Billy Graham: his impact on Britain

He's probably the best-loved evangelist to visit our shores, certainly the most famous. As Billy Graham hands over the leadership of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to his son Franklin, Andy Peck asks how he will be remembered.

His first crusade in 1954 was surrounded in controversy; questions were asked in Parliament as to whether he should be allowed to land in Britain,newspapers were against the visit,church leaders who had given an invitation had backed down - the Archbishop of Canterbury told him he wasn’t welcome. The American Ambassador warned him not to come. But from March 1st to May 22nd 1954 attendance at the Haringay Arena, London topped 2,047,333 with around 38,000 decisions for Christ. A further 405 halls and churches carried live broadcasts by phone lines.God had given Billy Graham success and churches in Britain wouldn’t be the same again. 

Some 47 years and 18 UK based crusades later, the 82-year-old Graham has handed over the leadership of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) to his son Franklin,47. Graham still plans to lead crusades,but the handover provides a fitting time to look back on his impact on the UK. In this brief reflection on his visits to the UK, we highlight five ways we will remember him. 


1. As an Evangelist 


First impressions last. For churches that had seen little or no growth in decades,the sight of thousands committing their lives to Christ in 1954 was a powerful reminder that preaching the gospel could still have a dramatic effect. And this wasn’t a one-off, the BGEA records that a staggering 389,000 people have come forward at a Billy Graham crusade during his visits to the UK (see table). 

Many will simply remember Billy as the man in the suit with the black Bible who called me to follow Jesus. Preachers at the time and since have commented how essentially simple his messages were. Rev Richard Bewes, Rector of All Souls,Langham Place, London was a teenager at the time. “He disdained high flowering oratory, complicated metaphors or many jokes.He spoke with gravity,and seriousness about our need and God ’s solution.” 

“He is not a preacher but a caller,”says Maurice Rowlandson,former director of the BGEA (1961-1987).“He has the gift of bringing people to the point of decision.” “On some occasions I thought -no one will respond -he hasn ’t said anything!. But at the end of the meeting they came forward in their thousands,”recalls Maurice Wood,Former Bishop of Norwich and Vicar and Rural Dean of Islington London in 1954. 

The gospel message,simply presented, disdained by theologians,and dismissed by intellectuals was changing lives. Many were emboldened to go and do likewise.If Billy could do it,why couldn ’t they. Richard Bewes reflects on the Haringay crusade “It was a landmark time in my life and for a number who were called into ministry at that time.” Wood says,“When I was Principal of Oak Hill Theological College in 1961 I would ask how many newcomers to the College had come to faith following Billy ’s crusades and there were never less than 10%.” 

Modern evangelists draw inspiration from his success.British based evangelist J John says:“He ’s remarkable. I ’ve been encouraged and inspired by his example. I hope I am as passionate about preaching when I am his age!”



2. As an Ecumenical 



His ability to bring believers together was staggering. Iain Murray author of Evangelicals Divided (Banner of Truth 2000)says:“When Graham arrived in 1954,no denomination was prepared to stand with him - the Evangelical Alliance stood alone. But having seen the results, the denominations saw his visits as a way of increasing numbers and welcomed them.Seeing their openness,Graham saw an opportunity for the gospel.” And so throughout his 18 crusades, believers previously hostile or suspicious of one another united under the Billy Graham crusade banner.Richard Bewes says,“I recall looking at the list of denominations involved in his 1989 (last)visit and thinking ‘no one but Billy could bring together such a diverse group.’” “Just as the queen is above politics,so Billy was above the denominational structures ”,explains J.John.“Few would know that he was ordained as a Baptist minister.” 

He has always had his critics.Some evangelical groups asked why he involved Catholics in his work. Rowlandson says:“Graham would reply, ‘My job is to preach the gospel to the world.Are you telling me that I should exclude Roman Catholics?’” 

Others were more concerned that crusade evangelism promised more than was being delivered.The action of ‘getting out of your seat and coming to the front,’ was a necessary part of Graham’s style and a key visual aid that he believed would encourage the faith of all present.Yet Graham himself confesses that maybe one in four of those who came forward will actually continue with Christ. Graham for his part had a famous response for his critics: ‘I prefer the way I do it,to the way you don ’t do it ’. What is clear is that many in the UK embraced Billy and his method and many thousands are glad he did it the way he did.If the true converts stands at 100,000, that ’s still not a bad legacy to leave.



3. As a celebrity 


Here was a man who dined with the queen,was interviewed by David Frost for the BBC and appeared in the pages of the national press.Christians found their non-Christian friends asking them if they were going to hear him. Prime Minister Winston Churchill summoned him to No.10 for tea asking apparently, “What ’s your secret - how do you fill Wembley?” If they were to bring Marilyn Monroe from America,and together we were to go to Wembley we would not be able to do it!” 

