The Real Billy Graham
A Scot who took his degrees of M.A. and B.D. at Edinburgh University, DR. DAVID H. C. READ served as a chaplain in the Highland Division in the Second World War and is today pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He was captured at Saint-Valéry in 1940 and for the next five years was a prisoner in the German “bag.” Out of this experience came his first book, Prisoners’ Quest, a portion of which appeared in the Atlantic; his latest book, The Christian Faith, was published by Scribner’s. Dr. Read spends his summers in Scotland, and while there last year as Chaplain to Edinburgh University he observed the impact of Billy Graham upon his countrymen with impressions which differed from those reported by Dr Robertson in the June Atlantic.
by DAVID H. C. READ
WOULD you like a ticket for the new show at the Harringay Rink?" said a friend of mine one day in 1954 when I was in London on a visit from Scotland. “ It’s called God on Ice.” That is how I came to receive my first impression of Billy Graham. It was at the beginning of his London campaign, and in Scotland not much more than his name and a vaguely prejudicial aroma of American evangelism had reached us. London church circles were cynical, but I noted a different attitude in one or two people who had been to Harringay. “This isn’t the kind of pseudo-religious jamboree we expected,” they said. “Go and see.”
So I went. The meeting was orderly, the stewards quietly efficient, the singing excellent of its kind. The arena was well spiked with Bible-carrying Christians, but the general impression was of a real cross section of the population. The proportion of men was greater than in most English churches.
When the tall young man from North Carolina strode forward to the rostrum, I had not the slightest idea what to expect. His first remarks revealed an attractive voice, a pleasant personality, and a sense of humor. Then he announced his theme — “Justification by Faith” — and launched into a forty-five-minute rapid-delivery exposition. I sat entranced — not because of any unusual brilliance of thought or language; on the contrary. I had just written a book, The Communication of the Gospel, in which I had suggested that the time had come for a radically new vocabulary and method of preaching for this age, but here was a man using all the battered phrases of evangelism, basing his address on a theological dogma supposed to be meaningless to the average man — and communicating as no one I had ever heard. How was it done? There was a directness and a sympathy that struck-through the conventional phrases; there was undoubted charm; the voice was pleasant. But one thing stood out: the man was genuine. He believed what he said. He was concerned about God and the people in front of him, and not chiefly with Billy Graham.
Then came the part I expected to find embarrassing. He made the appeal to come forward. I have seen this done in the manner of a spiritual auctioneer with waving hands and throbbing voice, bidding for souls on the crest of an emotional upheaval. Here there was so little tension and excitement at the end of the address that I found it hard to believe that anyone would move from his seat. Then, in hundreds, they began to move — silently, reverently, seriously. No one fainted. No one shouted. No one, as far as I could see, was weeping. It made me think of an Episcopal congregation going forward to receive the bread and wine. They stood there for a moment or two and then passed out to the back of the hall. The meeting was over.
A year later I was in the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow. My impressions were exactly the same. The Scottish crowd was as quiet as a meeting of the General Assembly on a dull morning. There had been some teen-age adulation when Billy arrived in Glasgow, but within the hall you could have heard an amen drop. But there wasn’t one — not even an audible ejaculation from a skeptic’s wife. And there wasn’t a “Greetin’ Gertie” within sight. Recent visits to Madison Square Garden give me the same picture. The majority of those going forward seem to be sober citizens, with a remarkable percentage in the upper-middle years.
It is possible to go to a Graham meeting and come away with a different impression. Some people are unmoved; some are repelled by the traditional piety of platform and choir; some are concerned at an oversimplification of the Christian challenge. But the majority of my friends, believers and unbelievers, have had an impression similar to mine.
It seems at first sight quite incomprehensible that anyone should have seen at the Kelvin Hall anything resembling what Dr. Robertson described in his brilliant fantasy “When Billy Graham Saved Scotland.” Then one realizes just how the raw material of a Crusade meeting has been doctored for the delectation of those who have never been there. The trick is simple enough and when used with skill produces an extremely funny story — funny, unless one happens to believe that Billy Graham is not a religious racketeer but the vehicle and symbol of a significant religious movement in our age. It could be done with any church service, political meeting, or rally of the Rationalists’ Association. Call the ushers “Collie Dogs” and their courtesy “ferociously cordial,” make their every motion sinister, set free a rich Freudian imagination as you survey the audience, call the singer a “crooner,”the conductor a “Medicine Ball Man"; when the speaker is lively call it “a masterly bit of soap opera,” when he is quiet make him “ostentatiously unobtrusive” — and, of course, never let the reader forget that the audience, as distinguished from the writer and reader, are a flock of silly sheep.
