Billy Graham: Man and Ministry in the Fifties
© 1997, Natalie Bucheimer
Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every nation. (Mark 16:15)
While the world is full of Christians, few actually take this commissioning
seriously. It is regarded as impractical or even impossible. For one servant of
Christ, Billy Graham, impossible does not exist in the realm of the faithful.
The Bible teaches that with God all things are possible, and looking at
Graham's resume, one would almost be convinced that was true. Graham is quite
possibly the greatest preacher of all time. He has preached in 185 countries to
over three billion people. That number is more people than even the apostle
Paul preached to. He has been personal friend and minister to ten United States
presidents. For thirty seven years he has been on the Gallup organization's
list of the ten most admired men in the world. His is a ministry that has been
heard and felt around the world, beginning in the nineteen fifties. It is this
beginning decade that perhaps gives the most insight into the ministry, how and
why it started, and how people reacted. It is the strength of the ministry
built in this decade that continues to carry Graham's ministry to this day,
even while Graham is now slowed by Parkinson's disease. A look at the man in
relation to the decade reveals some interesting facets of the national attitude
in the fifties, and his reaction to the issues strongly shows what was on the
minds of the people. As instrumental as he was in shaping the moral outlook of
the era, a look at the issues of the fifties would not be complete without a
look at this preacher to the nations, Billy Graham.
Train up a child in the way he shall go, and when he is old, he will not depart
from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
What would be expected of the parents of Billy Graham? Incredible Christians?
Supernatural powers? In order to raise a son who could arguably be the most
influential preacher in this century, one would think his parents must surely
have been influential, devout, and pious. In reality, Graham's parents were
quiet, humble people of God. On a small dairy farm in Charlotte, North
Carolina, Billy Graham received his first lessons in the ways of the world and
in the ways of the mysterious God. His father was a working man, comfortable
only when his hands were immersed and occupied in the work of the farm.
Secretly, he always felt some unanswered calling to the pulpit, to be a
preacher; a feeling that was only resolved by living his calling through his
oldest son, Billy Graham (Frady 33). His parents were God fearing people and
strict Calvinists, and raised Graham to believe in hard work and honesty. Billy
Graham was later to reject this Calvinistic upbringing, but there is no doubt
that his parents were the initial influences on his spiritual life.
At age seventeen Graham found himself in the same position in which many
seventeen year olds find themselves. He enjoyed high school, was popular with
the girls, and had absolutely no idea where the rest of his life would take
him. He played baseball and basketball and enjoyed being young and carefree.
This was a time in which tent revivals were popular, and during the year an
evangelist named Mordecai Ham came to town to lead a three month revival in
Charlotte. Graham, like any average teenager, avoided what promised to be long
and boring and remained untouched for the first few weeks . When all the other
options of what to do on a summer night had run out Graham showed up at the
revival, and his life was changed. Ham spoke out against sinners, and even
though Graham was a well thought of, not particularly sinful kid, he felt that
Ham was speaking directly to him. So afraid was he of Ham's sinful accusations
that he joined the revival choir to escape Ham's direct gaze. After a few
nights of listening to the preacher, Graham was ready to make a decision to
follow Jesus, and he walked the same aisle to make the same decision that
countless others have walked at Billy Graham crusades ever since (Brief
Like most high schoolers who lack direction once they graduate, Graham blindly
enrolled at Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee for the simple reason
that his mother had once been impressed by Jones' preaching. If Graham didn't
know who he was prior to entering school, he soon learned that he wasn't meant
to be a Bob Jones student. He found the discipline to be absolutely restrictive
and the theology to be at odds with the notions of God that were swarming in
his head (Frady 96). The Florida Bible Institute was to be the place where
Graham would finally be able to draw lines around who he was and what he stood
for in God's vast kingdom. At the urging of a friend he left Bob Jones and
enrolled at the Institute. Whether to be considered just maturing into a
purpose or a direct message from God, it was at the Florida Bible Institute
that Billy Graham finally knew he was to be a preacher. Also at this time he
settled upon the Southern Baptist Convention as the church to subscribe to, and
he began the ties with the SBC that would last loosely throughout his ministry
(Brief biog.). After graduation, Graham enrolled at Wheaton college -- the
Harvard of Christian colleges. There he received training in the fine art of
the pulpit and met his future wife, Ruth Bell. Wheaton today is still
rightfully proud of Graham. In his honor at the school exists the Billy Graham
Center, a museum that chronicles not only his ministry but the ministries of
many other important evangelists. It is also the center for the Billy Graham
Archives, a collection of important Christian documents related to Graham or of
other religious significance (BGC Story).
