Did Billy Graham break the Church?

Billy Graham came to England in 1954 and again in the Eighties and had a huge impact. He offered a new deal, a contract that was simple to understand and act upon. Believe in Jesus, accept Him as your personal saviour and you will be forgiven, your life will be transformed. The old ways of faith through tradition, culture and community were no longer enough. But the trouble with offering people a new deal is that if – or in this case, when – they eventually find it wanting, or if the thrill doesn’t last, they give up and walk away, losing trust in the people who sold it to them. For a while it looked as if Billy Graham was saving the Church in this country, but maybe he should take some of the blame for its demise. Here’s an extract from my book looking at the changes in British culture and spirituality since the Eighties, ‘Is God Still An Englishman? How Britain lost its faith (but found new soul)’

Billy Graham was the most famous preacher in the world and one of the most famous Americans, a man with a face made for Mount Rushmore. As handsome as a lion and just as persuasive, he appeared to be one of the most confident men ever to walk the earth, utterly convinced that the message he was bringing to England in 1984 was right. It was the same message he had preached to at least a hundred million people in his lifetime, making more than a million converts. God loved us all, even though we were sinners who had fallen far short even of His glory. He had sent His only son to die on the cross, to take the punishment that should have been ours. We could know God and be sure of a place in heaven by accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal saviour. There was someone waiting to pray with us, if we would only get up out of our seats and come on down to the front of the stage. Right now. The Lord was calling. And that was it.

Life was simple in a Billy Graham world. Believe and you would be saved. Graham preached it in stadiums and on television with the clear-eyed, eloquent charm that had once made him the best door-to-door brush salesman in North Carolina. Unlike other American evangelists, at the peak of his fame he didn’t seem like a liar or a fraud or someone who would be exposed as secretly paying women for sex. He drew only a relatively modest wage of $50,000 a year or so, never met with women when he was alone and even left the door of his office open when he was talking to his secretary.

When he wasn’t on the road, Billy Graham retreated to a farm. He had been born in 1918, the son of a dairy farmer who once made his boy drink beer until sick in order to prove the evils of alcohol. His first crusade, as he named it – with little apparent care of what that word meant outside Christian America – was in Los Angeles in 1949, when some circus tents were put up in a car park. It was supposed to last three weeks but ran for eight. The press loved him and in reference to his booming voice called him ‘God’s Machine Gun’. That didn’t seem such a loaded phrase in those days.

William Randolph Hearst, the press magnate whose life inspired the film Citizen Kane, decided that here was a potentially powerful ally in the fight against his biggest dread: Communism. Graham saw the Soviet way of life as a Satanic conspiracy. Hearst told his editors, who never disobeyed: “Puff Graham.” The preacher quickly became an American superstar, granted a personal audience with successive presidents. He tried to keep out of politics, but couldn’t really help himself: he refused to speak to segregated audiences, and invited Martin Luther King to share his platform in the Fifties when the minister was despised and feared by many of Graham’s fellow white southerners. His contact with Richard Nixon was not quite so admirable. Recordings were released of him apparently going along with the President’s forceful anti-Semitism, even though Graham was very keen on building better relations between Christians and Jews. Graham would make other dubious moves over the years, not least his assertion that Aids was God’s judgment on homosexuals, a comment for which he later apologised.

Billy Graham first preached in Britain in 1954 and his impact was huge. “Not since the Victorian period had there been such powerful evidence of a professing Christian people in Britain,” says the historian Callum Brown. The numbers of church members, baptisms and weddings soared that year. “Accompanying these was a vigorous reassertion of ‘traditional’ values: the role of women as wives and mothers, moral panic over deviancy and ‘delinquency’ and an economic and cultural austerity which applauded ‘respectability, thrift and sexual restraint’.”

Dr Graham was in London for three months and spoke to a combined audience of nearly two million people when the population of the capital was eight million. He won relatively few converts (just 36,431) but his influence was great. America was the source of all that was glamorous and modern and the visiting star preacher carried all that with him. Just his presence in the same city was enough to convince some people they really had to get their lives together. He was reminding them of something they already knew. “The mental world which drew in those worshippers was a national culture,” says Callum Brown, “widely broadcast through books, magazines and radio and deeply ingrained in the rhetoric with which people conversed about each other and about themselves. It was a world profoundly conservative in morals and outlook, and fastidious in its adherence to respectability and moral standards. Many people may have been hypocritical, but that world made them very aware of their hypocrisy.”

Billy Graham’s message of personal salvation was not alien to England. It was the faith of John Wesley; but a version of it that had sailed away America and come back changed and fortified by the smooth skills of the salesman. His visits pumped up born-again English faith like a Charles Atlas body-building course. Before his first crusade to this country, only 10 per cent of priests had been prepared to call themselves Evangelicals. These are people who stress the authority of the Bible above all, and the importance of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. The message that Billy Graham preached was effectively their manifesto.

He made several more visits over the decades, acting as an inspiration, a cheerleader and a point of focus for attempts to win converts. In 1984 he spoke to a million people, and 350,000 watched on television relays elsewhere. The number of who came forward was 135,000. Three years after the 1984 crusade, Evangelicals accounted for a third of all people in the Church of England’s pews, and a mighty 50 per cent of priests. The Baptists also benefited from the Billy Graham bounce.

The faith of England was changed by Billy Graham and his followers, becoming more direct, simpler and more personal. In the recent past, going to a service had mostly been something you did out of duty, a discipline that would improve the spirit but was essentially an ordinary part of life. Now there was an expectation that something extraordinary might happen in church. You could experience God, get a dose of His love. It was something you had to choose to do – ‘nominal’ Christians who went out of habit or tradition were seen as inferior, possibly not even saved – and your choice would be rewarded with peace, contentment and the certainty of salvation.

It was simple. All you had to do was accept Jesus, say a certain prayer and allow your life to be transformed. It was exciting, much better than all that dry old tradition. But the trouble with offering a deal like this is that if it doesn’t last – if you don’t feel transformed, if the thrill wears off, if the Church turns out to be just as full of brokenness as it was before – people just give up and walk away.

Billy Graham offered the English a deal, they bought it but found it wanting, and stopped trusting the Church they had loved and trusted before he came. The last flourish of the Graham approach was the Decade of Evangelism declared by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, at the start of the Nineties. But this time it worked in reverse. By the end of that decade, across all denominations, the number of churchgoers had not grown but fallen, by more than a million.

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

One thought on “Did Billy Graham break the Church?

  1. Tha k you Cole. As a Methodist and a staunch socialist I remember the 1984 Bristol and London stadium and live links in Sussex, speeches of Billy Graham. Whilst an active Christian his words didn’t ‘move me’ but he was an inspirational leader. Several non believing friends did feel the call to respond. Unfortunately a few of them were not well received in churches as they bought quite a bit of ‘bggage’ Which the church couldn’t cope or were t prepared for. Others did go on to make an impact in the church – here there was support and encouragement for the new,y converted.

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