Looking back: Evangelist Billy Graham's visits to Philadelphia drew hundreds of thousands

Evangelist Billy Graham undoubtedly left a mark on the hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who heard his message firsthand during his visits to the area.

Graham, who died Wednesday at the age of 99 after suffering from cancer and pneumonia, according to the Associated Press, spread the gospel to more than 200 million people in 185 countries during his lifetime, including to a reported 900,000-plus people in Philadelphia between two visits that he called mass crusades.

During his time in Philly, Graham stopped at prisons and spoke at stadiums packed with people despite steady rain or sweltering heat. They listened while he spoke on topics ranging from the news to biblical themes of hope and acceptance. Here’s a quick look at his two stops in the area — in 1961 and 1992 — and how the Inquirer covered them.

1961: The Greater Philadelphia Crusade

The Greater Philadelphia Crusade in 1961 lasted an entire month, from Aug. 20 to Sept. 17. He spoke from Convention Hall, Connie Mack Stadium as well as Municipal Stadium. About 700,000 attended the events he hosted throughout those four weeks, according to the Inquirer’s reporting at the time.

Graham launched into the time’s current events, touching on topics like communism and growing divorce rates. Graham also told a 90,000-person crowd during his final night in Philadelphia that God may even be “through with America.”

Graham also said that he was concerned for the city itself.

“This was once a God-fearing and moral city,” he said, according to an Aug. 19, 1961, article. “Where did Philadelphia take a different turn?”

Graham told the Inquirer that “people all over the world” were praying for the city.

“More people will pray for Philadelphia than at any time in the history of this city,” he said.

His messages resonated with readers, too. In the midst of the event, on Sept. 2, 1961, the Inquirer’s editorial page was filled with letters from readers about Graham’s visit — the paper remarked at the time that it received an “outpouring” of submissions, including “thousands which have not been published because of lack of space.”

They were given titles like “an appreciation,” “once in a lifetime,” and “missionary pleased.”

“I am sure before this Crusade is over that many lives will be changed,” Benjamin Grey Jr. of Philadelphia wrote. “The most important work is to endeavor to get the young people of the City of Philadelphia interested in attending the Crusade. If we are successful with this Crusade then there can be no doubt that the lives and the thinking will completely change.”

1992: A five-day stop

His second stop in Philadelphia lasted for a much shorter time — from June 24 to 28, 1992 — and took place at Veterans Stadium. Graham covered topics ranging from hope and racial equality to the “Second Coming.”

The famed evangelist kicked off the 1992 tour at Graterford Prison. It was the first of six prison services scheduled during the crusade.

“A lot of men don’t get any visitors at all, and they come here for peace and comfort,” inmate Bill Middleton, serving time for rape and cocaine possession, told the Inquirer at the time. “The life I was leading before was about looking out for Bill. It didn’t matter who I took it from, or how I got it. Now it’s about living a righteous life.”

Graham said he expected a “great outpouring of the spirit of God” ahead of the five-day event — and he was right. His time in Philadelphia ended with 56,000 people listening to Graham in “Texas”-like heat. The crusade drew a total of about 200,700, with nearly 15,000 people coming forward to make a commitment to Jesus Christ.

As with many of his crusades, his message was spread even further after three days of the Philadelphia tour was later broadcast on television. The views of the massive crowds can now easily be seen on YouTube.

“If there’s one thing I’d like to leave behind in this crusade,” he said, “You love each other. … We need more social life across racial lines.” He told the crowd during his final stop at Veterans Stadium: “How long has it been since you’ve been to the home of a person of another race? We need to come together and we need to come together in Christ.”