On a balmy April Sunday in 1959 my Dad arranged a bus to transport people from our tiny outback township to hear Billy Graham via landline relay. It entailed a sixty mile round trip. I have one abiding memory. As soon as Billy issued his customary appeal a smartly dressed man with dark curly hair stood and walked determinedly to the front of the cinema which the local churches had rented as the landline venue.
Toby Priestley was a little-educated railway worker. He had style and immense charm, but was a hopeless drunk. Dad became his mentor. In the years that followed, his testimony often murdered the Queen’s English but there was no question of its authenticity or power. As far as I know, he never again touched a drop of booze. He was a man made new.
Alongside landline relays in 1959 my family twice visited Sydney to hear Billy at Sydney’s Agricultural Showground. I will never forget the final Sunday. To this day I have never seen a bigger crowd. The Showground was packed to the gunnels and overflowed to the neighbouring Sydney Cricket Ground which was packed save for the Members Stand. A nice steward let us peek at the Showground crowd before we found places next door.
Billy returned to Sydney in 1968 and 1979. Historians agree that the 1959 Crusade had the greatest impact. Two schoolboy brothers were among thousands who came forward in response to Billy’s invitation, their names, Peter and Philip Jensen. Decades later, Peter - a theologian of distinction - became the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. Philip, an effective evangelist, ended his working life as Dean of Sydney. One of the most important long-term legacies of 1959 was that it prompted a large cohort of men to respond to the call to the ordained ministry in the diocese.
By 1968 I was in my final year of school and I trained as a counselor. One evening a group of lads from school attended. I recall tailing several of those who went forward in response to the appeal and I counseled one of them. I thought it helpful to be on hand for follow-up. By then I was old enough to appreciate Billy’s humble eloquence. He could hold the crowd in the palm of his hands. He unpacked the message in vivid but down-to-earth language. He could raise a laugh and then within moments you could have heard a pin drop as he moved to the climax of his message.
By 1979 I was working in the Communications Office of the Diocese of Sydney. The mission’s organising office was just a few steps away and we took on press relations work. I helped with a school of writing run in parallel to the meetings. The sheer joy on the face of Archbishop Marcus Loane who chaired Billy’s initial press conference is still a fond memory. On peak hour current affairs television Billy was asked “Did you ever doubt God or your Christian faith?” Without blinking he immediately responded, “Never!” That was a pointer to Billy Graham’s spiritual make-up. Very early he determined never to engage with speculative theological questions. As the first editor of Decision magazine, Sherwood Wirt, told me, “Billy never changes.”
But he did. I think the impact of 1979 lagged behind the earlier missions. I thought the format had grown tired. The ultra-loyal Billy insisted that the much-loved George Beverly Shea should sing before he preached, even though at 71 Bev struggled to hit the higher notes. Billy and his team eventually did adapt and change. In the 1990s he remodeled the formula. He realised the term “crusade” created a needless barrier to Muslims and the meetings were re-branded as “missions”. In place of the traditional “youth night” the team offered a “Concert for the Next Generation”, featuring Christian rock, rap, and hip-hop artists. Young people listened intently to the ageing Billy’s message.
From the first, Billy was an entrepreneur. He published books and magazines and multiplied his audience through use of radio and television. Early on he appointed a Board which set his salary and this ensured he never got enmeshed in the financial hijinks of later televangelists. He openly encouraged intercession that he would be kept from sexual temptation. He ensured this with a strict rule that other than his wife Ruth he would not meet one to one with a woman. His was strictly teetotal. He would instruct minders to keep an eagle eye out at receptions in case an opportunist journalist would slip an alcoholic drink into his hand and take a photo while he intently engaged in conversation.
Billy Graham preached in person to an estimated 100 million people. He requested that the headstone of his grave should simply say, “Billy Graham, Preacher.” But his influence did not end with his preaching. He founded many Christian organisations: Youth for Christ. the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Christianity Today magazine to name a few. He helped develop the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, TransWorld Radio, World Vision and the National Association of Evangelicals.
I wish he had been more theologically acute. His dispensational pre-millennialism contributed to widespread evangelical quietism in the US, with many believing that working for justice was of secondary importance since the return and earthly rule of Christ would set right all wrongs. Even so he attended and participated in the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland. The key players were John Stott, Bishop Jack Dain from Sydney and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford. There is debate about how much he completely ‘owned’ the Lausanne project. But his presence was important to a movement that helped evangelicals recover their social conscience and gave voice to a generation of evangelicals from the global south.
“He being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).
John Martin is Associate Editor (Global News) with the US-based Living Church and has been a member of the Fulcrum Leadership Team since its inception.