The sight of Billy Graham’s coffin lying in state in the Capitol, Washington DC and his subsequent state funeral made me feel that I wanted to write something about him.
I confess that I was a devoted ‘follower’, if that’s the right description, in the 1950s, and in those days I wouldn’t have heard a word said against him, as indeed, my parents would have ruefully confirmed.
Billy Graham began his climb to fame during a ‘crusade’, yes that was the word he used, in Los Angeles in 1947. Even in those early days he was an exceptional speaker and in the best tradition of those Christian evangelists, so beloved by Americans.
His message in Los Angeles was the typical one of most American evangelists notably that man was steeped in sin and could only attain forgiveness by taking Jesus into his heart. His authority for this was the Bible, the infallible word of God, and any sermon by Graham was always peppered with the phrase, ‘the Bible says’ – for us listeners there was no need for any other authority.
Graham occasionally strayed into areas of social concern, such as the power of the Unions. He said that heaven was blessed with no union dues and this conservative approach led to the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, to tell his reporters to ‘puff Graham’. From that point he was virtually front page news.
Graham’s meetings hardly changed in content over the years. They were invariably held in stadiums or other buildings which could accommodate thousands. Choirs of hundreds were recruited from churches in the area and their voices created a huge emotional effect which never failed to move the congregation.
Two other men served with Graham. One, Cliff Barrows, acted as the master of ceremonies and the second, George Beverley Shea, sang solos and sometimes acted as a soloist with the choir. Barrows was not averse to serenading with his trombone, but essentially he was there to keep the service going and, of course, to make the appeal for money to offset the costs of the Crusade. I have to say that this appeal was neither heavy in its content, and certainly did not contain the indecent amount of persuasion which later evangelists were notable for.
There were two climaxes to any of Graham’s meetings. The first, of course, was his sermon, usually at least 30 minutes long, and which was both persuasive and emotional in turns. He regularly used examples of people, going through valleys of despair who recognised their need for another way, and this other way, was of course, the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
The sermon always concluded with ‘the appeal’. The words were always the same – ‘I want you to get out of your seats’ and people wanting to accept Jesus were told to come to the front where they would be counselled concerning their decision. Billy always said ‘if you are in a coach party, they will wait for you’.
At this point the choir, quietly sang the hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and bidst me come to Thee. Oh Jesus Christ, I come’. And the people streamed forward in their hundreds, if not thousands. Anyone attending such meetings was left in no doubt that something highly significant was happening, here, and there was a belief that the whole world was in the process of being changed, because of Graham’s success.
Graham was now in demand to conduct crusades all over the USA and in February 1954 he took on the new challenge of his first foreign mission which took place in the Harringey arena, London. It lasted an incredible 3 months and by the end had made Graham into a national figure.
Britain in the 1950s was tailor made for Graham’s work. The country had hardly recovered from World War II and was still deprived of some basic necessities, but it was just a year after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and people seemed to be ready to face a new future with a sense of purpose. What better time than to infuse this optimism with renewed religious commitment., especially since church attendance had risen after the war. Consequently churches of most denominations happily associated themselves with Graham’s crusade and encouraged their people to attend. If attendance were not possible they organised sound relays of the services into churches, up and down the country.
The effect of the Harringay Crusade was extraordinary. Not only was the arena filled for every meeting but it became front page news too. The local underground station soon became used to the sound of hundreds of people standing on the platforms, waiting for the trains and singing hymns at the tops of their voices.
Additionally it became known that some celebrities had also begun to attend the meetings and this had the effect of puffing Graham further. At the additional crusades in Glasgow and at Wembley Stadium the following year it was clear that most of the churches, excepting the Roman Catholics, were coming to the conclusion that Billy Graham might have become God’s messenger to the United Kingdom and this led to Archbishops, politicians and others to join him on his platform. Even the Queen had been said to be influenced by Graham and had asked to meet him. However for some newspapers there were articles suggesting that his crusades were nothing more than a religious circus.
So it was that this 13 year old in April 1954 sat in the balcony of a church in Luton and was moved sufficiently by ‘the Appeal’ to get out of his seat and go to the front. With all the naivity of adolescence and being only too aware of the internal rages of puberty it seemed to be the only answer for me and so I joined up and committed myself to Jesus, lock, stock and barrel.
From that point there was no stopping me and there were very few people who were not told about my decision and what that was going to mean for my future. Billy Graham had become my guru and I wouldn’t hear a word said against him and there were no reasons why they shouldn’t make the same decision I had made. Perhaps even the whole world would at last become Christian.
From this point, Billy Graham travelled the world. He was as famous as the Pope and the President of the USA and his words were news. Millions and millions listened to him and many of them made the journey from their seats to the front to make their decision for Christ. Yet there was no real reason why this should have been so. He was not even a theological scholar, inspite of being known as Dr. Billy Graham, and his knowledge and understanding of the world were as limited as any other person born and raised in a farmhouse in North Carolina. Indeed there were many times when he made statements seemingly obvious for a dedicated young man in the USA but less obvious to the thinking man, elsewhere in the world, whose experience of life was markedly different. On a number of occasions he had to backtrack but I do not feel that he was the uninformed bigot some have made him out to be. If your maxim is ‘the Bible says’ then for him and for so many others there was never any doubt what your moral or religious standpoint would be but sadly, eventually for me and probably for many others too, life’s decisions were not so simple and that time of ‘coming forward’ was a too simplistic approach to what being a Christian was all about.
However Graham was not a hypocrite. There was a simplicity about him which stayed over the years and protected him from falling to the obscenities which other television evangelists fell victim to. There were no scandals about the use of money; no whiff of sexual irregularities; and he remained the husband to only one wife, and happily so.
Inspite of those naive statements about social issues, at other times he was ahead of his years. He insisted on preaching to racially unsegregated audiences and he could even have been found attending meetings of the World Council of Churches, which for most others Christians, especially in the southern states of the USA, were anathema. He happily met with popes and other spiritual leaders and behaved himself in an appropriately Christian way. It is true that his statements on LGBT issues were condemnatory and did much harm to the gay community and he was just plain wrong to do so, but I believe that given time he might have listened and perhaps even understood things better. He seemed to be like that.
Billy Graham was a child of the farmhouse and to his surprise he found himself one of the world’s most famous men and to be honest he revelled in it. If there is anything which diminishes him it is the fact that he was taken in by the unmerited greatness of his stature and by the fawning of others. Every crusade was hyped as being bigger and better than they previous one. The huge numbers of people listening to him were regularly touted and the numbers coming forward proclaimed. He rejoiced in the fact that more people had heard his message than any other preacher in history. And he genuinely liked the fact that he had become the pastor and counsellor of most American presidents and he unwittingly played into their hands with his declarations about their devotion to the faith. It was unbelievable to him that Richard Nixon could have told so many lies, especially when they had prayed together and so could only respond, when confronted with the truth, that Nixon must have been controlled by the devil at that time.
Nixon was Graham’s calvary and there was a messianic sense in which he felt he was following his Saviour. He was occasionally struck down by mysterious illnesses which made him feel that he might also be a man of sorrows acquainted with diseases. In the end he was struck down by the cruellest of conditions but he survived to live a very long life. His son Franklin is following in his footsteps but does not have the charity or charisma of his father. He is rabidly homophobic and has allied himself to Donald Trump to the extent that he seems to be oblivious to the man’s many faults. Like his father, with Nixon, Franklin has declared Trump to be the man sent by God for the good of his country. Sadly, the result may be like father, like son.