Billy Graham and the phenomenon of mass evangelism in the television age

Robert Bender

Talk presented to the Atheist Society, 10 May 2016

I have become interested in the phenomenon of mass evangelism, mainly from reading a book by George Target, published in 1968, just after the Graham campaigns in England. George Target (1924 – 2005) was a Catholic who shifted to the Seventh Day Adventists then decided to abandon all denominations, though remaining Christian. He spent much of his life writing novels offering a critical evaluation of various groups in our society – teachers, evangelists, scientists, etc. And he also wrote several non-fiction books, one on arthritis, that bothered him for decades, and the one this talk is about, on Billy Graham and the general phenomenon of public mass-evangelism that was so characteristic of the 1960s. So this is an evaluation of a Christian program by another Christian. In 1968 when Billy Graham was at his peak and conducted big meetings in England, Target, who had worked at the BBC, researched and wrote about his life and work in Evangelism Inc., which he dedicated to Malcolm Muggeridge. Target saw his primary challenge as being to deal with the hagiographical approach to Graham, with every word he uttered treated as dew from a saint, and tried instead to treat him as "any other public figure", and one who was "a skilled professional in the craft of manipulating crowds".

William Franklin Graham was born in North Carolina in 7 November 1918, 4 days before the end of the 1st world war, eldest of 4 children of William Franklin Graham Sr. and his wife Morrow Coffey. They lived on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. He is now 97, still going.

Graham was converted to an evangelical career by the preaching of Mordecai Fowler Ham (1877-1961), a very energetic Baptist evangelist, who visited Charlotte, North Carolina when Graham was 16. He was a "hellfire and damnation" preacher, who routinely accused his audience of fornication and other serious offences, inducing a strong sense of sin and shortcomings in his listeners, the prelude to feeling a need for salvation and release from this sense of sin. Graham was spellbound and decided to dedicate himself to public preaching. Ham published many lectures and books, some of which were virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, and he publicly accused the President of Sears Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald, of conducting multi-racial brothels in his hometown of Chicago, which was entirely untrue. A local journalist, W. O. Saunders, publicly defended Rosenwald and eventually published a book called The book of Ham, assembling the testimonials and letters of Rosenwald’s fellow business leaders and newspaper articles Saunders had written, demolishing Ham’s outrageous libels. Of course, nothing of this scandal is mentioned in Graham’s biographies.

Who is Billy Graham?

There are several published accounts, which obviously have Graham as the informant, that his father and mother were both into frequent severe corporal punishment, with leather belt or hickory switch, often for very minor offences like fidgeting, and sometimes in public. The idea was to thrash the sinfulness out of the young boy. Graham did the same with his own children, and his views in support of this as a standard behavior for parents are described at length in his own books, all written at a time when corporal punishment was also fairly widespread in Australia. Psychiatrists theorise that such early experiences create a personality with a strong need for control and dominance, and that anxieties about minor lapses in performance are continuous through life, often inducing insomnia and self-disgust – Graham did suffer from lifelong insomnia. He was obsessive about cleanliness, merging soap and water with spiritual purity and sexual restraint, and lectured often about the importance of being clean – using lots of soap and water and living a "clean" life. The psychiatric interpretation is that people who protest that much about filth and sex have private lusts they find it difficult to control.

Humility and pride: Graham in his public statements often claims that the whole business is not about him, but about Jesus and about his god, giving a strong impression of humility. But he authorized many accounts of hours spent in private prayer that of course made it no longer a private experience of a humble man, but a public experience of somebody proud of how many hours he prayed and wanting to publicise that fact. His authorized biographies are peppered with them – such very public "humility" is really just another kind of pride "Look how humble I am!"

He was also always portrayed as being in the centre of a crisis – on the brink of the greatest spiritual awakening in history, daily involved in life-changing experiences, meeting unexpected people, converting people to a new faith, predicting a new religious age resulting from every evangelical campaign in a new town or country, with every big meeting being the biggest ever, breaking all records. The marketing hype was overloaded with superlatives.

He was a poor student, not much of an athlete, spent a year at a tiny Florida bible college at 19, and decided at 20 he wanted to be a preacher. A year at Wheaton College got diverted into training as an army chaplain towards the end of the war, which was diverted again when he was recruited by Torrey Johnson into Youth for Christ rallies in big theatres in Chicago and other northern towns, preaching to newly demobilized young soldiers. This is where he began the practice of calling for people to come down and make their Decision for Christ, and for having much of the program taken up with communal singing, in line with long evangelical tradition. There was wide agreement that he was not a great or original preacher, and most of his material was lifted from other revivalists. He submitted himself to elocution trainers, modified his Southern accent, took professional public speaking trainers about with him. Evangelists used to appeal to the intellect with argument, but discovered that didn’t work, so they switched to playing on people’s emotions, and Graham was no different. His talks were not directed at people’s intelligence, but at their emotions and anxieties, so many of them read badly as weak constructions, demonstrating little knowledge or analysis. But he went out of his way to present his ordinariness to his followers, so they could identify with him as one of themselves. He often self-described as an athlete and superb baseballer, but was later exposed as being an inferior player, who barely made his high school team. But the association marketing line always emphasized his strong athletic history – part of the myth-making of any larger-than-life public figure.

Graham took off in 1949 with an extended campaign in a huge tent in Los Angeles, and made the transition from a small-time local evangelical preacher to a major public phenomenon due to excellent publicity for conversions of a cowboy, a small-time gangster and a retired athlete, all marketed with razzle and superlatives. Target is very scornful and dismissive of this episode but they’re actually quite interesting case studies.

