The Third Coming of Billy Graham
And why Andy Young begged him to return.
Atlanta Magazine | October 1994
Billy Graham is trying to remember Atlanta. He sits in a plain office rocker, all shinbones, elbows and earlobes, the pulpit-dark suit traded for a gray blazer and blue polyester shirt, with big floppy collars. He wears orthopedic sneakers, faded gym socks, and his long, pale shins stand up like planks into the bottoms of his slacks. Graham’s eyes do not project the piercing blueness of his defining years but appear gray, even hollow behind thick black glasses stabbed into a shag of mist-colored sideburns.
“Here I am writing my memoirs and I can’t remember anything,” he says, recalling only the image of himself preaching atop a large blue stage in that sea of souls, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, 1973. Of this, Graham’s last Atlanta crusade, he can raise no further details from the vast landscape of his experience.
Over nearly half a century, Billy Graham has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people, face-to-face, than anyone in the history of the world. He insists on downplaying the numbers, but the fact is that he has personally ministered to over 110 million people. Recently, Graham archivists have begun compiling an index of his crusades and speaking engagements. At last count, the document was 175 typed, single-spaced pages. His first Atlanta crusade, held in 1950 at the nova burst of his career, lasted five weeks and drew a half-million people. It rates a one-line mention.
It has been 21 years since Billy Graham conducted his second and only other Atlanta “crusade”—the protracted, nightly revival meeting that has its roots in the sawdust and sweat-soaked urgencies of the itinerant Christian evangelist tradition that predates revolutionary America. When he visits the Georgia Dome Oct. 26 through 30, it will undoubtedly be his last Atlanta crusade.
“Was I disappointed with Atlanta last time? I don’t know. I think I was, but I don’t really know,” says Graham, whose office is in a plain fieldstone building, just down the hill from his home in Montreat, N.C. One wall of bookshelves frames his uncluttered desk, and the principle adornment on his pine-paneled walls is a metal bas-relief depicting the Last Supper. His sitting chair faces a sofa across a coffee table, any of which could have come out of a college dorm room or your grandmother’s house.
“I think we left [Atlanta] feeling that something was wrong, but we didn’t know what.”
Well, everybody felt like something was wrong in the summer of ’73. Graham’s closest political pal, Richard Nixon, was under investigation by the Senate Watergate Committee. Kissinger couldn’t get Hanoi’s Le Due Tho to tango in Paris. Martin Luther King Jr. was long dead, and still some wondered for what. Skylab was up, but so was the price of milk, rocketing to $1 per half gallon.
“Whether it was in the wrong place or the stadium was too big for us at the time, or if the churches didn’t work as hard, I don’t really know,” Graham says, later amending the thought with his trademark positivity. “From God’s point of view it might have been a huge success. It might have been held for one person who made a commitment to Christ there.”
Nonetheless, general attendance was lower than expected, and black Christians hardly showed up at all. Hosea Williams and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) picketed the crusade. Some white clergy were quick to criticize the event as a pop extravaganza originating out of the business community rather than the church. Others said his message was simplistic and manipulative, “using all sorts of techniques to get people to respond to created emotions rather than out of their own freewill,” and setting converts up for disappointment when Graham left town.
“Billy always feels like he could have done better. It’s part of his humility,” says 1994 crusade director Dan Southern. “But Atlanta was a difficult place at that time. I mean, this was The South, and with Watergate going on and the Vietnam war, that may have contributed to his feelings. But maybe the fact that this was Atlanta and he was a Southerner, I think that may have been heartbreaking for him.”
ONE TENDS TO fix Billy Graham in religious history as a kind hologram of piety, the pope of modern American Protestantism who has always just sort of been there. The handsomely tanned face of Sunday morning sancti-vision. The kneeling emissary in hostile lands. There to pray with one president. There to bury another. For all his ubiquitousness, it is easy to forget that behind the cosmopolitan legend is an original product of the South.