Following graduation from Wheaton Graham entered what could be considered a
transition state that lay somewhere between formal education and the great
preacher that we know him as. During this time he amassed several personal
skills that would benefit him once he began his own ministry, as well as made
contacts with people that would later work for or with him. Immediately
following graduation he took a pastorship at Western Springs Church near
Chicago. He left this job to travel with Youth for Christ, an evangelistic
movement geared especially for young people and returning servicemen. Youth for
Christ was different in its approach than other evangelistic movements in that
it focused on the benevolence of God rather than the God who was quick to
invoke wrath. The message was displayed with upbeat music and flashy clothes.
Graham stayed with them from 1945 until 1948, and there is no doubt that what
he learned influenced him in his own ministry. To this day, Graham will tell
you that he sees God as a loving father rather than a harsh judge (20/20). From
Youth for Christ he also learned much about preaching to a crowd, how to gear a
message to an audience, and how to manipulate a crowd's emotions. Also during
this time Graham became president of Northwestern Schools, a system of
Christian colleges in Minnesota. Ideally, he saw Northwestern becoming another
Wheaton in order to train evangelists to face the unchurched world. Reality was
that Graham was otherwise occupied most of the time, and he didn't have much
time to devote to being an effective president. He remained in this office from
1947 until 1952. During this period he developed administrative skills that
would later assist him in the formation of the Billy Graham Evangelical
Association (BGEA), the business end of his ministry. Contacts were also made
through the college with several people who would later work with Billy Graham
in his crusades. It was at this time that he began here and there to hold
meetings on his own, during breaks from Youth for Christ and absences from the
college (Brief biog.). This ministry gradually grew, and with it Graham's
vision for the possibilities the future held. He eventually left both the
college and Youth for Christ in order to obey the urge that had been
controlling him for some time, Graham was called to be a preacher to the
masses, and the best way for him to accomplish this was on his own -- on his
own as much as one can be on his own with God on his side.
In 1949 in the city of Los Angeles, a group of men who called themselves
"Christ for Greater Los Angeles" had invited Graham to come and hold meetings
there. When at first Graham had questioned the invitation, they found more
money and more church support. It seemed as though things were pulling together
to bring Graham to Los Angeles. He came and on September 25 opened a series of
meetings that not only left the city of Los Angeles changed forever, but
vaulted Graham's previously unassuming ministry into national spotlight and
into the decade of the fifties. The meetings began slowly with little press
coverage and relatively low attendance. Empty seats were easily seen in the
early nights in the Canvas Cathedral, a tent erected specifically for the
crusade. The tide turned, however, when Stuart Hamblen, a well known radio
celebrity invited Graham to be a guest on his show. Having boasted earlier to
Graham that with his endorsement he could fill the tent, Graham was eager to
accept the invitation. In many ways he was not far off in his boasting. Hamblen
was well known up and down the West Coast for his popular radio show, heard
every afternoon for two hours. Especially once news of Hamblen's own conversion
at one of the meetings reached the airwaves, people came to see what was so
great that everyone on the radio was talking about. A second media break came
when Randolph Hearst, owner of newspapers across the country including two
major ones in Los Angeles, inexplicably told his papers to "puff Graham." They
did, and when Hearst's papers "puffed Graham," of course Hearst's competitors
papers followed suit. Soon the Los Angeles campaign was being talked about and
read about nationwide. The crusade was extended from its original intended
length of three weeks to a length of eight weeks, at which point the tent was
still being packed, but the organizers physically could not continue. On
November 20, nearly two months after it began, the crusade closed (Graham 143).
