“‘What are you doing? Can’t we do it here? How do you get started?” And we did everything we possibly could to help everybody we possibly could. And they came here, and we sent people out there, and we were busy” (CN 285, Tape 3).
“Busy” is how Torrey Maynard Johnson describes the explosion of interest in youth evangelism stemming from the runaway success of Youth for Christ evangelistic rallies in Chicago in 1944. In a 1984 oral history interview with BGC Archives staff, Johnson recalls the rapid emergence of Youth for Christ during World War II, a movement that innovated evangelism practices—specifically targeting young people—launched the career of a young Billy Graham, and became an international phenomenon still ministering to young adults today.
This November, the Billy Graham Center Archives celebrates seventy-five years of Youth for Christ, and explores the origins and early rallies of Youth for Christ in Chicago prior to its formal establishment in November 1944.
While the movement’s headquarters, first president, and star evangelist were all firmly rooted in Chicago, Youth for Christ’s origins can be traced to New York City, where colorful evangelist Jack Wyrtzen and his Word of Life Fellowship were already revolutionizing approaches to evangelism by experimenting with youth rallies and religious radio programming.
As Wyrtzen recalls in a 1991 oral history interview, the link between Wyrtzen’s ministry in New York City and Torrey Johnson in Chicago was the golden voice of George Beverley Shea. A talented soloist and radio announcer, Shea worked closely with Jack Wyrtzen lending his voice to the Word of Life Hour radio program and Wyrtzen’s youth rallies. As Wyrtzen recalls, the youth evangelism team in New York City recommended Shea to Moody Bible Institute’s fledgling radio station, WMBI , where the rising radio star recognized a desperate need for evangelism aimed at young people (CN 446, Tape 3). Torrey Johnson recalls:
The immediate emphasis for it [Youth for Christ] was developed by two people: Beverly Shea who was an announcer on the radio station of Moody Bible Institute and Lacy Hall, who was a student at the Moody Bible Institute but working in the radio department as a student. I knew them both well. They called me time after time after time suggesting that I ought to do something for the young people of Chicago similar to what Jack Wyrtzen was doing in New York. . . . When [Shea] came to Chicago there was a vacuum in himself because there were no youth rallies. In Chicago at that time, we had hundreds of thousands of servicemen walking the streets of the downtown Chicago because it was the railroad center from which they went to the West coast or the Orient or the East coast and Europe for the war. This is 1944. Besides that, the young people in Chicago had nowhere to go because gasoline was rationed, so you couldn’t drive anywhere, and they were downtown. These two men persisted, and then I finally said to them, sort of to get them off of my back, “Well, I’ll see what I can do, but I’m busy.” But they…they agitated, and the Holy Spirit used that agitation until finally I said, “Well, if God will give us an auditorium, we’ll do it.” So we prayed, did a great deal of praying. And I turned to one friend of mine who was a member of the congregation of the Midwest Bible Church, and I said to him, “Christianson, go downtown and see what kind of auditorium there is. If there’s some auditorium downtown, we’ll take it.”
Christianson’s search led him to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, a stately brown brick building on Michigan Avenue and home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Serendipitously, the orchestra’s season was nearing its end, and Orchestra Hall would remain vacant over the summer season. In Johnson’s memory, Christianson reported, “’You can have that hall from I think the last Saturday of May for twenty-one weeks before the orchestral season begins, and you can have it for five thousand dollars.’” I knew God wanted me to do it. I said, “’We’ll sign up.’”
May 27, Memorial Day weekend 1944, was chosen as the date for Chicagoland’s inaugural Youth for Christ Rally, and Johnson and looked to Jack Wyrtzen’s recent “Victory Rally” in Madison Square Garden for inspiration. Throughout April 1944, Johnson and Wyrtzen exchanged a flurry of letters, discussing the overwhelming success of the Victory Rally and brainstorming publicity for the upcoming Memorial Day event in Chicago. Following Wyrtzen’s lead, Johnson pondered approaching Gil Dodds, the recent world record-breaking track star, to give his testimony. “Gil Dodds certainly has a real and ringing testimony for the Lord” Wyrtzen assured Johnson in a letter dated April 11, 1944, “and the Lord used his testimony at the Garden” (CN 285, Folder 29-6).
Despite weeks of frenzied preparation and publicity, Johnson and his team of evangelists and musicians had little idea how Youth for Christ Chicagoland’s ambitious debut event would be received. Johnson recalls:
“We started on that first Saturday night, which I think was the last Saturday of May 1944. I had Merrill Dunlop of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle to play the piano. I had my minister of music, Doug Fisher, to play the organ. I had Bob Cook, who was my associate pastor assistant, my song leader. And I invited Billy Graham to be the first preacher because he had been my friend, and I saw he had lots of potential. And he preached that night on Belshazzar’s Feast: “Thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting” [Daniel 5:27]. We had no idea how many people would come. There was no yardstick by which to measure…. and we looked into the auditorium behind the curtains, almost afraid to look. And the auditorium was about full with three thousand people. And I think there were about forty-five that responded that night to the invitation, both men in uniform and others. And that was a tremendous encouragement, not only to us but to the whole community. And we were on our way” (CN 285, Tape 3).
The Youth for Christ Memorial Day Rally was a runaway success, and YFC rallies continued filling Orchestra Hall for the next twelve weeks, bolstered by broadcast time on Chicago’s WCFL. Riding on their success, Johnson and Bob Cook speedily co-authored Reaching Youth for Christ, a ministry manual detailing the road to fruitful youth evangelism. A second edition was published within the year.
