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Monday, November 22, 2004

“THE REST OF THE STORY” -- WINONA LAKE PRAYER MEETING KEY TO SUCCESS OF BILLY GRAHAM’S FIRST L.A. CRUSADE

By Terry White
Special to ASSIST News Service

WINONA LAKE, INDIANA  (ANS) -- Billy Graham, 86, this past week returned to the Rose Bowl to complete his historic four-day Los Angeles crusade. Some 82,000 braved the chill and the traffic chaos to hear Graham preach, making the total crusade attendance about 312,500. The crusade, held from November 18-21, was Graham’s 416th worldwide and his next-to-last. Billy Graham’s final evangelical crusade, health permitting, is scheduled for June in New York City

Almost 13,400 people made a religious commitment to Jesus Christ, including about 3,500 on Sunday, according to crusade officials. The crowd on Sunday nearly filled the 92,000-seat stadium, the largest U.S. venue ever booked for a Graham crusade.

Most people are familiar with the story of how, back in 1949, the publishing giant William Randolph Hearst changed the course of the young preacher’s life by issuing a directive to his editors to "Puff Graham."  (Pictured: Full page notice in the LA Hearst paper).

It was 55 years ago, in 1949, that a young Billy Graham preached that tent revival in Los Angeles launching him into worldwide prominence. Since then he has preached to more than 210 million people in more than 185 countries.

A lesser-known aspect of the success of that first crusade, however, has recently come to light with the publication of the biography of one of Graham’s associates. The book tells the role that a prayer meeting in the Rainbow Room of the Westminster Hotel in Winona Lake, Indiana, played in launching that first Los Angeles crusade.

Winona Lake, a small resort town in north-central Indiana with a rich religious history, was for many years the home of one of the world’s largest Bible conferences and the home of the evangelist Billy Sunday. It is also the site of the founding of Youth For Christ, Billy Graham’s early employer, and it is well-known for the annual Youth For Christ conventions held each summer in the 1950s.

Fred Hartley, writing in his book Everything by Prayer, gives details of the Rainbow Room prayer meeting. Published by Christian Publications Inc., it is the biography of Armin Gesswein, a Lutheran minister who was a pastor, seminary professor, associate evangelist of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and founder of the Minister’s Prayer Fellowship and the Revival Prayer Fellowship. He passed away March 14, 2001. An edited version of Hartley’s account reveals the following:

“Of all the stories told that day [at Gesswein’s memorial service], perhaps the most gripping was the story of the prayer meeting that is said to have launched Billy Graham's world-impacting evangelistic ministry.

It was 3 o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, July 13, 1949. Between forty and fifty young men were gathered in the Rainbow Room of the Westminster Hotel in Winona Lake, Indiana. They had been there for five hours praying.

Evangelist Armin Gesswein of Southern California, who had been invited to conduct the prayer sessions, exhorted Billy, "If you are going to have prayer as part of your crusade, it has to be frontal not peripheral." That is exactly how an all-night prayer meeting happened to be called in the midst of a busy week-long Youth For Christ convention.

The men had been alternating prayers with praise, verses of Scripture, and requests for more prayer. Things were beginning to warm up. Hearts were poured out before God. The tide was running high. Gesswein stood to his feet. "You know," he said, "our brother Billy Graham is coming 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."

When it was over and the men were still kneeling, Billy Graham opened his Bible to Joel 3:13 and with deep conviction read aloud the words, "Put in your sickle, for the harvest is ripe: Come, get you down: for the press is full, and the vats overflow." Prayer went on in the Rainbow Room for another hour before the men retired.

When it all happened a few months later in Los Angeles, the reporters were there and the harvest became front-page news. But the newspapers did not report that night of prayer in the Rainbow Room.

Dr. Ted Engstrom reflected, "No one who was at that prayer meeting in Winona Lake in 1949 could possibly have forgotten it. It was one of the greatest nights that those of us present could ever remember. One aspect of it was the complete unanimity of spirit. Practically all of the men present found places of significant leadership in evangelism in the days following."

On November 7, 1983, Billy Graham stood on the corner of Washington and Hill Streets in Los Angeles at the exact spot of his prior crusade to receive an award from Mayor Bradley as a marker was erected to commemorate the historic significance of what took place in 1949.

However, the launching of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association may not have come from the preaching tent at the Los Angeles Crusade in 1949 as many have assumed, but from the pre-Los Angeles Crusade prayer meeting in Winona Lake and the Los Angeles prayer tent.

God keeps the books and when they are opened from the other side of eternity, we may be surprised to learn the invisible interplay between the private little prayer meetings and the great big public results."

Today the Westminster Hotel, now Westminster Hall, serves as a dormitory and conference center for Grace College and Seminary. It also houses a museum of Winona Lake history which features displays and artifacts from the life of Homer Rodeheaver, Billy Sunday’s songleader, who later founded the Rodeheaver-Hallmack Music Company. More information is available at www.grace.edu  and www.villageatwinona.com
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Terry White, Executive Director and Publisher of Brethren Missionary Herald Company, lives in Winona Lake, Indiana, where he directs the communication and publishing activities of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. Further information is available at www.fgbcworld.com

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