Remembering Rev. Billy Graham's eight-day crusade at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore

The Rev. Billy Graham, who died today at age 99, brought his powerful message of Christian faith to Baltimore three times — first at the Lyric in 1949, when the then-30-year-old was seen as a rising star on the evangelical circuit, and for the final time as an 87-year-old at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2006.

But the peak of Baltimore’s relationship with Graham and his ministry came in 1981, when his crusade called Memorial Stadium home for eight days. From June 7-14, thousands of people flocked every evening at 7:30 to the longtime home of the Orioles and Colts to hear Graham’s message; by the time it was over, crusade officials estimated the total attendance at 234,100. That included 13,000 people who walked onto the field — ”came forward,” in the parlance of the crusade — to profess or renew their faith.

“While in Baltimore, Graham seems to have taken no drastic new positions,” longtime Baltimore Sun scribe James H. Bready wrote in the paper’s June 17 editions. “He stressed the decency ethic, honesty, work, patience, patriotism, home and family; he denounced the standard lineup of drugs, alcohol, lust, greed, instant gratifications in general. World affairs were scanted.”

Graham’s message, regardless of how standard it might have been, resonated with many of those who came to hear him. “We know that people need this experience,” Jean Ulrich, seated in the first row of the stadium’s lower deck, told Sun reporter Mark Parrent on day 5. “This is the only thing that will change people’s lives.”

Luring Graham to Baltimore was a coup for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who told The Sun he had invited him twice before over the previous decade. “The spiritual rebirth of people is as important as the physical rebirth of a city,” he said.

But the logistics proved daunting. About 700 area churches voiced their support for the crusade, but finding a place to hold it wasn’t easy. Schaefer had asked the Orioles if they could carve out an eight-day window when the team would be safely out of town. When the team was slow in replying, the mayor sent city parks director Douglas S. Tawney to meet with team owner Edward Bennett Williams.

When Williams asked why eight days were needed, Tawney replied, “It took the Lord seven days. In all fairness, we think Dr. Graham should be allowed eight days.”

The crusade got its eight days, at a cost of $10,000 a day.

As part of the run-up to the crusade, officials received permission to stage a series of assemblies at area schools. School officials were assured the gatherings would be “nothing more than a mix of music and motivational messages, entirely devoid of religious references,” The Sun reported.

But when a May 5 assembly at Northwestern High School proved to be “a mix of music, motivational messages and repeated references to God, Christianity and Jesus Christ,” some teachers walked out — one referred to the gathering as “subtle brainwashing” — and complained to administrators, the ACLU and city schools superintendent John L. Crew.

Crew canceled the remaining assemblies.

Still, enthusiasm for Graham and his crusade remained high. The famed preacher, then 62, arrived in Baltimore on June 3. Two days later, nearly 4,000 people crowded into the convention center for the mayor’s prayer breakfast, at which he was scheduled to appear and speak. Normally held at the Hilton, the 11th annual breakfast was moved to the much larger convention center to handle all those willing to pay $15 to see and hear Graham; the event was pretty much sold out.

Graham, seated at the head table with Mayor Schaefer, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Archbishop William D. Borders and others, urged leaders “to cope with what he called an ever-increasing ‘climate of fear’ by making Jesus their top priority,” reporter Parrent wrote in the next day’s Sun.

“Without effective leadership,” Graham told the crowd, “our world will go over the brink and our grandchildren will see Armageddon.”

On June 7, on a warm day under a cloudless sky, Graham opened his crusade by urging the city to join together. “A wave of applause echoed throughout Memorial Stadium,” The Sun’s religion editor, Frank P. L. Somerville, reported, “as the Rev. Billy Graham told a predominantly white crowd of 32,000 that blacks and whites should ‘get to know each other in our homes,’ not just at work.”

Graham, wearing a “Baltimore’s Best” necktie the mayor had given him, spoke from a platform at second base for about an hour. He exhorted those in the audience to “telephone 10 or 15 friends and to try to persuade them to attend the evening services this week and the final service Sunday afternoon.”

Throughout the following week, even the elements seemed determined to help Graham out. “Not a drop of rain fell on the evangelist all week,” reporter Parrent wrote, “despite downpours that drenched the rest of Baltimore.”

Graham concluded his crusade the afternoon of June 14. “In his final sermon,” The Sun reported, “Graham lashed out at sexual freedom and the decline of the American family.”

“We’re told to give free expression to our physical desires,” Graham said in his Sunday sermon. “That is wrong in the eyes of God. This moral mudslide cannot continue … and it’s only going to be reversed as our hearts are changed by our new birth.”

The following day, Graham left Baltimore with his wife, Ruth, for a working vacation in Europe.

Twenty-five years later, when Graham came to speak in Baltimore for the last time, memories of that 1981 crusade remained fresh for many.

“He just has this very kind way about him,” Vern Annis, a retired Baltimore County police officer who said he met Graham at Memorial Stadium, said after the 87-year-old evangelist spoke at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “It’s just great to be here in a place where God seems to be dealing with people’s lives.”

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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