Stuart Hamblen was a "singing cowboy" with a weekly radio program in Los Angeles, leading a somewhat dissipated life of hard drinking and gambling, married to a pious Christian wife; Vaus was a minor fraudster who rigged wire-tapping of horse-race results to enable big bets to be placed a minute after the race was over and stole quite a large amount of money; Zamperini was an ex-Olympic athlete from the Munich 1936 games, survivor of a very long sea voyage on a tiny boat when escaping from the Japanese during world war 2. All three had serious marital problems and loss of purpose in their lives and seem to have turned them around by joining the evangelical bandwagon, their conversions governed by the usual preoccupations of evangelists with cigarette-smoking, alcohol, marital fidelity and strict financial honesty – focused on the old Seven Deadly Sins idea from Evagrius Ponticus of the 4th century: hubristic pride, greed, lust, malicious envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. But the list has been somewhat modified as cigarettes were then unknown and gambling isn’t mentioned, and they had evolved a fair way from the list in Proverbs – vanity, lying, shedding innocent blood, a wicked heart, running to mischief, bearing false witness, and sowing discord among brethren. The evangelicals’ deep distrust of sex has shifted the emphasis far from the original list that is focused on activities that create community discord, and towards repression of sexual expression, which does not seem to have been a concern of the Israelites, who were a rather lusty lot, and filled their tents with multiple wives and concubines. Paul, who is far more the author of Christianity than Jesus was, had a big problem with sex and the status of women and emphasized issues associated with lust far more strongly than his Jewish forebears who were only interested in adultery as a violation of men’s property rights.

Hamblen was born to the family of an itinerant Methodist preacher.

Vaus whose father, James Vaus, was a Bible-thumping preacher, was ripe for conversion.

Zamperini, born in New York was from a strict Catholic family that migrated from Verona in Italy, and soon moved to California. His wife was a born-again Christian.

So all three had a background of very committed Christians, but all three had drifted away from their original culture. They were not converts from non-Christian cultures.

Hamblen was dismissed by his earlier radio station after his conversion, for refusing to advertise beer. He started a Christian cowboy radio program on a different station but it ended 3 years later.

Vaus went on to publish a book on a non-existent teenage-drug epidemic, so his conversion doesn’t seem to have made him an honest man.

Zamperini’s conversion seems to have lasted until his death in 2001, and he developed a career of his own as an evangelist, and made a name for his emphasis on forgiveness of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp guards who had tortured him cruelly during the war.

Graham was then associating with fellow Fundamentalists, personal friends, pastors etc. and one of his "basic principles" was that he would not appear on the same platform with any of the "modernists" so anathema to conservative evangelists. But a meeting with Henry Luce of Time/Life gave him much publicity, a cover story on Time magazine in 1954, and enabled him to be photographed with politicians – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan - and the publicity machine had all these prestigious people to lend some prestige to Graham. He formed the BG Evangelistic Association and off it went.

What does he think?

His book My Answer has vignettes of his thoughts on many subjects, most of them related to sex and communism.

Sex: it has a deep association with cleanliness and filth, purity and contamination. His comments about adolescent sex are all about filth and impurity and degradation, and self-disgust, with repeated links to the idea of physical and moral cleanliness as though they are the same thing. My Answer has only a few of its 350 answers devoted to sexual matters, but sex pops up in all sorts of unexpected places, and most of it expressed disgust about adolescent promiscuity. "Happy is the person who marries a mate who has not been pawed over."

Jesus: the traditional image of Jesus is of the mild-mannered hippie, long-haired, long beard, mild expression, prone as are all politicians to touching little children. Graham’s Jesus was "a real he-man – talk about your football players…He was physically the strongest man on Earth…He was the most perfectly developed man physically in the history of the world…He must have been straight, strong, big, handsome…He was no sissie." – a good description of Graham himself, designing his god in his own image.

Communism: Graham became a major evangelical phenomenon at the peak of the anti-communist fervour in the USA, led by the now-notorious Senator Joe McCarthy, but pervading the entire society for over a decade. Graham never criticized McCarthy, but ostentatiously defended and praised him and his work in combatting atheistic communism. McCarthy was, wrote Target, "a proven liar, a loud-mouthed bully, and a drunkard and a psychotic hater of communism." He dominated the Senate Un-American Activities Committee and used it to destroy the lives of many people, prominent or insignificant, depriving them of their liberties, pushing many to suicide or insanity, accusing them of perjury, blackmail, embezzlement, homosexuality, drug addiction, subversion, protecting spies, communists, or crypto-communists, traitors. He never exposed a single communist plot or conspiracy, but wrecked the lives of many people.

Graham, in a 1953 radio broadcast of his weekly Hour of Decision series (published in his magazine as the Sermon of the Month), said of McCarthy: "I thank God for men who in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle, and from that vantage point, try in every subtle, undercover way to bring comfort, aid and help to the greatest enemy we have ever known, communism." Combining his defence of that execrable Senator with the jingoistic nationalism of his mentor Billy Sunday, Graham linked his revival religion with the fate of the Free World: "America is the key nation of the world. We were created for a spiritual mission among the nations…America is truly the last bulwark of Christian civilization. If America falls, Western culture will disintegrate." "Communism is a fanatical religion that has declared war upon the Christian God…a great sinister anti-Christian movement …masterminded by Satan…The false doctrine…lies across our world like a colossus…Only as millions of Americans turn to Jesus Christ…can this nation be spared the onslaught of a demon-possessed communism." It is the imagery of a religious holy war between the forces of light and of darkness, with the only protection against disaster being Billy Graham and his revivals. Graham’s likening of communism to Satan strongly resembles Hitler’s doctrine.

