From May 30 to June 3, 1973, an estimated 3.2 million people attended the Billy Graham Crusade in Seoul, South Korea, with 1.1 million traveling—mostly by foot—to the final service on the airstrip at Yoi-do Plaza. Some 75,000 inquirers made a decision for Christ during that Crusade, helping to spur an explosive megachurch movement throughout Korea.
Mr. Graham’s interpreter, Billy Kim, who was also pastor of the Suwon Central Baptist Church, recently sat down with Decision to look back at 1973 and the continued effects of those fabulous five days.
Q: Before we look specifically at Billy Graham’s 1973 Crusade, tell us how you became a Christian.
A: When I was 16 years old and working as a houseboy for American soldiers during the Korean War, I met Sgt. Carl Powers from near Bristol, Va. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school and was deployed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops in Tokyo. MacArthur sent him and his division to South Korea on July 5, 1950, only 10 days after the Korean War broke out.
Sgt. Powers asked me one day if I would like to go to America. Well, the dream of every Korean teenager was to come to see this great country. Sgt. Powers had me sign an application to Bob Jones Academy and University, then he filled in the rest and sent it to the school. Three months later, an acceptance letter came. Carl Powers graciously paid my tuition. I started in the 9th grade in 1951.
One day, a college student came to my dormitory room and opened the Bible to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (KJV).
The student explained the simple plan of salvation and asked me if I wanted to pray to receive Christ as my Savior. I told him I didn’t know how to pray because I had never been to church. He said, “Can you try it in Korean?” I said, “I’ll try: ‘God I’m a sinner. Please forgive my sins. Come into my heart.’”
Q: How did that decision trigger transformation in your life?
A: My whole outlook changed. I had wanted to study political science and go back to Korea and become a politician. I wanted to help poor families, just like mine.
But as I was about to finish high school and attend college, God impressed upon my heart that there were many politicians back in Korea. I sensed God saying, “They don’t need you, but I need you to go back to tell your family about Jesus.” So I went into college to prepare for the ministry.
Q: It was there that you met your wife.
A: I was eating in the dining room, when I spotted a young lady from Michigan who was waiting tables as a scholarship student. She was fast bringing food from the kitchen. I thought to myself, If I marry her, I will never grow hungry. So I asked Trudy if she would date, and she said OK. After four years, we got married. While I went to graduate school, Trudy taught public school in Greenville, S.C. We went back to Korea in 1959.
Q: How did God open doors for you to share your faith with your family?
A: At that time, none of my family were Christians. My responsibility was to tell my mother about Christ, along with my three brothers, their wives and children, and my sister and her children. They had never heard the Gospel.
We shared with my mother for about a year. In 1961, she gave her life to Christ and started going to church with me. She then began talking with my oldest brother. Since the Korean family is very age-oriented, my mother commanded respect from all my siblings and their respective families. They listened to her. Since then, all my family members have committed their lives to Christ. They have burned all ancestral relics, and they’re each gung-ho for Christ and are strong members within the local church.
Q: Did you go into the pastorate when you returned to Korea?
A: I didn’t want to go into the pastorate. I wanted to strictly do evangelistic work. But in the Korean setting, if you don’t have a church, they don’t consider you a preacher. So I felt I needed to have a church, plus an evangelistic outreach. We started with about 10 people or so. Now the Suwon Central Baptist Church has grown to about 20,000 to 25,000 members. Two to three years ago, I retired and handed it over to a younger pastor.
Q: Can you describe the events leading up to the 1973 Crusade?
A: Korea was geared to have evangelism. South Korea’s population then was about 30 million people. So church leaders and Christian educators considered an evangelistic campaign: “Let’s Win 30 Million Koreans for Christ.” They had a real passion to win people to the Lord.
With that backdrop, they had the idea of wanting to capture Billy Graham’s evangelistic fervor. So I asked Dr. Kyung-Chik Han, pastor emeritus of Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Seoul, “Why don’t we invite Dr. Billy Graham to come do a Crusade?” He responded, “Do you think he’ll come?” I said, “You write him a letter, then we’ll see what happens.”
I also had some wonderful contacts with the South Korean government. President Park Chung-hee didn’t know Billy Graham very well, so I gathered all the magazine and newspaper articles and books that I could find and gave them to a government official, who took them to President Park. They decided that it would be a good idea to have Dr. Graham come. A Crusade committee was formed, and we began to pray. Dr. Graham accepted the invitation.