The trouble with this method applied to a major religious phenomenon of our times is that it diverts attention from really serious criticism. A satirical flight that bears little relation either to Billy Graham or to the Church of Scotland will amuse those who have as meager a knowledge of either as Dr. Robertson and as violent an aversion to any form of “popular religion.” It will infuriate all, from eggheads to dimwits, who have found in the Crusades a genuine religious experience. What is needed is sober and fair criticism. For there is a real danger already apparent (not in Billy Graham, but in some of his followers) in the fanaticism which says, “If you’re not 100 per cent for Billy Graham you’re an atheist — and probably subversive too.” This is as unfortunate as the opposite tendency to dismiss the Crusades with an empty laugh. On a subject of world-wide implications the public ought not to be asked to choose between a Robertsonian ridicule and a fanatical Graham-cult. This is why the story needs to be told of the hesitations of the Churches and why leaders in the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the major denominations of the U.S.A. have mostly come to a position of support for the Crusades.
According to Dr. Robertson the Kirk in Scotland, on its beam ends, threw theological principle to the winds and cried for help across the Atlantic. It is impossible to take seriously at any point the caricature of the Kirk he presents. I have been a parish minister in the Scottish Borders and can assure American readers that neither ministers’ sermons, elders’ wives, nor the attitudes toward the theater and the pub bear the slightest resemblance to this hallucination. Those who have enjoyed reading about the impact made by a mythical American evangelist on a Kirk that exists only in the more lurid pages of some dated Scottish novelists may be interested to know of the reaction of the real Church of Scotland to the real Billy Graham.
SINCE World War II the Church of Scotland has shown a small but steady increase in membership and church attendance, and a marked revival of missionary zeal. The latter has found domestic expression in a movement known as “Tell Scotland.” This is an effort, in coöperation with other denominations, to encourage local congregations to “do the work of an evangelist,” — that is, to attempt by visitation, cell groups, parish missions, and other experiments, to alert the whole population to the relevance of the Christian Faith. I was serving on the steering panel of this movement when the suggestion was made of a Graham campaign in Scotland. Our immediate reaction was that a big evangelistic effort centered on one place and featuring an imported speaker would counteract the emphasis we had been seeking to lay on local responsibility and initiative. We also had considerable hesitation about the methods that might be used.
By this time the Harringay Crusade in London was under way. Observers reported back to Scotland. Many had an opportunity to meet Graham and his team. Finally the decision was made to move, in the General Assembly, that the invitation to the Glasgow Crusade be extended by the “Tell Scotland" movement and given the blessing of the Kirk. In the ensuing debate Dr. George MacLeod (the present Moderator) made an incisive plea against, the proposal, but after full debate the motion was carried by a large majority. So, in a mood of sober reflection, Billy Graham was invited to Scotland.
What led some of us to change our minds about the wisdom of issuing the invitation? There were two main factors.
The first was the growing conviction that perhaps, after all, “mass-evangelism" was not a dirty word. We were trying new ways. Was it not possible that an old way, even with some modern techniques that would shock the conservative Scot, would break through to some whom we were obviously failing to reach? It had happened before. There is, after all, some mass-evangelism in the New Testament. And there were Saint Francis, Savonarola, Thomas Chalmers, John Wesley, and a dozen others.
The idea of raising an ecclesiastical tariff barrier on an American evangelist on the grounds that to receive him was a confession of pastoral bankruptcy never entered a ministerial head. A great Scottish churchman and scholar of a previous generation — Henry Drummond — had been one of the first to welcome Dwight L. Moody, and had given enthusiastic support to a type of evangelism that was entirely foreign to his nature. And the results of the Moody Crusade were still with us. The theological stretch from Drummond to Moody was no greater than between us and Graham, and in each case we were at one on the central affirmations to which the Church is committed in its creeds.
The decisive point was our estimation of Graham himself and the way he had conducted his Crusades. Long before he came to Scotland the British public had been making up its mind about this young evangelist. The cards were stacked against him when he came. One touch of “I’ve come to save Britain,” one word of criticism of cherished institutions, secular or ecclesiastic, one gesture of insincerity and religious racketeering, and he would have gone to that, limbo of hollow laughter the British reserve for such intruders. It took only a few weeks for Billy to disabuse the critics and win for himself a place in the affection of the public that has been given to few foreign guests and to no other visiting evangelist in living memory.
My brother-in-law, who is on the London stage (“a disgraceful way of life” in the eyes of Dr. Robertson’s kirk), has told me that a little satirical piece prepared for Billy’s arrival went down well in an intimate revue for the first few days. Then the audience stopped laughing, the performers felt embarrassed, and eventually the number was eliminated. The London public had sensed that what was going on at Harringay was too real for mockery, too genuine for slick wisecracks.