William Franklin Graham Jr. grew up in the light-flecked foothills outside Charlotte, N.C., the son of dairy farming parents remarkable primarily in their fundamentalist devotions. In his 1979 critical biography, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness, journalist Marshall Frady pictures Graham as “an affable and vibrantly ordinary farm boy.” A nature-loving, golden-headed naif who, when occasionally packed off to religious retreats, “principally devoted himself to such merriments as emptying pitchers of water from upstairs windows on the heads of the soberer communicants” and prowling the pews after communion, scarfing down grape juice left in the hymnal racks. A natural leader, he attracted the admiration of both young men and women, and gloried and anguished in a healthy succession of girlfriends, always proclaiming his latest as The One.
By the time he finished high school, there had emerged in Billy Frank, as he was known, an utter seriousness, fueled by voracious reading and stirred with a craving for goodness by roving evangelists who patrolled the South. As the story goes, Graham came to his reckoning with Christ shortly after a handful of Charlotte men held a meeting in one of his father’s pastures and prayed that God would raise a son amongst them who would spread the gospel to the world.
His initial conversion (he was baptized three times before age 25) came in adolescence amidst the fulminations of a road-worn revivalist named Dr. Mordecai Ham, supposedly on the very night that the most famous evangelist of the day, Billy Sunday, died. Afterward, the young Graham was occasionally given to lonely and “faintly panicky” ministrations on the sidewalks of Charlotte, but it would be several years before he fully accepted The Great Commission.
After high school Graham signed on as a Fuller Brush salesman, a gabardine-suited, countrified Adonis toting his sample case along the back roads of the Carolinas, praying before each house call for a sale. If the opportunity arose, he would witness for Christ to whoever opened the door. Graham was Fuller’s top regional salesman.
He later attended fundamentalist Bob Jones College but found there an intolerable puritanism that included no handholding and chaperoned dates in the dormitory parlor only. Contrary to President Jones’ admonition that Graham would never amount to anything better than a country preacher if he left BJC, Graham happily transferred to Florida Bible Institute, perhaps leading to Jones’ later estimate of Graham as having done “more harm to the cause of Christ than any other living man.”
The Florida Bible Institute, in the Temple Terrace community of Tampa, was a palm-fringed campus that sang with the sunny wholesomeness of some 75 other young Bible-thumpers. There Graham underwent his climactic transfiguration. One cool autumn night, following a particularly painful unrequited love, beset again with the insomnia that plagued his youth, he wandered out to the 18th green of a Temple Terrace golf course. He knelt heavily, panting slightly, as if suspended between the magnetic fields of worldly and spiritual love, according to Frady, and at last cried out: “All right, Lord! If you want me, you’ve got me. … No girl or anything else will ever come first in my life again. You can have all of me from now on, I’m going to follow you at all cost.” The year was 1937, and Billy Graham was 18 years old.
He followed up his religious studies at Wheaton College, in Chicago. Through the ’40s he was the most dynamic figure of an evangelistic movement called Youth for Christ, a privately funded “parachurch” guided by young preachers who, in the spiritually desperate years following WWII, evangelized to crowds all over North America and Europe.
By 1950 Graham was preaching on his own, and in the fall of that year he constructed a canvas tabernacle in Atlanta’s old Ponce de Leon ballpark. The ensuing five-week crusade was the largest religious gathering in the history of the South up to that time, even though less than a year earlier Graham had been of no more acclaim than any other in the flourishing society of postwar evangelists.
His induction into mainstream consciousness had come a year earlier at a revival in Los Angeles. The meeting had been marred by rain and disinterest until newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, impressed with Graham’s potent admixture of scripture and apocalyptic anti-communism (an approach Graham would later abandon), wired his editors and reporters around the country: Puff Graham. Graham extended his Los Angeles crusade five more weeks. A string of favorable stories followed in Time, Newsweek and Life, and Graham’s conception, a kind of pop virgin birth seeded by the emerging deity of mass communications, was complete.
By the time he reached Atlanta, he was drawing a half-million people, harvesting here a total of 8,000 souls, or “inquirers,” the name given to anyone who for any reason comes forward at a crusade. He started writing his earliest collection of contemplations, Peace With God, while in Atlanta, and the first strains of Graham’s now famous Hour Of Decision radio broadcast emanated from second base.
