“I feel no Presence—none,” my friend whispered as we watched the “moment of decision” approaching on the opening night of Billy Graham’s New York Crusade in Madison Square Garden. The area leading up to the sparsely decorated wooden pulpit-platform was cleared of the cameras which had been flashing throughout the meeting; in the front rows of the arena, nearly a thousand men and women whose lapel buttons designated them as “counselors” bowed their heads in prayer; behind the platform sat fifteen hundred choir volunteers in white shirts and dresses: Billy Graham was about to issue the invitation to “surrender.”
“Come forward now—you don’t have to feel any emotion,” the blond, square-jawed evangelist declared, as if he suspected that many of the twenty thousand people in the audience shared my companion’s complaint about the lack of “presence.” Your friends and family will wait for you in their seats—we’ll only keep you a little while,” Billy continued, clearing away another possible obstacle to the making of a decision. “You won’t lose them in the crowd. You come now,” he urged, beckoning with his hands. Behind him, Cliff Barrows, the good-looking, broad-shouldered choir director, a finger on his lips, began leading the choir in a quiet hymn.
There was a pause while everyone looked around for the first “inquirers,” as the Crusade calls those who answer Billy’s invitation to come forward. Then a middle-aged man, followed by some teen-agers, began walking down the aisle. Soon the escalators were carrying people down from the balconies, and the aisles were rapidly filling up. As each “inquirer” walked toward the wooden platform, a counselor from one of the front rows silently joined him. The evangelist continued talking. “You hear a small voice saying ‘come’—you hear it now—listen—if you hear it and don’t come, you may never have another chance, and your heart will harden.”
The choir went on singing softly in the background. A young couple came forward, hand in hand, the girl limping and crying; there was a man carrying a small, frightened-looking child—but most of the inquirers’ faces were composed, revealing no particular inner emotion. Quietly they gathered in the area around the platform, and after a moment of prayer they were guided by ushers toward the “prayer rooms” below, where the counselors helped them fill out cards indicating their names, addresses, and church affiliations.
“I still feel no Presence,” my friend said again. An elderly lady sitting nearby raised her eyebrows in protest at our whispering. This wasn’t the first time we had disturbed her, and I was embarrassed. Earlier in the evening “Bev” Shea, the Crusade soloist, had sung, “If all the heavens were a scroll, all the blades of grass quills, and all the oceans were ink, I would still be unable to write all of the glory of God . . .” and I had irreverently exploded with “Holy Smokes,” unable to suppress my surprise at discovering that the New York Crusade was being inaugurated with the words of a Jewish hymn still chanted by Orthodox Jews on Shavuoth.
My friend was not the only one in the Garden that evening who seemed bothered by the calm, uncharged atmosphere of the Crusade. A few pious “Amens” ventured by enthusiasts among the assemblage during the first stages of the meeting were obviously out of keeping with the prevailing tone, and they were not heard again. “That sort of thing disturbs Billy,” a member of the Graham “team” later told me. “He is a Baptist now, but after all his background is Presbyterian.” The sort of thing that Billy evidently did want was an atmosphere of folksy camaraderie. He rarely stretched out the serious moments of his sermon; whenever he took up the Bible or clapped his hands or pointed his finger to Heaven, he would usually follow with a joke or anecdote.
After the meeting, moving toward the exit doors, I heard a gruff New York voice in the crowd behind me: “Let’s shake hands wit’ Billy—he’s a good guy.” Turning around, I saw a stocky, dark lad in a leather jacket tugging at his buddy and pointing to the smiling evangelist who was being hustled along through the crowd by some husky young members of his “team.” That Billy was indeed a “good guy” seemed apparent to everyone that night. But was that all? What did this “good guy” offer that could attract so many thousands? Not extraordinary oratorical skill, surely; his power as an orator could be matched easily in dozens of pulpits throughout the city. Nor can Billy Graham’s success be convincingly attributed to “Madison Avenue” ballyhoo. To be sure, the effort at showmanship was there, but very often it was strained, awkward, even a little ridiculous. Superlatives rang in the air: this was the “largest volunteer choir” ever assembled and the “largest speaker hookup ever attached to an organ.” There were references to tremendous Crusade meetings in India and Europe and hints about the effect of these meetings on the souls of important generals and businessmen. As for New York, “no event in Christendom has been prayed for as much as this Crusade.” In Billy’s pocket that very evening was a prayer petition signed in thumb prints by illiterate natives in Africa who were praying for New York.
