Explaining Billy Graham

On May 9, 1979, I attended a Billy Graham Crusade at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney. I had access to the lawn area in front of the blue grandstand. I don’t remember that. It says so on the ticket I kept from that night.

I don’t really remember anything from Billy Graham’s talk that night either. But I do recall hundreds of people going forward in response to the appeal to invite Jesus into their life.

I went forward too. But not to give my life to Jesus. I just went forward to see what happened to all those who did. I meandered through the crowd, overhearing the respondees repeating the sinner’s prayer after their counselor, phrase after phrase like wedding vows.

It must have had a big impact on me because I kept my ticket all these years.

The 1979 crusade was Billy Graham’s third in Australia. He first landed on our shores in 1959 and that crusade is considered a watershed event in Australia’s religious history. During the ’59 meetings 130,000 Aussies went forward in response to Graham’s altar call. In Sydney alone it was nearly 57,000. It was the closest thing to a revival the city had ever seen.

But the Billy Graham phenomenon had begun only ten years earlier in Los Angeles in September 1949.

At just 30 years of age, the Southern Baptist preacher from North Carolina was on the brink of folding his evangelistic ministry after a series of disappointing revivals in other cities. But the Los Angeles crusades changed everything.

While characterized as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah by Graham himself, the truth was that Los Angeles was full of conservative Christians. During the Great Depression, fundamentalist Midwesterners flooded into LA, some of them eventually doing very well for themselves in the City of Angels.

They were now among a group of well-to-do Los Angeles businessmen sponsoring the event, which would be held in an enormous tent stretched across a parking lot at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street. They spent $25,000 on billboards, radio spots and newspaper ads coaxing Californians to visit the “Canvas Cathedral” and hear “America’s Sensational Young Evangelist Preach.”

And more than 350,000 Californians did exactly that.

But there was more going on than just a well-funded, well-run evangelism crusade.

Providentially, the ‘49 Los Angeles crusade coincided with a national marketing campaign created by some of America’s top advertising executives. But this campaign wasn’t selling any old commodity. It was selling religion.

That year, the Religion in American Life campaign blitzed the country with around 10,000 newspaper ads, national radio marketing, and billboards in every city, all designed “to accent the importance of all religious institutions as the basis of American life.”

And major corporations bankrolled it.

Why, you might ask.

They were fighting what they saw as the insidious left-wing forces of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the trade union movement, and socially progressive churches.

The New Deal had introduced the regulatory state which curbed corporate power. The labor unions were fighting for workers’ rights. And ministers from the Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist denominations were preaching what would later be disparagingly referred to as the “social gospel”, a theology that affirmed both personal piety and social justice.

Inspired by the writings of Christian socialist, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and the example of social reformer, Mark Matthews, a Presbyterian minister in Seattle, the social gospel movement applied Christian ethics to social problems. They denounced economic systems that promoted inequality and poverty. They insisted on strong labor unions, free education, nationalized health, racial reconciliation and, in many cases, pacifism.

Corporate America couldn’t have that!

Initially they tried traditional lobbying and PR campaigns. But it wasn’t until 1949 that some business leaders saw the galvanizing effects of religion on society. The Religion in American Life campaign was born, linking Christianity, Republican politics and libertarian economics to help drive a wave of public piety in the 1950s.

Essentially, the campaign sought to advance the idea that unfettered capitalism and Christianity are soul mates

In his book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Princeton historian, Kevin Kruse points out that business leaders, anxious about the emergence of the social gospel, looked around for an exemplar of the kind of Christianity they preferred – the pietistic, individualistic, privatized kind.

Billy Graham fitted the bill. He didn’t address issues of social justice, sticking to a call for individual acceptance of Christ as savior. He promoted a form of personal piety that eschewed sexual immorality and condemned drinking, communism, and later rock ‘n’ roll music.

Graham was quoted as saying, “I’m trying to stay out of [social/political issues] and just keep preaching the Gospel, because there’s nothing coming out of Washington or any of those places that are going to save the world or transform men and women.”

All this led the ageing media magnate, William Randolph Hearst to instruct all his papers right across the country to “Puff Graham.”

With the backing of corporate America, the 1949 Los Angeles crusade, which was booked to run for three weeks, lasted eight. Three thousand people were “born again.”

Time magazine founder Henry Luce met with Graham and started promoting his work.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was off and running.

Throughout the 1950s, the Religion in American Life campaign gave the US its national motto, In God We Trust (in 1956), and a new line in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation under God” (in 1954).

Capitalism, corporate America and conservative Christianity defeated the New Deal and the social gospel. They stomped them to dust, actually. Kevin Kruse explains it this way:

“In [conservative] Christianity, the individual rises to heaven or falls to hell based on his or her own character. They say the free market is just like that. You succeed, you fail, on your own. In their eyes, the state meddles with that purity. That’s the natural process. That’s the godly process. So anything that is working against the system that God himself must have set up, the system of individual merit, must itself be ungodly.”

Does knowing all this diminish the esteem and respect with which we hold Billy Graham?

I don’t see why it should. I respect him enormously. Despite the odd misstep (cosying up to Richard Nixon), Billy Graham had integrity. He was offered movie roles and political office, but he turned them down cold. He felt called to preach the gospel and he remained faithful to that calling, a vocation he discharged with excellence and unflagging energy. He is a giant of the Christian faith.

But there’s nothing untoward about recognizing that Billy Graham was also a man of his time, shaped by the prevailing culture, and influenced by the emergence of corporate interests in the latter part of the 20th century.

