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The Rev. Billy Graham speaks to an overflow crowd at Engel Stadium here in 1950. Three yeas later he would return for a 26-day crusade that drew a reported 10,000 people each evening. Photo from ChattanoogaHistory.com, by Delmont Wilson.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in October 1950, a charismatic, 31-year-old Christian minister named Billy Graham arrived in Chattanooga to speak at a packed Engel Stadium.

The event drew an overflow crowd estimated at 25,000, which the Rev. Graham said was, at that time, his largest audience for a single-day ministry outside of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

A report in the Chattanooga Daily Times the next day said: "It was the second-largest crowd the youthful, hard-hitting evangelist has faced since he skyrocketed to fame in the ecclesiastical world."

As it turns out, Graham's 1950 visit to Chattanooga was just a warm-up for a 26-night revival held here in 1953 that reportedly drew about 10,000 people each evening to the then-new Warner Field House built specifically for the event.

Graham had begun his "crusades" in 1948 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He would go on to become one of the most influential Christian leaders of the 20th century.

Graham died of natural causes in Montreat, North Carolina, in 2018 at age 99. He was said to have provided spiritual counseling to every American president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

The accompanying photo from his 1950 visit, taken by a Chattanooga Free Press photographer, shows Graham on a "speaker's platform" near second base at Engel Stadium, the then-home of the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball team.

Another photo from the event showed Graham with Joe Engel, owner of the Lookouts and WDEF radio, one of 200 stations nationwide that would carry Graham's "Hour of Decision" radio programs which broadcast from 1950 to 1954.

Also in the group photo was the Rev. Lee Roberson, pastor of the Highland Park Baptist Church here and president of Temple College. Roberson was in charge of fundraising at the 1950 event. A collection at Engel Stadium raised $4,430, the equivalent of $47,129 in 2020 dollars. The largest donation was a check for $25, according to a local news report.

The 1950 photo is part of a collection of Chattanooga Free Press archive images found at ChattanoogaHistory.com, a website curated by local history enthusiast Sam Hall.

More info

Launched by history enthusiast Sam Hall in 2014, ChattanoogaHistory.com is maintained to present historical images in the highest resolution available.

If you have photo negatives, glass plate negatives, or original nondigital prints taken in the Chattanooga area, contact Sam Hall for information on how they may qualify to be digitized and preserved at no charge.

Graham, looking out over a sea of umbrellas, told his 1950 audience here that America had "been on the skids for a long time" and urged a spiritual awakening. According to reports, the service was cut short somewhat by the rain, and difficulties with the public address system caused an echo effect in the grandstands.

An advertisement in the Daily Times a few days before his 1950 appearance noted that Graham and his evangelistic team had previously filled a 16,000-seat indoor stadium in Boston and had attracted 350,000 to a series of 72 tent services in Los Angeles. A multi-day event in Columbia, South Carolina, had attracted 40,000.

The 1950 photo is part of a collection of Chattanooga Free Press archive images found at ChattanoogaHistory.com, a website curated by local history enthusiast Sam Hall.

Follow the "Remember When, Chattanooga?" public group on Facebook to see more vintage photos from the Tennessee Valley.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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