The following morning at the Cinerama theater on Broadway, I heard one member of the Graham team, Tom Blinco, an English clergyman, suggest an explanation for Billy’s phenomenal success.
“Billy came to England,” Blinco told the three or four hundred local ministers in the audience, “and for the first time evangelism became respectable—it was no longer considered queer to be an evangelist. Even archbishops and generals could be properly associated with the movement.”
The meeting that morning (its purpose was to introduce the local ministry to the evangelist’s team) effectively demonstrated just how respectable the Billy Graham movement was. Roger Hull, vice-president of Mutual Life and chairman of the New York campaign, opened the proceedings, and then came greetings from well-known church dignitaries. Announcements were also made concerning the “follow-up” campaign which the Crusade was organizing within every sponsoring church. A young millionaire businessman who owned dozens of supermarkets in Texas gave personal witness of his conversion.
Billy’s effort to secure the good will of the local churches is more than a matter of organizational technique. He and his associates are well aware of the antagonism which has traditionally existed between the “old” and the “new lights,” as they were called in the 18th century during the Great Awakening, America’s first major religious revival. At that time, the Massachusetts Bay pastors had felt it necessary to denounce those who “look upon what are called secret impulses upon their mind without due regard to the written word” and to protest the “heinous invasion of ministerial office by persons of no education and no attainment.”
Billy has no intention of invading anybody’s ministerial office. Indeed, a year in advance of the New York Crusade, a Graham contingent began to contact ministers throughout the city. Several hundred of those contacted had come this morning to the Cinerama theater, the smiles of some showing them to be more curious than convinced. Billy, dressed in a dark suit, spoke with a minimum of gestures and oratorical inflection, and soon the smiles vanished. No minister could object to the goals of the New York Crusade as Billy outlined them. He simply wanted to make everyone think and talk more about religion, to revitalize the social conscience, to bring people back to their own churches, and to win souls for Jesus. The young evangelist turned away from the black loose-leaf notebook on the small pulpit and smiled at his colleagues. “You may not like the way I hold the Bible and walk around the pulpit,” Billy grinned boyishly as the ministers laughed. “You may not like my sermons—I don’t like many of them myself.” But, he said, he was only trying to do his best to get some “fire back into the church.”
He was the obstetrician, a specialist in “bringing forth the new-born,” and they were the pediatricians whose job was to prevent infant mortality. They were the ones who had to make the conversions at the Garden meaningful. “I know that some of the people who come forward to make decisions are crackpots or curiosity-seekers, but some of them are also sincere, and out of the five hundred who came forward last night. . . .”
“Pardon me, Mr. Graham,” a voice interrupted from the back of the theater. All heads turned. “I have just received word,” said a young man striding down the aisle with a card in his hand, “that the actual count of decisions last night was seven hundred and four.” Sitting near me a few young ministers dressed in sport jackets exchanged smiles at the Graham team’s irrepressible affinity for the dramatic.
The respectability of Billy’s evangelism certainly makes it a unique phenomenon in the history of revivalist movements. Yet, having said this, we are still left with the question of what has been attracting nearly twenty thousand people to Madison Square Garden nightly for many weeks. Respectability, after all, is by no means a rare ingredient of religious life in America.