By the powerful hand of the media, with a little help from the powerful hand of
God, Graham was compelled into fame, a fame that would carry him into the
decade of the fifties. By the end of the fifties he had preached in countless
American cities as well as in many foreign lands, among them Australia, India,
New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and most European countries.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.
The inevitable question that comes to mind when looking at Graham's amazing
success is why did it happen then? Why, at exactly this moment was the nation
ready for an evangelistic surge? Why, in the nineteen fifties was this ordinary
man so appealing, his message so necessary? The answer comes from examining the
situation of the nation, who people were and what they were thinking. Without
even consciously knowing it or purposing it Graham was the answer to all their
questions about their state in life at that time. Both he and his message fit
into the fifties. He met the people where they needed to be met, and they
sought him out to hear for themselves the answers he was said to provide.
The fifties came at the tail end of the World War II, a fact that I think is
often overlooked when looking at the success of the Graham ministry. After the
war America was in uncharted territory. Nuclear weapons were new, powerful, and
strangely frightening. Just when it seemed as if America had successfully
asserted her strength at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russians began their
nuclear testing and destroyed all sense of security. And what about Hiroshima
and Nagasaki? Even though we won the war, did we want to be a country that
forever has to take possession of these tragedies? Communism, too, was
spreading seemingly unrestrained through the world. America immediately became
aware of her role in the whole world; the scope of thinking was enlarged from
the confines of the boundaries of the country to a global scale (Frady 213).
With this global position came responsibilities that no one was really sure of
since no one had been there before. On the personal level, in a way that only
war can cause, the concept of life and afterlife inched its way to the
forefront of the minds of many Americans. The death that accompanies war is
cruel, and reminiscent of just how temporary life is. In order to find answers
and hopefully prepare themselves, many people after the war turned to religion.
On the social level America needed a glue to bind her together again and
provide security. Religion promised also to provide this. Graham offered that
religion in a way that was friendly and refreshingly honest. The country was
ready for religious revival, and Graham caught that readiness.
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are
they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear
without someone to proclaim him? (Romans 10:14)
Billy Graham's crusades were far reaching, drawing people from all walks of
life, from all denominations, and from many areas of the world. At the same
time, Graham was one man who could only be in one place at one time sharing one
message. It was to compensate for this weakness that Graham entered the realm
of what was already transforming the face of society in the fifties: the media.
Though television was the big development of the fifties, Graham did not
restrict himself to that venue. In fact, it is probably fair to say that in the
beginning of the decade television programming had not yet found its identity,
and a Billy Graham crusade widely televised in the early fifties would probably
have seemed, if nothing else, out of the ordinary and out of place. Radio,
however, was a powerful avenue for disseminating information. The major
broadcasting companies that we are familiar with as television powerhouses had
their network of affiliated radio stations that often provided uniform,
nationwide programming. Graham started off on the radio at a tiny station in
Chicago by hosting a weekly Christian program entitled Songs in the Night.
Being well received in Chicago with this program, soon after the BGEA was
formed Graham began his weekly hour long segment entitled The Hour of Decision.
Even at its beginning the program was carried by ABC on 150 stations. At its
peak around 1970 the program was being heard on over 1200 stations nationwide,
and it can still be heard today on stations around the country. With the
popularity of the show on the airwaves, the BGEA soon brought The Hour of
Decision to the television in a show that ran from 1951 until 1954. Sensing
that the crusades, which were ever growing in popularity, could be made
available to a seemingly infinite audience of television viewers, the BGEA soon
began broadcasting portions of pre-recorded crusades (Brief biog.). Through
these television appearances Graham undoubtedly grew in both popularity and
name recognition, but publicity was never his motive, at least not his primary
motive. Graham had a vision for film as a tool to spread the Gospel. In a time
when film was sometimes considered to be work of the devil, Graham had the
perception to know that, "...thousands of unconverted will come to a film that
will never hear a preacher" (O'Donnell). His ministry produced countless videos
and television specials centered around the gospel. In addition, he himself
authored many books, as well as numerous books written by people on his staff.
