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June 24 The last 'crusade' of Billy Graham

It was in Flushing Meadows in New York where the American evangelist Billy Graham today began what he said would be his last North American crusade. What he called ‘crusades’ were effectively large-scale preaching missions, and had started in 1949 in Los Angeles. Because of these crusades, it is asserted that Graham preached the gospel to more people in person than anyone in the history of Christianity. This is a brief look at his life, his impact, his critics and his legacy.


The son of a prosperous dairy farmer, Billy Graham grew up in rural North Carolina. As a young man he had a religious experience at a revivalist meeting lead by Mordecai Ham and professed his “decision for Christ.” In 1936 he left his father’s dairy farm to attend Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee, but only lasted a semester finding its extreme fundamentalism problematic. He transferred to Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, graduated and was ordained a minister by the Southern Baptist Convention. It was at a time of tension for Protestantism in the United States which was deeply divided between fundamentalists and modernists who wished to apply scholarly methods of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Bible. The Scopes Trial of 1925, had damaged the imaged of fundamentalists ( see pod of May 5 ) and the social critic H.L. Mencken successfully portrayed all fundamentalists as uneducated country bumpkins. There was a large scaled withdrawal from the established Protestant denominations, which the fundamentalists regarded as hopelessly liberal, and also from larger society, which saw a growth in sectarianism.

Billy Graham wished to dissociate himself from this withdrawal, he seized on the opportunity presented by new media technologies, especially radio and television, to spread the message of the gospel. Whilst he was on a spiritual retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California, he decided to set aside his intellectual doubts about Christianity and simply “preach the gospel.” After his retreat, Graham began preaching in Los Angeles, where his crusade brought him national attention. The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was impressed with the young evangelist’s preaching and anti-Communist rhetoric, instructed his papers to give him beneficial coverage and from Los Angeles, Graham undertook evangelistic crusades around the country and then the world, eventually earning international renown. By the end of his life Theologian J. I. Packer attributed an evangelical "convergence" to Graham. "Up to 1940, it was every institution for itself. There wasn't anything unitive about the situation. There were little outposts of resistance trying to keep their end up in face of the liberal juggernaut. Increasingly, from the 1950s onward, evangelicals came together behind Billy Graham and the things he stood for and was committed to. It continues that way to the present."

He faced criticism from both liberals and conservatives, with liberals and intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr calling his message "simplistic." On the other end of the theological spectrum, fundamentalists never forgave him for cooperating with mainline Protestant clergy, in a famous 16-week crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1957. His willingness to cross dividing lines made him "compromised" in their eyes for cooperating with mainline groups and the National Council of Churches. He infuriated segrationists when invited the "agitator" Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at the 1957 New York City crusade; but civil rights activists accused him of cowardice for not joining them on protest marches. Building bridges, and widely respected for his sincerity he became close with several American presidents, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. He became politically close to Richard Nixon, and during the 1960 presidential campaign, he met in Montreaux, Switzerland, with other Protestant leaders to devise a strategy to derail the campaign of John F. Kennedy, in order to secure Nixon’s election and prevent a Roman Catholic from becoming president. Graham later mended relations with Kennedy, and eventually developed amicable ties with many American Catholic Church figures and later encouraged unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

As Nixon’s presidency unravelled amid charges of criminal misconduct in the Watergate scandal, Graham reviewed transcripts of Oval Office tape recordings and professed to be physically sickened by his friend’s use of foul language. Captured on the tapes, Graham agreed with Nixon that Jews control the American media, calling it a "stranglehold" during a 1972 conversation with Nixon, and suggesting that if Nixon was re-elected that they might be able to do something about it. He would apologise for this thirty years later when the tapes became public. He said Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made in an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon ... some 30 years ago. ... They do not reflect my views and I sincerely apologize for any offense caused by the remarks

Behind his charisma, and his forceful preaching, was a sophisticated organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, incorporated in 1950, which performed extensive advance work in the form of favourable media coverage, cooperation with political leaders, and coordination with local churches and provided a follow-up program for new converts. Pioneering the use of television for religious purposes, during the 1980s, when other television preachers were embroiled in sensational scandals, Graham remained above the fray. He was known to practice The Modesto Manifesto, which is a practice among some male evangelical Protestant leaders, in which they avoid spending time alone with women to whom they are not married. It is adopted as a display of integrity, a means of avoiding sexual temptation, to avoid any appearance of doing something considered morally objectionable, and to avoid being accused of sexual harassment or assault. It is now known widely as the Billy Graham Rule and in six decades of ministry, no one ever levelled a serious accusation of misconduct against him.