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