I WAS IN THE SPIRIT ON THE LORD'S DAY, AND I
HEARD BEHIND ME A LOUD VOICE, AS OF
A TRUMPET, SAYING . . . WRITE . . . .
Seated on a camp chair under a coconut palm tree on the shore of Hilo Bay, Hawaii, opposite Coconut Island, I began typing my first book. The year was 1933, and I was twenty-two years old. My desk was a fruit crate which reposed a seventeen-dollar portable typewriter. The manuscript was titled The Glory Hole, and it described realistically and saucily the life of a deck boy aboard a seagoing Matson Line sugar freighter. I intended it to be my passport into the literary world of Alec Waugh and W. Somerset Maughham, but the Writer in the Sky intended otherwise. The yellowing manuscript is still in my file.
Other attempts as writing books met the same fate: a narrative about a rowboat trip on the Yukon River, a church history essay titled Pioneers of Faith in Action, and even a doctoral dissertation that won a degree but failed to make it into print.
Not until twenty-six years had passed did my first genuine, authentic, professional hardback come off the press of Harper & Brothers in 1959. Its title? Crusade at the Golden Gate. Its subject? Billy Graham. Who marketed it? Friends of Billy Graham. On the flyleaf Billy wrote, "To Sherwood Wirt, with deep appreciation for this contribution to our ministry and the Kingdom of God. Billy Graham,
Philippians 1:6." Norman Vincent Peale wrote me that he considered it the finest book written about Billy to date.
So began at long last a literary career that under God has included writing and publishing over two dozen books, editing many others, and producing a magazine for Billy Graham that set records in Christian publishing, while expanding its own outreach to ten issues in five foreign languages (French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese) and Braille.1
During Decision's first year of publication, our growth was phenomenal, but so were my editorial problems. Good contemporary material, I discovered, was hard to find. Writers were inundating us with testimonies, poetry, and stories about their hospital stays, but it was mostly unusable.
In December 1961, three Minnesota writers invited my wife and me to accompany them to a Christian writer's conference in Chicago, and I came back with a secret agenda. It was to establish a writers' seminar that would teach God's people how to write top-grade, highly readable material for the market, including Decision. And there was something more.
In meeting with writers and aspiring writers, I had made a pitiful discovery. Many of them were making the same mistakes in dealing with publishers that I had made for twenty-five years. Thanks to Billy Graham, I had learned at last how a writer can get his or her material into print, and I wanted to share that with them. Especially I wanted them to stop wasting their time and postage sending off manuscripts to unknown outlets.
In January 1962, Billy summoned his team to a meeting at the Biltmore Terrace Hotel in Miami Beach, and I was included. When my turn came to give a brief report of my ministry, I told the team my plan while I stood facing Billy. I said the devotional material being submitted to us at Decision was not what the Christians I knew wanted to read in the 1960s. They wanted fresh, lively, captivating articles and testimonies that reflected scriptural truth, that were not above using humor, and that spoke directly to the reader's condition with a victorious message of faith and hope and love.
Then I said that I wanted to inaugurate a school of Christian
writing that would produce writers who would contribute choice material to our magazine. I proposed to hold it at the Billy Graham headquarters in Minneapolis. As I sat down, I noticed that Billy was smiling.
Later I spoke to him, and he said simply, "Draw up a plan and send it to me." I soon learned that Billy was different from other evangelists in one significant way: he understood the value of the written word in bringing people to Christ. He was not solely verbal, or as Disraeli said of Gladstone, "inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity."
Billy Graham was in fact deeply committed to literary evangelism and had already written Peace with God and The Secret of Happiness, two excellent books that became bestsellers and were translated into scores of languages, including Russian. His crusade sermons and radio messages were also printed and mailed out daily as tracts, and he was starting a daily syndicated column titled "My Answer," which still appears today in many newspapers.