In the hope of finding some answer to this question, I attended a few more meetings at the Garden. The atmosphere of the Crusade changed as the days went by. The meetings became even more folksy; people began to recognize and greet one another, and the New York Crusade, as Cliff Barrows had predicted on opening night, was developing its favorite hymns. You could see that the “repeaters” in the audience felt themselves personally involved in the success of the Crusade; they would crane their heads and count the number of nightly decisions with as much interest as a Dodger fan shows in the batting average of Duke Snider. There was also a change in Billy’s sermons. His talk on opening night had been carefully prepared and advance copies distributed to the press. It was a speech filled with quotations from Kant, Lenin, Edward Arlington Robinson, and a host of other thinkers and poets—as if to prove that there was mind as well as feeling at Madison Square Garden. Instead of the old-fashioned revivalist terminology Billy had used existentialist jargon like “encounter” and “commitment.” This wasn’t the sort of thing that could come naturally out of the Florida Bible Institute, where Billy had received his theological training. But on subsequent evenings he dropped the intellectual note, and relied more heavily on Bible stories, descriptions of Heaven and Hell, and offers of eternal life.
The theology of these sermons was characterized by a rational approach to subjects like sin and repentance that seemed to me very far from the mystic and antinomian tendencies of Pauline Christianity which sees the law itself as a source of sin. As Billy defined it, sin was simply “breaking the law—like going through a red light.” Of course, he pointed out, to break the law means to violate the spirit as well as the letter—and since none of us were without evil thoughts, we were all sinners. It was a definition latitudinarian enough for a Jew to accept even as Billy’s graphic definition of repentance could be assimilated to the Jewish concept of t’shuvah or “returning.” “Whereas sin means to turn from the right path”—Billy swerved sharply on the platform and walked to the edge—“repentance simply means that you turn around”—he did—“and walk back to the right path.”
Of course, every sermon of the evangelist eventually reaches a point where no Jew can follow—the idea that sins are “cleansed” in die blood of Jesus. It was at this point—the “moment of decision”—that a tone of cajolery and threat usually crept into Billy’s normally amiable religious teachings. “You will hear a small voice—you hear it now. . . . Your heart will harden if you don’t regard the voice, and you may never have another chance.” One evening, when decisions were rather sparse, Billy even went so far as to tell about a man who, upon returning home from the Garden after hesitating to come forward, had reached for a glass of milk in the refrigerator and dropped dead on the spot—unsaved.
But certainly it was not this threat which brought about most of the “decisions.” What actually took place in the hearts of the “inquirers” must be puzzling to many Christians as well as Jews, indeed to anyone who himself has not had a “saving” experience. I began to believe that there was something evasive in the tendency of most discussions of Billy Graham to linger en all the peripheral aspects of the Crusade—its publicity, organization, and Billy’s good looks—while avoiding this central fact. My feeling on the matter was strengthened by some of the things I saw one evening at Graham headquarters near Broadway.
Every night at 11:30 p.m., after the television broadcast sponsored by the Crusade, the Graham team has offered a telephone counseling service. A tall young Baptist minister from Brooklyn, working with the Crusade as a volunteer, informed me that they could handle fifteen incoming calls at a time. The previous night they had dealt with fifty-three calls. This didn’t seem a large number to me, but, the minister pointed out, some of the calls had gone on for hours—he himself had spent two hours talking to a Jewish “inquirer.” I asked about Jewish calls or “decisions” and received the same vague reply which this question invariably evoked at Graham headquarters. Though “inquirers” are always asked to fill out cards, there seemed to be no record of people giving Judaism or Catholicism. as their background.
At about 11 p.m. I was invited into a small room where the ten or twelve men and women who were to be the telephone counselors for the evening sat waiting to be briefed. “The phones will begin to ring directly after the program and you will know what to say,” the Baptist minister assured them. One young counselor, also a clergyman, asked if there was any” “special line” to follow. “We know,” said the Baptist minister, “that most of our callers’ problems come because of their separation from Christ.” He then suggested a few moments of prayer and several counselors responded with quiet requests for “a clear mind and ready tongue and success in gathering souls for Christ.”
“Impact,” the Crusade’s TV broadcast, opened with thundering chords of organ music which subsided as the friendly smile of Mel Dibble came on the screen. “Hello, sister, brother, mother—do you have your hair in curlers, mother?” Mel confessed he was homesick this evening for his own family and introduced “Bev” Shea, who sustained the saccharine mood with a song. Then came an interview with Ruth Graham, Billy’s attractive wife. Mrs. Graham spoke charmingly, admitting her dislike for washing dishes, but pointing out that this, like all family problems, could be “brought to Christ.” The program closed at 11:30 p.m. with an announcement that the telephone counseling service was available, and almost immediately the phones began ringing.
