Chapter 1 - What God Has Done
Series: Our Fathers Saw His Mighty Works
Yes, there was a time in this country from the mid 1940’s through the mid 1950’s when God moved powerfully, bringing many thousands of souls to repentance and salvation and radically transforming their lives. It’s a time not often talked about anymore; but, as a revival preacher reflecting nearly six decades afterward told me, it was an especially fruitful season within the church during which he personally witnessed such movements of the Spirit as are only rarely repeated today. And there’s a very good chance that if you were to start compiling a spiritual “family tree,” you’d discover that your own Christian roots went back to the mighty work that God did in this country in the ten or so years following World War II.
We’re all well-acquainted with the fact that the end of the war in 1945 began a “baby boom” in the United States. The population started to soar as innumerable thousands of men returned from overseas, got married, and started families. But it’s equally true that during that same time there was a church population boom. By 1955, church membership had increased nearly 25 percent from what it had been before the war.1 And even more impressive is the fact that near the end of the 1950’s nearly half of all Americans were worshiping on a weekly basis.2
But dry statistics only tell the very surface of the story. During those days of television’s infancy, radio was still the most popular medium. And as popular as were detective and comedy shows, the broadcasts with the largest audiences were The Old Fashioned Revival Hour and The Lutheran Hour, Bringing Christ to the Nations.3 Every Sunday, Dr. Walter A. Maier of The Lutheran Hour authoritatively preached God’s Word over the air waves, boldly condemning sin and proclaiming Jesus the Savior. Within a year after the war’s end, he was the most listened-to radio broadcaster;4 and the total number of weekly listeners (national and international) continued to rise to an estimated 20 million three years after the war.5 More than a few supporters wrote in to report, “As you walk down the street at 12:30 on Sundays, you can hear The Lutheran Hour from almost every home.”6 Just as vital and popular was Charles E. Fuller’s weekly church service and sermon over The Old Fashioned Revival Hour, calling people to repentance and new life in Christ. And the responses poured in, about 400 people each week during the 1950’s writing to say they had become Christians because of that broadcast.7
Lists of the best-selling books from that era only add to the story.8 For three years in a row, from 1952 through 1954, the best-selling non-fiction book in the nation was the newly translated Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Other non-fiction best-sellers of the era included Mr. Jones, Meet the Master, a book of sermons by Senate chaplain Dr. Peter Marshall; A Man Called Peter, a biography of the same Dr. Marshall; Angel Unaware, a testimony of praise to God by movie stars Roy and Dale Evans Rogers after the sickness and death of their young daughter; and The Secret of Happiness by Evangelist Billy Graham.
Perhaps one of the reasons that the story of God’s working in the post World War II years has often been overlooked is that for the most part it did not occur all at once through the ministry of one man or one church. This made it more difficult for the media to pick up on the story. The “Mid-Century Awakening,” as it was called by notable Christian historian Dr. J. Edwin Orr,9 was largely a gradual work of God, a steady stream of Christian growth over a period of ten or more years. The exception to this was Billy Graham and the 1949 Los Angeles campaign that launched him to fame.
In the late 1940’s, there began to be a movement among pastors of many denominations in America to meet and pray to God for a spiritual awakening.10 One of the most noteworthy of their gatherings was a March 1949 multi-day prayer conference near Los Angeles at which several hundred pastors and their wives “continued in penitence and prayer until the early hours of the mornings. There was a great moving of the Spirit, with the spirit of Revival being carried out from the conference . . . .”11 During the next year, pastors’ prayer meetings for revival began springing up all over the nation in cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, and Chicago.12 But much of the prayer was centered in the Los Angeles area in anticipation of an upcoming city-wide evangelistic campaign.13
The campaign was held in a large tent in downtown Los Angeles, and the preacher was the young and fairly unknown evangelist Billy Graham. But the faithful pray-ers saw God answer as thousands flocked to the services night after night until the originally scheduled three weeks of meetings were extended to eight weeks.14 Conversions were recorded by the hundreds and then thousands. “So deep was the moving of the Holy Spirit that at times Graham did not have to preach. After some of the testimonies from the converts all he had to do was give the invitation.”15 After the conversion of a well-known regional radio celebrity, local and national newspapers and magazines like Time began to spread all around the nation reports of a revival in Los Angeles.16 By the campaign’s end, 3,000 had received Christ for the first time and another 3,000 had returned to Him again.17 From Los Angeles, Graham moved on to Boston where another 3,000 people were converted in just eighteen days.18 Thus, Billy Graham quickly became a nationally known figure, holding campaigns in several large cities every year with tens of thousands professing conversion and reviving under his ministry.