Vietnam: Target in 1968 saw the war in Vietnam as a "continuous and continuing atrocity", and a test of the moral position of all commentators. Graham’s response reveals evasiveness and equivocation. In a Presidential Prayer breakfast, speaking to Lyndon Johnson and members of both houses of Congress, broadcast on radio and television, he said: "Something is about to give. Hard decisions have to be made…there are those who have tried to reduce Christ to the level of a genial and innocuous appeaser; but Jesus said ‘You are wrong – I have come as a fire-setter and a sword-wielder’… They were idealistic. It is the same tragic mistake being made by many well-meaning people today. He had to make it clear to them that his coming, far from meaning peace, meant war…Those who hate tyranny and aggression will take sides when little nations suffer terror and aggression from those who seek to take their freedom from them …To preserve some things, love must destroy others."

Thus did Graham justify the napalming of Vietnamese villages and the burning to death of multitudes of their ‘demon-possessed’ women and children. When he was in London for the 1966 Crusade, he was interviewed on BBC television by Kenneth Harris who asked him: "don’t you think the Vietnam war is a moral issue and that you should speak out on it?" His evasive reply was: "Well, I remember during the Suez crisis, Dr. Ramsey, now Archbishop of Canterbury, said that equally devout Christians could with good conscience take either side of the question. Certainly this is true in America today. True Christians are deeply divided and each side thinks they have the moral law on their side. There are so many other explosive situations in the world, like Rhodesia, the Arabian peninsula, the threats of Red China against her neighbours – that I don’t pretend to know the political solution. I believe my job is to preach the gospel, which has in it the power to change men’s lives from the inside out and which, if accepted, could create a climate of goodwill in the world. Then, we could approach our problems in a spirit of love and trust." But in Denver, Colorado, he said "I have no sympathy for those clergymen who urge the US to get out of Vietnam." Different words for different audiences.

Pollock’s biography mentions Graham’s friendship and meetings with Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, but carefully avoids any mention of Graham’s preaching about war and its relevance to Christian morality, which has been exposed on the Counter Punch website and in a book by Cecil Bothwell: The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s crusade for a wholly Christian empire.

My answer also has Graham’s take on Paley’s watch, which is to reproduce it as still a valid argument for design. It has been exposed as a fallacy for 150 years, but that doesn’t stop evangelists from trotting it out routinely.

What does he do?

Graham was the first evangelist to use film, television and mass publicity to pursue his goals. His Hour of Decision radio program started in 1950 for an initial 13 weeks. By 1968 it reached 1,000 radio stations on six networks. This comprised singing, bible-reading, news from evangelical campaigns in other countries, and a message from Graham. He had the major campaigns filmed and bought prime time on television to have them broadcast, at a cost of over $1m. He published a monthly journal, Decision, from 1960 in four languages, with local editions in some countries. It had sermons and messages from Graham, editorials on Christian living, sermon outlines for pastors and no advertising.

BGE Films Inc. made 60 films in Burbank, California, for showing to church groups, clubs and camps. One, The Restless Ones, is available online – poorly scripted and very tame about "sin" and the temptations of adolescents.

Books and publications

Graham wrote 4 books and many minor writings: Peace with god, The secret of happiness, My answer (now available online); World Aflame

There were offices in Minneapolis (HQ) with a staff of 375, Winnipeg, Paris, Frankfurt, London, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Atlanta.

Addressing the National Association of Evangelicals in 1950 he said that the real enemy of the evangelicals was the Modernists, who denied the verbal inspiration of the bible, denied the virgin birth and Jesus’ miracles, resurrection and divinity. Graham said he would have nothing to do with the Modernists and never share a platform with them. The Association saw themselves as engaged in a battle against these heretical beliefs and Graham as their man. He preached around the southern states, but was not able on his first attempt to start a campaign in New York, as so many ministers there were opposed to his hardline fundamentalist beliefs. Being shut out was painful, so he made his peace with the Modernists and became much more flexible about who he associated with. "If by fundamentalist you mean ‘narrow’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘extremist’, emotional’, snake-handler’, without social conscience’ – then I am definitely not a fundamentalist…I much prefer being called a ‘Christian’." He thereby lost the support of the Conservative Fundamentalists in the USA. He has associated with, and blessed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope, both anathema to the Conservatives.

So the message changed from return to living a conservative Bible-guided life, and as Target claims, "like all the other great American Revivalists and Evangelists before him, now preaches, with tremendous power and utter conviction, the standard American ethic that spiritual obedience to god brings material prosperity with the moral certainty of dividends on investment, that personal poverty is the result of personal sin, that the wages of sin is a hard time in this world, that industry and diligence are the answers to most economic questions and that the gift of free will is the same thing as private enterprise capitalism, which, of course, remains the only bulwark against the onslaught of demon-possessed communism." Target’s claim is that, from being with a minority of severe conservative critics of the capitalist establishment, he switched sides and joined the Establishment, abandoned his roots and joined mainstream America.

For this he was criticized by some Christian leaders. Rev. Colin Morris told the World Methodist Convention in 1966 after a Graham campaign that "the tendency to assume that a democratic system was the system of god and that of the communists the system of the devil, was a blasphemy. Insistence by some Evangelicals that all national or international tensions stemmed from simple unbelief led to monstrous parodies of the true evangelical role of the church. It enables the most effective mass evangelist of our time to wash his hands, in a public statement, of the Vietnam tragedy as the responsibility of the politicians because his job is to preach the gospel. It provides thousands of Christians, all devout and sincere, with justification for blinding themselves to stark injustice because it is their business to offer all men Christ, but only some of them social justice."

