By Will Hall, Message Editor
ALEXANDRIA (LBM) — Billy Graham touched the world with the Gospel message for nearly 67 years after he was ordained in 1939.
But he left a special imprint on Louisiana from almost the very start of his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950 through the first decade of the 21st century: leading crusades in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and, at Louisiana College in Pineville; comforting victims after Hurricane Katrina; and, paying for the construction of two chapels at Angola prison.
Meanwhile, Louisiana Baptists are engaging with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in a project to extend his impact in the state for years to come.
EARLY DAYS IN LOUISIANA
In 1951, Graham conducted two evangelistic events in the state: April 8-29 in Shreveport, taking one day, April 25, to speak in Pineville at Louisiana College.
In anticipation of the Shreveport campaign, M.E. Dodd, pastor emeritus of the First Baptist Church in Shreveport and a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in the Baptist Message that 20,000 Louisianans had been gathering in special meetings to bathe the outreach in prayer.
He described Graham as “a God intoxicated man” who was calling on Louisiana Baptists to continue “to pray, and pray more, and pray more earnestly.”
The Shreveport Times reported the 22-day soul-winning push netted an estimated 200,000 in attendance and the Baptist Message documented there were 3,000 spiritual decisions.
While at Louisiana College he spoke to a “spellbound” crowd of 9,000 – 10,000 “that overflowed Louisiana College stadium with its 8,000 capacity and spilled over into the playing field and even beyond.”
The Baptist Message described Graham as “a Jonah sounding God’s warning that Nineveh would be destroyed,” but also reported that “Graham made an effort to avoid sensationalism in the service” and yet “an estimated 300 persons assembled at one end of the field after the sermon, definitely committing themselves to Jesus.”
At the time, Graham was considered a top candidate to be president of Louisiana College, according to historical records.
In 1954, Graham again led two evangelistic events in Louisiana. He hosted “four weeks of near-daily sessions” in New Orleans, according to the Times-Picayune, only interrupting that great harvest to travel to Baton Rouge for a one-night revival according to the Baptist Message.
Starting Oct. 3 in Pelican Stadium with a crowd of 10,000, he finished his evangelistic effort in the “Big Easy” on Halloween in front of 61,500 in Tulane Stadium, the Times-Picayune reported.
“I have fallen in love with this city and its people,” Graham said, adding that he hoped to return some day. “A total of 4,411 people committed their lives to Christ during the crusade,” the report stated.
In the midst of the New Orleans outreach, Graham took time on Oct. 25 to go to Baton Rouge to preach to 25,000 gathered in the horseshoe shaped stadium “within the shadow of the towering State Capitol Building.”
“His message contained nothing especially new,” the Baptist Message article recorded. “The entire service was so void of the spectacular … that a painful thought came to mind – ‘What if only a handful come [forward] tonight?’”
But the aisles overflowed and in the end, “500 people stood before the platform to hear the Preacher exhort them to pray, read their Bibles and witness daily.”
LATER YEARS IN THE STATE
Graham returned to Baton Rouge in 1970, but this time for five services conducted at the then-67,000-seat stadium at Louisiana State University.
The Baptist Message reported that more than 196,000 persons attended despite inclement weather, with many LSU students among the crowds of young people who were there.
In all, 9,076 total decisions were made “as a result of Graham’s preaching.”
But guests also heard from LSU football standout Andy Hamilton, who was the leading scorer at the time, as well as from the 1970 Miss America Phyllis George.
Hamilton said he had found something in the Bible that he “couldn’t find if I ran up and down this field for the next thousand years – the power of Jesus Christ!”
For her part, George told the crowd she loved the Lord and proclaimed, “Jesus can help us to [make] right decisions in everything. I plead with you to turn to God.”
In June 1982 Graham also made it back to New Orleans to hold a rally in the Superdome in connection with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
He was joined by then-Vice President George H. W. Bush as well as Johnny and June Cash with their son, John Carter Cash, and 42,000 other guests.
Described in a Baptist Message report as “a mixture of an ‘ole fashioned political rally, a country fair and a revival meeting,” an estimated 2,000 persons came forward during the meeting that night “to accept Christ or make some other religious decision.”
MOST RECENT VISIT
After his June 17, 2005 sermon before a crowd of 90,000 in New York City, Graham retired from conducting stadium crusades. But that did not hinder him from coming to New Orleans in March 2006 to console Katrina-battered communities and take part in a two-day Celebration of Hope, originally scheduled to feature just his son, Franklin.
While in the city the older Graham surveyed the damage in the Ninth Ward, commenting that with Katrina’s aftereffects and the ongoing war in Iraq, “… if ever the country needs to turn to God it is now.”
He also visited the First Baptist Church in New Orleans where he spoke to 1,000 church leaders, pastors and their wives. Standing behind the pulpit he had used during the 1954 New Orleans Crusade, he encouraged them to trust God who restored Job’s losses, giving Job “many more times … he had ever had in the beginning.”
Yet, two of Graham’s spiritual contributions to Louisiana took place without him coming to the state:
— In 2008, prisoners in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola took part in the dedication of the Camp F chapel inside the barbed wire fences surrounding the prison.
— A year later, employees at the former deadliest prison in America, celebrated the completion of the B Line chapel for the “free” community that lives at Angola.
Burl Cain, warden of the Angola prison, 1995 – 2016, told the Baptist Message that Graham, his son, the BGEA, Samaritan’s Purse and the rest of the Graham family, combined, likely contributed on the order of $800,000 to construct both structures.
GRAHAM’S INFLUENCE TO CONTINUE
Despite Graham’s declining health during the last decade, the BGEA has extended his evangelistic ministry by developing a thriving outreach presence at PeacewithGod.net.
Through this social media platform, people from all walks of life see and hear a clear Gospel message through videos and Scripture. Trained volunteers are ready to answer their spiritual questions, point them to Christ and help them grow in their faith
Since launching April 2011 through February 2018, PeacewithGod.net has recorded 11.5 million indicated decisions for Christ with more than 1.6 million requests for follow-up materials. Now, Louisiana Baptists are about to contribute to continuing Graham’s soul-winning legacy, by partnering with the BGEA “to increase their online outreach in Louisiana,” said John Kyle, Director of Communications for Louisiana Baptists. “In 2017, more than 14,000 people in Louisiana indicated they prayed to receive Christ via the BGEA’s internet outreach,” Kyle said. “This is up from the approximately 9,300 indicated decisions in 2016.”
In both years, roughly one third of the responders requested follow-up materials and contact, Kyle added, making Louisiana one of the more responsive states for this effort. However, BGEA officials have informed Louisiana Baptists there are only 2 trained counselors in the state.
Kyle said his Communications Team is working with the Louisiana Baptist Evangelism Team to collaborate with the BGEA.
Eventually, they hope to enlist hundreds of Louisiana Baptists to train to be a Chat Coach, Discipleship Coach or Email Coach for the thousands of Louisianans who are seeking Christ each year on PeacewithGod.net.
“This is an exciting opportunity to be a part of Billy Graham’s legacy and get in on what God is doing across the state,” noted Kyle. “Make yourself available, make your church available, to follow up on these commitments.”
Persons interested in volunteering to be a Chat Coach, Discipleship Coach or Email Coach are encouraged to visit www.searchforJesus.net (sister site of PeacewithGod.net) and click on the “Get Involved” link at the top of the screen.
Also, real-time decisions from around the world can be viewed at www.searchforJesus.net/pray so individuals can support these live evangelism contacts in prayer.