At a meeting with area ministers, Graham delivered what was characterized as a “stinging slap” to local preachers, saying that Atlanta’s churches were more infected with worldliness than any he had ever seen. One hundred and seventy-five ministers issued a rebuke of the report, claiming that the press had misrepresented comments intended for their ears only. Later, The Atlanta Constitution published two photos side by side. One showed crusade ushers posing with the accumulated “love offerings,” or stacks of cash. In the adjacent shot, Graham was shown getting into his car, preparing to leave town and, apparently, taking all the town’s money with him.
“I didn’t blame the press. I blamed myself,” Graham now says. “We decided right then and there that we would never take another love offering. . . And I was the first [evangelist] who said no.”
Because of the Constitution photo, Graham went to the Federal Council of Churches for advice. “They said incorporate. Have a board of directors and publish your figures and pay yourself a salary, like any other clergyman. They even set the amount, which was $15,000 a year at that time.”
Having read Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis’ classic satire on evangelists, Graham knew that the two pitfalls of his calling tended toward money and sexual temptation. In an earlier episode of scandal-proofing called the “Modesto Manifesto,” he had gathered his male staff in a California hotel room, and they all vowed to never be alone with any women other than their wives. After the Constitution photo, financial accountability was a logical extension of that.
“And a man that came out of that who came to be my longtime friend and adviser was . . . oh, he was almost Mr. Atlanta. . . Yes! Ralph McGill. He came up here to my home several times.”
But are we to believe that Atlanta’s growth, the Olympics, even the completion of the Georgia Dome, in which Graham’s crusade will be held, constitute some sort of divine blessing for this city? Is God responsible?
Graham’s future list of friends, advisers, admirers and confidants would include every American president beginning with Eisenhower. And there followed from those first mass revivals in Los Angeles and Atlanta a Wagnerian procession of Billy Graham crusades across America’s preeminent decade of spiritual and political armament.
IN 1992 FORMER Atlanta Mayor Andy Young was in Philadelphia to give a speech. Graham was in town for a crusade, and early one morning he asked Young up to his hotel suite. Disturbed by the alienation and anger he perceived in young black culture, Graham sought Young’s counsel. Young chose the opportunity to bolster an invitation already extended to Graham by Atlanta ministers and business people. Yet there was a deeper urgency to his visit.
Sitting in his Inforum building office at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), Andy Young is given to gasping yawns between sentences. He pinches and rubs his eyes, and twice fumbles his glasses to the floor.
“That was right about the time we discovered that my wife had cancer,” he says. “I’ve never had a problem before this that I couldn’t deal with. Even King’s death, we were prepared. We had been trained by him that our ministry was dangerous.”
Although Young went to Graham as part of the Atlanta invitation, he says Graham ended up pastoring to him. On their knees they prayed for Young’s wife. It was a pivotal moment, Graham recalls, in his decision to crusade here one more time.
“Andy really laid upon my heart the need for love among the different groups in Atlanta. And he felt that the gospel I proclaimed was one of the answers that would help Atlanta think spiritually. He knew that we could not do the whole thing or bring about a total reconciliation of viewpoints, but that it could be one of the contributing factors.”
In both men there is a sense of cosmic convergence here, the It’s Atlanta! fervor that permeates all aspects of this city’s growth. Thus it is no coincidence that the Billy Graham crusade arrives in the midst of Olympic preparations.
“We are going to be successful. We are going to make money,” says Young. “But the thing that will determine the quality of the games is the spiritual message. . . Billy Graham would be great to help us see what message God has for us, and for us through Atlanta.”
There is no doubt that metro Atlanta has experienced some sort of spiritual stirring in recent years. First, Graham very rarely holds a crusade in any city for a third time. Consider the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s recent triennial Youth Gathering here, a throng of 35,000 young men and women from all over the country who in July descended on Atlanta. Consider the religious conservatism invigorating local churches, or vision-maker Nancy Fowler, who for the past few years drew hundreds of thousands of believers to her Rockdale County home for supposed visits by the Virgin Mary. But are we to believe that Atlanta’s growth, the Olympics, even the completion of the Georgia Dome, in which Graham’s crusade will be held, constitute some sort of divine blessing for this city? Is God responsible?
