How Billy Graham melted the ice

by
23 May 2007

David Winter, then a young Christian, was there on the night in 1954 when the American evangelist opened his first British crusade

I WAS in Harringay Stadium, north London. The only time I’d been there before was to watch an ice-hockey match. This, however, was rather different. There was no ice, for one thing. Instead there were seats — thousands of them — where the ice should have been.

There was a platform at one end, and above it a giant banner proclaiming: “Jesus Christ is Lord”. It was March 1954, and this was the opening night of Billy Graham’s first campaign in Britain.

The evangelist had come from the United States (his literature claimed) to awaken poor old post-war Britain to the gospel message its people had so sadly turned their backs on. Half of me wanted him to do well. After all, most of our churches were struggling to hold the congregations they’d got, let alone attract anyone else.

Half of me wanted him to fall flat on his face, and go quickly back to the Bible Belt. By the end of the evening I had my answer. He was going to do well, very well.

For one thing, the stadium was packed, even if largely with parties from Evangelical churches across the capital. The preliminaries seemed endless, but finally Billy Graham himself bounced up on to the stage, flaxen hair shining in the spotlights, his tall, elegant figure poised behind the podium.

And then he spoke — and it was like an electric shock. There was something about the voice or the personality that simply compelled you to listen. “He speaks in neon lights,” one of the papers commented next morning. When Billy Graham spoke, people listened.

And they responded. That was the other memorable thing. When he called on people who had been touched by his message to “get up out of your seat and come and stand at the front”, some of us expected that no one would move. After all, this was Britain, not North Carolina.

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Yet they did, several hundred that night, and hundreds more every night of the following eight weeks, until the final rally in Wembley Stadium, when Dr Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave the blessing.

I must confess that I was completely bowled over by it all. As someone newly come to a personal commitment to Christ, I found it unbelievably exciting to see the crowds, to join in the singing (even in the tube trains on the way home), and to listen to Graham’s preaching — so utterly unlike anything I had heard before.

He talked in the language of ordinary people. He related the gospel message to the world in which I lived. He read the newspapers and kept up with world events. He understood and could exploit the insecurity of that first post-nuclear generation. I gladly suspended my critical faculty and wallowed in it.

 

I WENT HOME that evening quite convinced that revival was just around the corner. It wasn’t, of course. My own parish church, which had supported the campaign from the start and hired coaches to take people to the meetings, received several hundred referrals — names of people who had gone forward and been interviewed by a trained counsellor.

Many of them were people who were already churchgoers, and there was no doubt that their faith had been strengthened — transformed, in some cases.

But when it came to people who were complete outsiders, it has to be said that probably fewer than half a dozen had any real understanding of what Billy Graham had invited them to do — though among those who did was Denis Shepherd, later a much loved parish priest and evangelist in the Church of England.

The next morning the papers were full of “Billy”. On the whole, they liked him — his looks, his style, his sense of humour, his ease with the media. They also liked the fact that the established Churches weren’t quite sure what to make of him. That soon changed, though. The Queen invited him to preach at Windsor. He preached in the university churches at Oxford and Cambridge. The following year, on a return visit, the BBC broadcast an entire crusade meeting live on television.

The lad from the Bible Belt had won over the Brits with his Southern charm. They may have had problems with the message, but few, it seemed, with the messenger.

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I Got up out of My Seat, presented by David Frost, is broadcast at 11 a.m. today on BBC Radio 4 (FM only).

 

John Stott, Rector Emeritus of All Souls’, Langham Place
I heard Billy Graham myself say on several occasions that if the churches were doing their duty, evangelistically speaking, there would not be any need for a person like him. Now, I think he exaggerated . . . but I understand what he meant.

I think church leaders were given a great deal of courage as a result of hearing and watching Billy Graham at work. And many went back to their churches and parishes determined to be as true to the gospel as he had been.

 

Maurice Rowlandson, former head of the UK branch of the Billy Graham Organisation
At the end of the first week of the crusade, the press had started to get sympathetic, and then Billy Graham met Cassandra in the Daily Mirror, took him out to the pub for a glass of orange juice . . . and from then on the press became sympathetic and even enthusiastic.

 

Wendy Cope, poet and ‘agnostic churchgoer’
[The sound] was relayed live to some churches, and my mother took me along. And so we sat there and we joined in the singing and then we listened to it. We just couldn’t see anything.

What I can remember is that he said: “If you can’t stand up in front of these people here today and accept Jesus as your personal saviour or whatever — if you can’t do that here today, how will you ever do it on the day of judgement?” And I sat there thinking, well, you know, it looks like if I don’t do this I’m going to go to hell. So up I went.

“We got home, and my mother told my father what had happened, and I could see my father wasn’t pleased. I felt rather depressed about it, to tell you the truth. . . I was only nine, you know. And I sort of felt that it had become more of a burden now than it was before. . . And there was no joy in it. And it was always a kind of reluctant, guilty thing. . .

It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the teachings of Jesus, or that I don’t like being part of a Christian community.

Every so often I get scared, though. I mean, this is my inheritance from the dreaded Evangelicalism and Billy Graham: that I can easily get scared at the idea that, you know, I’m not doing it properly, and I’m going to go to hell.

 

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