ALTOONA, Pa. – In the fall of 1949, the Rev. Billy Graham led an eight-week series of revival meetings in Los Angeles, drawing multitudes and making converts of celebrities and others. He rocketed into the headlines and hasn’t left them since, even today at age 95 and in frail health.
But there almost was no Los Angeles, no epochal career preaching to hundreds of millions as the 20th century’s dominant personality in evangelical Christianity.
Sixty-five years ago that summer, before most people had ever heard of him, Graham’s evangelistic career was nearly buried here in the Central Pennsylvania railroad hub of Altoona.
He arrived in Altoona in 1949 to conduct a revival from June 12 to 26, counting on broad support from the city’s numerous churches.
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But as he recalled it, local pastors quarreled with him and each other, conversions lagged behind his expectations, and services were disrupted. He recalled leaving the coal-burning town “discouraged and with painful cinders in my eyes.”
“If I ever conducted a campaign that was a flop, humanly speaking, Altoona was it!” Graham wrote in his 1997 memoir, “Just As I Am.”
“We could not help but sense that Satan was on the attack,” he wrote. Graham, 30 at the time and a veteran of more than 10 years on the revival trail, thought of quitting and focusing on his day job as president of a Minnesota Bible college.
“I pondered whether God had really called me to evangelism after all,” he wrote.
His song leader, Cliff Barrows, said the crusade team could only “pray and wonder what had happened and wish the meeting would get over with so we could get out of town,” according to author William Martin’s biography of Graham, “A Prophet With Honor.”
Graham was also undergoing a crisis of faith that compounded his ordeal in Altoona.
Even so, longtime Altoona-area residents who participated in the crusade recall it more positively. And at the time, the Altoona Mirror newspaper published glowing accounts of the services, with Graham reaping hundreds of converts and volunteers to the mission field.
There’s no way at this distance in time to verify such numbers, but “the services were well-attended,” recalled John Luciano, 94, a retired Pennsylvania Railroad mechanic who served as an usher at the crusade. “People were getting saved. ... Most of the fundamental churches backed him up, all the Brethren churches, the Assemblies of God churches, even some of the Presbyterians.”
But some local pastors refused to sit on stage with others of different doctrinal views. Other ministers, including a visiting radio preacher, protested out front with placards, objecting to Graham’s cooperation with churches that “didn’t believe as they believed,” Luciano recalled.
“It was the churches that were supposed to be preaching the Gospel that were against him,” Luciano lamented.
On a recent quiet afternoon, Bob Leidy returned with a reporter and photographer to the Jaffa Shrine, the 4,000-seat auditorium owned by local Shriners and rented out, then and now, for civic and religious activities.
As a small group prepared for an upcoming dance recital, Leidy stood on the same stage where he sang in the crusade choir during Graham’s services. The wooden folding chairs with the leather upholstery remain as they were then, as do the auditorium’s ornamental Arabic lettering and Moorish trim.
Despite the distance of the years, the old-time gospel music still came back easily for Leidy.
“Christ for me, yes, it’s Christ for me,” Leidy sang. “He’s my savior, my Lord and king; I’m so happy I shout and sing.”
Leidy, 88, weathered but vigorous and full-haired, is a retired school custodian who keeps busy tending his backyard greenhouses. He has regularly attended church since childhood and has long been a song leader at revival services. When he heard Graham was “coming to the little town of Altoona, I was just thrilled,” he recalled.
An advertisement in the Mirror promoted the revival with the title, “Christ for Altoona ... City-Wide Victory Crusade.” It touted the free parking and “4,000 upholstered seats.” There was no air conditioning, and the weather was stifling. Leidy recalled an enthusiastic attendee who took it upon himself to open the hall’s upper-level windows.
The Altoona Mirror gave regular front-page treatment to the services. It praised the revival’s musical performances led by soloist George Beverly Shea and the volunteer choir. The paper made no mention of any behind-the-scenes conflicts.