Sixty years on: Billy Graham’s London Crusade

by
23 May 2014

John Capon recalls the closing gathering of Billy Graham's Greater London Crusade at Wembley Stadium in 1954

PHOTOS COLLECTION OF JOHN BUCKERIDGE

The young Billy Graham and Dr Fisherin conversation  

The young Billy Graham and Dr Fisherin conversation  

WHEN the red-top Sunday papers feature religion, it is generally for the wrong reasons. But that was not the case 60 years ago today - Sunday 23 May 1954. "Britain's biggest religious meeting of all time" screamed the News of the World in Gothic type on its front page. "Billy Graham - Amazing Finale" echoed The People, adding: "Drama at Wembley: 10,000 converts surge forward in the rain."

And they were right. The previous evening, Wembley Stadium was filled to overflowing with 120,000 people, some of them spilling out on to the grass. Indeed, so great was the number who wanted to be there that an extra afternoon rally was arranged at White City, attracting a further 65,000 - me among them.

The two meetings were the culmination of the 12-week Greater London Crusade, during which, every night, thousands filled the 11,400-seat Harringay Arena, in north London, to hear the American evangelist.

When all the numbers were counted, it was estimated that attendances exceeded 1.5 million, and 38,000 people - nearly two-thirds of them under 18 - responded to the invitation to come forward at the close of the message.

In the next 35 years, he came back for seven crusades. In all, attendances exceeded nine million, and 320,000 responded to the closing appeal .

 

OVER the years, there have been many attempts to assess the impact of Dr Graham's ministry - particularly that first crusade of 1954 - on the British Church and people. There is no doubt about its immediate effect.

A former Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Michael Baughen, was a theology student in 1954, and fondly remembers Underground trains crowded with hymn-singing passengers. He spoke for many when he recalled: "It was like divine adrenalin for a jaded Church."

As far as the nation was concerned, if the national press is to be any guide, initial hostility - "Yankee spellbinder", and "hot-gospeller" were two of the milder epithets, while one columnist suggested that the Home Secretary should refuse him entry - gave way to grudging, and in some cases warm-hearted, approval. For example, a Sunday Graphic columnist, whose initial reaction was "This Billy Graham line just won't do," 11 weeks later expressed thanks to Graham, saying: "You've done us a power of good."

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Attitudes among some church leaders also softened as the crusade progressed. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who had previously viewed the crusade with "courteous caution", was on the platform at the final Wembley Stadium rally, and gave the blessing.

 

OTHERS took a little longer. In 1956, Michael Ramsey, then Bishop of Durham, fulminated against what he called "The menace of fundamentalism", accusing Dr Graham of being both sectarian and heretical. It was not until 18 years later, in the year he retired as Archbishop of Canterbury, that he was on the platform for the opening night ofDr Graham's Rio de Janeiro crusade.

The staying power of those who came forward has also been the subject of endless speculation. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, such as that of the author and hymn-writer Robert Warren, formerly Archdeacon of Rochester, who says that he, along with nine members of his family, "came to faith either at Graham rallies, or connected events - and none of us fell away".

Independent surveys are harder to come by, although one, undertaken by Reader's Digest in 1959, concluded that 72 per cent of those who responded at Harringay were still "involved in religion".

But by common consent the most notable outcome for the Church of England, and to a lesser extent other mainstream denominations, was the part played by the crusade in the Evangelical renaissance of the second half of the 20th century.

In 1944, the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, Canon Max Warren, described Evangelicals in the Church of England as "labouring under a sense of frustration and discouragement", which engendered an inferiority complex. Had he lived to see it, he would have been amazed to note that three of the past five Archbishops of Canterbury have been Evangelicals.

That transformation was due to many factors: a resurgence of Evangelical scholarship, an explosion in Evangelical candidates for the ministry, greater Evangelical involvement in the structures of the Church, and the outstanding contribution to the Evangelical cause made by the late John Stott.

What the 1954 crusade did wasto help restore Evangelical self-confidence, thanks largely to the combination of Stott and Dr Graham, who worked closely together, providing, as the Baptist historian Ian Randall neatly put it, "the scholar and the salesman".

John Capon is a former editor of The Church of England Newspaper and the Baptist Times.

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