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By Danny Wicentowski
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"There is sin abroad in this land. When the mantle of darkness settles down over this city at night, sin, immorality, crime and corruption take over. What happens behind closed doors, in parked cars, in darkened taverns, in hotel rooms? It is a stench to the nostrils of the Lord."
He went on to say, as reported in another newspaper, that "the great sin of St. Louis is immorality, unchastity, impurity, lustful thinking." He warned that "the world must turn back to God. His judgment is coming. He will destroy you as he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah unless you repent your sins and return to him before it's too late."
Now, lest you think Graham is singling out St. Louis, he also noted "universal disgust at the wickedness and corruption in Washington in recent years." And he had harsh words for the decadence of Hollywood.
Think you've read this all before? Well, you have, if you read the news coverage in the Post (and in the Globe-Democrat) of the very first Billy Graham Crusade in St. Louis.
That would have been on April 19, 1953.
Yes, history buffs, we were Sin City before Bill Clinton began pulling pigtails (well, at least before he was popping bras). As the Globe noted, Graham cited surveys showing that "more than 60 percent of St. Louisans are non-church members, adding that he hopes to change that picture dramatically during his stay here."
I can't offer you updated numbers, but if we fast-forward 20 years to his 1973 revival here, Graham offered a comparison as to the state of things between St. Louis crusades 1 and 2, as reported in the Post:
"America's spiritual problems are much greater today," Dr. Graham said. "I don't think the Korean War situation could be compared to what we have today."
Those are pretty strong words, considering that St. Louis was one giant panty raid back in 1953, but they were by no means the strongest reported by the Post. Consider these:
"Only Jesus, (Graham) said, has authority over sin and demons in the world. "Yes I believe in demons. I believe a horde of new demons has been released from hell to try to plunge our world into oblivion."
I haven't been able to find any statistics on that one, either. But another fast-forwarding -- this time to last week's St. Louis crusade, the third -- suggests that the demons have been doing some pretty effective plunging.
In its lead front-page news story headlined "Events Point to Return of Christ, Graham Says," the Post reports that the reverend "talked about biblical predictions of doom before Jesus' return. Recent earthquakes in California, Turkey and Taiwan; natural disasters like the three hurricanes that hit his native North Carolina; and famine in North Korea and the Sudan seem to fit with the biblical predictions, he said. And things could grow worse with the world population recently passing 6 billion."
Said Graham: "I don't think there has ever been a period of history when things were darker."
Again we yearn for those days of partying like rock stars, circa 1953, right here in St. Louis. Or at least we should yearn for the journalism of old.
I give you Tuesday's St. Louis Post Dispatch, page 1-D, and some of the most amazing words ever written, anywhere, in a daily newspaper:
"The Pope, Graham May Be a Blessing for Rams," reads the news-story headline. "One of the chief reasons for the team's 5-0 start is that it has friends in high places, some observers believe."
No, I'm not kidding.
The news story begins, "When prayer comes to sports venues, amazing things may happen, some St. Louis sports fans say." It goes on to note what a Rams fan Graham has become since meeting quarterback Kurt Warner, who testified at Graham's rally that "it was more important to be known as a Christian than as a football player." Duh.
It then takes us to the Dome's Section 418, where "several people wonder if it's just a coincidence that since the Mass, the fumbling health-stricken Rams' team of previous years has become a winner. "Ever since the first game this summer, we've been saying that it's all that prayer from the pope's Mass,'" one fan observed.
We can only assume Satan has taken over the 1-5 Atlanta Falcons.
As if all this weren't enough, the news story then goes on to document, sort of, how papal visits were followed by various sports-franchise successes in San Francisco and Denver. All this, apparently, with a straight face..
Part of me wants to point out that in 1973 Big Red football players such as Jim Hart, Bob Rowe and Mark Arneson were participants in Graham's rallies, received coverage for same in both dailies and didn't exactly win Super Bowls. But another part of me doesn't want to participate in this inane discussion.
Suffice it say that the newspaper coverage of Graham rallies has changed more than the times themselves. In both 1953 and 1973, Graham received deserved respect but not the fawning adulation given this time around. He seldom made the front page and didn't get a fraction of the coverage he got this time.
It isn't because he wasn't widely known and admired. Even back in 1953, the Globe referred to Graham as a "34-year-old internationally known evangelist looking more like the popular conception of a matinee idol than a crusading preacher." His rallies were attended by more people (318,000 over a month in 1953 and 224,000 over 10 days in 1973) than the Dome events last week (roughly 200,000).
But even in a competitive situation, the newspapers remained calm and informational. Nothing like "Billy Graham Greets 40,000 Here with Message of Salvation: Thousands Heed Altar Call and Declare Their Commitment to Christ" adorned the top of page one.
Certainly at 80 Graham deserves much personal admiration. Whatever one thinks of his message, there's no doubting his sincerity and courage. But he is talking about Hurricane Irene as a sign of the apocalypse, just like he talked about those demons and all the rest over the years.
He is espousing a philosophy -- as he always has -- that says, at least by implication, that most of the world's people (those who don't see it his way) are going to suffer eternal damnation. Isn't that worth a word of challenge, somewhere?
Bring back the good old days, when the media gave us much more information about what Graham actually had to say but kept it in reasonable perspective. Like the Post did in quoting the evangelist, well inside the front news section, in 1953:
"This is an age of frustration and nervous tension. This is the vitamin capsule age -- long ones, round ones, oblong ones. We take sleeping pills to put us to sleep at night, another pill to wake us up in the morning and aspirin to keep up going....
"Homes are breaking and crumbling. Where it used to be that one marriage in 10 ended in divorce, today the figure is one divorce in every four-and-one-half marriages.
"Everything in our homes is run with a switch except the children."
Oh, to be back in 1953, reading St. Louis newspapers.
They don't make them like that anymore.