but the work of winning souls to God never ceases. The year 1961 opened with the Graham team members reaching out to many cities of Florida in a statewide crusade effort. The meetings came to an end with three weeks of nightly ministry by Billy in the Miami Beach Convention Hall.

    Now an editor at last, I arrived on the scene early to find the state of Florida turning itself inside out for Billy. State universities, churches, hotels, prison chaplains, service clubs — all wanted him. A delegation from Washington D.C., was also on hand urging the evangelist to enter national politics.

    My instructions were to attend a Saturday morning team meeting in the Biltmore Terrace Hotel at Miami Beach. I entered a room to find a friendly devotional gathering of about eighteen men, each with his Bible. Some say one prayer meeting is very much like another, but not when Billy Graham is the one in charge! Our chairs were arranged in a circle. Billy spoke to us informally about the need for increasing prayer in view of all that was taking place. He shared some verses of Scripture, and we then knelt at our chairs, each man offering prayer in turn. This was no hurry-up prelude to a business meeting. We took our time to talk to God. Prayer was the main event.

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    Following prayer and a short discussion of spiritual matters, Billy mentioned that copies of the new magazine were on hand and introduced me to the team members I had not yet met. There was some good humor and laughter at this meeting but all rather low key. What kept it muted, I believe, was our awareness of the incredible size of the crowds at the nightly meetings. We were continually conscious that a holy God was at work in Florida.

    The men in that meeting were impressive. Some of them had been facing large crowds around the world for a decade and had often been objects on intense press scrutiny; yet they showed no symptoms of a "star mentality." Nor did they affect a phony holiness; quite the opposite. They were quiet, well-dressed Christian gentlemen. Praying informally and protractedly on their knees seemed as natural to them as shaking hands.

    It was obvious that the prayers, not just of the Graham team but of thousands of Christians throughout the state, proved a key factor in Billy's Florida crusade effort, as they had in San Francisco, Australia, New Zealand, and Indianapolis.

    One January evening in 1961 I remember sitting in thirty-five degree weather in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida, listening to Billy preach the Gospel. I remember him saying to the crowd of 8,000 present, "The devil wants to drag you down with him into the pit of hell. He would go to any lengths, pay any price to capture your soul. But he doesn't have to, because you are willing to sell out for peanuts."

    Some, perhaps did not appreciate that kind of talk. For others it simply may have failed to penetrate from ear to brain. But in God's Providence others who sat there shivering not only understood it, but took it to heart and thanked their Lord that someone was putting it to them straight, because it was true.

    Leaving two capable newspaper friends to cover the Greater Miami crusade for Decision, I flew back to my duties in Minneapolis and found that amazing things were breaking out on the third floor of the Billy Graham headquarters. The first issues of Decision had been mailed, and now the subscriptions were pouring in, ten thousand of them a day. Cheers and whistles went up all around. When

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I arrived, I was greeted with laughter. Sacks and sacks of mail had arrived from the Minneapolis post office in trucks, and two dollar checks were piling up on the tables. Many checks included larger donations to Billy's ministry. Extra personnel were hired part time to handle the deluge.

    Back on the second floor I sat in my office holding the latest issue, stunned by the response. I couldn't help asking what God was saying in all this. Was He answering prayer? Whose prayer? I knew my own prayer base was still pretty unstable. Once, when we were anticipating the San Francisco crusade, I did pray all night with two other ministers. They had personal matters on their minds. One of them had an option on an island in a lake in northern California that he wanted to buy for a youth camp. I was praying earnestly that Billy Graham would come to San Francisco. My friend didn't get the island, and Billy did come to San Francisco, but I took little thought of what happened that night, as I never dreamed my intercessory skills counted for much on the heavenly market.

    So while I was excited about the marvelous response to our new magazine, I was having some second thoughts about myself. I had not been as faithful in prayer as I should have been. There had been so many pressures, my efforts had been so weak, and now God's blessing was so overwhelming that I felt numb.

    I remembered a story about Dwight L. Moody, the great evangelistic and prayer warrior. He was on a voyage across the Atlantic in a steamer that was struck by a violent storm. As he walked the deck, a fellow passenger accosted him and wanted to know why Moody wasn't down in his stateroom praying for the ship's survival. Moody's reply was, "I'm all prayed up."5

    Well, I wasn't. But a copy of Billy's book Peace with God was lying on my desk. I picked up the book and began leafing through it in a critical mood, wondering instinctively how this man, who never claimed to be a writer, could produce a book that had topped the best-seller list and would be translated into hundreds of languages.

    Something caught my eye on one page. I read, "One of the characteristics of the Christian is inward joy. No matter what the circumstances, there will be a joyful heart and a radiant face. So many

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Christians go around with droopy faces that give no outshining glory to God. Upon meeting a Christian, it is easy to tell whether or not he or she is a victorious, spiritual, yielded Christian. A true Christian should be relaxed and radiant, capable of illuminating and not depressing his surrounding. The Bible says, 'For the joy of the Lord is your strength.' "6

    Amen. And this joy only comes to those who spend time talking with their Lord. That's the spirit that carried Billy through the years of criticism and opposition, meeting heavy resistance with faith in God and indestructible good cheer. What an amazing boss I had. And what a liberating Lord we all have. Beginning to feel better, I shut the book and paid a visit to the little prayer chapel to get "prayed up." The devil was not going to get me for peanuts.

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1. Cf. John 1:47

2. Michael K. MacIntosh, The Tender Touch of God (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1996).

3. "The Lost Prayer Meeting," Decision, March 1973, 4.

4. So much has been written about the "Puff Graham" telegram reported to have been sent to his city editor by William Randolph Hearst, and so many different versions and denials have circulated that I withdraw from speculating. It probably did happen.

5. I have not been able to locate this quotation, but a description of a near-fatal shipwreck involving Moody and his son is found in William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1900). 400ff.

6. Nehemiah 8:10

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