Q: Before Mr. Graham’s Crusade in Seoul, more than 1 million people attended meetings by BGEA Associate Evangelists in other major cities. Why this strategy?
A: Church leaders insisted, “Don’t just have a Crusade in Seoul. Let’s have simultaneous Crusades in other key provincial cities.” After those meetings, we focused on mass evangelism in our capital city.
The Korean people were ready. They had been praying for revival, and for this Crusade. The other cities drew tremendous crowds, all building up to the Seoul Crusade.
Q: Even before those meetings, Korean Christians were fervently committed to prayer, a hallmark of the Korean church. Why?
A: You have to understand the historical context dating back to when Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and then ruled it until the end of World War II. It was still one Korea then. After the Second World War, the superpowers divided the country along the 38th Parallel.
Missionaries had come to Korea 125 years earlier, establishing schools, hospitals and churches. The Gospel made an indelible impact. Many new believers escaped from the North to the South. And they helped build a vibrant church.
We were persecuted severely under the Japanese, followed by brutal suffering and hardship during the Korean War, and then under the Communists’ takeover in the North.For us today, when there’s a constant threat from a possible Communist takeover, there’s nowhere to turn but upward to God. Prayer becomes a vital way of life. We believe that only prayer brings God’s power down. Early-morning prayer meetings transitioned to all-night prayer meetings. And it’s still perpetuating.
Q: Do you think the response to the 1973 Crusade is related?
A: I’ve often wondered why the Holy Spirit moved in this way. Geographically, we are so close to Japan. And yet, the Gospel has not made such a massive inroad into that country as it has in South Korea.
The 1973 Crusade was one of the most historic moments in the life of the Christian Church in my country. The Spirit of God truly fell on that Crusade and the Korean people.
Many had been witnessing, individually and collectively as the church. So many people were aware they needed to come to Christ. I think the Crusade brought everything to a head. I’m so grateful to God that I had a small part in making Billy Graham’s messages easy to grasp in our language.
Q: What was it about that event that changed the landscape of the church?
A: Korea was a predominantly Buddhist country, with a strong Buddhist influence within high society, government and politics. Yet after the Crusade, people saw the positive impact and benefits of Christianity. There was a strong mobilization of believers, and the church has become a major force, with more than 10 percent of the population being Christian, including many of our leaders in politics, business and academia. People are not ashamed of the Gospel.
You see, we never had a megachurch before 1973. But with so many people surrendering their lives to Christ, they were funneled into evangelical churches. And God has continued to bless.
Q: In what other ways did the Crusade make a difference?
A: Bible schools and seminaries were started. Strong Bible teaching and discipleship training were emphasized. And every church wanted to be a missions-outreach church. Today, South Korea sends more missionaries than any other country except the United States. Our church alone has built 30 churches in Mongolia since 1973.
At the same time, the ethics that Christianity teaches people—to work hard, to be honest and to be humble—I believe, dramatically influenced the Korean labor force, and our economy rose very rapidly. It’s a miracle.
Q: So many changed lives. Is there an example that encourages you even today?
A: Recently I was having dinner at the Washington Country Club with Ambassador Han Duk-soo and his wife. He was prime minister in the last administration and then appointed as the Korean ambassador to Washington.
Ambassador Han was presented a picture book of Billy Graham that had a two-page picture of the 1973 Crusade on Yoi-do Plaza. When he saw that picture of the 1 million people, he pointed to a specific spot and said, “I was sitting right there.” He was a Korean military corporal and received a two-day leave from his base to hear Billy Graham. He rededicated his life to the Lord at that Crusade, and he’s now a Methodist deacon and his wife is a deaconess.
Q: This is but one continuing ripple effect from that meeting.
A: Oh, it’s almost weekly that I meet people from all walks of life who say they became a Christian during that Crusade, or that they rededicated their life to Christ, or that they were called into the ministry.
Q: What are some things that you are personally praying about when it comes to God working in the world?
A: I’m really praying for the second and third generation of Korean Christians and their potential influence on the more than 7 million Korean people scattered all over the world. Wherever Koreans go, they build a church. I’m hoping that some of those younger generations will catch the fire and burden for evangelism and missions.
Q: Are you encouraged in terms of world evangelism?
A: Some places are quite dynamic, including Asia, Africa and Latin America. But we need to pray for America. Having studied here, I detect that the spirit of secularism has tragically overtaken this country. So we need to pray that American pastors will assume the responsibility of and priority for evangelism, and that their churches will focus on evangelism and missions. Then, who knows what the Spirit of God will do.