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Billy Graham’s Crusades

“We need a revival!” he preached. But what kind?

After the 1925 Scopes trial had sent a generation of evangelical leaders into the cultural wilderness, fundamentalist American believers had patiently erected a militant network of Bible colleges, radio broadcasts, and parachurches to safeguard the confrontational brio of their message while seeking once more to connect the gospel to a mass audience. In 1949, their expectant and prayerful efforts were at last rewarded with what appeared to be a miraculous outpouring of true-believing grace, as the nation experienced the first mass revival to be sponsored by a parachurch: Billy Graham’s stunning soul-saving crusade, which kicked off with a marathon eight-week revival in Los Angeles.

Graham, a young North Carolina Baptist and an established preacher in the revival circuit of Youth for Christ, had come at the behest of a cross-denominational revival prayer network in Los Angeles, whose 120 clerical members had shared in their own quasi-miraculous visitation of the Holy Spirit at a retreat in 1948. This parachurch gathering had alighted on Graham as the leader of the “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” prayer crusade event largely on the basis of his own impeccable parachurch credentials. After acknowledging his call to an itinerant ministry upon his graduation from Wheaton College in 1943, Graham burst onto the postwar evangelical scene with a kind of mediagenic energy tailor-made for what Henry Luce had famously dubbed “the American century.” He launched a frenetic series of city crusades for Youth for Christ in England from 1946 to 1947, conducting 360 meetings across the country in six months. Shortly after his stateside return, the ailing Baptist eminence grise William Bell Riley persuaded Graham to take over the presidency of the Minneapolis-based Northwestern Schools that Riley launched as a successful training ground for the fundamentalist pastorate in the Midwest. Graham still kept his post as vice president of Youth for Christ, however, and in that capacity set out on an American series of city revivals in late 1947—and a return tour of England in early 1948. Once he had come back to his thriving stateside pulpit, Graham resigned his Youth for Christ ministry to pursue fulltime urban revival preaching, and capped off his first year with his September 1949 appearance in Los Angeles.

Yet for all of Graham’s youthful energy, the spectacular 1949 revival was as much an organizational triumph as it was the result of the young preacher’s undeniable charisma. As fundamentalist historian Joel A. Carpenter puts it, Graham’s “emergence in Los Angeles in 1949 and his successes thereafter in one citywide campaign after another were made possible by a revivalist movement that had been mobilizing for some time. . . . Fundamentalists and other evangelicals were putting their new revival techniques to work with ever-increasing vigor and expectation.” It may be an exaggeration to suggest that “if the dynamic preacher from North Carolina had not been available, this revival movement might well have created him,” Carpenter writes—but not by much. 

Graham burst onto the postwar evangelical scene with a kind of mediagenic energy tailor-made for what Henry Luce had famously dubbed “the American century.”

At the center of Graham’s success story was the Youth for Christ parachurch organization. The group took shape during the Second World War as an effort among insurgent young evangelicals to stir up revivalist sentiment at college campuses and U.S. military installations. As the group’s name suggests, the leaders of the initiative were profoundly at home with the communication style and recruitment techniques of the modern age. Its roots stretched back to the pioneering youth ministry of Percy Crawford in the 1930s; a Pennsylvania-based radio preacher, Crawford leveraged his popular show, Young People’s Church of the Air into a teen Bible conference in the Pocono Mountains, a religious bookstore, and a growing network of youth rallies in the mid-Atlantic. In 1939, he founded his own evangelical university, The King’s College, in Belmar, New Jersey. In his public appearances, Crawford discarded the string-tie-and-jowls caricature of the fundamentalist preacher in favor of a more mediagenic ministry; often backed by a jazz combo, and preaching in the staccato rhythms of a Ben Hecht Broadway play, he drew on the familiar images and argot of pop culture much as Aimee Semple McPherson had done prior to the Scopes debacle. A Crawford understudy named Jack Wyrtzen, who worked days as an insurance agent and nights as a jazz band leader, founded a parallel youth ministry called the Word of Life Fellowship in 1939, a group that spawned its own allied set of parachurch groups in Wyrtzen’s native New York: radio rallies broadcast from Manhattan’s Alliance Tabernacle, a series of Bible book clubs, a missionary recruiting group—and even a Hudson River evangelical cruise.

In 1944, Wyrtzen sponsored a pair of city-wide “Victory Rallies” in Madison Square Garden, each boasting turnouts of more than 20,000. The success of those gatherings spread to other major cities, and became known colloquially as “Youth for Christ” rallies. A 1944 Chicago Stadium event featuring a full complement of evangelical witnesses from the business world was a landmark Youth for Christ event; it capped a summerlong revival begun at the city’s Symphony Hall and broadcast over the radio throughout the Midwest. The opening night’s orator was the then- twenty-five-year-old Billy Graham. In 1945, a one-year-anniversary rally for the Chicago chapter of Youth for Christ drew more than seventy thousand  attendees, and featured a five-thousand-voice choir, a three-hundred-piece band, and prominent appeals from both Graham and Crawford for a nationwide revival. That earned the movement major national coverage in Newsweek and the Hearst newspapers—the first bout of sustained mass media attention for the fundamentalist movement, and certainly the most positive such coverage, since the Scopes trial. By 1946, the Youth for Christ movement had sponsored more than nine hundred rallies, with cumulative attendance of one million.

