Billy Graham – “a divine adrenalin for a jaded church”

When the red top papers cover religion, said the Church Times on the 60th anniversary of Billy Graham’s London crusade of May 1954, it is almost with an air of negativity.

But on this occasion the numbers were too overwhelming for negativity. The meeting at Wembley stadium – attended by 120,000 people – was according to the News Of The World “Britain’s biggest ever political rally”, while The People described “drama” at Wembley as 10,000 people braved the rain to “go forward” and give their lives to Christ.

The numbers were indeed staggering and help explain why Billy Graham will be remembered as probably the greatest evangelist of the latter part of the 20th century. About 120,000 people were at Wembley stadium on that night. The demand to hear the American preacher was so great that another night had to be added to the schedule to accommodate an additional 65,000 people at White City.

It is estimated that a staggering 1.3 million people heard Billy Graham preach during his 1954 UK tour – with 38,000 making a commitment to follow Jesus – two-thirds of whom were under 18 years old. Over the next 26 years Billy Graham made seven such crusades to Britain, attended by nine million people with an estimated 320,000 responding to his call to repent and be saved.

In some respects Billy Graham set a standard that we in the media should aspire to. He was well presented and prepared – the organisation behind his London crusades was legendary. But he was also immensely articulate, knew the composition of his audience and was able to tell a good story.     

Even the sceptics were impressed by the preacher’s honesty, charisma and abiding sincerity. Poet and prominent Anglo-Catholic John Betjeman witnessed Billy Graham’s 1954 campaign and like many others was won over.

Writing for The Spectator at the time, he described in his inimitable prose “what it was like to see throngs of converts – mostly young people – gather at the end of the service “to be met by counsellors who oversaw their conversions”.

“Billy Graham knows his Bible so well and he brings the scenes of our Lord’s life on earth so vividly before us that neither Catholic nor evangelical could quarrel with him,” Betjeman wrote. “He is genuinely above religious differences and if any intolerance or quarrelling comes into the campaign it will not be his work. In the end the truth will triumph.”

More than 60 years later we are in a position to judge Betjeman’s prediction that the truth will ultimately decide the authenticity of Billy Graham’s campaigns. We can say without doubt that he was a man who brought Jesus into the lives of many people who otherwise may well have ignored him.

Tributes from the great and the good poured in for Billy Graham after his death. One of the most moving came from former President Jimmy Carter: “He worked tirelessly to spread a message fellowship and hope,” he said. “He shaped the spiritual lives of tens of millions of people worldwide. Broadminded, forgiving and humble in his treatment of others, he exemplified the life of Jesus Christ by constantly reaching out for opportunities to serve.”  

God bless you Billy Graham, excellent Christian and consummate communicator. You’ll be missed.