Graham was a man of the media, a man who knew what people watched, listened to,
and wanted to read. Graham saw the media as a way of ensuring that many people
heard the gospel in order that they might believe. For, according to the verse,
how can they believe if they have not heard? By using the media, Graham allowed
people to hear, and in the fifties people were definitely listening to the
People won't always listen to things they don't want to hear, but they
listened to Graham. Why? The mere basis of what he taught was sacrifice of your
life, your very self to God who will reward you. This idea of giving up what
makes you comfortable is threatening, so why were so many people willing to do
it? The answer lies in the fact that he asked people to give up their souls,
but not their televisions, their new houses in suburbia, or their McDonalds
hamburgers. In fact he preached along the lines of the Bible when it says "Seek
ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be
added unto you." "All these things" were viewed as the material possessions
that were so endeared to peoples' hearts in the fifties. Like many others in
the fifties, Graham grew up during the Depression and appreciated the material
wealth he had. Under this philosophy, you commit your life to Christ, and he
rewards you. Therefore, any material wealth that you have can rightfully be
regarded as a blessing from God, and better yet you can keep it. This is
misleading, in that it causes it to sound like Graham encouraged wealth, which
is a concept quite in contrast to Biblical teachings. On the contrary, he
simply didn't see the necessity of selling your clothes and living in rags to
show gratitude to the Lord. Rather, stewardship of what the Lord has given you
will show your gratitude. This message in the fifties was an important one
because it was a time of materialism. A different message would likely have
alienated people who valued their material wealth. Graham even closed his
sermon once with the line, "God bless you and thank you, and God bless the
Holiday Inns." (Frady 235)
Graham was welcomed in the fifties because he was the fifties. His
appearance and style embodied all that the fifties is known to be. He was
handsome and strong, definitely the leader of his family. His wife, Ruth, was a
strong woman, but never stronger than her husband. She knew her place in the
home and rarely accompanied him on crusades. She stayed at the house and cared
for the children, raising them and instructing them in the God that both she
and her husband knew well. He would ask her for advice, but she would never
cross him on a decision that was made. After all, he was the man of the
household, and what would a woman know about decision making that a man
wouldn't know. Ruth Graham was a very wise woman and a very devout Christian,
but she was first a wife. When he would leave on trips she would say her
good-byes then calmly and with a low profile go about the business of the house
and the children until he returned again. This is how families were supposed to
function in the fifties. They had three beautiful girls and two bouncing boys;
pictures of the family could easily be used in posters of the ideal fifties
family. People were drawn to the man with this image. He knew what the fifties
were about, so people thought perhaps what he had to say could elevate them to
the "perfect man" status. Not only did they want the spiritual life he offered,
they wanted the image and the comfort of the solid fifties man that he seemed
Finally, allow me to offer as a hypothesis that the Billy Graham evangelical
movement was welcomed into the fifties because the faith that it offered was a
rebellion against the norm, not unlike the Beat movement or the jazz music that
was springing up around the country. The beatniks, for example, were rebelling
against social stereotypes and complacent normalcy. Jazz musicians were
rebelling more or less against ordered form and melody in music in order to
express emotion, quite often the emotion of pain or hurt. The faith that was
talked about at Billy Graham crusades was an alternative to society as well.
The pain that many people felt was replaced by hope in God. The injustice that
many either hated or felt victim to was eased knowing that in God's eyes all
are equal. People left out of the loop of affluence came seeking consolation
that their treasures awaited them in heaven. Crowds gathered at Billy Graham
crusades looking for what they felt their lives were lacking. What Graham
offered was peace, a peace of soul that was lacking in the fifties. It was a
time of mass production, and in many ways that included mass production of
minds. Television, in many ways, taught and continues to teach today what to
think and how to act. People were swept up in the tide of mass culture, and
found themselves blurred together with the rest of humanity not really knowing
who they were or what they stood for. They began to look for their identity
wherever they could find it. Graham told them they were perfect creations of
God, and this fact alone was a reason to live and a source of contentment.
Contained implicitly in this understanding of self worth were convictions about
how to act and respond to society, convictions not dictated by the media or
mass culture (which were often indistinguishable from each other), but by a
source much higher than man and absolutely unchanging and true. David Harrell,
Jr., professor at Auburn University stated clearly, "The search for intuitive
truth in the charismatic movement was not unlike the subjective cravings of the
counterculture" (Blumhofer 202). The people that didn't like what was going on
in society could see new hope in what Graham taught. They could also see hope
of social reform, for, after all, if enough people believed wouldn't the world
be a better place? While some peoples' rebellions turned them to new forms of
expression, some peoples' turned them to God.
Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your
mind. (Romans 12:1)
With Graham so well adapted to the flow of the fifties, it was impossible for
him to avoid the social issues that the people he ministered to were facing. A
popular Christian song holds, "In this world, but not of it, caught in the
storm we've got to rise above it." Graham was in the world facing problems that
everyone else faced, but he had God's perspective on the issues. Graham was
popular because he preached to the people where they were, and people were
struggling with certain issues. Graham spoke clearly and strongly on these
issues, but was careful to not conform to the worldly opinion.
In the nineteen fifties the world seemed to rotate on an axis called
communism. Everyone was talking about it, and America was frightened. The
culmination of their fright appeared most noticeably in a man named McCarthy.
McCarthy claimed to have lists of names of people that secretly held
allegiances with the communist party, lists that often contained names of many
high ranking public officials and celebrities. The media, which was so
important to the fifties, picked up on McCarthy's "blacklists" and ran them in
the papers. In the attitudes of the fifties, if it was in print, it was
infallible truth. As a result, not only was communism a force from overseas to
fear, it was a force within our own boundaries threatening to tear apart the
post war threads that tenuously held the nation together. Billy Graham was not
immune to what was going on. When he spoke about communism, he spoke as a
person not completely removed from the attitudes that were prevalent in the
nation. He, too feared communism. In a message delivered as early as 1947 he
Communism is creeping inexorably into these destitute lands, into wartorn
China, into restless South America, and unless the Christian religion rescues
the nation from the clutch of the unbelieving, America will stand alone and
isolated in the world (Frady 236).
In many ways, he became swept up in the fear that was embracing the nation.
Further attacks of his on communism were strong, and almost single minded. In
1954 in a magazine article he announced, "Either communism must die, or
Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and
anti-Christ" (Frady 237). He referred to Europe under the grips of communism as
"a colossal inferno of lies and deception" (Frady 237). While stating that
"...men like Senator McCarthy have gone too far; false accusations can be
dangerous," he none the less supported repealing the Fifth Amendment protection
for witnesses brought before committee (Frady 237). The way Graham saw it,
whatever was necessary to rid American borders of communism was just that;
necessary. How else did Graham intend to deal with Communism? Naturally, since
he felt "No man with Christ in his heart can be a Communist," Graham saw the
best way to deal with this menace as being religious revival; a turning back to
old fashioned Christian ideals that he saw as being part of "old fashioned
Americanism" (Frady 418,237). He stated often, "The United States needs a
spiritual revival, or we'll be licked before the Communists get here" (Frady
237). Did religious revival have anything to do with the passing of this
American red scare? Arguably, it did not. McCarthy was condemned by the Senate,
a fact that Graham was none too happy about, saying it hurt the dignity of
American statesmanship (Frady 237). With McCarthy's passing went the bulk of
the substantial evidence for Communism in this country, and Americans returned
to simply fearing other countries as we entered into the Cold War era. Graham
had, however, spoken out against communism on a moral basis and his voice had
been heard across the nation.
For you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from
every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:7)
Billy Graham knew that in order to unite all Christians, the Bible was the
only place to turn. Different religions had different doctrines, and different
people held different theologies. Therefore, when it came to Graham's stand on
race and segregation, he turned not to what society had to say, but to what the
Bible said about race relations. Verses like Revelation 5:9 led Graham to a
conviction that the Bible allowed no grounds for the practice of segregation,
or even for the notion of white supremacy. Simply through this decision, and
his tangible support of it through his ministry, Graham broke away from society
and from other Christian leaders of the time. This idea was new, unprecedented
on a scale as large as Graham's had the potential to be, and likely volatile.