One way in which Graham developed was in his attitude to segregation of blacks in the USA of the 1950s before it became illegal. Some of his campaigns were in southern states in which Jim Crow areas were set aside for blacks, who were not allowed to sit with whites. Pollock has anecdotes about some of these situations in which Graham tried to integrate seating, and insisted that the "inquirers" coming down were not to be segregated in any way. "At crusades in the South the Team left the seating arrangements to the local committee: some had no segregation, others the customary Jim Crow sections." The decisive legislation outlawing segregation passed through Congress in May 1954. In March 1953 at Chattanooga, Tennessee, Graham insisted on integrated seating, but the negroes kept themselves separate, expecting trouble. In Dallas, Texas, in May 1953, the local committee insisted on segregation and Graham accepted it, reluctantly, but demanded that signs directing negroes to their separate seating be removed. So he pushed the boundary a little, but was not about to rock the boat too much. What Ivan Illich called the ‘hidden curriculum" was hard at work, with Graham preaching Christianity but accepting, in practice, that racial segregation was part of it. The compromises people make reveal much about them. He had to face up to threats of violence, or refusals to lease halls if he declared the meetings would be integrated, and eventually won his point, but feelings remained strongly polarised for years.

By 1965 his large team included one black (photographed standing behind the seated Graham) out of 42 in the photo, and that year he conducted an integrated campaign in Montgomery Alabama. As Pollock wrote: "In every audience in Montgomery’s rain-swept Crampton Bowl about one third were Negroes, sitting wherever they liked, and the choir was half negro, half white, entirely integrated.

In September 1963, four black school children were killed when a bomb destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The incident, which garnered national attention, epitomized the area’s deep racial unrest. Birmingham was gripped in fear and on the verge of total collapse. But Billy Graham, who had scheduled a Crusade there for the following Easter, was undaunted. Despite threats of violence, Billy refused to call off an integrated meeting in Birmingham’s Legion Field Stadium. "The Ku Klux Klan went around and knocked out our signs," he recalls. "The State Police had to send policemen with us wherever we went—before my car and after my car. The police were also in the rooms around me because they were afraid we would get shot." The integrated crowd of 30,000 — the first ever in Alabama — was peaceful and cordial to one another. (Janet Chismar, BGEA website 2010)

The first African-American on the Graham team was Howard O. Jones, a brief story by him is on the BGEA website, an extract from his autobiography, Gospel trailblazer: "I was acutely aware of this pressure on that summer day in 1957. I had agreed to become the first African-American associate on Billy Graham’s team of evangelists, but I had not taken a hard look at the racial ramifications of my decision. I had a call from God to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That was my priority. Soon, though, I was forced to look at the matter through the American social prism of black and white.

Back in 1957 we were just three years removed from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that opened the doors for racial integration in the United States, and we were still a few years away from Martin Luther King’s rise to national prominence. It was a different world.Back then, when a figure such as Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in Major League Baseball, he received death threats from fans and dirty looks from members of his own team.I didn’t receive death threats, but I was the recipient of plenty of dirty looks. And when news hit the street that Billy was thinking of bringing me on board, he received an alarming number of disparaging letters: "You should not have a Negro on your team," came the warnings. "You’re going to ruin your ministry by adding minorities. We may have no choice but to end our support." Jones seems to have been the only one Graham took on board to challenge the prevailing segregationist ethos of the USA.

Where does he get the money?

Aimee Semple McPerson arrived in California with $10 and 5 years later built her temple for which the furnishings cost $1.5m. Evangelism was shown to be very profitable.

Billy Sunday used to organize "love offerings" – collections to be paid to him personally, at the end of each preaching campaign and became rich. Billy Graham, after some publicity photos of his assistants waving bags of cash – he then earned in a few weeks more than most clergymen earned in a year), had his association (designed to make his income tax-free) put him on a salary.

He had himself paid at first $15,000 (1950s) about the same as a very senior churchman. Plus his expenses reimbursed, and the very much larger royalties from his best-selling books, probably over $100,000 a year, mainly invested in a trust to provide for his children’s education

When travelling (first class) he stayed at the Hilton in whatever city, with a credit card provided by its CEO, guaranteeing free food and lodging, travelled in chauffeured limousines provided at no charge by Ford Motor Co. When questioned, Graham and his team always emphasized the little contributions from little people, and avoided answering about the hobnobbing with the very wealthy and titled and the expense accounts and first class hotels and travel. The Association started a practice now normal in all charities of seeking monthly donors, and having stalls selling Graham’s books at the entry to rented campaign stadiums, vinyl records of his preaching and various associated singers, keychains, songbooks – much like what happens at many current films, where the merchandise is as important as the film – the T-shirts, caps, plastic toys, etc.

What happens at a crusade?

Crusades were planned two years in advance. A committee of local clergymen and laymen initiated the invitation, the Association evaluated their city and if it looked promising, a date was set. A staff member set up office in that city 12-18 months in advance and organized committees to prepare, even to car bumper stickers, and gimmicks like Graham preaching by radio from a plane flying over, complete with organ (as in Memphis, Tennessee), circular letters to local churches to recruit thousands of needed volunteers. They circulated letters to local industries, inviting meetings to discuss financial support and cooperation and to churches to submit lists of congregation members to be solicited by the Association. They bombarded the press with bulletins and media releases and Press Kits – biographies of Graham and his team (singers, organ players, assistant evangelists), many photos, fact sheets, human interest stories, statistics, campaign programs – offers of typewriters, telephones, desks for journalists.

Target goes on to use William Sargant’s argument from his 1957 book Battle for the Mind: a physiology of conversion and brainwashing, to examine Graham’s methods. The basic principle is to increase suggestibility by promoting emotional tension. The methods are widely used by evangelists among others: "fasting, chastening of the flesh by physical discomfort, regulation of breathing, disclosure of awesome mysteries, drumming, dancing, singing, inducement of panic fear, weird or glorious lighting, incense, intoxicant drugs."