I wandered about the office and caught snatches of the various conversations. In one cubicle a young man was talking to a woman ill with laryngitis. “Christ sends you your illness,” he said earnestly, “and he means for it to bring you closer.” Another counselor had his finger on a passage in the Bible, but he seemed unable to find an opening for the quotation he had prepared. Several times he said, “Surely finances are not your only trouble. There must be something else which is troubling you.” But the person on the other end was equally insistent that finances were the problem.
Out in the hall a young minister was engaged in a more complicated conversation. “You say your wife is Catholic and wants to leave you.” A long pause—“Well, you do have a problem.” Another pause, then—“Saint Augustine said that he found peace in God. Do you think you could bring your wife to the Garden on Sunday night when Billy Graham will speak on family problems?” In the main office, six or seven counselors were leaning intently over their phones. Bibles ready, waiting to get their message across. The message usually involved two ideas: that one’s “real trouble” is the separation from God brought about by sin, and that this separation could be healed by belief in the redeeming power of Christ.
On my way out I met the Baptist minister again. He had a friendly but rather faraway look in his light blue eyes. “We are burdened for the Jews,” he said to me quietly. “Yes, living in Brooklyn I know many of them. There are those without any religion at all, yet they have difficulty in accepting Christ. I wonder sometimes what the difficulty is—the idea of the Trinity? I feel they have difficulty understanding that the Trinity is really one God.” He had been to Israel recently, he told me, and sympathized with the Jewish position there. But there was only one solution for the crisis in the Middle East—for both parties to accept Christ. Did I not know that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” could never work?
Incidentally, he asked, had I ever had any religious experience? I tried to deflect the question, explaining that Judaism did not encourage reliance upon “inner” religious experience as a test of truth or action. But the young minister was not interested in pursuing my answer. Instead, he told me of the experience which had changed his life. It was a classic example of the instantaneous “second birth” described so searchingly in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. He was standing watch one night in the navy, holding a Bible which he had not really read for months. Accidentally he dropped the Bible, and when he picked it up, he found it open at a passage in Corinthians. At that moment everything changed. His soul was suddenly flooded with the consciousness of Christ. Immediately he went downstairs, removed the pin-up pictures from his locker, and threw out the bottle of whiskey which he had been keeping contrary to navy regulations. Eighteen months later he felt the call to enter the ministry. Had I ever had such an experience?
I tried to explain that a man who had not been taught about Jesus in his childhood was not likely to have a mystic experience filled with Christian imagery. It seemed to me that the faraway look in the minister’s eyes became a little harder. A few of the telephone counselors were leaving, and, at the invitation of the minister, they stopped to join us. One of them was a dark, handsome young Arab from Lebanon, with shining black eyes. “He knows the situation in the Middle East. Let’s ask him what he thinks the answer is,” the Baptist minister suggested. The young Arab looked at me with shining eyes and a smile. “Christ,” he said firmly. The other two counselors also smiled pleasantly. I asked them if they too had had “conversion” experiences like the Baptist minister’s, and they nodded.
We stood smiling at one another, ready to shake hands and say our pleasant farewells, but in reality separated by a chasm of experience which no words could bridge.
I was finally able to see Billy Graham himself after one of the Garden meetings. Though he was being prepared by his staff for a session with Life photographers, Billy received me most cordially. He motioned toward a basket of fruit on a small table near the wall, and apologized for having nothing more elaborate to offer me. Despite the vigor of his manner, he seemed essentially relaxed. He had lost some weight since the beginning of the New York Crusade, and his face was rather pale, but his eyes were bright and fully attentive. I told him how his Crusade had quickened religious discussion among Jews as well as Christians, and he thanked me warmly.