“I can’t say that,” admits Graham. “I say that God has allowed it for a purpose. I don’t know what that purpose is because I think everything we do God allows it, but he may not be the one sponsoring it.”
Graham’s receptiveness to Andy Young is no coincidence either. As co-chairman of ACOG, as vice-chairman and board member of the Atlanta-based multinational company Law Companies Group, as a former mayor and an ordained minister, Young is the ultimate touchstone for Atlanta’s religious, business and civic communities, in all three of which Graham must find support. But Andy Young is no doubt most important to Graham as a black minister, for it was with black congregations that Graham experienced his greatest disaffection in 1973.
“We had demonstrators outside the stadium, I think,” says Graham. “And I remember—what is his name?—a well—known black man, always nice to me, but he carried a sign every night. Hosea Williams! Yes.”
Though Graham had imported several black entertainers, leaders and ministers, including Martin Luther King Sr., to join him on the platform, the audience remained disproportionately white. Williams and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose founders had included Martin Luther King Jr., picketed nightly. They urged blacks and “right-thinking whites” not to attend, claiming that Graham had ignored black congregations and that he had a poor record on addressing civil rights issues. Many local black ministers did attend, however, and made a public appeal for more blacks to come.
While Graham had long been a leader in conducting integrated meetings, he had had a respectful but cautious rapport with Martin Luther King Jr. They differed primarily over methodology, the influence of the pulpit versus civil disobedience, King’s willful disruption of the law.
“Graham reflects the early uneasiness with integration,” says Nancy Ammerman, associate professor of the sociology of religion at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. “Although he knew it was morally the correct thing to do, I think he would have preferred if all that could have happened quietly.”
Andy Young, who was in Washington at the time of the last crusade, admits he had also been critical of Graham. “But we know now that Martin Luther King’s calling was not Billy Graham’s calling. As it turned out, the black church changed the laws and the white church made sure the laws were obeyed once changed. But at the time, people wanted Billy Graham to get the white church to change the laws. In retrospect, that wasn’t realistic,” he says.
Still, a lack of social vision remains the longest standing criticism against Graham, the idea that as a moral leader he is obligated to take a more active stance, whether the issue is the bombing of Cambodia, homosexuals or abortion rights.
Once, when asked where he stood on the Vietnam War, Graham refused to comment, saying that his mission was “evangelistic and not prophetic.” Atlanta’s the Rev. Joseph Lowery, also a founding member of the SCLC and a critic of Graham’s, retorted, “Having a mission that is evangelistic but not prophetic is like a football team having a defense that doesn’t tackle.”
Lowery, saying he is in favor of anything that fights sin, plans to attend at least one night of the 1994 crusade, if he is in town. But he adds, “Frankly, I am not aware of any radical change in [the] Rev. Graham’s preaching or posture on critical issues.”
To secular liberals he is still just another Bible-beating televangelist worthy of suspicion. To academic theologians he is the preacher who asks how many people can you pack into a football stadium.
Looking back, is Graham satisfied with his lack of commentary during those turbulent years of Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate?
“Yes. Because I did not know all the facts at the time. You see, as we look back we know all the facts. But there were two sides to all those questions, and some of the people that were involved I knew… It applies to all these controversial issues. I just don’t get involved. I feel that God has called me to one thing, and that is to preach the gospel.”
In truth, there is a perplexing duality in Graham’s willingness to apply a moral imperative in his preaching. Overall, he is famously apolitical. But from his earliest Antichrist-haunted rants against the Soviet Union to his image as a silent and therefore de facto endorser of Nixon’s Vietnam policy, he does selectively wield his political weight.
“He has his own theological references for getting involved,” says Ammerman. “He spoke up on [SALT II] disarmament, not an issue one would think a fundamentalist would generally take up. But he basically said that humans should not be involved in making a decision that is really God’s decision, that is, the end of history.”
