Atlanta, 1950, was something of a turning point for evangelist Billy Graham. During that five-week-long crusade in a tent in the old Atlanta Crackers ball park (cumulative attendance: 500,000, with 8,000 inquirers), he went nationwide for the first time, introducing the “Hour of Decision” radio program on 150 ABC network stations for the “astronomical” sum—to quote Graham—of $92,000 for a thirteen-week contract.
At the end of the crusade, the Atlanta Constitution carried a front-page photo of Graham waving goodbye as he stepped into a car to leave town. But next to it was a photo showing bags of money collected at the meetings (Graham had been given a $9,000 “love offering”). Agitated by the unfavorable implication, the evangelist—partly at the suggestion of then evangelism secretary Jesse Bader of the National Council of Churches—scrapped the love-offering system a short time later in favor of a board-paid annual salary ($15,000 then, $25,000 now). That act, over the long haul, perhaps did more than even William Randolph Hearst’s famous “puff Graham” order to his editors a year earlier to upgrade the image of evangelism and to establish Graham’s credibility in the eyes of the press.
Last month Graham returned to Atlanta. Both had gotten bigger (Graham’s organization spans the world and has a $20 million annual budget), and both had undergone changes in the intervening twenty-three years. Atlanta has grown more tolerant, more cosmopolitan, its stance in the sixties perhaps more accurately represented by Ralph McGill’s editorials in the Constitution than by Lester Maddox’s presence in the governor’s mansion. Many neighborhoods that were predominantly white in 1950 were now predominantly black. (About half of Atlanta’s nearly 1.4 million population is black.)
For his part, Graham—by now, like apple pie, virtually a national institution—commented that he, too, was sociologically different, more mature. He could point to blacks on his staff, blacks among the crusade’s planners and participants, blacks in the 6,000-voice choir, black ushers and counselors, and the endorsement of important black church leaders. The semi-retired Martin Luther King, Sr., was on the platform for three meetings and led in prayer at one. Special guest Edward V. Hill, a Los Angeles pastor, was introduced as co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one who seconded the nomination of King’s son as SCLC head. “I’ve come here to become involved in man’s number-one problem—his relationship to God,” thundered Hill. (Also making platform appearances: Governor Jimmy Carter, who included a resounding personal testimony of faith in Christ during a welcoming statement, and Lieutenant Governor Maddox). A joint appeal urging the area’s blacks to attend the crusade was issued by Christian Methodist Episcopal bishop P. R. Shy, president Oswald P. Bronson of Interdenominational Theological Center, crusade vice-chairman J. A. Wilborn (pastor of Union Baptist Church), and four other prominent blacks. If blacks turned out in large numbers, as predicted by some, Atlanta, 1973, would be another turning point in Graham’s ministry.
But the overall turnout of blacks among the cumulative total attendance of 270,000 at the seven-night crusade in the 50,000-seat stadium was disappointingly small—as low as 400 or so a night, according to a head count Graham ordered. Graham’s people blamed several factors: a high incidence of street crime in black neighborhoods, a bus strike halfway through the crusade that eliminated the use of 150 shuttle buses serving 10,000, and a downtown shoot-out between police and Black Muslims that shattered the peace and left two dead. Also, SCLC head Ralph David Abernathy—like Graham, a Baptist minister—was publicly critical, and local SCLC leader Hosea Williams led a handful of pickets in protest outside the stadium the first few nights. The SCLC men cited the Atlanta business establishment’s involvement in the crusade, Graham’s association with President Nixon, and the evangelist’s alleged failure to speak out more specifically on certain social issues.
Not mentioned: most black ministers didn’t take the time to boost the crusade adequately or to organize their own congregations. Another factor is that Graham’s meetings are culturally white in style. Exotic figures such as “Reverend Ike”—the Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II—know better how to attract black audiences.
(Months earlier, many of the nation’s 200-plus black newspapers bitterly criticized Graham for his posited-then-retracted remark in South Africa that rapists should be castrated. Seemingly ignoring his apology and refusing his record on integration, they suggested that Graham was a racist after all. The furor strained—and may have damaged—Graham’s relations with black ministers in Minneapolis, where a crusade is being held this month. Proposals for a crusade in Washington, D. C., are in limbo because of black ministerial opposition there. Graham sympathizers point out—correctly—that criticism comes from only a minority, but it is apparently strong enough to keep the majority off balance.)