With the public now eager to hear more revival news, the national press picked up on the story of a revival in February 1950 at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts institution about 20 miles outside Chicago. A regularly scheduled evening chapel service turned into 42 hours of unbroken student-led confessions and testimonies. Time magazine reported,
“Singly and in little groups, sweatered and blue-jeaned undergraduates streamed onto the stage, filling up the choir chairs to await their turns. Hour after hour they kept coming. All night long, all the next day, all through the following night and half the following day, students poured out confessions of past sins and rededicated themselves to God. The auditorium filled up and overflowed into a smaller chapel downstairs. Classes had to be canceled altogether.”19
What the national press didn’t realize was that the revival at Wheaton was the tenth such movement since the first college revival had occurred ten months earlier at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota.20 Each of these revivals had started among students with a deep-felt need for prayer, followed by strong conviction of sin, confession, repentance, and conversions.21 These campus revivals continued for well over two years until at least 20 colleges had been touched.22
But God was working in many more ways around the country than just those that the press was reporting in its headlines. More than a few state’s governors were outspoken Christians, such as William S. Beardsley of Iowa who encouraged a huge evangelistic crusade to be held on the State Capitol lawn saying, “Spiritual revival is the greatest need in Iowa . . . We urge the people of this state to seek God in this crisis hour;”23 or Luther W. Youngdahl of Minnesota who told a Graham campaign crowd, “. . . More important than winning elections is winning souls for Christ.”24 After the elections of 1950 brought a new influx of congressmen to Washington, D.C., Christian sources reported that there were over 100 Christian Senators and Representatives lending their influences in the nation’s capital. Many of them were very active in prayer and Bible study groups and teaching Sunday School in nearby churches.25 Even President Eisenhower sought counsel from Billy Graham regarding his eternal destiny and soul’s salvation26 and was often quoted as saying things like, “A democracy cannot exist without a religious base.”27
With such a growing Christian influence in the federal government, it was not so surprising that in 1954 Congress voted to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance so that every day countless school children across the land would recite, “One nation, under God.”28 The next year, Congress ordered that the phrase “In God We Trust” be printed on all new paper money in addition to the coins on which it was already stamped.29 And in 1956, a bill was passed making that same phrase, “In God We Trust,” the national motto.30
This working of God in the post World War II years affected even Hollywood. Through some unusual but divine circumstances, an evangelist was invited to speak to a small group of Hollywood stars one evening in 1949. He preached on Matthew 6:24, “No man can serve two masters,” and told his listeners that they must decide between serving God and serving self since there was no middle ground.31 He could hardly have imagined that the small gathering that night was the first of what was to become the Hollywood Christian Group in which forty to fifty entertainment personalities assembled weekly for Bible study, prayer, and fellowship;32 at least twenty unsaved stars became believers;33 and more than fifteen left the secular entertainment industry in favor of Christian service.34 The wholesome witness of these Christian stars began to be felt not only in their own studios but especially in Christian films and songs.35
It would be difficult to estimate the tremendous number of souls who turned to Jesus or were revived during this “Mid-Century Awakening” because multiplied tens of thousands of individual testimonies of ordinary people were never written down or published. Besides the many who became Christians and joined a church for the first time, the numbers were probably even greater of those already in the church who either were converted to Christ or were revived and revitalized. The individual stories preserved for us today are relatively few, but a sampling of three may help us to understand the impact that this work of God had on that and future generations.
In 1947, a young Los Angeles businessman became a Christian through the ministry of the revived Hollywood Presbyterian Church and immediately became active in the church. At a Sunday School teachers’ conference only a few months later, he and several others were so moved by the plea for evangelism that they afterwards asked the speaker if they could pray with her. When their fervent prayer meeting had gone on for several hours, they received an indelible vision from God of revival among the unsaved college students of the world.36 The young businessman was Bill Bright, and thus was born the vision for what ultimately became Campus Crusade for Christ.
