Billy Graham, 86, returned in late November, 2004 to the Rose Bowl to conduct a four-day Los Angeles crusade. Held from November 18-21, it was Graham’s 416th worldwide crusade.
Almost 13,400 people made a commitment to Jesus Christ, according to crusade officials. The crowd the final day 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, publisher William Randolph Hearst issued a directive to “Puff Graham.” That tent revival in Los Angeles launched Graham 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, Ind., 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. Home to the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, it is also the site of the founding of Youth For Christ, Billy Graham’s early employer.
Fred Hartley, writing in his book Everything by Prayer, (Christian Publications, Inc.) gives details of the Rainbow Room prayer meeting. It is the biography of Armin Gesswein, a Lutheran pastor, seminary professor, associate evangelist of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and founder of the Minister’s Prayer Fellowship and the Revival Prayer Fellowship. An excerpt from Hartley’s account reveals the following:
“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.
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.”
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.