Billy Who?




Let us pay a quick visit to that borrowed tent on the vacant lot at Washington Boulevard and Hill Street in the city Los Angeles in the year 1949. Inside are the folding seats, two of which are reserved for us. This eloquent young man from North Carolina has opened his Bible and is preparing to step to the podium when George Beverly Shea stops singing. Thousands of listeners have filled the tent. In an adjoining tent other thousands are on their knees praying fervently for the speaker and his listeners.1

    Now, I invite you to allow your imagination to roam. Let's assume that in the vaults of heaven a vast choir of angels is also listening to the music of Tedd Smiths's piano. A faint sound emanates from Earth, known widely in celestial circles as the Planet of Discord. Heavenly applause breaks out as singing now rises from the tent and blends harmoniously with the eternal music of the spheres: "To God be the glory, great things He has done!"

    Does all this sound a bit euphoric? Not to a believer. Try to understand. Music is the first thing a new believer hears when he or she enters the everlasting doors of the kingdom of God. As for Billy Graham, he is an ordinary man except for this one thing. He is a citizen of the heavenly kingdom as well as of the United States of

Page 44

America. He lives with his God as well as with his wife and family. God makes him extraordinary. Thus my writing about Billy Graham is not like other biographical works on the man. My intent is not to evaluate, but to render a tribute if I can, and to say what millions of Billy's friends around the world would like to say if they could. I can't explain it further except to say that I sense angels are listening.

    When the Greater Los Angeles Crusade for Christ was coming to a close, I was 7,000 miles away, sitting down to a sparse Thanksgiving dinner in a north Morningside flat in Edinburgh, Scotland. My hosts were Helen Forde, a charming widow visiting from Santa Monica, California, and her son-in-law and daughter, the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Woodward of Virginia.

    Our American Thanksgiving Day is not, of course, observed in Scotland, and in that postwar period we were still restricted by British "austerity" (too often without meat, without milk, without eggs, without petrol). Still the table was bountiful in its Scottish way, and we had so much for which to render thanks to our God. Frederick and I were graduate students in the New College at that athenaeum of learning and wisdom, the world famous University of Edinburgh.

    While we worked our way through the sausage skins stuffed with meal, Mrs. Forde said to me as a fellow California, "Isn't it wonderful how God has been using Billy Graham back home?"

    I expressed a polite interest. "Billy who?"

    "Billy Graham. You know, the young evangelist from North Carolina."

    I didn't know. I was currently trying to improve my German by reading Rudolf Bultmann's ponderous treatise on demythologizing the New Testament. "Tell me about him."

    "He has been preaching the Gospel in a tent, and thousands are coming forward to be saved. They say he's a Baptist. I'm not sure, but I went there and watched. It was like a revival. Beautiful!"

    "You mean in L.A.?" I asked, reaching for a cluster of Algerian grapes. "Who is he?"

    Five years passed. By 1954 I had returned to California and was pastoring a rather miniscule congregation in south Berkeley across the bay from San Francisco when I received an invitation to watch a film

Page 45

at a nearby church. The film was a ten-minute newsreel depicting Billy Graham's arrival in London, England, to open his twelve-week evangelistic crusade in Harringay Arena on March 1, 1954.

    I had been reading in Christian publications about those packed-out meetings in the arena, and particularly about the hostile London press that greeted him with, "Who invited you over here anyway? Do you think you can save Britain?"

    One unusually harsh critic, William Conner, wrote two attacks in the Daily Mirror under the name of "Cassandra." Billy in turn wrote him a complimentary letter, asking for an interview.

    "Will you," Cassandra responded, "meet someone fairly hellbent and not averse to a little quiet wickedness? Why should we not meet in a pub called The Baptist's Head? You could drink what you choose while I sin quietly with a little beer."

    It seems they met, and afterward  Cassandra wrote:

He came into the Baptist's Head absolutely at home — a teetotaler and an abstainer able to make himself completely at ease in the spit and sawdust department, a difficulty thing to do. He has a kind of ferocious cordiality that scares ordinary sinners stone-cold. I never thought that friendliness had such a sharp cutting edge. I never thought that simplicity could cudgel us sinners so... hard. We live and learn. The bloke means everything he says. And in this country he has been welcomed with an exuberance that makes us blush behind our precious Anglo-Saxon reserve.

At the final overflowing Friday night service in Harringay Arena, Cassandra was there.

    All of this publicity made me, as an old reporter, extremely impatient to see that film. But as I sat there for those ten or twelve minutes, what inspired me during the film showing, and still inspires me, was not so much the huge welcoming crowd that greeted Billy and his team in the Waterloo railway station. Nor was it the jubilant, receptive audience that packed the Harringay Arena "Full and running over" night after night. Rather it was a simple statement Billy made to a congregation in one of the London churches on his arrival.

Page 46

    Obviously responding to the vitriolic criticism in the metropolitan London press, Billy told the assembled people, "We have not come here to save you. We have not come to reform you. We have come at the invitation of the churches of London to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to the people of Britain."

    Billy then quoted two verses that put a brand on my soul. The first was from Psalm 27:8: "When You said, 'Seek My face,' My heart said to you, 'Your face, Lord, I will seek.' " The other was taken from Jeremiah 29:13: "And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for me with all your heart."

    Those words forced me into what the sports writers call an "agonizing reappraisal." Things were not going well in my life, either domestically or vocationally, and I knew it. Small as my church was, it was wearing me out. The youth work was faltering. The organist was deaf. People liked me all right, but they gently resisted my ideas some of which should have been resisted. The neighborhood was changing. People were moving away. The harder I tried to resist the tide, the more I suffered from battle fatigue. Yet I was aware in my heart that if I could find God, if I could earnestly seek God's face and be found by Him, nothing else mattered.

    It was obvious that I was not having a very effective ministry among my congregation. Such gifts as I had were limited, and questions about the Bible continued to harass me. But beyond all personal matters, I possessed a vast impatience with the ministry itself. With all its interminable duties, it seemed I just wasn't doing anything. But in that film I had watched people singing joyful Christian songs with tremendous zeal as they rode the London underground to Harringay. (The London Daily Telegraph reported: "The tube trains are packed with these singing multitudes."2) I couldn't even get my people to sing in church!

    Jealousy was not my problem; I bore no ill will whatever toward Billy Graham or any other preacher of the Gospel. What I felt was entirely personal, and it went deep. Jesus said He came to set us free, but I seemed to be locked into an ecclesiastical establishment that made me feel that I was outside the stream of life, answering questions no one was asking, performing traditional religious duties of

Page 47

insignificance to God or humanity. I was like a windup toy that needed winding. While I loved the church of God and wanted to see it prosper, I despaired of my place in it.

    Now the amazing scenes in that ten-minute film brought me up short. It appeared that the church's message about Jesus Christ really was relevant to lots of people, even to those who didn't go to church. The London Daily Mail was saying about Billy, "He has no magic, no magnetism; he makes no appeal to the emotions. His power — and power he has — is in his indivisible conviction that he knows the right way of life."3 Perhaps, I thought, if I couldn't reach anybody for God myself, I might get behind somebody who could. But first I had better unkink my theology, quit reading Reinhold Niebuhr, and start praying for Billy Graham.

    Later that year Billy Graham, now clearly a mature evangelist with an international reputation, paid a brief visit to major cities along the Pacific coast. He conferred with committees of ministers and laymen about future crusades and spoke at evening rallies. When he came to the Bay Area, he was invited to preach at a one-night rally in San Francisco's Civic Auditorium.

    During the five years that had elapsed since I first heard Mrs. Forde speak of Billy, my enthusiasm had been mounting about what he was doing. I had followed reports of his ministry in New England, in Portland, Oregon, in Seattle, in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and some of the southern cities.

    In the summer of 1954, while I was on a solo hike in the high Sierras, God had convinced me that His Bible is infallible. As a colleague of mine liked to put it, I "strangled my intellect." Whatever it was God did or I did, my ministry took off in a new direction. I altered my pulpit message and joined a group of praying pastors. So when I read about the coming rally in San Francisco, I gladly filled my car with parishioners on a November evening and took them across the bay to hear the evangelist.

    Knowing that San Francisco at night in November could be cold, damp, and windy, I wore a thick Harris tweed suit I had purchased in Edinburgh. Sure enough, at the entrance to the Civic Auditorium a waiting line extended for two long blocks. We stood shivering until

Page 48

some ushers came along to cheer us. When they learned that I was a minister, they invited me inside to sit with a hundred other pastors on the platform behind the podium. During the service Cliff Barrows called on us to stand and sing together, "Standing on the Promises of Christ My King." I sang my heart out.

    What amazed me that night was the lighthearted spirit of the audience. It was exactly like what I had witnessed in that London film — a kind of Christian party. Expressions of joy were everywhere. Cliff Barrows seemed full of contagious good cheer as he led the singing. How different it was from the dignified religious solemnity I was used to — which meant, I was taught, doing things correctly, i.e., "decently and in order."4

    When Billy came to the platform, he too seemed to convey a light spirit. He was the essence of cordiality until he began to preach. His text as the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus, as found in Luke 18:18-24. In sharp, rapid, effective sentences he presented the Bible scene. This young man, he said, was searching for answers at the right time (in his youth). He came with the right attitude (running) to the right person (Jesus). He asked Jesus the right question (about gaining eternal life) and received the answer (sell what you have; give to the poor; take up your cross and follow Me.) Then, said Billy, he did the wrong thing.

    It was a well-constructed message, and I found it vivid and electrifying. The preacher was tall, lean, vigorous, impressive. He modulated his voice well; he pointed a long finger, swung his body, flexed his arms, and held up his Bible. His blue eyes were piercing, and his words were sharp, rapid, and effective. His southern accent sounded a bit odd to us Californians when he pronounced "can't" as "cain't," but nobody seemed to mind. The response was impressive as hundreds of people came to the front at his invitation.

    At the close of the service, I left the platform to collect my carload of passengers for the trip across the Bay Bridge. They were missing. All had gone forward to give their lives to Jesus Christ.

Chapter 5  ||  Table of Contents

1. Cf. John Pollock, Billy Graham (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966), 84-91.

2. Ibid., 165.

3. Ibid., 168

4. 1 Corinthians 14:40 (KJV).

Chapter 5  ||  Table of Contents