On the 20th anniversary of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1970, former Executive Vice President George M Wilson told the story of how the organization was founded: “Twenty years ago, an urgent phone call from Portland, Oregon, to me in Minneapolis set in motion the most amazing series of miracles the world has ever seen.”
The caller was Billy Graham: “We’ve agreed to go on the radio, George, but we have $25,000 in cash and pledges here — in a shoe box. The bank won’t take it, and we don’t know what to do!”
Billy Graham was holding a six-week Crusade in Portland and had been reluctant to get involved in the finances necessary for a weekly radio broadcast. Walter Bennett of the Walter F. Bennett Advertising Agency in Chicago and Fred Dienert, his Philadelphia associate, had come to press the issue, according to Wilson.
“Finally,” said Wilson, “the day before the phone call, Mr. Graham prayed a most unusual prayer—for him—if $25,000 came in that night to finance the first broadcasts, he’d sign up for 13 weeks.
“The cash and pledges had come in miraculously, and in answer to his plea, I suggested that we incorporate. There was a pause and then, ‘Come out and bring whatever papers we need.'”
Wilson, who was then business manager of Northwestern Schools, flew to Portland for the incorporation meeting. It included Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows, Grady Wilson and George Wilson. Before he left, he filed papers on Sept. 15, 1950, in St. Paul, Minn., establishing the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (often abbreviated BGEA). The documents were officially sealed on Sept. 17.
Billy Graham shared the rest of the story in his autobiography, published in 1997. “George was the one who chose the name, although I protested strongly. George protested just as strongly that the new organization needed to be identified with my name, since I was the major evangelist. Forty-seven years later, I still wish my name were not so visible. It is God’s organization, not mine, and if we ever lose sight of that fact, God will withdraw His blessing from our work.”
The incorporation papers required a statement of purpose, said Graham. “George put it in simple and direct language: “To spread and propagate the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ by any and all . . . means.” That was our purpose up to that time, and since that time it has continued to be our purpose.”
The first directors were Cliff Barrows, Grady Wilson, George Wilson, and Mr. Graham; a few years later, Bev Shea was also added.
Reflecting on the year leading up to the incorporation, Graham said, “Clearly, the Lord was setting our course for the immediate future. In the one year between Los Angeles and Atlanta, we had developed an organization, a radio broadcast, a film ministry, a financial policy, and a compatible team. Now we needed to find out if all these things would work.”
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Sixty years later, we can see that they did. BGEA has seen millions make commitments to Jesus Christ at hundreds of evangelistic campaigns over six decades. In addition to well-known Billy Graham Crusades, Franklin Graham Festivals have been held all over the world since the 1980s. Will Graham, representing the third generation of Grahams to proclaim the Gospel under the banner of BGEA, has also begun conducting similar “Celebrations” in the U.S. and abroad.
With these and many other ministries and programs, BGEA continues to innovate, employing every effective means available to reach a hurting world with the life-changing Gospel message of hope, love and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ.