‘Britain is almost pagan and only a hairline from communism.’ That was the verdict in 1953 of Billy Graham, a thirty-five-year-old American evangelist. It was not a judgement based on personal observation (though he had preached at St Paul’s, Portman Square, London back in 1947), but he was soon to have the opportunity of seeing whether it were correct. For in February 1954, Graham arrived in Britain, summoned by a group of churches in London, to save the people from godlessness and worse.
His second coming had been widely proclaimed. For weeks, the streets of the capital had been adorned with thousands of bright yellow posters, all bearing his image, the message accompanied by press adverts that proclaimed the meaning of his mission: ‘The only remedy for the troubles that beset our nation today lies in a recovery of national faith.’ So great was the advance publicity that when he disembarked from the luxury liner the SS United States in Southampton, he found himself greeted by hundreds of well-wishers, some crying with joy as they beheld his person.
Still greater numbers, thousands now, awaited him at London’s Waterloo station, where his train from the coast was due to arrive. ‘What a friend we have in Jesus,’ they sang joyfully, as they congregated on platform 8, bearing Bibles, umbrellas and – in the case of many of the women – babes in arms, all eager to catch a sight of the man of God. Then it was announced that his train had been diverted to platform 11 and a frantic dash ensued, too fast for decorum, the crowd arriving just in time to mob their new hero. So great was the crush that Graham’s wife was separated from the rest of the party and was only reunited with them some time later at their hotel, just off Oxford Street.
No one was disappointed. Graham was treated as a visiting star, and every inch of his imposing six-foot-two-inch frame looked the part. It wasn’t just his slightly wavy blond hair, his dazzling blue eyes, his firm jawline, square shoulders and American teeth (women sighed when he smiled, according to the breathless newspaper reports); it was his bearing, his charisma, above all his wardrobe.
‘God dressed the flowers in bright colours,’ he proclaimed, when challenged on his sartorial splendour. ‘Why should Christians wear drab clothes and long faces?’ He lived up to his promise. ‘No other preacher could march into the pulpit wearing a pistachio green gabardine suit and vivid hand-painted tie,’ gushed the press; ‘no other preacher could admit wearing bright red pyjamas, could stride along a golf course in a checkered red and black hunting cap, a brilliant scarlet shirt and Billy’s now famous green, black and red Argyle socks.’ He looked, said the Observer, ‘like a combination of Johnny Weismuller and Frank Sinatra’. The years of rationing and austerity were coming towards their end, but even so this was Britain – he cut an exotic figure.
Despite all the publicity, the Greater London Crusade – as Graham’s visit was billed – was not a guaranteed success. The venue was Harringay Arena in North London, a vast soulless building with a concrete frame and an iron-girded roof, built for sporting events and host to the basketball and wrestling competitions in the 1948 Olympics. It had seating for 11,400 people and it had been booked for three months solid, six nights a week, breaking only for the Sabbath. Tickets for the Crusade were free, but still it was an enormous undertaking to try to fill such a place.
The first night saw every seat in the venue taken, with hundreds having to be turned away. The immediate impression made on the spectators was the sheer scale of the production. As they entered, they were greeted by a choir, some two thousand strong, the men all dressed in black, the women in white. Few, if any, had witnessed such a vast ensemble and many were overwhelmed long before Graham himself made his way onto the stage.
When he did, the image was one of contrasting simplicity, a man alone with a handheld microphone, preaching the word of God. He didn’t rant, he didn’t rave, there was no hysteria or hellfire, there were no appeals for money. He simply spoke of his own personal faith and of the need for society to adopt a similar faith, punctuating his message with verses and stories from the Bible, all delivered in his homely, affable, everyday tones. ‘May the Lord bless you real good,’ he told his flock.
And then, at the end of his sermon, he invited members of the audience to ‘make a decision for Christ’, to come down to the front in a public declaration of their new-found or newly rediscovered faith. Many did so. They were welcomed by counsellors, who took their details and directed them to the most appropriate church in their locality. For Graham was keen to insist that he was not recruiting bodies for his organisation, but claiming souls for the Lord.
