“Are We Electing Our Last President?”: The Chicago Convention Campaign

The event of a lifetime has become the opportunity of a lifetime!” So claimed the flashy mass marketing letter inviting one and all to the Chicago Convention Campaign. Spearheaded by Torrey Johnson, the tireless president of Youth for Christ, and drawing widespread support from churches and religious leaders across the Upper Midwest, the 1952 Convention Campaign offers a glimpse into mid-century mass evangelism efforts, particularly the potent combination of evangelistic and patriotic fervor.

Sixty-eight years ago, the presidential election season kicked off in Chicago, where the city’s International Amphitheater played host to both Democratic and Republican National Conventions. The Republican National Convention (July 7-11) was the first to descend on Chicago and concluded by nominating Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. Two weeks later (July 21-26) in the same venue, the Democratic National Convention confirmed Adlai Stevenson and John Sparkman as the party’s candidates. While the 1952 presidential election cycle is notable for introducing the American public to televised political commercials, a loose coalition of Chicago area Christians stuck to old fashioned methods to publicize an evangelistic climax to the political Conventions. For Torrey Johnson and other local evangelists, the National Conventions presented an unmissable opportunity to campaign for souls. As one mailer read: “Chicago’s great International Amphitheater—just as it has been for the two great national conventions with all its trimmings—will be ours for one great day of testimony on Sunday, July 27.” 

The groundwork for the Chicago Convention Campaign began nearly a month prior, through a series of rallies spanning the Upper Midwest that focused on offering spiritual answers to social and political questions. These evangelism efforts culminated at a final rally in the Chicago International Amphitheater, where the Democratic National Convention had just concluded the day before. While the Convention Campaign did not explicitly endorse a political candidate, both its advertising and event speakers demonstrated profound concern for the role of spiritual values in the American political process. 

As part of its publicity, the Convention Campaign novel benefits of a political convention style evangelistic rally: concession stands, free parking, and air conditioning. Campaign headliner, Torrey Johnson, is described as “a man with his finger on the pulse of current world situations.” Special guests included Jim Vaus, a former wiretapper in the Los Angeles underworld prior to his dramatic conversion at Billy Graham’s 1949 Christ for Greater Los Angeles crusade. Vaus’s criminal exploits with the LA mob solidified his reputation as “a man that knows the inside story on what it [crime] means to America.”  

Photographs of the Chicago Convention Campaign confirm Torrey Johnson’s prediction of “capacity crowds.” Several remnants of the previous day’s Convention remain in evidence, including the Democratic party insignia on the podium, massive American flag, the banner reading “For All The People All The Time,” and the portrait of Harry S. Truman, currently serving as the 33rd president of the United States, hanging from the rafters.

Ultimately, the Chicago Convention Campaign reflected twin concerns for the souls of humanity and the soul of the nation. As Johnson stated to Chicago journalists: “We feel the time has come when the entire nation should pray for guidance in the coming elections. God has the greatest stake in the November elections. How the people vote will affect the religious life of every American. We want every politician to know the real hope of America is Jesus Christ.” 

These clippings, photographs, posters, and more are held in Collection 285: Papers of Torrey Johnson at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives.

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