Here is a partial list of Billy's books to date:
America's Hour of Decision, 1951
Peace with God, 1953
The Secret of Happiness, 1955
My Answer, 1960
World Aflame, 1965
The Challenge, 1969
The Jesus Generation, 1971
How to Be Born Again, 1977
The Holy Spirit, 1978
Till Armageddon, 1981
Approaching Hoofbeats, 1983
A Biblical Standard for Evangelists, 1984
Unto the Hills, 1986
Facing Death and the Life After, 1987
Answers to Life's Problems, 1988
Hope for the Troubled Heart, 1991
Storm Warning, 1992
Just As I am (Memoirs), 1997
It was Billy's determination to proclaim the Gospel by the written word that brought into being Christianity Today and Decision. Not every evangelist has chosen the literary route. Some seem to have a great reluctance to sit down and write a paragraph. Life for them is verbal rather than literary. They listen to tapes, but read few books other than the Bible. They quote to me Paul's remark in his letter to the Romans: "How shall they hear without a preacher?"2
I agree that Paul certainly favored preaching, and yet I remind writers that it is what Paul wrote, rather than what he preached verbally, that has come down to us. He himself admitted that his letters were more powerful than his sermons. Perhaps he knew certainly the Holy Spirit knew that if it were not for the written word of Scripture, today's church would have nothing to preach. Preaching is vital always has been and always will be until Jesus returns. Electronics have augmented preaching and made it even more significant. But we should never underestimate the power of the written word.
When I returned to Minneapolis, I found that not everyone at the Billy Graham headquarters favored my idea of a school of writing. We had no dormitory facilities and no auditorium. "Anyway," I was asked, "what has a writing school to do with evangelism?"
Nevertheless, in July 1963, some ninety writers enrolled in the first three-day Decision School of Christian Writing. Our Decision staff made up the entire faculty, with one addition. I read a message of greetings sent from North Carolina by Billy Graham. We held some workshops on stairwells and ate meals at odd hours and paid our way. As for those who attended, they were totally enthusiastic and promised to come back next year, which they did in large numbers.
A couple of years later, unknown to us, the heiress to an industrial fortune attended one of our writing schools as a registrant. We gave her the same courteous treatment we gave everybody who came to the school. She went home so delighted that when she wrote her thanks, she enclosed a generous gift to the ministry of the Billy Graham Association. After that I heard no questions about the evangelistic value of writing seminars! Meanwhile the Holy Spirit kept blessing the incoming mail departments with new subscriptions, and
readers continued to write us saying in different ways that they had found Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord through the pages of the magazine. The subscription list to Decision increased until our monthly press run peaked at 5,285,000 copies, making it the largest Christian magazine in the world.
In the years since 1963, Christian writing seminars have burgeoned, spreading over America and the entire world under different auspices but all serving the same Lord. I have taught such schools in Alaska, Canada, several countries of Europe, South America, South Africa, and all around the Pacific Rim. Billy Graham may not fully realize it, but his interest in literary evangelism was a primary impetus in starting it all.
On an airplane trip from Auckland to Sydney I had the pleasure of sharing with Ruth and Billy Graham, at their request, some of the principles I still use in teaching fellow writers. The Grahams, of course, are both brilliant writers, and each has had an amazing literary output. I have no doubt that their books will not only be on the shelves until the Lord returns, but will be taken down and read repeatedly.
And what is it that I tell Christians who write and want to become published? I ask four questions:
1. Motivation. Why do you wish to write? Ambition? Pride? Money? Christ offers a better motive.
2. Contacts. Getting into print is like getting into heaven: It's not what you do; it's whom you know.
3. Discipline. Write something every day. Then join a critique group and rewrite it.
4. Tools. Whatever you need. Ask your family to stop giving you neckties and sweaters for Christmas and instead give you tools for writing.
1. As this volume indicates, my own life and ministry for Jesus Christ developed not so much through preaching or churchmanship as through writing. It is small wonder that I encourage other ministers to develop their writing skills. The San Diego County Christian Writers' Guild, which I founded in 1977, is now the largest in North America. My book The Making of a Writer was published by Augsburg in 1987 and in 1996 appeared in Spanish.
2. Romans 10:14
Chapter 15 || Table of Contents