Graham did not openly advocate fasting, but a feature article in his The Christian magazine did in 1966 (preparing for the UK Crusade). Target got talking to two young women in a café, who restricted themselves to orangeade and told him they’d come from Bristol and were fasting "so that we’ll be right with god" and subsequently he found many others doing the same. Graham did not use the hellfire emotionalism of Charles Finney or Billy Sunday, but he did appeal strongly to people’s emotions. The Association denied he used emotionalism at all ("We must dismiss one critic’s theory that Mr. Graham’s appeal is ‘contrived’, playing upon the fundamentals of mass psychology"), always as personal testimonial, rather than dealing with the critic’s questions.

Years of devotion to their task made them very efficient at what they did. Early on they brainstormed about why mass evangelism had such a poor reputation, came up with a list of issues and redesigned their campaigns to differentiate themselves. His Crusade Director said: "We always try to be sensitive to those things that influence people."

Meeting halls were chosen carefully with an eye to the final "coming forward" parade and how easy that would be, and the size of the assembly area in front of the dais for the decision-makers to gather, given the known percentage of a crowd who will walk down there, with provision for Special Nights like Rededication evenings. Counselors and stewards were seated at strategic positions around the arena. There was a choir with a huge sign behind it to focus everyone’s attention (like the big blow-up screens at big public meetings now – pioneered by Graham, except he used text messages like "God is love".

Charles Grandison Finney was the major inspiration for all subsequent revivalists. Finney lived 1792 to 1875, and was active as a public evangelist from 1825 to 1835 in New York, then he moved to Ohio to lead Oberlin College, which was the first American college to admit women and blacks as students. He published his 500-page Lectures on Revivals in 1835 – 22 lectures on how and when to conduct a revival campaign.

Graham got most of his techniques from Finney’s Lectures on Revivals, modified for the age of the very mobile evangelist who was not just appealing to his own local community

  1. Protracted meetings – sometimes daily for weeks, with many people going multiple times.
  2. Clerical cooperation – with months prior to campaigns to organize local church leaders.
  3. Compelling – sending out a publicity machine of volunteers to spread the word about the forthcoming meetings, distributing handbills. Graham hired coaches to bring people from outlying towns, but free passage was offered only to those bringing a non-churchgoer with them
  4. A band of trained personal workers, spread through Finney’s church to watch for signs of people affected by his preaching and take them aside for follow-ups afterwards into special "inquiry rooms" for prayer and guidance. At Graham’s meetings, those moved to go forward were always joined by a staff member of the same age and gender.
  5. Covenant cards, signed by the inquirers in their inquiry rooms. Graham’s cards were followed up with the inquirer’s local church leader, for subsequent bible courses, using electronic sorting equipment.
Finney’s religion was strongly devoted to the view that everyone is responsible for everyone else, and should keep close watch on neighbours’ spiritual purity and behavior – extremely intrusive and intensely conformist, with the slightest deviation from accepted practice leading to deep enquiries into lapses from faith.

The crowds

Graham loved big crowds, ever bigger at each rally. And the message shifted from preaching the Christian message to "come and hear Billy Graham". The publicity machine spent months in the build-up to each campaign urging already-committed Christians to fill the halls, so he was preaching mainly to the converted. Why? Target sourly suggests Graham’s marketing machine wanted to set ever-bigger records, for ego-gratification, and because "nothing succeeds like success: people tend to do what they believe other people are already doing". And because crowd psychology induces people to do things that as separate individuals they would never do, due to the loss of individual identity in a big crowd, and the "contagion" effect. Coaches and trains were booked months ahead to bring people from afar. The big crowds included several thousand in the choirs, stewards, the well-placed counsellors, and many who attended multiple meetings and were counted as separate people each time.

The audiences were unrepresentative of the general community – overwhelmingly female, with a very large number of young children, and drawn from a narrow range of social classes. The publicity machine was always keen to advertise people of high social status: "Society people came to the meetings in surprising numbers…a Lord and his Lady were among the seekers." So there was a strong emphasis on celebrities, film stars, pop singers, cowboys, industrialists, golfers, etc.

So who attended these big rallies? A choir of about 1,800, 12,000 ushers and counselors, busloads of Christians from outlying districts – about 25% of the "decisions" were made by people re-affirming their already strong Christian commitment (which is what a "revival" means) and a further 25% were children obviously not expressing independent decisions to be in the crowd. Women made up sometimes 95% of the audiences, which was much the same as the dominance of women attending churches regularly. So Graham’s preaching seems to have been much more effective with women.

About 60% of "decisions" were by young people under 19 years old, and 25% under 16. So girls in mid- to late-teens formed a very large fraction – the sort of audience now attracted to rock concerts who scream excitedly at their favourite singer. One strong motivation prompting these "conversions" is definitely puberty, a period of great intensity of emotion – directed by the Catholics to baby Jesus (for motherly girls) or to the person of Jesus or Mary. Substitute Graham and the multitudes of picture books for sale full of photos of him, and the appeal to the excited devotions of adolescent girls is redirected to a similar cult-figure. That the range of people attracted should be so restricted suggests a psychological rather than any spiritual drive being under way.

William James, in his great book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, referred to a fellow researcher, Prof Starbuck: Prof Starbuck of California has shown…how closely parallel in its manifestations the ordinary ‘conversion’ which occurs in young people brought up in evangelical circles is to that growth into a larger spiritual life which is a normal phase of adolescence in every class of human beings. The age is the same, falling usually between 14 and 17. The symptoms are the same – sense of incompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts, and the like. And the result is the same – a happy relief and objectivity, as the confidence in self gets greater. Starbuck’s conclusion: conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity" Chapter on Conversion.

