It was one year ago today, Wednesday, February 21, 2018, that we received the sad news that America’s Pastor, Rev. William Franklin (Billy) Graham, Jr. had passed away at 7:46 that morning. On this first anniversary of his passing, Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard remembers one of his record-breaking gatherings in his native Tar Heel state.
It was Saturday, November 19, 1949…a gathering of 57,500 football fans packed Duke Stadium in Durham for the 36th meeting between Duke and UNC. That game would go into the sports history books as one of the greatest in the Carolina – Duke series and the 57,500 fans made up the largest crowd in North Carolina history. That record would stand for almost thirteen years.
Then, on Sunday, August 5, 1962, a new record was set at Grandfather Mountain at the 38th annual “Singing on the Mountain.” Monday’s headline on the Greensboro Daily News read, “150,000 Hear Billy Graham.” Before the program began, Hugh Morton, the main promoter for the event, spoke with reporters and said that North Carolina Highway Patrolman Sgt. M. S. Parvin had estimated the crowd at 150,000 and added that “there was a traffic jam from Marion to Blowing Rock,” about 50 miles in length.
Normally, the annual all-day gospel sing and fellowship at MacRae Meadows is held in June, but in 1962 the date was changed to August in order to have Rev. Billy Graham as the featured speaker.
In the early morning hours of August 5th, threatening clouds gathered before the program began. About an hour before Dr. Graham was to speak, however, the program began with a gospel sing led by Cliff Barrows, music and program director of the Billy Graham evangelistic team. Gospel singer Joe Emerson, along with Lulu Belle and Scotty also performed. Master of Ceremonies Arthur Smith and his Crossroads Quartet also sang during the hour-long musical part of the program. A photographic memento was presented to 91-year-old Joe Hartley, founder and chairman of “Singing on the Mountain.” Then, as Dr. Graham stepped up to the platform that had been built around a large rock, a few rumbles of thunder could be heard. But the rain held off until later in the day after Graham had finished his sermon.
Dr. Graham was impressed by the size of the crowd saying it was the greatest crowd of its type he had ever seen, even exceeding the one he addressed at Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa; and he related a story of how Hugh Morton had taken him to the top of Grandfather Mountain to view the thousands who were camping out on the sides of the mountain as well as in the meadow below. Many of them had been there for days. He then talked about the excellent amplification system that carried his voice to all those gathered as well as the fifty-plus radio stations across the southeastern United States that broadcasted the service.
Graham began his message by saying, “I want you to stop what you are doing and listen. Many people have made long trips to this mountain today to hear the word of God, and we do not want anything to distract from the message.”
In 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union were in the ninth year of what would be called the “Cold War,” and Dr. Graham included his thoughts as part of his Grandfather Mountain sermon. “Today the cross of Christianity faces the hammer and sickle of communism.” But Dr. Graham said the only ideology in the world that has any possibility of stopping the spread of communism is dedicated Christianity. He added, “I am convinced that we may not have war but the whole world could conceivably become communist.” He then added: “The future of the world does not lie with communism. Time is not on their side. The future of the world lies with the kingdom of God. Time is on God’s side.”
When Dr. Graham had completed his presentation, many in the vast audience took time to ponder his message. Then, the thousands started the long journey down the mountain, creating what could likely be called the largest traffic jam in North Carolina history. All had been a part of a history-making event.