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How big was Billy Graham? In 1987, 70,000 people showed up over three days to see him in Fargo

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Billy Graham speaks to a crowd in Fargo in 1987. Photo by Douglas Van Tassel2 / 2

FARGO — In 1987, the Rev. Billy Graham spent three days in Fargo as part of his "Peaks to the Plains" crusade. Almost 70,000 people attended the services at North Dakota State University's Dacotah Field.

The crusade took Graham to North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. He was in Fargo June 19-21. The crowds were bigger than expected and his stop in North Dakota was a financial success. The three-day event came in nearly $46,000 under budget and took in $107,000 more than anticipated.

"You can be forgiven for any sin and any failure," Graham told the audiences. "All you have to do is repent and put your confidence in Christ alone."

Graham's crusade came at a time when some TV evangelists were caught up in scandal. Graham wouldn't comment on the scandals, but did have this to say at a press conference in Fargo: "Most of the people being written about are not evangelists. In fact none of them are, except maybe one. They are ... show people, or talk hosts or whatever."

Graham died Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the age of 99.

"Reverend Graham led an admirable and remarkable life, helping to inspire a better vision for our nation and a stronger faith for people around the globe," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a news release on Wednesday, Feb. 20. "Through working as a civil rights advocate, preaching to hundreds of millions of people and counseling presidents, he left his mark on our nation and the world."

At the height of Graham's career, the famed Christian evangelist could draw a crowd rivaled only by rock stars.

Over the course of his career, Graham preached to more than 200 million people in 185 countries.

Graham arrived in Fargo on June 18, 1987, a day before the three-day event was scheduled to begin. A full-page ad in The Forum showcased Graham's arrival, saying "Come hear Billy Graham with a message that can change your life! All seats free!"

As it turned out, the ad worked. In a big way.

Waiting for Graham's arrival were some 2,500 choir members as well as several hundred ushers and counselors. Graham's message to the group of volunteers was brief, but met with plenty of enthusiasm.

"Your part in the Greater Red River Valley Billy Graham Crusade is as important as mine," said Graham, who was 68 at the time.

Former North Dakota Gov. George Sinner officially welcomed to Graham at an opening service the night of June 19, 1987, in front of a crowd of nearly 22,000 people.

"Dacotah Field was a sea of summer clothing colors beneath the setting sun. People were seated on four-fifths of the field and there wasn't even room in the end zones," according to a June 20, 1987, news article.

A day later, Graham addressed a massive crowd of approximately 22,100 amidst sweltering heat, with temperatures climbing well into the 80s. Many in the crowd used umbrellas to combat the heat.

"Within minutes after the gates were opened Saturday, Graham's faithful flocks rushed in an orderly fashion into the stadium, quickly filling the prized seats on the football field on either side of the the 50-yard line. The field was full within 30 minutes," according to a June 21, 1987, Forum article.

That Saturday was also designated as Youth Night and featured music by the band "Silverwind," as well as testimony from Stacy Robinson, a former Bison football standout who also played in the NFL.

Even with the threat of rain, the final day of the event drew its largest crowd yet — and for good reason. A crowd of approximately 22,600 turned out not only to hear Graham preach, but to watch country music legend Johnny and June Carter Cash perform. A sprinkling of rain fell as the duo performed just two songs.

In his Sunday sermon, Graham spoke of an approaching Armageddon, and he expressed a wish that all nuclear weapons could be destroyed, saying there will never be perfect peace until Jesus Christ returns.

"History began in the Middle East," Graham said. "And someday history will end in the Middle East."

Graham's "Peaks to Plains" crusade wasn't without controversy. Protesters also flocked to the event, holding signs and handing out anti-Graham leaflets to event-goers. One protester at the event holding a sign that says "Free religion's prisoners."

The Bismarck Tribune and reporter Ross Torgerson contributed to this report

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