The remarkable story of how BGEA was founded

Cliff Barrows and Billy Graham, who first teamed up in the 1940s, prayed for God’s direction every step of the way.

September 15, 2020, marks the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s 70th anniversary. Here’s the story of how it all began.

It was the summer of 1950, and Billy Graham had a problem.

During his preaching event in Portland, Oregon, people had spontaneously donated $25,000 for a new radio ministry. But with the ministry not yet official, there was nowhere to deposit the money.

Mr. Graham, 31 years old at the time, called his friend George Wilson, the business manager at Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, where Mr. Graham was serving as the youngest college president in the nation.

“We’ve agreed to go on the radio, George, but we have $25,000 in cash and pledges here—in a shoebox,” the evangelist explained. “The bank won’t take it, and we don’t know what to do!”

To put it into perspective, $25,000 in 1950 would be the equivalent of about $267,000 today. It’s easy to see why Mr. Graham was anxious about stashing the cash in a hotel room, in a shoebox under the bed.

$25,000 by Midnight

The story of how Billy Graham found himself in this predicament is told in his autobiography Just As I Am. Here’s the abbreviated version:

Earlier in the summer of 1950, as Mr. Graham was beginning to receive a flood of preaching invitations from around the country, he stopped at a roadside diner in New Jersey. A man approached him with a “Hallelujah!” and said he had been praying God would allow their paths to cross. The man introduced himself as Dr. Theodore Elsner, a preacher from Philadelphia who said his son-in-law wanted to help Mr. Graham start a national radio ministry.

With a young family, a busy preaching schedule and a college to run, Mr. Graham quietly dismissed the idea and quickly forgot about it.

A few weeks later, Dr. Elsner’s son-in-law Fred Dienert and his radio agent friend Walter Bennett tracked the evangelist down at a conference in Michigan. They explained their vision for broadcasting a Christ-centered, evangelistic radio program over the national airwaves. Mr. Graham again dismissed the idea; there just weren’t enough hours in the day.

Not easily deterred, the two men repeatedly “ambushed” Mr. Graham, as he put it, during his Portland Crusade that summer. “I got so irritated with their pestering that sometimes I took a back elevator to avoid them,” he admitted in Just As I Am. Finally, the men said their goodbyes and got ready to leave the city.

“Alright, fellows,” Mr. Graham laughed, “if before midnight tonight I should get $25,000 for the purpose of a radio broadcast, I’ll take that as an answer to prayer and be willing to do a national broadcast.”

They all had a good laugh and parted ways. The idea was too far-fetched to consider.

Music leader Cliff Barrows, evangelist Billy Graham and soloist George Beverly Shea in the early days of their ministry together.

An Amazing Turn of Events

That night at the Portland event, Mr. Graham told the crowd of 17,000 that two men had been trying to get him to start a national radio show. He even shared his spontaneous promise that he would agree to join them if $25,000 were raised by midnight. Like Fred Dienert and Walter Bennett, the audience had a good laugh.

Afterwards, Mr. Graham preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as always, and prepared to call it a night.

Then something amazing happened. People began to come up to Mr. Graham and tell him God had put it on their hearts to help fund the national broadcast. Some even handed over cash and checks on the spot. Meanwhile, the same thing was happening to other members of the team.

“Billy,” the organizer of the event told him at the end of the night, “people have given us $24,000 tonight for radio!”

It was a moving display of faith and generosity, but they were $1,000 short. If it really was God’s will, wouldn’t He have provided every dollar? Mr. Graham wondered whether the feat, as amazing as it was, could be the Devil’s way of leading him down the wrong road. He and his team agreed to drop the subject for the moment and get something to eat.

By the time they got back to the hotel, it was about 11:30 p.m. The front desk attendant handed Mr. Graham two letters that had arrived for him. They were postmarked two days earlier and came from two different businessmen.

“Both said they believed we should go on the radio and that they wanted to be the first to contribute. And each enclosed a $500 check!” Mr. Graham wrote.

“Stunned, I bowed my head and said a silent prayer. Emotion so overcame me that I could not think straight. Clearly, the funds had come from God. Then, when I turned to go to the elevator, who should be standing in the lobby but Walter and Fred! They had been at the airport, they said, but something had told them not to get on the plane.”

That was the start of Billy Graham’s national radio ministry, which went on the air in the fall of 1950 with The Hour of Decision and continues to this day through SiriusXM, podcasts and audio messages that share the Gospel of Christ with thousands of listeners.

Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows in 1960
Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows recorded “The Hour of Decision” radio program at the pyramids in Egypt in 1960.

BGEA Is Born

Back to the Portland predicament and the pile of cash in a shoebox: When Mr. Graham called his friend George Wilson, Wilson suggested establishing a formal organization. A short time later, Wilson filed incorporation documents in Minnesota. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was officially born on September 15, 1950.

>>PHOTOS: 7 decades of sharing the Gospel

Mr. Graham would spend the next six decades proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to millions of people in hundreds of countries around the world. His message of God’s everlasting love and forgiveness helped countless souls move from darkness into light. The same message continues to go out into the world as BGEA celebrates 70 years of ministry.

Mr. Graham went to be with the Lord in February 2018 after 99 years on earth. The ministry he founded still bears his name, even though he was the first to say it was never about him.

“All that I have been able to do,” he said, “I owe to Jesus Christ.”

>> Invite Jesus into your life.

>> See how BGEA is sharing the hope of Christ 70 years after it was founded.

An aerial view of the largest Crusade audience in history, an estimated 1.1 million people in Seoul, Korea, in 1973.