The success of that first night was no one-off. Every night for nearly three months, the Harringay Arena was full. So great was the demand to hear Billy Graham that a live audio transmission was made to a 3,000-seat cinema in the Elephant and Castle in south London. When that initial transmission proved a success, live relays were also set up for other cities: Brighton, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sheffield, Southampton, Winchester.
In addition, Graham broadcast on BBC television, reaching an estimated three million viewers. He also spoke in Trafalgar Square, to a crowd of 40,000 in Hyde Park, and to 46,000 at halftime in a Chelsea–Newcastle United match. (Eric ‘Rabbit’ Parsons, who had served in Montgomery’s Desert Rats, scored for the home team, but Newcastle still won 2–1, with goals by Bobby ‘Dazzler’ Mitchell and Len White.)
And on Saturday 22 May 1954, the day after his last appearance in Harringay, Graham addressed 65,000 people at White City stadium in the afternoon, and then moved on to a 120,000-strong crowd in Wembley Stadium. It was a miserable, grey evening, and the sound system wasn’t really up to the task, but under the weeping heavens, the crowds remained solid for the two-and-a-half hour rally, listening to a disembodied, distorted voice coming from far in the distance.
‘We, as a team, have fallen in love with the British people,’ Graham told them, ‘and I trust that one of the by-products of this campaign has been the betterment of Anglo-American relations. Our destinies as two nations are linked together. I sincerely believe this is a demonstration on the moral and spiritual level that our two nations are one.’
On that final occasion at Wembley, he was accompanied onto the stage by Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was the first time that the Archbishop had appeared with Graham and it represented something of a coup. The Church of England had not been amongst those inviting the evangelist to Britain, and there were many in the church hierarchy who didn’t entirely approve of his methods; nonetheless, the success of the mission could hardly be ignored.
‘If there is a lesson to be learned from the Harringay arena,’ noted the Church Times, somewhat sniffily, ‘it is, perhaps, that the Church in this age has been slow to find contact with the indifferent and the ignorant.’
It turned out that there were an awful lot of the indifferent and ignorant. In total it was calculated that over two million visits were made to see or hear Graham live during his Crusade, and though some of those were committed fans making multiple trips, the figures were still more than impressive. Britain had taken to this glamorous American with unexpected enthusiasm. And again there had been no guarantee that this would be the case.
Indeed the mission had got off on rather a bad foot, when the underlying politics seeped through to the surface. In general, Graham was keen to stress that his concerns were purely spiritual. ‘We have no political axe to grind,’ he had insisted back at home. ‘If a man’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan we’re not going to lose the chance of saving him by attacking the cause he belongs to.’
But that didn’t stop him commenting and, while the Klan might be exempt from criticism, the Left certainly was not. In 1949, when Labour was in power, he had said: ‘The present government is killing all initiative and free enterprise. The system has not solved one of Britain’s economic ills. Instead it has created a thousand economic problems.’ Now the printed brochure outlining the programme of activities announced that the Crusade was an ‘attack on British socialism’. And the Labour Party, which was then proud to call itself socialist, objected strongly to such language.
Graham and his team had perhaps misjudged the mood of Britain from afar. There was no equivalent here of the fervent anti-communist crusade that was still rampaging at home (albeit on borrowed time: Edward R. Murrow’s famous television denunciation of Senator Joe McCarthy came the month after Graham set sail).
Or perhaps it was just a case of two countries separated by a common language. That was certainly the impression that Graham’s people wished to convey. The offending word ‘socialism’ was removed, and the brochures reprinted, so that they called for an ‘attack on British secularism’. It was all a simple misunderstanding. ‘No reflection on the Labour Party was intended,’ protested one of his advisors. ‘The word socialism – note that it has a small “s” – means in America theatre-going, social life, materialism and so on. I considered it a fair word to describe the current trend away from church-going. I regard it as meaning the same as secularism, a word opposed to spiritualism.’
