Two October evenings in 1949 brought together an alcoholic war hero and a fiery young evangelist. From then on, neither would be the same.
The preaching in that rented circus tent in Los Angeles changed Louis Zamperini, then 32. He put away the bottle forever and devoted the rest of his life to Christian testimony and good works.
And those Los Angeles nights also changed the preacher, Billy Graham, and the future course of American evangelicalism. In Graham’s autobiography, “Just As I Am,” he calls that chapter of his life “Watershed.”
On Christmas Day, a movie about Zamperini’s extraordinary survival amid the horrors of Japanese POW camps opens in theaters. “Unbroken” is based on the award-winning book by Laura Hillenbrand.
Many Christians are disappointed that the film version of “Unbroken” ends before the former Olympian is dragged by his wife to Graham’s tent revival, the climactic chapter of Hillenbrand’s best-seller.
Yet it was this eight-week sin-slaying marathon where the story of “Billy Graham as an icon begins,” said Duke Divinity School historian Grant Wacker. He’s the author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” published just before Graham’s 96th birthday last month.
Every element of what became the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s crusade juggernaut came together for the first time in this early campaign, said William Martin, author of the acclaimed biography “A Prophet With Honor.”
Graham didn’t invent these trends, but he pulled them together to knit a new creation: the prototype evangelistic crusade as a religious, social and political force.
What you see him doing in Los Angeles he began to do all the time, “recognizing and amplifying patterns already at work,” Wacker said.
That included networking long before that term became a verb, targeting celebrities and riding the Red Scare — “Time’s running out,” he would preach.
Graham may have been the first evangelist to pace the pulpit with a lapel microphone like a modern talk-show host. With a commanding voice, the tall and movie-handsome evangelist seemed to connect eye to eye, ear to ear with every person in the tent.
“He was speaking to — and from — the heartland’s moral world. He personified the moral dimension of a Norman Rockwell world of small towns and summer nights — and clear overlay of right and wrong. He delineated the strongly normative path to salvation for individuals and for the culture,” Wacker said.
Los Angeles changed not just Graham, but also his audience.
As Wacker details in Christian History magazine: “He had preached 65 sermons to an aggregate audience of 350,000 — maybe 400,000 — souls jammed into a Ringling Brothers tent pitched near the city’s central shopping district.” The meetings ran every night and Sunday afternoons for nearly two months; around 6,000 either committed or recommitted their lives to Christ.
Graham gave dozens of interviews and spoke to civic, school and business groups, making three to four appearances a day. He even schmoozed with Hollywood’s Cecil B. DeMille, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
He sold papers and papers sold him. “Puff Graham,” William Randolph Hearst ordered his editors across the country. By the time the Los Angeles campaign ended, Graham was rocketing to national and international acclaim amid 400 more crusades.
“Everywhere we turned, someone wanted us to come and do for them what had been done in Los Angeles,” Graham wrote in “Just As I Am.” No longer could he see himself as a country preacher leading “a little evangelistic team.”
Los Angeles fame opened doors for Graham to a different level of people and power: presidents and the national press.
“People want to come and hear a person who is famous,” said Martin, who directs the Religion and Public Policy program at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Had it not been for the 1949 national exposure, “he would have been a one-night wonder.”
By 1957, Graham could pack Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for weeks on end.
And by then, he had the staying power to withstand critics from his fundamentalist early years when he began opening ecumenical doors, first with Catholics, later with Jews.
“What Graham did was normalize the idea that you can cooperate with others,” Wacker said. “He wanted to retain a core of belief without breaking fellowship with everyone else who believed in God and Christ, moral values and patriotism. He represented the possibility of a consensus, of a bridge.”
He shifted from firing “turn-or-burn” thunderbolts to a mesmerizing, almost crooning, invitation to people to step toward the pulpit and change their lives by seeing them differently, through the prism of a new relationship with God.
“Words. That’s all he’s got,” said Susan Harding, a retired religion professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, describing the power that Graham mastered so early on.
“No ritual. No liturgy. No paperwork. Graham speaks the gospel and invades the listeners’ minds to strip away their old ways of understanding and experience. He adds their life up anew and asks them to tell their life stories from now on in gospel terms.”
On that night of Oct. 23, Zamperini heard Graham say: “If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.”
Hillenbrand, drawing on 70 interviews with Zamperini for “Unbroken,” tells how he recalled all the miraculous moments when he might have broken and yet did not.
But on that night, Zamperini broke down. And so he walked down the aisle toward the preacher. Over the next six decades, hundreds of thousands followed him.
“God has spoken to you,” Graham said. “You come on.”