An Association press release gave statistics of 985,000 "inquirers" out of 34,500,000 who had attended rallies – a rate of 2.85%. What were their characteristics? Unsure of themselves, indecisive, frustrated, anxious, nervous, suggestible. The Graham biographies and publicity releases are full of descriptions of individual cases, such as

There was lots of musical build-up from Cliff Barrows and his trombone and choir, jokes etc. to jolly the crowd along, unifying them, getting them to join in with their songbooks, like in church. All the songs are sentimental, about self-surrender – "invitation hymns", about self-doubt and "come to me", "let me to thy bosom fly", etc., obviously targeting indecisive, troubled and confused people: "Thou knowest all my griefs and fears, thy grace abused, my misspent years; yet now to thee, for cleansing tears, Christ crucified, I come."

The advent of Billy Graham

Graham used to command everyone to absolute silence, heads down, eyes closed – inducing conformity, everybody losing their individual identity. He looked very small in the centre of the huge crowds, voice distorted by the loudspeakers. Lots of gestures – pointing, punching the air, clenched fists, stabbing the air, hammering, crouching, leaping up – quite violent movements, far less than Billy Sunday, but practiced as important. He used very violent language too, full of superlatives and hate – self-disgust, an urge to dominate, fighting its own terror of death and darkness.

His style was that of a salesman. The Sales Executive Club of NY elected him "Salesman of the Year" in 1958. He likened selling the gospel message to selling soap (again the obsession with cleanliness and purity). His one and only job in his late teens was as a door-to-door salesman of Fuller brushes. Fuller’s approach to life is similar to Graham’s, "the standard American ethic that personal poverty is the result of personal sin, that industry and diligence are the answers to most economic questions, and that the gift of free will is the same thing as private enterprise capitalism."

There was a lot of anxiety-building about loss of our way of life under pressures from "demon- possessed communism", the Bomb, death, and the personal unworthiness of his audience. And the solution of a "decision for Christ" was presented as the only way to escape these awful outcomes. He rarely used fear of hell and damnation, substituting communism and the H-bomb, germ and chemical warfare. And imminent death with its instant consequence of going to heaven or to hell. He repeatedly used anecdotes about young people dropping dead suddenly, frightening the audience into thinking their time might be close – a quarter of the audience he predicted would be dead in only two years. The time is now, the god "may never speak to you again." This could be your last chance…. Endlessly repeated pleas to decide now. "Tonight you are close to the kingdom of god, but you’ve got to take that step…" Target gathered testimony from many he interviewed who had been to the meetings, that this approach worked well. Graham’s method, learned from Finney, was to induce deep tensions, then help people resolve them by their own action of coming forward, like Finney’s "anxious seat", which has been criticized as mere social pressure, not conversion. It reduces their lives to a single decision – stay in your seat and risk dying unsaved, or come forward and guarantee going to heaven: a false antithesis, but very effective with the self-doubting and troubled and suggestible. All present were urged to close their eyes and pray, shutting out all distractions, that focused attention on the cajoling speaker exclusively – hundreds of others were already going forward, about to experience peace, comfort, love and joy. Accompanied by old "invitation hymns" played over and over: "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…" with a soft organ background. This was very obviously emotional conditioning. Criticism of the obvious conditioning led to easing off the repetitive hymns, but the message was that Graham was mainly concerned with results. The first to go forward were staff planted around the hall, to create the impression that the mass movement was under way. Instead of the repetitive music, the repetitive voice of Graham urging people to get up out of their seats now, to come now, quietly and reverently…

The results

Graham pre-1953 claimed that all the people who descended to stand in front of his dais were "converts" but once it was exposed that most were already long-term committed Christians, undergoing a rededication, and that, even for non church-goers for so many of them their enthusiasm faded rapidly, he had to abandon that final-sounding word "converts" in favour of "inquirers". On arrival at the bottom of the stairs, each was joined by a trained counselor – selected for knowledge of the bible and for physical presentability - "they have to look decent. We tell them how to dress and deport themselves." – it was all about middle-class respectability but also strictly non-denominational, the Graham organisation carefully avoiding sectarian conflicts and threatening counselors with dismissal if they tried to recruit inquirers into their own sect. Following a short prayer from Graham, a final hymn from the choir, the counselors guided the inquirers ("the harvest" – they used Biblical agricultural metaphors a lot) into counseling rooms. There they were questioned about their felt need for guidance and issued with a Personal Commitment Kit – a cheap edition of the gospel of John, a daily reading-guide bookmark, a booklet by Graham about salvation and forgiveness, an advertisement for Graham’s radio programs and a Bible Study program, an envelope addressed to the Graham Follow-up Department and a Counseling card.

The inquirer was then passed along to an Advisor, who checks that adequate counseling was provided and asked what decision has been made that night. The inquirer’s name was sent on to the local church for follow-up. But many sects refused to get involved or were not regarded as "really Christian" by the Graham organization, - 7th day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses, British-Israel enthusiasts, Christadelphians, Catholic Apostolics, Christian Scientists, etc. - mostly American protestant non-conformist groups but also the Catholics, who didn’t fit into the Protestant character of the Graham crusade at a time when there was still intense animosity between Catholic and Protestant churches and followers. The local minister was asked to report on further progress.

There was much concern to tabulate statistics of attendance at meetings, number of inquirers by age, sex and occupation. There was much emphasis on the number of people who walked down the aisles, but nothing at all about the long-term impact on their lives, if any. And an implicit assumption that this decision to descend the stairs must have come from their god, as against being driven by the psychology of mass-meetings. Nor was there any acknowledgement that the vast majority of inquirers were rededications by already committed Christians, and emotional decisions by suggestible adolescents. The big claim that Graham was combating immorality, wickedness and crime was never justified by any statistics at all. The claim to have "reached all classes of society" was demonstrably dishonest as they were mainly middle-class women and adolescents from established churches, so the unchurched majority was not reached at all. And even of this very restricted social spread of attendance at the big rallies, the proportion walking down to meet counselors was about 1 in 35, or 3%. One journalist reported a minister as saying that three dozens or so from his parish went down the stairs but, back at the church, only 2 or 3 could explain why they had done so.

