65 years ago, Altoona was Billy Graham's crucible

In June 1949, his career as an evangelist was just beginning. But in that Central Pennsylvania railroad hub, he thought it was about to end


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ALTOONA — In the fall of 1949, the Rev. Billy Graham led an eight-week series of revival meetings in Los Angeles, drawing multitudes and making converts of celebrities and commoners. He rocketed into the headlines and hasn't left them since, even today at age 95 and in frail health.

But there almost was no Los Angeles, no epochal career preaching to hundreds of millions as the 20th century's dominant personality in evangelical Christianity.

Sixty-five years ago this month, before most people had ever heard of him, Rev. Graham's evangelistic career was nearly buried here in the Central Pennsylvania railroad hub of Altoona.

A look back at Billy Graham's 1949 revival in Altoona

Before Rev. Billy Graham's 1949 triumph in Los Angeles, he had to endure two difficult weeks with a revival in Altoona. (Video by Bob Donaldson, 6/22/14)

He arrived here to conduct a two-week revival from June 12-26, 1949, counting on broad support from the city's numerous churches.

But as he recalled it, local pastors quarreled with him and each other, conversions lagged behind his expectations and services were disrupted. He recalled leaving the coal-burning town "discouraged and with painful cinders in my eyes."

"If I ever conducted a campaign that was a flop, humanly speaking, Altoona was it!" Rev. Graham wrote in his 1997 memoir, "Just As I Am."

"We could not help but sense that Satan was on the attack," he wrote. Rev. Graham, by then 30 years old and a veteran of more than 10 years on the revival trail, he thought of quitting and focusing on his day job as president of a Minnesota Bible college.

"I pondered whether God had really called me to evangelism after all," he wrote.

His song leader, Cliff Barrows, said the crusade team could only "pray and wonder what had happened and wish the meeting would get over with so we could get out of town," according to author William Martin's biography of Rev. Graham, "A Prophet With Honor."

Rev. Graham was also undergoing a crisis of faith that compounded his ordeal in Altoona.

But in fact, longtime Altoona-area residents who participated in the crusade recall it more positively. And at the time, the Altoona Mirror newspaper published glowing accounts of the services, with Rev. Graham reaping hundreds of converts and volunteers to the mission field.

There's no way at this distance in time to verify such numbers, but "the services were well-attended," recalled John Luciano, 94, a retired Pennsylvania Railroad mechanic who served as an usher at the crusade. "People were getting saved. ... Most of the fundamental churches backed him up, all the Brethren churches, the Assemblies of God churches, even some of the Presbyterians."

But some local pastors refused to sit on stage with others of different doctrinal views. Other ministers, including a visiting radio preacher, protested out front with placards, objecting to Rev. Graham's cooperation with churches that "didn't believe as they believed," Mr. Luciano recalled.

"It was the churches that were supposed to be preaching the Gospel that were against him," Mr. Luciano lamented.

'Christ for Altoona'

On a recent quiet afternoon, Bob Leidy returned with a reporter and photographer to the Jaffa Shrine, the 4,000-seat auditorium owned by local Shriners and rented out, then and now, for civic and religious activities.

As a small group prepared for an upcoming dance recital, Mr. Leidy stood on the same stage where he sang in the crusade choir during Rev. Graham's services. The wooden folding chairs with the leather upholstery remain as they were then, as do the auditorium's ornamental Arabic lettering and Moorish trim.

Despite the distance of the years, the old-time gospel music still came back easily for Mr. Leidy.

"Christ -- for -- me, yes it's Christ -- for -- me," Mr. Leidy sang. "He's my savior, my Lord and king; I'm so happy I shout and sing."

Mr. Leidy, 88, weathered but vigorous and full-haired, is a retired school custodian who keeps busy tending his backyard greenhouses. He regularly attended church since childhood and has long been a song leader at revival services. When he heard Rev. Graham was "coming to the little town of Altoona, I was just thrilled," he recalled.

An advertisement in the Mirror promoted the revival with the title, "Christ for Altoona ...City-Wide Victory Crusade." It touted the free parking and "4,000 upholstered seats." There was no air conditioning and the weather was stifling, and Mr. Leidy recalled an enthusiastic attendee who took it on himself to open the hall's upper-level windows.

The Altoona Mirror gave regular front-page treatment to the services. It praised the revival's musical performances led by soloist George Beverly Shea and the volunteer choir. The paper made no mention of any behind-the-scenes conflicts.

Rev. Graham's sermons bore titles like "Hell Fire and Brimstone" and carried fiercely anti-communist themes. Headlines about his revival shared space with stories of an Alger Hiss spy trial and other Cold War drama.

"American guns cannot stop the philosophy of communism," Rev. Graham told the Mirror. "The only hope for America and the Western world is an old-fashioned revival of religion."

On June 27, the Mirror reported: "The two-week evangelistic campaign conducted by the Laymen's Association of Altoona came to a successful conclusion. Thousands of persons heard the soul-stirring messages of the renowned evangelist Billy Graham and participated in the song services."

At the time, Mr. Leidy saw the revival as a success. But when he learned of the disputes in discussions with pastors afterward, "I was very discouraged and dejected," he said.

Mr. Luciano said Rev. Graham showed no signs of the stress he was experiencing.

"He was upbeat all the time," he said.

Faith under siege

If Rev. Graham's memories of Altoona were worse than the reality, it may be because he was vexed by more than cinders in his eyes.

"My very faith was under siege," he later recalled in his autobiography.

Earlier in the 1940s, Rev. Graham had been preaching with the group Youth for Christ, which mixed wholesome vaudeville acts and other entertainment with hard-sell evangelism.

The Youth for Christ team included a dazzling young evangelist named Charles Templeton.

Mr. Templeton, however, began to share his doubts with Rev. Graham -- first about the crusade gimmicks, then about the Bible itself.

Rev. Graham struggled to parry Mr. Templeton's challenges to the scientific accuracy of the book of Genesis or the notion that a loving God would consign people to hell.

Soon after Altoona, the evangelists met for two days of intense discussions at a New York hotel. "All our differences came to a head," Mr. Templeton wrote in a memoir, "Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith."

For Mr. Templeton, avoiding the hard questions meant "intellectual suicide," he wrote. He was posing a foundational challenge to Graham, whose sermons pulsed with the authoritative phrase, "The Bible says ... "

Rev. Graham later wrote that while he never considered abandoning the faith, he was studying theologians who affirmed basic Christian creeds -- but rejected a belief that everything in the Bible was literally true.

Later that summer, Rev. Graham took a solitary walk in the California woods, praying: "Oh, God, ... I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this Book by faith as the Word of God."

Then came Los Angeles, which validated Rev. Graham's conclusion that "when I take the Bible literally ... my preaching has power." A historic career was launched.

His early supporters in Altoona were thrilled.

"We sent him letters telling him we were backing him up no matter what," Mr. Luciano said.

Added Mr. Leidy: "We did not forget him. We know the Lord was in it all."

Rev. Graham never returned to preach in Altoona. But in 2012, the evangelist's daughter, Ruth Graham, spoke at the Jaffa Shrine at a fundraiser for Precious Life, a local program helping single mothers.

When she told her father she'd been to Altoona, "He got a twinkle in his eye and said, 'That was a tough one,'" she recalled.

Ms. Graham, who wasn't even born in 1949, said of her own Altoona experience: "People tried to make it up to Daddy through me," she said. "They couldn't have been kinder."


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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