For all of the media savvy and organizational prowess that produced Graham’s breakthrough 1949 revival, there’s something conspicuously absent from this crucial postwar moment: theological substance. Graham’s Los Angeles crusade was a strikingly formalist affair: a revival predicated on publicly beseeching the Lord for a revival. His inaugural sermon for the event was titled, indeed, “We Need a Revival,” and he spoke from the first chapter of Isaiah, describing a desolate, judgment stricken Israel, whose “cities are burned with fire.” Taking up this theme in the secular capital of the entertainment industry, Graham warned his listeners to awake from the spell cast by their “city of wickedness and sin.” “God Almighty is going to bring judgment upon this city unless people repent and believe,” he preached, “unless God sends an old-fashioned, heaven sent, Holy Ghost revival.” This urgent message of impending judgment was then brought into line with the dire news of the day—from a recent crime wave assailing L.A. to the specter of global communism, which Graham called “a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the Devil himself.” He punctuated each entry in this litany of woes with the simple refrain of the sermon’s title: “We need revival!” 

He punctuated each entry in this litany of woes with the simple refrain of the sermon’s title: “We need revival!”

As it turns out, Graham also had personal grounds for beseeching the Lord for spiritual restoration. Prior to his Los Angeles crusade, he underwent a famous dark night of the soul, prompted by the urgings of an erstwhile Youth for Christ colleague named Charles Templeton to seek a firmer grounding in systematic theology. Templeton had left the parachurch group to pursue graduate studies at the Princeton Theological Seminary—and even though that school had been the epicenter of the intellectual fundamentalist revolt of the 1920s, Templeton had been persuaded by his academic studies that a fundamentalist reading of Scripture simply did not stand up to historical scholarship. He pressed the case in a series of searching conversations with Graham, who was then prey to fierce self-doubts about both his pastoral calling and his command of the intellectual side of his faith. (It’s not reported whether either party in this exchange paused to note the irony that Graham was a recently departed president of a Bible college at the moment when his intellectual bona fides were up for debate.)

Seized by a gnawing sense of inadequacy after one such exchange with Templeton, Graham prevailed upon the counsel of one of the chief organizers of the pending L.A. crusade—a former Air Force chaplain named Edwin Orr who had teamed up with Youth for Christ while he was stationed in Manila and had later done his own graduate work at Oxford on the history of the Second Great Awakening. But rather than engaging with Graham’s intellect, Orr—an ordained Baptist who was steeped in the holiness teachings of the Keswick revival in England—challenged the young preacher to give an honest account of the extent to which he’d been fully “surrendered” to the will of the Lord. Prodded by Orr’s questions, Graham wandered the grounds of the Forest Home evangelical camp outside suburban L.A., Bible in hand, for much of the evening. Sitting on a rock, he laid his Bible down next to him and vowed to surrender his intellectual questionings of Scripture, as well as his will and emotions, entirely to the control of God. At that moment, he experienced a tremendous onrush of inner serenity, and he reportedly later told Orr that he’d been “filled afresh with the spirit of God” and vouchsafed a divine “vision that something unusual was going to happen down the mountain in Los Angeles.” 

This is the key respect in which Billy Graham’s historic crusade did stem from a personal and charismatic vision: It drew its power from a self-conscious renunciation of theological faith. As such, it was a dramatic departure from the sort of Awakening faith that Orr had studied, and that allied, intellectually restive believers such as Templeton still longed for: a new articulation of the aims of God for a new era of American social history. Where the First Great Awakening had summoned an austere Calvinist vision to rebuke the increasingly worldly cast of colonial piety, and where the Second Awakening roundly vindicated the resources of the human will in wresting salvation from the Almighty, Graham’s message largely began and ended with the mantra “We need revival!” If anything, the challenges of modern thought called for a much more thoroughgoing revision of traditional theological assumptions than what had emerged in the country’s prior awakenings. But Graham’s prophetic message was a self-conscious and strategic retreat from complexity, and from more conditional cultural and historical reckonings of the true nature of Protestant belief.

Thus, despite his later ardor for cozying up to presidents, even sharing with Richard Nixon his antipathy toward the Jews he believed had too much control of the entertainment and media industries, Graham was cautious about any mode of preaching that touched on political engagement. He never brought himself to offer public support for Martin Luther King’s moral leadership on civil rights, but he also refrained from the outright partisanship we see today from so many evangelical pastors. His ability to move crowds came from his forthright embrace of a revival gospel steeped in the just-in-time therapeutic blandishments of the New Thought and Word-of-Faith strains of the emergent modern Money Cult. As noted in this week’s New York Times obituary, Graham promised his followers the serenity he’d found:

Are you frustrated, bewildered, dejected, breaking under the strains of life? Then listen for a moment to me: Say yes to the Savior tonight, and in a moment you will know such comfort as you have never known. It comes to you quickly, as swiftly as I snap my fingers, just like that.

This central trait carried Graham’s message, and its deliverer, into an unprecedented new mass ministry. Ever since the gradual retreat from reform Protestantism took hold in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, fundamentalists had been anticipating the imminent arrival of the endtimes, and the Second Coming. But an unpropitious cultural market for that message kept the new eschatology of the fundamentalists confined to the subcultural fringe. Among other things, Graham’s moment of decision dramatizes just how ripe the new market consensus in Cold War America had become to assume its own “surrendered” state.

As Will Herberg and other critics of Cold War religiosity observed, the underlying logic of American consumer society now appeared to be charged with preordained importance, thanks to the stark and chiliastic threat of impending nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union—or China, or some other rogue nuclear power to be named later. In this sense, parachurches were doing much more than sparking new urban revivals and a crusading evangelical spirit among America’s youth—they were augurs in their own right, of a DIY vision of the coming apocalypse, with a new cohort of believers rushing forth, as Graham did in Los Angeles, to fill in the blanks of revealed prophecy with the headlines of the day’s news. As Graham’s own calling prefigured, that mission involved little more than laying your Bible down on a rock and relinquishing full control of history back to the Lord.