Many children just followed their friends, or felt that it was right to join the crowd going down the stairs but understood nothing of what they were supposedly doing. One counselor found a woman who just wanted a closer look at Graham, and a teenager who "just thought it would be a giggle". Many admitted to mere curiosity, some responded to a dare, or were mentally unbalanced – "that lady I have just been with – I don’t think she can really be right in the head. But then, we get them…" So some of them had trivial or irrelevant motives for going down.

Research into inquirers showed that overall about 60% of them were already committed church-goers, and in some cities it had been 75% up to 100%. Yet Pollock wrote in the authorized biography that "a high proportion have always been ‘first-time decisions’", but was rather coy about what a "high proportion" meant. So if 3% of the mass audiences became inquirers, and 60% of those were already committed, the number of potential converts was around 1%. Regularly, over a third were children under 14 and two thirds are under 18, with most of the remainder being adult women. The large proportion of adolescents and children was a serious concern, as in so many ways they are legally protected from participation in the risks of adult life – excluded from many shops, protected from advertising and from entering valid contracts of many kinds, barred from employment and from exploitation in many areas of life. Yet we have allowed them to be targeted by the dubious methods and manipulations of mass evangelists.


One minister from Cheshire told Target: "My own experience of those inside and outside my church has been disappointing in the Manchester Crusade, even though we supported it and had about forty inquirers referred to us. Despite follow-up, none of those outside has been brought in, and of those inside there is little evidence of deep commitment to Christ, with one or two exceptions."

Another minister: "When Billy Graham came to Manchester, I did the follow-up visits of all those who made decisions and named our church and a proportion of those who did not name any particular church as their existing allegiance…there were certainly over sixty. Of these, one was an adult church member, "not all there"…She was greatly distressed and puzzled …Her ‘decision’ in fact was meaningless...There were no other adult members, though many went to the meetings…Those who went for music got it; those who went for a sermon got it. But they were unlikely to go expecting an experience, and they did not receive it. Two of our young people also registered decisions…one wrote, himself, to break off relations with his counselor because he felt the pressures ‘too intense’. Of all the rest only one of the whole number was adult. He was an R.C….and the rest were children and teenagers. A number had gone for the same of a free view of the stadium (one child had actually expected a match!) and apparently went forward out of curiosity. Talking to them, one could not help suspecting that counselors had filled in cards for them with more optimism than veracity. After all, there are only four squares to choose from, and none of them really provided for ‘This is a mistake: don’t bother.’ The teenagers were a mixed lot – fewer than the children, but with similar consequences…One or two (as also some of the children) were R.C. and had already been in trouble with parents for attending at all…There were three or four who promised to come to church but never did, though I paid several visits in such cases."

After the 1955 Glasgow crusade, Dr. John Highet, lecturer in Sociology at Glasgow University, did a detailed analysis. Graham claimed 52,250 inquirers, which should have boosted church attendance by about that number. A year before the crusade, attendance at the churches of 7 non-Catholic denominations over 3 Sundays had been 56,500. On the 3 Sundays immediately following the crusade that had grown to 67,100, so 11,600, or 22% of inquirers. A year later, attendance had fallen to 62,200, or only 5,700 above the pre-survey, and just on 10% of inquirers. Graham biographers blamed it all on lack of preparedness by the local churches, despite the 12-to-18 months of pre-planning by his Association’s agents.

So the advertising claim that a great revival was under way was unfulfilled. Graham claimed that in Greensboro, North Carolina, by contrast, the revival was growing and all the local churches overflowing. Someone checked on that and found that every inquirer was already a churchgoer and that revival had petered out, like all the rest. Graham said it takes two years for the impact of a revival crusade to be apparent. Two years later, nothing had happened, so he moved the goalposts and said it takes five years. In New York after 5 years it was worse than ever, so Graham said "you can’t judge the real results of a crusade until 30 years later."

The New York crusade in 1957, which Graham said was "real good", had attendance of 2,397,000 and 61,100 inquirers (2.5%), broke all records, and had a huge publicity campaign by a supportive press, the season being extended by several weeks, with telecasts from Madison Square Garden, finishing with a huge rally in Times Square attracting over 160,000 people. And 9 years later, little had changed in New York. William Barclay, an eminent Christian writer, said: "When all is said and done, the permanent effect of the Crusades has been small, and neither Church nor community has been notably changed."

Graham was well aware of the problem of follow-up, that the emotionally-driven decision to seek support from Graham’s counselors could easily fade away, and he tried to deal with it by recruiting Dawson Trotman of The Navigators, an evangelical group targeting individuals, not massed crowds, to recruit and train "counselors" to follow up "inquirers" and connect them with local churches while the Graham team moved on to another city. But the follow-up was inevitably very short-term, leaving the evangelists with no real idea of whether they had achieved anything of value for much longer than a few days, except in a few cases of people who themselves became evangelists. All real research into long-term effects was commissioned by universities or by newspapers. Graham’s organization just wanted to trumpet the grand statistics of attendance at mass rallies and the accumulating total of people who had made their "decisions for Christ" – a very short-term interest in developing material for their marketing campaigns.

Ought it to happen?

Target’s conclusions are interesting.