Moreover, if Billy Graham had used his access to presidents and other world leaders to push special agendas, he probably would not have had that access.
In the last 12 months Graham has met with Lowery, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Cameron Alexander, of Antioch Baptist Church, one of Atlanta’s largest predominately black congregations, and Gerald Durley, president of Concerned Black Clergy. Hosea Williams is on the 1994 crusade advisory committee. Graham’s thoughts on coming to Atlanta naturally seem to gravitate toward “the racial thing,” as if his relationship with black Christians is a matter of unfinished business.
Lowery contends that most African-Americans remain disappointed in Graham’s chaplaincy role, in the social custodian sense, but this crusade is not likely to see the racial strains of 1973.
For one thing, the black church has slipped from the place of leadership in the civil rights area, or at least now shares that role with black elected officials. And all churches—black, white, Catholic and Protestant—have an energizing common agenda to “save” America.
Atlanta’s overall religious climate, however, is perhaps more diverse and complicated than ever, from the yuppie New Age spiritualist to the storefront Nubian Church. There is a broader range of Protestants here now, larger communities of Catholics and Jews, and the same wave of social conservatism that may bind churches in Graham’s favor creates its own problems for him. For example, as to how Graham will negotiate the Cobb County/Christian values/homosexual/Olympics imbroglio, one is certain only that it will be with typical diplomatic ambiguity.
“I don’t condemn homosexuals,” he says. “I love them and invite them to our meetings. And they do come, and many of them find Christ because Christ loved them, too. We don’t exclude homosexuals. In our thinking, I mean.”
But, says crusade director Southern, “Practicing homosexuality is a sin. Sin separates us from God. I personally think that anyone who holds onto something that they know is an affront to God is a hypocrite. . . But Mr. Graham has chosen not to alienate people unnecessarily. He doesn’t preach against any one group. He preaches against the individual as the center of the universe.”
Indeed, Graham has never had a more representative ministry. “One of the big changes is the cooperation we have from the Roman Catholic Church,” says Graham, noting that during his monumental 97-day crusade in Madison Square Garden, in 1957, the Catholic Church boycotted the meetings. “Now the Pope is a very good friend to me. . . And the Jewish community is the same way. That doesn’t mean that they are becoming Christians, but it does mean that they are giving us their goodwill, and we didn’t have that 25 years ago.
“And, for example, in my own organization I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what denomination half of them are. They’re just Christians to me. And I go to all kinds of churches. We worship here [in Montreat] at a little Presbyterian church, even though I am a Baptist.”
Such inclusiveness has always been perceived as both Graham’s strength and weakness. Certainly, he knows how to bring Christians together. But strict fundamentalists have criticized him on a range of topics, including his lack of support for pro-lifers’ Operation Rescue, which coexists with the Christian Action Council, a group Graham helped found in 1975; for presiding at the inauguration of Bill Clinton; and for mixing with, in the words of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s religion writer Gayle White, “mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics and other near heathens.”
To secular liberals he is still just another Bible-beating televangelist worthy of suspicion. To academic theologians he is the preacher who asks how many people can you pack into a football stadium, instead of the theologian who asks how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And in that drive not to alienate, to be all things to all people, one runs the risk of meaning nothing very substantive to anyone. Of being wishy-washy.
“Wishy-washy?” he asks, allowing a long silence to pass in either deep thought or a kind of dismissive trance. “Well, if you heard my message at the Nixon funeral, even before all those presidents and film stars and senators and congressmen and leaders, I preached the same message I preach everywhere. God loves you. God is interested in you. Christ died for you, and he rose from the dead. The message is always the same.”
What, then, is Billy Graham’s message for Atlanta? It is the same message he had for Cleveland and Philadelphia, or Tokyo for that matter. “As a result of television and the media, the cities today have the same kinds of problems. We buy the same kinds of soap. We’re urged to buy the same kinds of automobile. The ads are the same in every city. I can sit in Cleveland and watch the news there and sit in Atlanta and see the same thing. And this, after a while, brings people more alike in their wants, their desires and their problems. And they see the same crimes. I will address myself to a lot of these. But my main thing will be the gospel. And the gospel hasn’t changed.”