On March 15, 1953 in Chattanooga, Tennessee the first purposefully integrated
crusade began, more than a year before the Supreme Court decision, Brown v.
the Board of Education. Integrated it was, but this was not accomplished
effortlessly. Graham personally arrived early at the stadium to tear down the
ropes that separated the white and black sections. Even after the head usher
resigned as a result of his action, Graham did not back down on his conviction
to hold an integrated campaign (Graham 426). Disappointingly few Negroes
attended, but the few who did took their seats without mishap (Pollack 97).
While idealistically Graham would have held all subsequent crusades integrated,
often organizers wouldn't allow it. This was still the segregated south; people
didn't swallow forced integration well, and more than likely full integration
would have been moving too quickly. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
advised Graham early in the civil rights movement:
You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the
white establishment there than if you marched in the streets. Besides that, you
have a constituency that will listen to you, especially among white people who
may not listen so much to me. But if a leader gets too far out in front of his
people, they will lose sight of him and not follow him any longer (Graham 426).
Immediate integration would have caused his audience to lose sight of him,
because they were not ready for and did not understand the moral implications
of race that Graham based his decisions on. This advice came not only from a
respected religious civil rights leader, but also from a trusted friend. To
Graham King was "Mike," a nickname handed down by King's father (Graham 360).
They met together often, and were once even stranded together in Trinidad after
a plane malfunction prevented them from reaching their destination (Graham
360). In an effort to bridge the gap between whites and blacks, especially
Christian whites and blacks, King was invited to deliver the opening prayer at
a crusade in Manhattan in 1957 (Graham 314). King also spent time with other
white Christian leaders in Graham's circle, where the obvious friendship
between King and Graham facilitated King's acceptance not only as a leader, but
as a respected Christian gentleman. King and Graham saw themselves as
complements to each other, each one working towards the same goal with methods
as different as night and day. Yet, both ministries were powerful and, in their
own way, necessary. Both men viewed the world in the way they thought God would
view the world, with color being a wonderful gift ordained by God, not an
indicator of worth or status. Both longed for the day and worked towards the
day when this philosophy could be embraced by the white population at large.
After the Brown decision of May 17, 1954 Graham could insist on integration,
which he did, despite it costing him some friends and bringing him abuse.
Graham stated, "Jesus Christ belongs neither to the colored or to the white
races. He belongs to all races, and there are no color lines with Christ, as He
repeatedly said that God looks upon the heart" (Pollack 99). Graham proved to
be a pioneer in integration in the deeply divided south.
At my home we receive the magazine, Decision, put out by the BGEA.
Occasionally I flip through it when it is left on the coffee table. In every
issue there is a letters section where people have written to the Billy Graham
headquarters. In every issue there are countless letters, all with the same
story to tell. "My life was changed at a Billy Graham crusade." It is hard even
to estimate the impact this one man has had on the world, and he continues to
share the gospel to this day despite health problems. It all began in the
nineteen fifties with a younger, more charismatic Billy Graham. Yet, the
message has remained the same. The world is not the same as it was in the
fifties. Different issues face us, and Graham strives to address these new
issues -- homosexuality, abortion, etc. -- with the same Christian perspective
he's had throughout the years. Billy Graham proves that faith is the only thing
in this world that is ageless and unchangeable.
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Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1979.
Graham, Billy. Just As I Am. San Francisco: Zondervan. 1997.
High, Stanley. Billy Graham. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc.
20/20. Interview with Billy Graham. NBC. May 2, 1997.
O'Donnell, Bro. Cornelius, O.P. "A Graham of Faith: Inquiring into the Life
and Preaching of Rev. Billy Graham." 2 Nov. 1995.
http://digidesk.p52s.hioslo.no/niwg/bgraham.htm (16 Apr 1997).
Pollock, John. Billy Graham: the Authorized Biography. New York:
McGraw Hill Book Company. 1966.
"Profile -- William (Billy) F. Graham."
http://www.graham-assn.org/bgea/bginfo/bgbgbio.htm#profile (16 Apr 1997).
Scharpff, Paulus. History of Evangelism. Grand Rapids, Michigan:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1966.
"What is a Billy Graham Crusade?"
http://www.asheville.com/crusade1.html (16 Apr 1997)