This sort of misstep was not allowed to divert the mission from its course. And just in case, there was always Graham himself, ever willing to win over media doubters by speaking with them freely and fairly, however uncomfortable they might feel in the face of such frankness. ‘I find it embarrassing to talk about crusades, evangelism and the future of religion just after breakfast,’ squirmed the writer of the William Hickey gossip column in the Daily Express, before shrugging: ‘He is an American. He hasn’t the inhibitions we suffer from. Perhaps he is what Britain needs.’
He was so big and open and self-confident, so downright American that it was disconcerting. Everything about him seemed to designed to cause awkwardness for a properly brought-up Englishman. The smallest thing was troubling. ‘That Christian name Billy will always jar,’ shuddered William Hickey, while The Times dealt with such casual informality by putting the offending name in inverted commas, referring to Mr ‘Billy’ Graham. But ultimately William Hickey was seduced by the preacher: ‘There is something about the man – there is something about him.’
In fact, everyone was seduced in the end. Even William Connor, whose Daily Mirror columns, written under the pseudonym Cassandra, could be as caustic as they were wise, was won over. He had started out mocking Graham: ‘This theatrical disciple, this Hollywood version of John the Baptist, has them rocking in the aisles.’ But then the two met – Cassandra chose the venue, an East End pub called, with deliberate appropriateness, The Baptist’s Head – and Graham’s charm was, as ever, irresistible.
‘In this country, battered and squeezed as no victorious nation has ever been before and disillusioned almost beyond endurance,’ wrote Cassandra admiringly, ‘he has been welcomed with an exuberance that almost makes us blush behind our precious Anglo-Saxon reserve.’
That evangelical exuberance was partly caused by the self-sustaining hoopla that surrounded the Crusade itself. The newspapers faithfully recorded the undreamt-of numbers as they accumulated week by week, adding fuel to the fire that was burning in Harringay. The more people who went, the more that others felt they should do so as well. Everyone was intrigued, they wanted to see this phenomenon for themselves, whether they were church-goers or not. It was the hit of the season.
For many of those who flocked to see this wonder, particularly the women, a large part of the attraction was Graham’s own sex appeal. In David Lodge’s first novel The Picturegoers (written in 1957 though only published in 1960), a cleaning woman explained how her daughter Elsie had been to Harringay and had gone forward to ‘make a decision for Christ’. Her friend comments: ‘It don’ arf sound like the Salvation Army.’ And she replies: ‘Salvation Army plus sex, if you ask me. You seen this Billy Graham? ’Andsome ain’t the word. Soon as I saw ’is picture I knew what ’ad “saved” Else.’*
By the end of his run, Graham had lost one-and-a-half stone in weight and was looking ‘dark-eyed, sallow and thin about the face’, but still the allure remained. He was the unattainable fantasy of Hollywood come to London, tantalisingly out of reach not simply because of his fame and status, but because of his strict morality. No word of scandal or impropriety clouded Billy Graham’s reputation; there was no suggestion of hypocrisy when he denounced the wickedness he encountered in Britain.
And denounce it, he did. ‘Drunkenness is becoming a national menace, with thousands of alcoholics,’ he told an American newspaper, shocked at what he had seen in London. ‘Immorality is at an all-time high – one in four of all first births are conceived out of wedlock. Divorce is rising rapidly.’ When reports of these comments reached the British press, a clarification was rushed out, phrased in the kind of language that a politician would have been proud to call his own: ‘Some of the text and statistics have been taken out of context and misunderstood. The article actually lauded Great Britain.’
Such mealy-mouthed apologies were perhaps his chief sin during the Crusade. For there was no doubt what was intended to be at the heart of his mission. It went back to that comment from the previous year – ‘Britain is almost pagan and only a hairline from communism’ – and to his determination to save us from ourselves.
* My thanks to Peter Webster for drawing this to my attention.