At the very least, he is a paradigm of absolutism, perhaps best illustrated by his thoughts on his own death. Graham is 75 years old and several years ago was stricken with Parkinson’s disease.
“When a person dies, what leaves the body?” he asks. “It is something spirited… And when I looked at Mr. Nixon’s casket, I knew he was not in the casket. He had already departed. But his body was there, the body his spirit had lived in. And the same will be true of me or my wife or whoever.”
Yet, what if that is not true? In fact, what if there is no God?
“To me there are no ifs, ands or buts about it. I know it is true, and all the arguments in the world that anybody could bring wouldn’t change me at all because I have established myself by faith in Christ. And when he was raised from the dead, I believe I am going to be raised from the dead if I should die.”
And that is the Billy Graham appeal, the essence of his durability.
His unblinking certitude.
The Billy Graham crusades are no longer the extended revivalist phenomenons of two, three and four decades ago. His Georgia Dome appearance will last but four nights. He no longer has the physical stamina, he says, and is committed to spending more time at home, in Montreat, writing his memoirs, being a husband to his wife of 50 years, Ruth, also in ill health.
But the demands on his time remain immense. He still holds four to six crusades a year and receives anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 letters a day. And though the Billy Graham of today has little in common with the wild-eyed preacher of Graham’s early ministry, each sermon still takes a little more out of him.
It is widely acknowledged that Graham’s long absences took their toll on his marriage and on the Graham family. One Frady anecdote holds that upon Graham’s return from a long journey in 1946, his toddler son, William Franklin III, cried out in astonishment, “Who’s him?”
Both Franklin III and Graham’s second son, Nelson, would later wrestle with drink, drugs and other assorted wickedness that strained the Graham family and even created tensions within the executive branches of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“I never did rebuke them,” says Graham. “They knew where I stood, but we always just loved them and welcomed them all the time. . . And there came a moment when they turned.”
Nelson and Franklin now operate their own separate ministries, and though both have been cited as possible successors to Graham, no one, including Graham or his sons, have committed to it. That is, they say, God’s choice.
Of the chance to study more, Graham, an anthropology major at Wheaton, says, “When you travel as much as I have traveled and speak at the universities and seminaries and colleges and sit down with professors and students, you can’t help but change because you learn so much. I found out in these years how much I don’t know.”
Graham has long maintained that his greatest shortcoming was intellectual, even though he has written 17 books, countless newspaper articles and lectured worldwide for more than 40 years. Encountered enough, his self-deprecation sounds as much a savvy preemptor of academic criticisms as it is his genuine humility.
During the late 1940s, a fellow YFC minister and great friend of Graham’s, Charles Templeton, encouraged Graham to accompany him to Princeton’s theological seminary to lay a stronger intellectual foundation for his ministry. Graham balked. When Templeton later engaged Graham in discussions of his own misgivings about the literalness of the Bible, Graham replied that wiser men than he had considered these questions and come down on both sides. Graham said that he would rely on faith. Templeton charged him with committing “intellectual suicide.”
Yet the struggle between heart and mind is the peculiar dichotomy of his faith, where intellectual scrutiny often confuses spiritual conviction. Someone once said that the longest distance in the world is the 18 inches between one’s head and one’s heart, and of this separation Graham asks, “Do you know anyone who has ever found the answers through their cerebrum? Well, you will find many who have found it through their heart, or you will find them.”
E. Brooks Holifield, a Candler School of Theology professor of American church history, says, “What the American revivalist tradition did was take something that was very dense and complex and reduce it to a few essentials designed to evoke a response. It is a highly simplified version of Christ’s message.” In the mass setting, with the glorious hymn singing, the celebrity appearances and a technical infrastructure that would make CNN proud, the Graham experience has led more than one critic to characterize his converts as “popcorn” Christians.
