Today is the 95th birthday of well-known evangelist, Billy Graham. He will celebrate it with a party in Asheville, N.C. This is also the day that Graham returns to television with the long-awaited broadcast, “My Hope For America.”
The roots of Graham’s evangelistic ministry are deep in Winona Lake, Ind., the home of graceconnect.us and many organizations affiliated with the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. In his book, Winona at 100: Third Wave Rising (BMH Books 2013), author Terry White tells the story of a significant prayer meeting in the Rainbow Room of the Westminster Hotel (now a at dorm at Grace College) as Graham was about to hold his first crusade in southern California. A portion of the story appears below.
A little-known aspect of Winona Lake’s connection with Billy Graham’s ministry came to light in March of 1973 when Sherwood Wirt, the editor of Decision, the magazine of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, published an article entitled “The Lost Prayer Meeting.”
In that article, he detailed a meeting in the Rainbow Room of Winona Lake’s Westminster Hotel that had 40-50 in attendance during the fifth annual convention of Youth for Christ. The newly elected president of YFC, Robert A. Cook, had told the young rally directors from all over the U.S. and Canada that “The price of leadership is prayer.”
This led Armin Gesswein, a Lutheran evangelist from southern California, to initiate an all-night prayer meeting that consisted of prayers, praises, verses of Scripture, and requests for more prayer.
At about 3 a.m. Gesswein stood to his feet, Wirt reports, and said, “You know, our brother Billy Graham is coming out to Los Angeles for a crusade this fall. Why don’t we just gather around this man and lay our hands on him and really pray for him? Let’s ask God for a fresh touch to anoint him for this work.”
Graham was at that time vice president of YFC. He got up from his seat, walked to the front of the room and knelt on the oak floor. After hands were laid on him and his ministry was prayed for, he opened his Bible to Joel 3:13 and read, “Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe: come, get you down; for the press is full, the vats overflow.”
“Fellows,” he said, “I’m taking that verse with me to the west coast. I believe if we will put in the sickle, we shall reap an unprecedented harvest of souls for Christ.”
Two months later, at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street in Los Angeles, Graham’s tent crusade began. It was extended to an unprecedented eight weeks. Crowds began to flock to the tent, dramatic conversions were reported, and there was sudden nationwide interest following a feature story in the Los Angeles newspaper on the emergence of Billy Graham’s ministry as a religious phenomenon of the 20th century. …
Dr. Robert A. Cook, president of The King’s College in New York, said, “I remember that night [of the prayer meeting] clearly. We prayed in faith and felt that we had got through to God. . . I am grateful to have had some share in those beginning days.”
Dr. Ted W. Engstrom, of World Vision International, said, “No one who was at that prayer meeting in Winona Lake in 1949 could possibly have forgotten it. It was one of the greatest nights that those of us present could ever remember.”
Armin Gesswein, who led the meeting and who was the founder of Revival Prayer Fellowship of Los Angeles, recalled, “It was probably the greatest of the many nights of prayer we had in those days. . . We had a very special burden of prayer for Billy, and we were really asking God to do a new thing on the evangelistic front.”
 Wirt, Sherwood E. “The Lost Prayer Meeting.” Decision Magazine, March, 1973, p. 4