J John,has 22 years experience as an evangelist,largely in the UK and comments: “Like no one else Graham had an ability to bring spiritual issues into mainstream discussion. He was the news,and when he came the press were bound to discuss what he was saying.” But despite celebrity status Graham remained an evangelist.Resisting calls to run for US President in the 60s he remained committed to ‘preaching the gospel ’.He used every media available including radio and TV,but at the same time,the crusades including choir, soloist,message and appeal were essentially the same.With Billy you knew where you were. 

Billy Graham’s crusades outside the US, excluding the UK All Europe 16 crusades in 39 years Russia 4 crusades in 10 years Asia 11 times in 38 years South America 6 crusades in 35 years Canada 13 crusades in 43 years Africa 3 crusades in 16 years India 3 in 21 years Australia 4 in 20 years (Credit: Melany Ethridge Assistant to Larry Ross, Director of Media Relations for Billy Graham) 


4. As an Ambassador 



At a time when publicity of scandals involving some American tele-evangelists created cynicism among the British public,Billy Graham has been a model ambassador for Christ. If in Emerson ’s words ‘Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man ’there ’s no doubt that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ’s commitment to accountability is both a true reflection of Graham and a key reason why he has remained free of financial scandal. 

He also remained free of extra-marital scandal. Bewes explains:“He has a wonderful wife in Ruth who is totally loyal.I know them both very well and find it hard to tell which is the greater. They are the outstanding couple of the 20th century.” And throughout his fame he remained humble. Bewes recalls a conversation between Rico Tice, a colleague at All Souls and Tedd Smith, who is pianist with Billy Graham worldwide and had been involved with scores of missions “Tedd,you ’ve been with Billy,you have seen the hundreds of thousands who have come forward. What is his secret?” Smith replied. “It ’s simple. God can trust Billy Graham.” 

William Martin,author of the biography Prophet with Honour writes ‘He has walked with kings and princes and received unprecedented media attention for over four decades, but he still strikes us as something of a small town boy,astonished that anyone should think of him as someone special.’ When asked why it is that he has been enabled to speak to some 80 million people worldwide and seen 3 million respond to his invitation to receive Christ, Graham replies: “I don ’t know why God has allowed me to have this, I ’ll have to ask him when I get to heaven.” 


5. As a Friend



No nation in the world outside the US has received more visits from Billy Graham than the UK. In the 35 year period (1954-1989) when he visited the UK to lead 18 crusades,he spent a total of 8 months on UK soil. As David Vardy, executive chairman of BGEA says: “He calls the UK his ‘second home.’ ”Asked why he held the UK with such affection, Vardy points to his visit,1946-47 when Graham toured the UK for Youth For Christ and the Haringay crusade in 1954 as pivotal times in his development as an evangelist. 

Graham inspires loyalty in those who work with him.They are not just caught up with the cause,but also with supporting him as a person. “One of the things I remember most about Billy is his ability to make friends,’’says Wood.“I had the privilege of travelling with him to help out in his missions in Canada and Japan. He still sends me a card at Christmas.” 

David Poling in his book,Why Billy Graham wrote:“When the last conclusions about Graham are sifted and recorded,(it may be)that his greatest gift for the last half of the twentieth century was not that he packed them in..., or that he was successful in radio and television and publishing.Rather it may be that he loved people greatly and by loving them led them to the gates of the kingdom of God.’ 

Perhaps his greatest legacy is that he loved the British people and teaches us to do the same,that we may lead them to the same place. 


Billy Graham crusades in the UK (covering approximately 18 crusades in 35 years)

Year

Location

Dates

Attendance

Decisions

1954

London, England

March 1 - May 22

2,047,333

38,447

1955

Glasgow, Scotland

March 21 - April 30

2,647,365

52,253

1955

London, England

May 14 - 21

450,000

23,806

1961

Manchester, England

May 29 - June 17

416,500

17,769

1966

London, England

June 1 - July 2

1,055,368

42,487

1980

Oxford, England

January 30 - February 3

13,350

312

1980

Cambridge, England

February 9 - 16

17,450

1,565

1982

Blackpool, England

March 23

18,800

1,035

1984

Bristol, England

May 12 - 19

243,500

20,444

1984

Sunderland, England

May 26 - June 2

124,097

11,785

1984

Norwich, England

June 9 - 12

62,700

3,702

1984

Birmingham, England

June 30 - July 7

257,015

26,181

1984

Liverpool, England

July 14 - 21

247,989

27,412

1984

Ipswich, England

July 24 - 28

90,363

7,458

1985

Sheffield, England

June 22 - 29

257,900

26,131

1985

Livelink Satellite Centers (51 Venues)

181,356

8,186

1989

London, England

June 14 - July 8 (13 days)

379,950

34,408

1989

Livelink Centers, Great Britain

June 26 - July 1

817,000

46,111



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