It is myopic and potentially dangerous to imagine that Billy Graham sprang up suigeneris, spawned by the Holy Spirit, his impact the work of God alone without any any influence of the world around him. A unique confluence of events occurred after World War 2 that created the perfect storm for the rise of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

I think Australians can happily celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1959 crusades, but without pining for the days in which such crusades were possible. Today, we believe the gospel does have social implications as well as personal ones. We are no longer shaped by the bifurcation of Christ’s message into the competing interests of evangelism or justice. We no longer expect the media and the business world to back our evangelistic crusades. Those day are gone. And I, for one, am happy to see them go.

Let’s stop asking, “Will we ever see those days again?” Instead let’s seek the new shape of faith-sharing, justice-seeking and peace-making in the days ahead.



Share to:

Subscribe to my blog


The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

Latest Blogs

Picturing the Resurrection

The best paintings of the resurrection don’t include Jesus in them. At least it seems that way. Seven years ago (was it really that long??)

The Perfect Ash Wednesday Picture

What an eccentric painting this is. Carl Spitzweg’s 1860 painting Ash Wednesday depicts a clown, dressed presumably for Mardi Gras, languishing in a dark and

The Fierce Mother Heart of God

My three-year-old grandson Jarrah has been unwell recently. Really unwell. He has been seriously ill with what we’ve now discovered was a horrible combination of

17 thoughts on “Explaining Billy Graham

  1. Got to hear Graham when he was at Urbana in ’84 and also in Anaheim, CA in ’85. Haven’t read Kruses’ book – maybe some day. Till then I am glad for a more full Gospel and its implications to our own life and society.

  2. Wow, this was really fascinating. I didn’t know most of this stuff.

  3. Thanks Mike
    That was super interesting; I wasn’t born in 1979 so I really appreciate the way you open up narratives from a range of perspectives for a fuller/better understanding of history!

  4. jesus walked at approximately three miles per hour or thereabouts. when you walk slow you have time to see the world as it is. Thank you Mike for walking slow and seeing what we need to see

  5. Thanks for putting in the research and work to bring forward a clear expose of the threads that were woven together to sponsor a movement like the BGEA! It is fascinating and it is prophetic as well. As one considers the forces of culture in time that shaped the rise of Billy Graham as a “Western” evangelist, one can’t also help but notice the same/similar forces that have given rise to the “prosperity gospel”. it’s no mystery why the so called “prosperity gospel” was birthed in the U.S. with it’s enormous wealth and power, corporate/government relationships, and individualism, rather than say…Ethiopia!

    I for one am with you celebrating the more mature and “global” gospel that broadens the “message” to include social justice, peace-keeping, culture penetrating love of the least, the left out, and the looked over!

  6. Did BilyvGraham stick to his. Philosophy of not making comments about social issues?

    1. He walked a very thin line on some social/political issues so as to not detract from his primary mission (evangelism). So he was a supporter of the civil rights movement, for example, (bailing MLK out of prison and desegregating the audiences at his crusades), but he refused to be outspoken on the issue. His circumspection on this issue disappointed many. He was burned by his association with Richard Nixon and resolved not to become co-opted by partisan politics ever again.

  7. The US business campaign wasn’t present in Aus.

    1. Yes, by that time the momentum in the US was unstoppable and his fame had spread here. The BGEA also had the resources to fund such crusades around the world.

  8. One could postulate that the Los Angeles crusades are a modern times equivalent of God hardening the heart of Pharoh to effect his will and purpose… affected the business community to get Billy going, got lots of people saved 😉 … but the counterpunch then becomes that much of the church has since spent decades wandering in the wilderness of personal pietism and prosperity gospel.

  9. Appreciate your work so much

  10. Thank you. This was incredibly enlightening.

  11. It’s fascinating how we write about history with such boldness and confidence. I can only comment on my experiences going to his crusades in the mid 90’s.

    He spoke in Atlanta Georgia for 4 nights in 1994. On the first night he presented the Gospel in his traditional way after Johnny cash had led the worship. The next three nights he spent pleading with
    the Christianss of Georgia to serve to needy across the state.

    I remember with particular fondness the final evening where my brother and I by chance found our way into Ted Turner’s private suite to watch the proceedings.

  12. Thanks for sharing, Mike. A balanced and gracious write, fairly questioning some of the present push–over which I’m truly divided–for a 60th anniversary ‘crusade’ (profoundly unhelpful language in a religiously pluralistic context). Praying there are some genuine ‘conversions’ during the Franklin Graham events, even as it’s neither the approach nor speaker I would prefer. Also celebrating a much fuller gospel, where these ridiculous left-right battles are put in their correct place, bowing to the vision of God’s peace-full reign. Blessings in your work in a new season, Dave.

    1. Thanks Dave. Really appreciate it.

  13. Mike, thanks so much for such a balanced article surrounding this ‘Giant’ of the Christian Faith. At a time where we read about the falls of Pastors such as Bill Hybels, it’s hard not to then be cynical about all…. but I always value your ways of thinking, and communicating that which we all should be aware of, but not driven by….

  14. I saw Billy Graham in 1979 too, although I don’t have a ticket as proof.
    Like you I have very little memory of the event, although I remember being there.
    I was quite young, so looking back now I’m impressed that I wanted to go. I don’t
    think his name would have meant as much then as it does to me now. I’m sad I don’t
    remember more. Youth is wasted on the young, as they say.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *