“Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America,” declared civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in a well-known line he used a number of times. What is not so well known is that the statement was also made by someone else in a 1960 Reader’s Digest article on racism. The article was written by King’s friend, evangelist Billy Graham.

Racism has strained American society since our nation’s birth. And, sadly, the American church carries its share of blame. But today, a surge of racial reconciliation among blacks, whites, and other ethnic groups is sweeping the American church like never before.

Last year black and white Pentecostals came together in a dramatic demonstration of repentance for the sins of racism during what is now called the “Memphis Miracle.” In that historic meeting, black and white leaders shed tears of confession, washed each other’s feet, and most significantly, agreed to dissolve their separate organizations to form a new one, free of color barriers.

Since 1990, the Promise Keepers men’s movement has brought together thousands of Christian men with a call for racial unity as one of its prime tenets.

And recently, African-American leaders such as John Perkins, Anthony Evans, and Raleigh Washington have been stirring evangelical audiences, white and black, to a new awareness of the race issue in the church.

“There is no biblical basis for a black, white, Hispanic, or Asian church,” declared Perkins recently to a predominantly white crowd. “We need some living examples to stand up and be willing to accept the persecution that goes with preaching [the message of reconciliation].”

This relatively new concern has not come out of nowhere. It started in the 1950s most publicly in the ministry of America’s foremost evangelist, Billy Graham.

Mixed Heritage: Whitefield and Finney

To better appreciate the uniqueness of Graham’s concern for racial reconciliation, we need to set him in historical context. He comes from a long line of nationally known American evangelists who as public figures had to confront the problem of racism. As might be expected, their record of dealing with it is mixed.

Consider George Whitefield, the father of America’s Great Awakening. In the 1740s, Whitefield won countless souls to Christ—both black and white. Early in his ministry, he questioned the morality of slaveholding. Yet later he approved buying slaves to help work in the fields of his Georgia orphanage. Whitefield justified the move in part because enslaving blacks, he reasoned, had exposed them to Christianity and so made possible their conversion.

Whitefield’s logic was followed by subsequent church leaders, most of whom did not see a connection between believing in Christ and in practicing racial justice. Many Christians were opposed to the oppression of blacks, but they believed the church’s main function was to win souls, and secondarily, to perform acts of mercy—but certainly not to change social structures like slavery.

An exception to the rule was renowned nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. Finney was both an influential evangelist and an outspoken abolitionist. In 1851 he was elected president of Ohio’s Oberlin College, a leading stronghold of the anti-slavery movement. Eleven years later, through Finney’s efforts, Oberlin student Mary Jane Patterson became the first African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States—an astounding milestone of the era because of Patterson’s race and gender.

Finney’s stands were due in large part to his postmillennialist views. He believed the Kingdom of God was to be ushered in by a reformation of society at all levels.

Public Caution: Moody and Sunday

Thanks to Christians like Finney, the nineteenth century saw increased concern over social issues. But not every Christian was convinced about the need to abolish slavery. The controversy divided America’s largest denominations—Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian. Some historians believe that when these churches split, civil war could hardly be avoided. So America’s bloodiest war pitted brother against brother—not only among human families, but also within the family of God.

After the war, southern Christians still balked at integration, as evangelist Dwight L. Moody was to discover. Well-known for his ministry to urban America, Moody’s efforts in the South forced him to confront head-on the race issue.

In 1876, during a series of revival meetings in Augusta, Georgia, the popular evangelist attracted both black and white audiences. The meetings were originally unsegregated, but soon whites began complaining that too many blacks were filling the best seats. So those sponsoring the rally divided the seating according to race.

Moody opposed this decision, but soon he bowed to pressure from his white audiences. From then on, whenever Moody preached in the South, he either addressed audiences that were segregated or held separate services for blacks and whites. Moody was troubled by racial injustice, but his reputation as a leading Christian figure among whites made it difficult for him to take a public stand.

By the early 1900s, evangelist Billy Sunday had taken his place as America’s preeminent preacher. Sunday, who began as a Bible teacher with the Chicago YMCA, had been sensitive to the plight of minorities and the poor in urban America since the start of his ministry. In the fall of 1917, during his Atlanta crusade, Sunday held special meetings for African Americans and visited several black churches.

When it came to holding integrated meetings, however, Sunday drew the line. He knew that any national Christian leader who wanted to maintain his public image would not want to upset the social mores of the day.

The Troubled Young Graham

Four decades later, evangelist Billy Graham found himself in a similar bind. During his early years of ministry, Graham freely accepted the custom of segregated seating at his southern crusades. As his ministry grew, Graham was faced with either preaching to segregated audiences or demanding that the crusade crowds be given equal seating privileges.

By 1952, the young preacher, now a national figure, felt troubled by the racial prejudice in the church. “There is no scriptural basis for segregation,” Graham told a crusade audience in Jackson, Mississippi. “It may be there are places where such is desirable to both races, but certainly not in the church.” Graham’s words were greeted with enthusiasm by blacks and a few whites but provoked criticism from many.

Though the statement was ahead of its time, Graham was still tentative on the issue. When pressed by his critics, he softened his views. “We follow the existing social customs in whatever part of the country in which we minister,” he said. “I came to Jackson to preach only the Bible and not to enter into local issues.”

But he soon discovered that solution was not going to work. The race issue was too volatile—and Graham’s ministry too popular—to downplay the reality of segregation. Graham had to decide where he was going to stand publicly.

Decisive Break

In 1953—three years before Martin Luther King hit the national scene and more than a decade before the 1964 Civil Rights Act—Graham stunned the sponsoring committee of his Chattanooga, Tennessee, crusade. At a meeting of the committee, Graham railed against the customary practice of segregated seating. And then before one of the crusade meetings, the committee watched in astonishment as Graham personally took down the ropes separating the black and white sections at the crusade arena.

From then on the evangelist began to take slow but decisive steps towards dismantling the barriers of racism in the American church.

In 1957, Graham integrated his ministry internally by adding his first black team member, Howard O. Jones, a young pastor from Cleveland. Soon Graham was working regularly with African-American churches within the communities where his crusades were held. That same year, at a black church in Brooklyn, Graham said publicly for the first time that antisegregation legislation might be necessary to bring an end to discrimination.

Graham’s change in public demeanor on the race issue stirred the wrath of many of his supporters. Indignant whites hurled at him derogatory names such as “integrationist” and “nigger lover.”

Some southern cities overrode his demands, and they in turn demanded segregated seating; in a few instances, Graham felt forced into accepting the status quo. In spite of a few such temporary retreats, the evangelist held a steady course; he consistently spoke out against racial injustice and gradually added more African Americans to his organization.

In a recent article in Christianity Today, Graham said, “Of all people, Christians should be the most active in reaching out to those of other races.” Graham has been the most public white evangelical to condemn racism and to reach out to African Americans. In 1986, the late Samuel Hines, a nationally known black pastor from Washington, D.C., said about Graham, “His preaching of reconciliation and his call to repentance have had a direct impact on the alienation and polarization which have afflicted our land.”

Graham’s example is certainly one reason that in the 1990s, groups like the Pentecostals and Promise Keepers have put racial reconciliation high on their agendas.

Edward Gilbreath is assistant editor of Christianity Today magazine.