Stories inside that L.A. revival tent

billy graham 1951The day is coming, sooner rather than later. How would you like to try to write a standard, newspaper-length obituary for the Rev. Billy Graham? How would you like to cover his entire life in somewhere between 600 and 2,000 words?

For some of us who work the religion beat, the recent death of Ruth Bell Graham forced us to open up the files that we have prepared on the Grahams -- paper files and digital files. While some will have to write full-life stories, others are surely planning a more focused approach to writing about Graham, either through a regional approach or what I would call a symbolic-detail approach, using one theme or event to symbolize his life. I am planning to do the latter, since I will be working with such a tight format in the Scripps Howard column (plus or minus 10 words). And no, I don't want to discuss what I am planning to write.

But you can see that major news organizations are getting ready.

Take, for example, the somewhat strange piece that ran this weekend in the Los Angeles Times by Cecilia Rasmussen, focusing on the crusades in that city that launched the young evangelist into fame in this country. It was his crusades in London, of course, that then made him a global figure who could easily cross many denominational lines.

The lede on this story is most strange and it stumbles in one or two places:

During a career spanning more than half a century, religious crusader the Rev. Billy Graham urged presidents, gangsters and African lepers to "take Christ into your heart and be saved."

But it was his first crusade, in Los Angeles in 1949, that catapulted him to religious stardom.

Huh? Note the really awkward wording in that phrase, "religious crusader the Rev. Billy Graham." Is an evangelist who leads crusades the same thing as a "religious crusader"? And how did the African lepers end up in that lede with the presidents and gangsters? And was L.A. his "first crusade," or was this his first crusade in L.A.? There's a difference.

Also, when did he preach to gangsters? Well, that is part of this Times story and you can read that for yourself. The story is interesting because of its documentation -- through old newspaper coverage from that era -- of so many interesting stories about who ended up inside that famous revival tent, listening to the 30-year-old preacher.

There is this famous anecdote:

Word that Hollywood celebrities were "stepping forward to receive Christ" reached publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who sent a two-word telegram to every editor in his newspaper chain: "Puff Graham."

Graham told The Times in 2004 that he learned about it from two of Hearst's sons. They believed their father came to the 1949 revival in his wheelchair and in disguise, accompanied by his longtime mistress, actress Marion Davies. Hearst's intervention prompted the revival to run eight weeks -- five weeks longer than planned. Hearst died less than two years later.

jr6 sizedAnd it appears that there were already Christians in Hollywood who were ready to help the young evangelist. I would say "embrace him," but in the case of one actress that would truly have been controversial.

There was, for example, a private meeting between Graham and a circle of Hollywood players:

Some of those stars included Jane Russell, Dennis Morgan, Virginia Mayo, Porter Hall, Connie Haines, Michael O'Shea, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Russell, a sassy, brassy, buxom bombshell, was nothing like her public image, actress June Lockhart said in a recent interview: "She regularly held Bible classes in her home."

Russell, now 86, starred in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and hung out with Howard Hughes. But she gave her heart to the Lord at age 5, she said in a recent interview.

"I had four brothers who built my mother a small amphitheater, surrounded by trees, at our two-acre Van Nuys home, where we held Friday night prayer meetings for relatives and studio folk," Russell said. "I remember wheeling a former soldier, wounded in the war, down that sawdust aisle [in 1949] to meet Billy and receive the Lord. I can't remember his name, but I remember how happy it made me, and him too."

There are just too many stories to tell. Way too many.

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