I suppose one of the points most often raised about Billy Graham is his genuineness. Many people find it difficult to associate the Graham emphasis on publicity and circus-style antics with the “still small voice” of the authentic religious impulse. I asked Billy directly about this, and he didn’t resent the question. He is accustomed to attack and follows a policy of non-retaliation: “We just let them fire away.” He agreed that there was a real danger in publicity, for “God doesn’t share His glory with any man. But it was a struggle and I had to pray hard to overcome it. If I ever succumbed and got the wrong idea about this publicity, or tried to use it for wrong purposes-I think now I would just die!” “Do you mean that literally?” I asked. “Yes,” said Billy passionately. “That’s why I never use any gimmicks or tricks—I think they are cheap, and we never go out for publicity.”
My face must have betrayed my amazement at this remark, for Billy quickly explained that there was a difference between personal publicity and the advertising which was necessary to get people to the meetings. As for the publicity he gets from the press, he believes it to be “God-sent.”
I asked the evangelist what role the Jewish people played in his religious scheme. “I would be proud to be a Jew,” said Billy. “We Christians are simply grafted on to the spiritual blessings of the Jews!” He went on to declare that the formation of the State of Israel was part of a divine plan and a prelude to the second coming of the Messiah. The United Nations, in trying to make peace between Israel and the Arab states, was wasting its time.” The children of Hagar and the children of Sarah will never dwell in peace,” said Billy. Israel was destined to expand until the state occupied the whole territory promised to the descendants of Abraham by the Bible. Despite this expansion, conditions would grow worse and worse for Israel; then, when it seemed that no more could be borne, the Jews would cry out, “How long, O Lord?” and the Messiah would come.
I then asked if he went out of his way to avoid stirring up hatred against the Jews when he related the Crucifixion story. “Oh yes,” Billy said, nodding his head.” Those people who indulge in anti-Semitism, I wonder if they are really Christians. I don’t believe that anybody killed Jesus. His death had to be, it was ordained, all of us killed him. I had a part in it. We all kill Jesus by our sins.”
In another corner of the room several members of the team and Mr. Bennett, who heads the public relations organization which has handled much of Billy Graham’s publicity, seemed to be growing impatient, so I decided to relinquish Billy after a question about the nature of the conversion experience to which he invited his audiences. What was it, precisely, this making of a “decision”? Billy lifted his arms high. “It’s a mystery, I cannot define what happens, whether it begins with faith or repentance, or whether it happens all at once. But there has to be a new heart and a new life. Some people never have it happen at any certain moment. For example, my wife has just always been that way.”
Most discussions of the Crusade seem to dwell on its public relations techniques, rather than on the conversion “mystery” to which Billy referred and which may offer a deeper clue to the nature of his appeal than his supposed flair for the dramatic. Though the phenomenon of “rebirth” is today often assigned to the category of psychological aberration, the fact remains that the overwhelming inner experience which seems to resolve doubts and utterly change the meaning and direction of a man’s life has been a decisive force in the history of religion. But the yearning for such visceral, soul-shaking experiences finds little encouragement in modern churches, which generally warn against the temptation to escape from the ambiguities of reality into the type of faith that tends—in Bergson’s words—“not so much to move mountains as to see no mountains to move.” And the warning has a powerful effect on a generation which has seen the catastrophes that unchecked “inner convictions” can bring.
The warning is effective, but the yearning remains for something deeper than the pallid, reasonable spiritual diet offered by most religious institutions today. Nevertheless, no one wants to be scorched by this fire of religious conviction, no one wants it to burn away his hard-won security and comfort. And Billy offers a solution—it is possible, he says, to enjoy the religious fire even in air-conditioned Madison Square Garden. You must “surrender”—but you may be sure your surrender will never subvert the good American values you already cherish.
It is a peculiarly American brand of evangelism that Billy Graham offers—an evangelism eager above all to be popular. It seeks the friendship of all political parties, supports all churches, bids for the good will of intellectuals, and refuses to have anything to do with bigotry. It holds out the possibility of a deep religious experience; it provides a simple answer to all problems, with the assurance that “surrender” will not affect the convert’s status in the community, indeed, will not even make him lose his friends in the crowd. It is, as the British member of the team described it, “evangelism become respectable.”