Months later I was passing by High Street in Edinburgh where a large crowd was watching the various notables of kirk and State emerging from St. Giles to proceed to the opening of the General Assembly. In the middle of the robed and bemedaled representatives of the Church, the Government, the Law, and the Armed Forces was a tall figure looking somewhat nervous in a black frock coat. The word flashed around the crowd, “Billy Graham!” and a buxom woman — one of the incarnations of Scottish caution and common sense locally described as a “Canongate wifie” — turned to me and said, “ Yon’s the man for me.”I had no inclination to reply, “Away! Ye’re a’ bluidy daft.”
I watched Billy in action in Scotland. I saw how he listened to local advice, was sensitive to the traditions of the Kirk, talked freely and naturally to all ranks of our grimly democratic society, and never for one minute suggested that what he was doing was more important than the year-round labor of the remotest parish kirk. The ministers who met him were charmed by his modesty and invigorated by his enthusiasm. His address by special invitation one morning to the General Assembly was a triumph of tact. He spoke for precisely one minute. The highest court of the Church of Scotland, never an easy or patient body to address, expressed the same gratitude and commendation as the Archbishop of Canterbury had already done on behalf of the Southern Establishment.
Dr. Johnson found “the merriment of persons highly offensive.” Dr. Robertson seems to find equally offensive the human touch by which Billy Graham communicates with the ordinary man. But the spontaneous friendliness of the man overflowed into many homes in Scotland where it was not resented. The televised meeting had a profound effect on the entire nation from palace to cottage on Good Friday, 1955.
It was this the growing respect for a dedicated man with an astonishing gift for making people listen that led me, as Chaplain to Edinburgh University at that time, to invite him to address a lunch-hour meeting of students and faculty. If Graham had made an impression of bogus, big-business religion; if he had displayed a fundamentalism of the “if you don’t pronounce shibboleth like me you’re damned” type, no popular notoriety would have persuaded me to present him to the students.
He came right in the middle, of the tumultuous period that precedes a Scottish Rectorial Address and spoke in a hall where some distinguished men have received a more than rowdy welcome on these occasions. The Principal took the chair. The hall was packed. No one knew what might happen, but the evangelist was received with polite respect and was applauded when he rose to speak. The address lasted the exact eighteen minutes we had asked for, and when he sat down there was a profound and remarkable silence. There was no appeal, no dramatics, no sob stuff. But I count the meeting as one of the most effective I have known. Still puzzled by the response to a message that has little novelty or intellectual weight, I asked one science student who, as a result of the meeting, joined my confirmation class what in fact Billy Graham had done. “He jolted me out of my indifference,” he said. For that, on a wide scale, if for nothing else, Scotland was grateful.
The Church of Scotland respected Billy Graham for reasons very different from the suggestions of Dr. Robertson. The theory that every Scot expects a sermon to have six parts of which the last is devoted to the horror of hell belongs to a world of entirely bogus imagination, as does the picture of a Graham who follows this pattern. I have listened to sermons in Scotland for forty years without hearing one single description of hell anywhere at any time. Our respect for Graham was based on his complete loyalty in coöperation with the Churches. This is a man who could have had a fatally divisive effect, creating a Graham-sect and damning the established Churches. He could have — but this is not the real Billy Graham.
The results? Those who responded to the appeals (Graham does not call them “converts”; still less does he profess to “remit their sins”) were related wherever possible to the local parishes. As might, be expected, ministers found that many were already loyal members, a few were victims of a passing emotion, others (not vast numbers) had genuinely come to a living faith for the first time. Percentages of lapse were not strikingly different from what all ministers experience in confirmation classes. But the “Tell Scotland" movement found that its original decision justified the Crusade and had not thrown it out of its stride, but had given it new momentum.
Like many others, I have now sufficient evidence from London, Glasgow, and New York to show that men and women of remarkably divergent background and education have found in Billy Graham’s Crusades a genuine Christian experience, and thousands have sensed in them a real Presence they could acknowledge but not understand,
We might end with some real statistics.
According to an impartial survey conducted in Glasgow, the average adult attendance in Protestant churches on the same three consecutive Sundays in successive years was:
in 1954 (before the Crusade) 56,503
in 1955 (during the Crusade) 67,078
in 1956 (a year after) 62,224
In other words, church attendance jumped by over 10,000 during the Crusade, slumped somewhat thereafter, but was still 5721 ahead of 1954. Not so “bluidy daft” after all.