The Rev. Billy Graham, 82, begins a four-day crusade Thursday night in a city where another crusade 45 years ago lasted one month and attracted nearly 500,000 people.
"I've been looking forward to coming to Louisville for a long time," he said softly during a short statement to journalists. "We've prayed, many people have prayed, many of our friends around the world have told us that they're praying for this crusade in Louisville. And my message here is the same: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.'"
R. Albert Mohler Jr., chairman of the crusade committee, said that more than 600 churches representing 54 denominations and an army of 6,000 volunteers have worked hard to bring the crusade to town.
"There's been a group of persons that for many years have been praying together that the Lord would bring Dr. Graham here for a major crusade," said Mohler, who is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
Graham, who has been treated at the Mayo Clinic much of the year for problems related to Parkinson's disease and for fluid buildup on the brain, said that he was released from the hospital just two weeks ago. He said that a team from the hospital would be at the crusade.
"I'm feeling as good as I can feel at the moment," he said in the Southern accent that has been identifiable for so long. "I'm grateful for the privilege of having the strength to be here. I wasn't sure that we could do that, but we put it in God's hands, and I think the Lord has allowed me to have the strength."
"And I'll sit down and preach," Graham said. "I've done that before. I'd be happy to do it again if that's what the Lord wants me to do. My son will be here, Franklin, and if I cannot make it, he'll be standing right there ready to carry on. And he's a far better preacher than I am."
Because he has been so ill recently, Graham said he did not feel prepared to answer questions about political or social problems, so he was not up for a full-fledged news conference.
"I come here just to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ," said Graham, who has held hundreds of crusades all over the world, most recently in Jacksonville, Fla., last November. "I can do that with God's help. I've been preparing my messages and trust that God will use them."
He said he appreciated the invitation to return to Louisville, where about 50,000 people are expected to fill the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium each night. In 1956, 493,000 people attended 26 services.
"I appreciate the fact that the committee and many of the churches have stepped out almost by faith to take a man my age," said Graham, who will turn 83 in November. "I expect I may be one of the oldest evangelists in history that is still holding meetings like this. And it's a great privilege, and I thank God for the privilege, and I intend to preach as long as I live. I don't know how long that'll be, but I really appreciate the privilege of being here."
Mohler said the seeds for this crusade were sown in 1956.
"Now, 45 years later, Dr. Graham has come," he said. "He told us that the Lord has put Louisville on his heart. And I am so thankful that the Lord put Louisville on Billy Graham's heart, for he has been on our heart."