Baptist preacher Billy Graham conducted the first of his many crusades in 1947, at the age of 28. In the nearly six decades that followed, these evangelical campaigns brought him to 185 countries and territories. There, he’d speak in stadiums, parks, auditoriums, and city streets packed with thousands of congregants, who he’d invite to pray with him and claim Jesus as their lord and savior. He continued to travel and evangelize on these crusades until his retirement in 2005, delivering his message to over 215 million people; on Wednesday, Graham passed away at age 99.
In the midst of his longest crusade, a 16-week engagement at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1957, The Atlantic published a piece on Graham and his preaching tour around Scotland two years earlier. It became a topic of debate between writers and a number of readers—whose feelings ranged from delight to disgust.
In the satiric article, titled “When Billy Graham Saved Scotland,” Robert Blackwood Robertson, a physician and writer, described traveling with his parish to attend one of Graham’s sermons in 1955. The gathering, he wrote, was well attended and tightly controlled:
As each bus arrived, the bodies, if not yet the souls, of its occupants were immediately grabbed by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, Inc., and we found ourselves under a discipline as strict as that of the barrack square or the stockyard. …
Some fifteen thousand people were soon collected under the roof, but a thousand or two who had failed to pass the screening to which we were all subjected on entering had been penned in annexes to watch the proceedings on television, perhaps because they were bad security risks who might try to contradict Billy, or perhaps because their souls were such that even Billy in the flesh could not save them.
Robertson described the sermon itself as a collection of six separate segments: “three Texts … then fifteen minutes of explanation which would have satisfied those with an IQ even as high as 80”; “[a] theological argument … that the Bible said so, and if we did not accept that as good enough authority, Billy Graham said so”; “a masterly bit of soap opera, well relayed through the electronic pulpit, during which we met the Graham family in cozy intimacy”; a “rather vague” peroration about heaven; and, finally, a second peroration—a “masterpiece”—that offered a “vivid impression” of hell. The last segment promised that:
If … we would get up now out of our seats and come forward, while the choir sang softly, and stand reverently before him, it was [the heaven of] North Carolina for us, and hundred-year-long chats with big blond Billy Graham. If we didn’t … It would be [the hell of] Glasgow, and all the additional horrors he had mentioned, for all eternity. And we would never have the chance to choose again.
Robertson detailed the enthusiasm and emotion that met Graham’s call for congregants to come to the altar to “talk to God”—weeping young women, embarrassed teenage boys, and “other Moses-like figures” crowding forward until “the night’s quota had … been reached.” But the show of religious fervor, he wrote, was short-lived:
Billy Graham has gone from Scotland now. … The All-Scotland Crusade had made its assault on our parish, as it had on the rest of the country, and had passed on elsewhere.
Robertson’s sardonic account elicited mixed reactions from Atlantic readers. Many of them wrote letters to the magazine, which were excerpted in the August 1957 issue. Several asked to cancel their subscriptions; others called the story “a thought-provoking masterpiece” and “the sort of thing we would enjoy seeing in the Atlantic more frequently.” One discontented subscriber asked, “What devil-sent journalistic termites are eating the moral standards of the Atlantic that your June cover calls attention to this article?”