In the early 1950’s, a certain teenager who had no use for God woke up every Sunday morning to The Old Fashioned Revival Hour which his mother had tuned in on his radio. Rather than get up and turn it off, he listened to Charles Fuller’s evangelistic preaching many times. One Sunday evening, maybe mostly out of idle curiosity, he got a group of friends to go to a local church with him. There he heard the same kind of preaching that he had heard on the radio for the last two years, and he received Jesus as his Lord and Savior before leaving the building.37 That teenager was Jerry Falwell who went on to become a nationally known preacher, the founder of Liberty University and, perhaps most notably, a co-founder of the Moral Majority in 1979.
In 1953, a promising young dance instructor woke up one Sunday morning to his radio alarm clock broadcasting the voice of Bible teacher Donald Grey Barnhouse. “If you were to die tonight and God were to say to you, ‘What right do you have to enter into my heaven?’ what would you say?” The dance instructor was so startled that he sat on the edge of his bed and kept listening.38 Intrigued by what he heard, he went out to a nearby newsstand and bought a copy of The Greatest Story Ever Told, a retelling of the four Gospels. Several days later when he had finished the book, he said, “It seemed as if the Cross of Christ had been erected right in my apartment . . . I slipped . . . onto my knees and asked Christ to come into my heart and . . . cleanse me of my sins.”39 Within several years this man had attended seminary and planted a church. His name was D. James Kennedy, and he became a widely broadcasted televangelist and the originator of Evangelism Explosion.
Perhaps one reason why the work of God in this country in the mid-20th Century has been underestimated in succeeding years is because the individual testimonies that have been preserved are mainly just those of a few well-known and famous people. Another equally true reason is that, as the signs of revival began to disappear in the late 1950’s, the climate quickly disintegrated into the turbulence of the early and middle 1960’s before giving way to the youth revival movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (see Appendix 3 regarding that second era of revival). No doubt such things as the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the banishment of prayer from public schools, the beginning of the Vietnam War, and the youth counterculture and drug culture caused many to forget the wonderful works that God had done just a decade or two earlier.
In the years following the post World War II revival, analysts and critics have often attributed the revival to mere interest in religion or faith in faith. In other words, Christianity was just the popular cultural thing to do and a sort of tool for self improvement and ego building. They’ve also pointed out that the soldiers returning from four years of horrific war overseas were probably longing to get back into a sense of community like the one that organized religion provided. But it seems that the most popular explanation offered by the critics is that the revival of God and Christianity in the 1950’s was the best way of uniting the nation against the dreaded advance of atheistic Communism. If the underlying key to Communism was the absence of God, then the best way to defeat Communism was by fostering the presence of God.
While it would be foolish to completely dismiss all of the keen observations of the critics, it would be equally foolish to brush aside all of the evidence in the preceding paragraphs and conclude that God had little or nothing to do with it. It’s true that for many people Christianity was nothing more than the popular cultural thing to do and a passing fad. But such an explanation does not account for all of the hearts and lives that were permanently changed during that era. I’m sure that you, like I, have known more than a few wonderful Christian people who trace their conversions back to that time. The enduring witness of their Christian lives cannot be explained away by fear of Communism or fulfillment in community.
The explanation for those thousands of changed lives is the mighty work of God. And the reason why these paragraphs have been written is beautifully given in Psalm 78: “We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done . . . That the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments.” (Psalm 78:4,6-7 NKJV)
It was the Spirit of God that did a mighty work in our country in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and we must pass that story on to the next generations. We must tell them that it was God who altered the course of a country, saving people from sin and calling them into His kingdom. And if we tell this to our children and our children’s children, they too may put their hope in God, believing that He is everything He claims to be and that He is able to do a mighty work again in our own hearts, in our churches, and in our country. There have been more than a few instances in the history of our country when the recounting of God’s wonderful works has stirred up a younger generation to humble themselves and to seek God’s face, thus paving the way for another revival.
Who can say what great things God still has in store for us in America? Only He knows. But we can at least conclude that since He is the same God as He was 60 or 300 or 3,000 years ago, He is able to do as great of works in our generation as He did for our ancestors. And with that confidence, we can joyfully say with the Psalmist, “We will show forth Your praise to all generations.” (Psalm 79:13b NKJV)
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