The Graham Association criticized everything except hallelujahs for Graham as "bitter, vicious, denigratory, uncharitable" criticism. One Christian critic wrote that the people who stayed in their seats may have been more profoundly influenced by the experience than those who descended to join the throng of "inquirers", so the long-term impact of what Graham did is totally unknown. The assumption that if people started going to church therefore they had become truly Christian and were a victory for evangelism is too shallow to take seriously. The assumption that all church-goers are thoroughly Christian and non-church-goers are not is just nonsense.

The Graham denigration of "backsliders" as lost to Christianity merits the same dismissal – people stop going to church for many reasons – incompetent or pedophile priests, conflict with their peer groups, disgust with hypocrisy in the clerical establishment, minor differences of doctrinal opinion, going off in search of some more inspiring encounter, most likely at a different denomination; moving house to an area where that church is unrepresented, or simply failure to see the ordinary minister as being as exciting as a major celebrity like Graham….

Inquirer statistics and church attendance statistics tell one something extremely broad brush about the state of religious adherence, but nothing whatsoever about the state of mind of those who attend and those who don’t.

The equating of churchgoing with Christianity is fatuous and shallow. And the equating of some response to Billy Graham with taking up the practice of Christian living is even more fatuous. Graham’s idea of Christianity consisted of accepting a suite of traditional doctrines, all of which have been increasingly questioned and criticized in our times, and promises to abstain from fleshly lusts – alcohol, tobacco, gambling, drugs, and acceptance of the moral rules common around the American Bible Belt’s small town communities.

Target’s summation was: "The growth of skepticism, the increasing refusal to accept old ideas and ways merely because they are old, the flowering of disbelief under the deluge of lies and claptrap from politicians and advertisers and clerics – all these are much too obviously valuable to need stressing. To question accepted morality at least implies a moral concern, a living conscience rather than a lifeless acceptance; to take the mickey out of television commercials, to find the politicians funnier than any but the best comedians, to mock the fatuous rigmarole of the professional clergyman – all this is to clear the air for truth, to lessen the chances of political idiocy being taken as seriously as pomposity would prefer; and to bring about silence for the still small voice. The effect, then, of preaching a ‘Billy-Graham-says-the-Bible-says’ brand of authoritarianism to a generation which, for a variety of reasons, knows little and cares less about the Bible and has certainly rejected its authority, is at least problematical, and its decisive rejection is a matter of hope….

"In other words, the failure of the Church is so total and so absolute that Christians are presented with the most breathtaking opportunity possible – that this generation has seen through Billy Graham, and knows that he only wants to them to go to church, that he can only talk to them in the ‘language and terms’ which are now meaningless to anybody who hasn’t always known what clergymen have claimed they mean, that he is part of everything else they are rejecting – these are the signs of life and health; the very signs of the times which we should discern."

Graham was often referred to as "Dr. Graham", though he never went to a degree-conferring university, nor did any graduate or post-graduate research. He did receive honorary doctorates from 20 little Bible colleges, but it is not honorary degrees that entitle one to use the title of Dr. But he was anti-intellectual and used opportunities to denigrate intellectuals as long-haired cigarette-smoking left-wingers, and preferred to compare himself to Winston Churchill, who was not an intellectual.

Addressing a crowd at the Texas Astrodome: "I know so many students today in high-school and university… And you go on campus and you see some guy on every campus and he usually has a beard. I’d like to shave a few of them. And he has a cigarette dangling out of one side and he’s got a book by Jean-Paul Sartre under the other arm. And he looks at you. And he’s called an intellectual… Now who are the intellectuals? Usually, the intellectuals are somebody who is sort of an extreme left-winger, and he’s considered an intellectual especially I he smokes a pipe and has horn-rimmed glasses and sits in an ivory tower in a university. Now in that case, Winston Churchill was not an intellectual. And there are men today who are not considered intellectual by that certain group which looks down from their Olympian heights and seemingly know everything, and yet many of them don’t know anything! They are fools, and yet they call others non-intellectuals."

The contempt for anybody who doesn’t narrowly conform to the clean-shaven middle-class image, who reads books by foreigners, who are left-wing, (particularly dreadful during the McCarthyist scare campaigns about reds under the bed), and wear horn-rimmed glasses. So he presents a stereotyped image, which reveals only his feeling of inferiority to people who undertake university study, as he never did any himself. He knew there would be very few such people in his audience, as that was not the group he appealed to.

Target’s conclusion in 1968 was that organized Christian churches would continue to decline, irrespective of the frenetic activity of mass evangelists, whose efforts were irrelevant to turning the tide. What the evangelists were doing was of very dubious value and the big drift away from organised churches was not seriously addressed by anything they did. The following fifty years have proved him pretty right, which is no great surprise, as doctrines developed in a primitive agrarian Iron Age community are inevitably seen as of little value 2000 years later in a technically sophisticated age of huge urban conglomerations in which most people are at a far higher level of education than were the herders and farmers of Jesus’ time, and in which the churches’ dogmas and doctrines must compete for space with 2000 years of advance in our understanding of how the world and human society within it works.

I thought I’d finish up with two asides: some recent comment by Graham’s son, Frank Jr. about the perennial bugbear of homosexuality to evangelicals, and the movement to increasing tolerance of the homosexual subculture in our pluralistic society.

And some material Graham wrote about his views on the reality of Satan, now online at Charisma News. One of the issues with Evangelicals is their inability to deal with the big issue of the good god and the bad god and whether they really have a dualistic theology, of endless tussle between the equally powerful good and bad gods. Or if they don’t and their good god is really more powerful, why this supposedly good god permits the weaker bad one to do so many imagined bad things and be so destructive, and whether the good god has any moral responsibility for allowing this to happen. Graham offered very traditional Evangelical belief in the reality of an evil person, totally committed to spreading evil and ensuring all souls ended in hell instead of in heaven, but does not explore the theological issues in any way.