The City


— MICAH 7:15

God loves this rebel city,

loves foemen brisk and game.



I cannot write feelingly about Billy Graham's magnificent sixteen weeks of ministry in New York City in 1957 because, unfortunately, I was not there. Our family had moved from south Berkeley, California, to east Oakland, where I was now having a rewarding time pastoring a lively church and watching God at work.

    Ever since I had begun preaching the Bible as God's authentic, inerrant Word, my ministerial frustrations had diminished. Many things in my life had come out of the shadows and into the sunshine, though there were dark patches still.

    Now the word was circulating among the churches that Billy Graham was coming back to San Francisco, the city that poet Vachel Lindsay said "would not repent," to conduct a four-week crusade in the famed Cow Palace, beginning in April 1958.

    A number of us ministers had been praying for it and expecting it. Charlie Riggs of the Graham team had given me a list of East Bay churches interested in joining the crusade. I was contacting them and arranging for late-night prayer meetings after the regular Wednesday evening prayer hour — to pray for Billy to come to San Francisco. I went to a lot of those prayer meetings myself.

Page 50

    In recent years I had been reading J. Edwin Orr and W.W. Sweet about the great revivals of history. In one particular book published in 1904, titled Great Revivals and the Great Republic, I found this startling statement by Warren Candler, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South:

The next great awakening will... bring forth... mighty men of God [who] will do something more than stir a local interest or excite a transient enthusiasm. Aided by all the modern devices of transportation and communication, they will be able to extend their influence as the revivalists in former times could not.... In America we may reasonably expect a great revival, the center of which will be in the west, and the power of which will be felt all along the Pacific Coast.2

    In the fall of 1957 I put together a little booklet called "Spiritual Awakening," and it was published by Cowman Press of Los Angeles. I quoted Bishop Candler's words. The publisher, Floyd Thatcher, sent a copy to Billy Graham and also one to Carl Henry at Christianity Today. The next thing I knew, Billy Graham was quoting Bishop Candler on his national radio broadcast, The Hour of Decision, and Carl Henry was inviting me to cover Billy's San Francisco crusade for his magazine.

    I continued to visit other evangelical churches in the East Bay, urging them to conduct special late-night prayer sessions on Wednesday evenings to intercede for Billy Graham. All this was unknown to the crusade committee, which was busy with other preparations. On Wednesday nights I found a lot of prayer warriors keen for revival, hoping God would bring it through Billy Graham. It was a time of glorious anticipation.

    I had grown up in Berkeley on the eastern shore of San Francisco bay. Before the bridges were built, the Berkeley I knew was a quiet, scholarly bedroom community from which thousands of businessmen, including my own father, commuted daily by electric train and ferryboat to "the city."

    I knew San Francisco! Boy, did I know it! For decades it had

Page 51

boasted a colorful history and sophisticated reputation. As a cocky sophomore in the University of California, I had dropped my Eagle Scout outlook and moved in the fast lane. That included touring Europe with a glee club and dancing with sorority coeds (wearing two-dollar gardenia corsages) at San Francisco's Fairmont, St. Francis, and Mark Hopkins hotels. Later I worked in a Mission Street factory and spent a year as a news reporter on the San Francisco Examiner, reporting fires, football, and fifty-seven varieties of sin.

    Those were the thirties. Now we were in the fifties; I was wedded to a Christian girl whose mother owned a Scofield Bible, and you know how those things go! I had changed a lot, but in April 1958, I doubted whether San Francisco had changed at all. Vachel Lindsay's "golden leopard" was as unrepentant as ever.

    A welcoming party met Dr. Graham at the Southern Pacific train depot, and they drove to the Hotel Californian. There in a small suite overlooking the skyscrapers, Billy held a press conference. The reporters were waiting for him. Coffee was served. I shook hands with Billy's father-in-law, Dr. Nelson Bell, executive editor of Christianity Today; with the crusade director, Dr. Walter Smyth; and with Billy.

    The greetings were so cordial, the atmosphere so warm and congenial, that I was not only captivated — I felt ecstatic. God had brought me into the presence of some people through whom He was actually doing something. I couldn't believe it. Even the reporters' questions reflected the upbeat atmosphere. I remembered that a few weeks earlier when the Reverend James Pike arrived to become the new bishop of San Francisco, he ordered two cases of whiskey for his press reception. But here the reporters were in a different mood, talking in a different vein to a different kind of reverend about the unseen mysteries of life — about sin and salvation and the very existence of the great God Himself!

    And what did Billy tell them at that conference? That the whole nation needed an awakening, and it might well start here. That he was not saying San Francisco was more sinful than other cities. That he was not preaching sectarianism and was not trying to make

Page 52

Baptists of everybody. That the basic problem of society was not the H-bomb or the guided missile threat but the human heart.

    The church editor of the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle was among those present. She was a lapsed member of the Armenian Orthodox church into which she had been born. Later, when we got to know each other, she told me that on that first day while Billy was answering questions in the hotel room, she felt herself suddenly swept into the kingdom of God, born again of the Holy Spirit.

    The following day, Sunday, April 27, the crusade was to open. My wife, our son, my mother-in-law, her sister, and I filled the car. Once over the Bay bridge and on the Bayshore Freeway, I turned off too soon. Realizing my mistake (but not admitting it), I circled around to the Cow Palace and found a convenient parking place. When Cliff Barrows stepped to the podium at three o'clock, we were inside, comfortable in good seats.