“After that and the following twenty-one weeks there were times when we had two meetings in the same night. One perhaps from 7:00 to 8:30 and another one from 9:00 to 10:30, something like that. The young people were thrilled to go to the Loop of Chicago—lots of excitement, stores, window shopping, places to eat, Michigan Boulevard, all the excitement of a downtown district. So for them it was a lot of different things. There was the adventure of coming from fifty or a hundred miles away maybe. And for the servicemen we had people out on the street inviting the servicemen in, and they would come in. And we had novel programs, arrangement for some of them to call home from the platform, and those kind of things” (CN 285, Tape 3).
The “Victory Rally”
While Chicagoland’s young adults and serviceman flocked to hear Billy Graham and George Beverley Shea each weekend, Johnson and his team pondered their looming eviction from Orchestra Hall in October. The solution they settled on was Moody Bible Church on Chicago’s north side, and for the next several years, Youth for Christ Chicagoland’s, weekend rallies alternated between Orchestra Hall in the during the summer season and Moody Church the rest of the year. But to mark the transition from Michigan Avenue to Moody Church, Johnson and his team hatched plans for a massive YFC rally held in Chicago Stadium, one of the world’s largest sports arenas at the time. Borrowing from Jack Wyrtzen’s success in Madison Square Garden, the YFC Chicagoland event was titled a “Victory Rally” and scheduled for October 21, 1944.
Packing over 28,000 people into Chicago Stadium, YFC’s “Victory Rally” was a runaway success. The evening’s program featured an impressive line-up of personalities—gospel musician Rose Arzoomanian, track star Gil Dodds, and the Salvation Army Territorial Band, alongside stalwarts Johnson, Shea, and Bob Cook, and a bevy of Moody Church musicians. In keeping with the “victory” theme, the rally had overtly patriotic tones, featuring both William Conley, a chaplain with the U.S. Army Paratroopers, and Lieutenant Colonel Stoll, introduced as serving in the “first invasion wave at New Guinea” (CN 48, Folder 14-32).
The Victory Rally’s program not only celebrated the surprising work of God in Orchestra Hall over the past months but also promised a brilliant future for YFC Chicagoland: “Is this miracle-ministry to be terminated now? We met during the twenty-one weeks just passed, in the most famous downtown auditorium in Chicago. Now for another twenty-one weeks we shall be located in the most famous church building in America—the Moody Church, of which D.L. Moody was the founder” (CN 48, Folder 14-32).
In a whirlwind six months, Youth for Christ Chicagoland had had grown from the fledgling aspirations of George Beverly Shea and a reluctant Torrey Johnson to this unimagined apex—a packed Chicago Stadium eagerly drinking in the latest innovations in gospel music, celebrity Christian testimonies, inspirational preaching, all wrapped in a fervent display of wartime patriotism.
With the success of the Victory Rally behind them, YFC could now address the pressing issues of organization and consolidation resulting from its rapid and unexpected growth. A few weeks later, a group of regional Youth for Christ leaders met in Detroit on November 15-17 and created Youth for Christ International, electing Johnson the chairman of the temporary executive committee. In July 1945, representatives from the fledgling YFC chapters in cities across the United States met again to create a permanent structure for the organization and confirm Torrey Johnson’s leadership as president.
Recruiting Billy Graham
While Billy Graham’s preaching had featured heavily during YFC Chicagoland’s early days in Orchestra Hall, he was not officially employed by the organization until January 1945. Then serving as pastor of The Village Church in Western Springs, IL, Graham was more and more turning his sights on ministry in youth evangelism rather than the pastorate. In a letter to Johnson dated December 29, 1944, Graham affirms his commitment to the work of Youth for Christ and admiration of Johnson’s leadership, but outlines some conditions of his full-time employment—”I am anxious for all concerned to know that I am not under any board or group. That at present I am, as it were, my own boss” (CN 285, Folder 27-2).
Keeping “Youth for Christ”?
Weeks prior to founding Youth for Christ International in November 1944, leaders of YFC rallies in US cities were debating the long-term viability of the movement’s name. In his oral history interview, Jack Wyrtzen describes the evolution of “Young Men for Christ to “Youth for Christ” in the New York City chapter:
We started Young Men for Christ, Chi Beta Alpha fraternity, Christians born again. And it was Young Men for Christ. I’ll take you up for dinner at the dining room today and I’ll show you a picture, and it says, “Young Men for Christ: Winning young people,” something like that. Well, then when the girls came along. We were very anti-women. We had to be all men we thought…. When the girls came along, it was clear that we had to get a better name, so we called it Youth for Christ, and that’s how the name Youth for Christ started (CN 446, Tape 3).
In October 1944, fresh off the success of the Victory Rally at Chicago Stadium, Johnson and Wyrtzen exchanged letters discussing Wyrtzen’s growing hesitation to use the title “Youth for Christ” for his youth evangelism in New York City.
Johnson was less convinced by Wyrtzen’s fears of bureaucratization and defended the title in his letter of October 28th. Three weeks later, Youth for Christ International was formed in Detroit, and by early January the fledgling president of YFC began sporting a new slogan and logo on his official stationery: “Geared to the Times, Anchored to the Rock.” The now-familiar cogwheel, anchor, and Bible logo began featuring heavily in YFC Chicagoland advertising, particularly as the chapter began planning for its famous 1945 Memorial Day Rally in Soldier Field, celebrating the one year anniversary of Youth for Christ activity in Chicago (see also the BGC Archives’ online exhibit “The Greatest Youth Gathering in History”)
In addition to the papers of Torrey Johnson and records of Youth for Christ, the BGC Archives holds the papers of many individuals who served with Youth for Christ in the United States and around the world over the past 75 years, including the Palermo Brothers, Samuel Wolgemuth, Herbert J. Taylor, James E. Wright, Earl Schultz, and Jim Vaus, among others.