“We don’t need any emotional up-welling,” Graham says somewhat defensively. “The gospel appeals to the intellect, the emotion, and thirdly, primarily, to the will. The emotion puts pressure on the will, and so does the intellect, but ultimately it is the will that makes the decision.” Graham also cites his follow-up program, which includes an extensive local network of counselors who help place “inquirers” in a Bible-believing church after he leaves town.
Proportionately, there was greater nightly attendance at Graham’s 1973 crusade than in 1950. In the 71,500-seat Georgia Dome, and with support from huge conservative congregations like Mount Paran Church of God (12,000-plus members) and First Baptist Church of Atlanta (14,000), the 1994 average attendance will likely be even larger.
“That’s true everywhere,” Graham says. “In Moscow about a third of the audience every night responded. Thousands of people each night, and we didn’t have the staff to deal with them. I had to tell them, ‘Go back to your seats!’ because I thought they had misunderstood me in that huge Olympic stadium in Moscow.”
The evangelical wing is also the fastest growing segment of the Protestant Church. Furthermore, Graham feels that people are simply asking different questions now than two decades ago. “Especially young people. They are not asking the intellectual questions they asked a generation ago. It’s now heart questions. ‘Why am I here? What’s the reason for living? What’s life all about?’ ” he says. “Before, it was, ‘How do I know God exists? How do I prove it scientifically, philosophically?’ ”
Always identified as a man eager to reach across the generation gap, Graham’s Northeastern Ohio Crusade included a youth night, which was co-sponsored by Cleveland’s top urban rock radio station, Jammin’ 92. The sermon/event was advertised on MTV and featured Christian rap music and a testimonial by Cleveland Cavalier Mark Price. Earlier in the day, at a special Kid’s Crusade, more than 3,000 children and their parents “responded” to an invitation to commit to Christ from PSALTY the Singing Songbook. That night, young believers circled the upper deck of Cleveland Stadium five times in a born-again rendition of “the wave.”
It is a staginess that harks back to his Youth for Christ days, when meetings included a vaudevillian mix of musicians and singers, bands, animal acts, quiz shows, magicians, ventriloquists and even an emcee with a bow tie that lit up. Of this more musically contemporary approach in Ohio, even crusade director Dan Southern has his doubts. “I don’t think it is necessary. Billy Graham has his own appeal, and I say don’t fix what’s not broken.”
Next year Graham will hold the ultimate crusade of his career, a Global Mission to be broadcast simultaneously to 165 countries in more than 50 languages, live from San Juan, Puerto Rico (the satellite uplinks are better there). It will be the largest single evangelistic effort in history.
Often, says BGEA publicist A. Larry Ross, the percentage of respondents is even higher at satellite venues. “They are looking at Mr. Graham on a 30-foot high screen, as opposed to a live crusade where he is far away on a platform. There is an intimacy, even though he is not there in person, that translates very well.”
But is the electronic response genuine?
“I think it is more effective. It gives people time to think between sentences. It gives me time to think about what I am going to say,” says Graham. “A lot of times they are in darkness or semidarkness. They are not distracted by other things, and they are able to come to grips with their hearts more.”
Actually, mass evangelism’s record of bringing in large numbers of true converts to Christianity is rather spotty. “A good argument can be made that [Graham] has tended to reach people who are already Christians, to encourage and confirm their faith,” says Professor Holifield. In other words, it’s preaching to the choir.
Despite the easy criticisms, Graham maintains an integrity many other evangelists have lost. He projects a genuinely searching spirit, and the fact is that sometimes the choir needs preaching, too.
In his presence one literally feels his overwhelming hunger for righteousness, despite the brand, and a calmness that is magnetic. Talking with him is more like talking to a local pastor than, well, Billy Graham.
“Well listen, I think I am going to have to go now,” he says, already allowing an hour’s more interview than was agreed. “I have an appointment at 12 o’clock… Sorry, maybe we’ll see you in Atlanta?”
He begins to unfold himself from his chair, one long lanky section at a time.
“Tell me about yourself a little more now, about your own religious life… or spiritual life,” he says, and then sinks back down in his office, buried here in the laurel and hemlock mountains that surround this idyllic community like a citadel, shouldering out all but the happy Carolina blue overhead. ✦