    Cliff's  first announcement was that traffic bound for the crusade was backed up for six miles on the Bayshore Freeway. Most of those people never got there that day. Did I make a mistake when I turned off early, or is there a God in heaven? Inside the building 18,000 people were sitting and standing, while 5,000 more waited outside, unable to get in. A choir of 1,500 voices, recruited from churches all over the Bay Area, began singing "Blessed Assurance." The people joined in. Billy went outside to invite those 5,000 standing at the gate, not to come inside, but to come to Christ. Hundreds raised their hands. On the way back to the pulpit, he paused to pray at the side of a paralyzed woman lying in an iron lung.

    The musical service proceeded, people were introduced, George Beverly Shea sang, and Billy Graham opened his Bible. One word was often used to describe what happened at that gathering in the Cow Palace of San Francisco on that Sunday afternoon. The word was awesome, but on the reflection I would say a better word for it would be joyous. Billy Graham based his message on a stern passage in the prophecy of Isaiah, but it only reinforced the jubilant spirit of the crowd.3

    When at the close of his message he extended the gospel invitation, people rose from their seats and streamed forward to commit

Page 53

their lives to the Savior, many of them weeping tears of gladness. They were the first of the 28,254 who responded during the seven weeks of Billy's preaching.

    And that was only the immediate scene. Nearly every city in Australia had a Graham prayer group praying for the meetings in California. Bob Pierce reported that Soviet Christians in Kiev and Moscow were praying for San Francisco. In India, Germany, and Taiwan it was the same story. Around the shores of San Francisco Bay 1,200 cottage prayer groups gathered weekly, asking God to bless the meetings.

    The people at Hillside Church, where I was pastor, had early caught the enthusiasm generated from the pulpit. Dr. Smyth, the crusade director, came and preached to us and prayed for a "heaven-sent revival." Meanwhile three other local pastors joined me in chartering a bus that offered free rides nightly from east Oakland over the Bay Bridge to the Cow Palace. Our youth group, our choir, our elders, and our prayer warriors all became zealous members of the nightly audience. The bus driver was an early convert.

    I have always been dissatisfied with the spectator status of a reporter who never does anything but only writes about what other people do. One night forty-two of our Hillside young people drove across the bridge to the crusade. When Billy gave his invitation, thirty-one of them went forward. I had already seen some members of our choir and even one or two of our elders down at the altar, but this was too much. Our Hillside kids at the Cow Palace altar giving their lives to Jesus?

    I went to Lorne Sanny, the Navigator president, who was heading the counseling and follow-up activity, and reported for work. He took off my press badge and gave me a counseling badge (I had already taken the course). For the next few nights I stayed late, talking and praying with inquirers in an overflow room and getting blessed out.

    Each evening before stepping on the platform, Billy held a brief press conference in a small dressing room at the Cow Palace. As the holder of a press pass, I attended frequently, sitting quietly in the back

Page 54

row. I thought Billy was unaware of my presence until one night he spoke to me.

    "Do you have a Ph. D.?" he asked.

    Surprised, I replied, "Yes, sir."


    "Edinburgh University."

    "I always admire people with a doctorate," he mused. He didn't mention that he himself held half a dozen honorary degrees from Christian colleges and Bible schools.

    Several evenings later I parked my car in the huge lot under the Cow Palace and clutching my Bible, hurried to claim a seat at the crusade press table. Suddenly a horn sounded behind me, and a driver jumped out of his car. "Sir," he said, "Mr. Graham is in the front seat, and he wants you to join him." I went around to the other side as the front door opened.

    "Get in, Sherwood," said Billy, moving over. I did , and he introduced me to the others in the car, including his brother Melvin. I didn't know Billy had a brother. As the car moved ahead, Billy patted me on the knee and said, "I want you to know that yours is the finest writing I've ever read about my work."

    I was speechless.

    "Come and sit with me on the platform," he added.

    The rest of the evening was like a dream. I only remember that while sitting next to Billy, I asked him a banal question, "Are you satisfied with the way the crusade has been going?"

    He smiled, but his answer was typical. "We are never satisfied, for we are always looking for deeper things."

    The next night I was back at the press table.

    Sitting at one of those early evening press conferences a few days later, I waited until everyone else had left and then asked, "Mr. Graham, would it be all right if I interviewed some of the people who have made decisions at the crusade and wrote them up?"


    Presto! The man had spoken. Badges were issued. Doors were opened. Introductions were made. Telephones, typewriters, and counselor files became available. Scrapbooks of clippings were

Page 55

brought out. People were tracked down. Publishers became interested. God was smiling.

    The crusade ended with a rally in June at Seals Stadium. Nine months later my first book, Crusade at the Golden Gate, was released by Harper & Brothers.4 It contained chapters about San Francisco and its people, Billy and his team, his message — its effectiveness and its outreach. The book also had ten stories about "inquirers" who had found a new relationship with Jesus Christ at the Cow Palace.

Chapter 6  ||  Table of Contents

1. Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1942), 6.

2. Warren Candler, Great Revival and the Great Republic (Nashville: Methodist Episcopal Church South, Publishers, 1904), 325.

3. Isaiah 1:1-20 (KJV) formed the prophetic basis of Billy's first message in the 1958 San Francisco crusade.

4. S.E. Wirt, Crusade at the Golden Gate (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959).

Chapter 6  ||  Table of Contents