There were other minor skirmishes and distractions. A few theological liberals and fundamentalist separatists urged their congregations not to attend, and several prominent Reform rabbis in town for an annual meeting took pot shots at Graham. A faulty sound system plagued the evangelist on the opening night. Shouting and chanting members of the “Local Church” (or Little Flock) movement leafleted the crowd, and several leaders were arrested. Elvis Presley hit town at mid-week and drew a sell-out crowd of 17,000 to a neighboring hall. Also at mid-week, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair announced in the press that she was suing Graham for $3 million over a TV talk-show appearance last fall in which he said he had received a letter from her with obscenities, a letter she denied writing. (The Graham camp withheld comment, saying only that the matter was in the hands of attorneys.)
But framed against the entire week, all these issues were of little importance to the crusade’s outcome. What mattered was Graham’s credibility in his field of expertise: man’s relations with God. Night after night from the bright-blue $15,000 combination platform and sound studio astride second base, Graham drove home simple gospel truths. In all, nearly 10,000 streamed onto the field in response to the nightly invitations. They walked forward for different reasons. A reporter’s teen-age daughter and her friend admitted that they simply wanted to get a closer look at the handsome evangelist. About half indicated they wanted to receive Christ as Saviour. Most of the others were Christians wanting to get closer to God.
The majority in the stadium each night were, of course, church members, many brought in by bus from outlying towns. Does a crusade do anything for the Christians who attend? Yes, according to a number of pastors and youth leaders interviewed, most of them citing a new sense of unity and common purpose in the Christian community because of months of work together in crusade preparation. It also involved believers in personal outreach. Pamela White, 20, one of the hundreds of counselors trained for the event but a Christian herself for only a year, announced excitedly one night that she had just led someone to Christ—“my first, but not my last.”
Why do so many Christians respond for rededication at the invitation; why this need? “Many new Christians just don’t do what Billy Graham talks about, like praying, reading the Bible, and witnessing,” commented collegian Ann Tucker, 22, of suburban Decatur. “So they get sidetracked and defeated, sometimes because they’re in dead churches.” A newcomer, she’d been a counselor in Graham’s 1965 Hawaii crusade and was now leading one of the Saturday-afternoon “New Scene” follow-up Bible-study groups that had attracted 3,000 young people. The dead-church concern was cited by a number of youths. Collegian G. Wesley Channel, 19, a Jesus-movement convert who is now leader of a house-church, said the crusade could be a means of strengthening churches and making them come alive.
Crusade chairman Tom Cousins, 41, a Presbyterian and millionaire real-estate developer, thinks the crusade made a lasting impact on the city. He tells of a business associate who, after attending three meetings, was faced with a crucial decision with ethical implications. The businessman said he decided to do it God’s way even though the other way seemed more attractive from his former perspective. (Cousins’s committee was expected to meet its nearly $500,000 budget—about $100,000 for publicity alone—with enough left over for a contribution toward the cost of the fall telecasts.)
Black Methodist pastor Charles Singleton of Charleston, South Carolina, echoed the comments of many at another crusade side-benefit: a week-long daytime “School of Evangelism” attended by 1,000, primarily pastors and seminarians, and featuring some of the nation’s top evangelical leaders as well as members of the Graham team. “We need to do this more often,” he said. “My eyes have been opened to new ways of communication, I’ve made new friends, and Scripture has taken on new meaning.” Graham dropped in one morning to warn against ministerial pit-falls involving women, money, and pride.
Portions of the crusade were videotaped for international viewing this fall (estimated cost for television time: about $1 million); thus the Atlanta ball park was transformed into a studio from which to beam the Gospel into all the world. (Graham believes he reaches many blacks through TV.) There was wide—and favorable—press coverage. Both major dailies ran front-page summaries of Graham’s sermons. A young Jewish reporter had pleasant experiences aboard a Baptist church bus, and told her readers so. A popular sportswriter produced an exceptionally well-written headliner entitled “Salvation at Second Base,” pointing out that Graham had outdrawn the baseball Braves during their season to date and crediting the evangelist with a lot of “saves.” Television Channel 5 newsman Ray Moore, who heads a house-church ministry, and several radio disc jockeys plugged Graham openly on their shows. Editorial columnist Reg Murphy brushed aside the “couple of well-known loudmouths” who criticized Graham. Atlanta’s street crime wouldn’t stop overnight, he said, but the crusade could become “one of the mileposts toward a more humane city, toward a better relationship among people.”
Perhaps so. During the invitation one night a black teen-age boy in the crowd behind first base broke into tears. A white teen-age youth standing nearby went over and spoke softly with him. Then they joined the hundreds of others walking down the aisles onto the field.
In the final analysis, that’s really what the Graham crusades are all about.
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