How The Atlantic Covered Billy Graham at the Start of His Career

Sixty years ago, the late evangelist went to Scotland, preached the gospel, and cost the magazine subscribers.

Evangelist Billy Graham, on stage, addresses a crowd.

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?”

The following month, David H. C. Read, who served as the chaplain to Edinburgh University while Graham was in Scotland, offered a more sober, and appreciative, review of his campaign and its effect on the country. “I watched Billy in action in Scotland,” Read wrote:

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.

Read had also attended a sermon during Graham’s London campaign in 1954:

I sat entranced—not because of any unusual brilliance of thought or language; on the contrary. … 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.

Read later invited Graham to address a meeting at Edinburgh University. He recalled an interaction following Graham’s appearance:

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.

Countering Robertson’s contention that Graham’s campaign had no real long-term effect on the church-going in Scotland, Read concluded with “some real statistics,” reporting that “church attendance jumped by 10,000 during the Crusade, slumped somewhat thereafter, but was still 5721 ahead of 1954. Not so ‘bluidy daft’ after all.”

“On a subject of world-wide implication,” he wrote, “the public ought not to be asked to choose between a Robertsonian ridicule and a fanatical Graham-cult.”

Graham went on to conduct another 372 crusades, returning to Scotland for four more. He preached through thousands of television and radio broadcasts, advised multiple U.S. presidents, and reshaped evangelism. The debate over who is, to borrow Read’s term, “The Real Billy Graham” and how he should be portrayed remained unsettled in our pages in 1957. Decades later, in the wake of his death, new stories about his life and legacy are now being written.