HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Billy Graham: Man and Ministry in the Fifties
© 1997, Natalie Bucheimer

Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every nation. (Mark 16:15)

While the world is full of Christians, few actually take this commissioning seriously. It is regarded as impractical or even impossible. For one servant of Christ, Billy Graham, impossible does not exist in the realm of the faithful. The Bible teaches that with God all things are possible, and looking at Graham's resume, one would almost be convinced that was true. Graham is quite possibly the greatest preacher of all time. He has preached in 185 countries to over three billion people. That number is more people than even the apostle Paul preached to. He has been personal friend and minister to ten United States presidents. For thirty seven years he has been on the Gallup organization's list of the ten most admired men in the world. His is a ministry that has been heard and felt around the world, beginning in the nineteen fifties. It is this beginning decade that perhaps gives the most insight into the ministry, how and why it started, and how people reacted. It is the strength of the ministry built in this decade that continues to carry Graham's ministry to this day, even while Graham is now slowed by Parkinson's disease. A look at the man in relation to the decade reveals some interesting facets of the national attitude in the fifties, and his reaction to the issues strongly shows what was on the minds of the people. As instrumental as he was in shaping the moral outlook of the era, a look at the issues of the fifties would not be complete without a look at this preacher to the nations, Billy Graham.

Train up a child in the way he shall go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

What would be expected of the parents of Billy Graham? Incredible Christians? Supernatural powers? In order to raise a son who could arguably be the most influential preacher in this century, one would think his parents must surely have been influential, devout, and pious. In reality, Graham's parents were quiet, humble people of God. On a small dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, Billy Graham received his first lessons in the ways of the world and in the ways of the mysterious God. His father was a working man, comfortable only when his hands were immersed and occupied in the work of the farm. Secretly, he always felt some unanswered calling to the pulpit, to be a preacher; a feeling that was only resolved by living his calling through his oldest son, Billy Graham (Frady 33). His parents were God fearing people and strict Calvinists, and raised Graham to believe in hard work and honesty. Billy Graham was later to reject this Calvinistic upbringing, but there is no doubt that his parents were the initial influences on his spiritual life.

At age seventeen Graham found himself in the same position in which many seventeen year olds find themselves. He enjoyed high school, was popular with the girls, and had absolutely no idea where the rest of his life would take him. He played baseball and basketball and enjoyed being young and carefree. This was a time in which tent revivals were popular, and during the year an evangelist named Mordecai Ham came to town to lead a three month revival in Charlotte. Graham, like any average teenager, avoided what promised to be long and boring and remained untouched for the first few weeks . When all the other options of what to do on a summer night had run out Graham showed up at the revival, and his life was changed. Ham spoke out against sinners, and even though Graham was a well thought of, not particularly sinful kid, he felt that Ham was speaking directly to him. So afraid was he of Ham's sinful accusations that he joined the revival choir to escape Ham's direct gaze. After a few nights of listening to the preacher, Graham was ready to make a decision to follow Jesus, and he walked the same aisle to make the same decision that countless others have walked at Billy Graham crusades ever since (Brief biography).

Like most high schoolers who lack direction once they graduate, Graham blindly enrolled at Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee for the simple reason that his mother had once been impressed by Jones' preaching. If Graham didn't know who he was prior to entering school, he soon learned that he wasn't meant to be a Bob Jones student. He found the discipline to be absolutely restrictive and the theology to be at odds with the notions of God that were swarming in his head (Frady 96). The Florida Bible Institute was to be the place where Graham would finally be able to draw lines around who he was and what he stood for in God's vast kingdom. At the urging of a friend he left Bob Jones and enrolled at the Institute. Whether to be considered just maturing into a purpose or a direct message from God, it was at the Florida Bible Institute that Billy Graham finally knew he was to be a preacher. Also at this time he settled upon the Southern Baptist Convention as the church to subscribe to, and he began the ties with the SBC that would last loosely throughout his ministry (Brief biog.). After graduation, Graham enrolled at Wheaton college -- the Harvard of Christian colleges. There he received training in the fine art of the pulpit and met his future wife, Ruth Bell. Wheaton today is still rightfully proud of Graham. In his honor at the school exists the Billy Graham Center, a museum that chronicles not only his ministry but the ministries of many other important evangelists. It is also the center for the Billy Graham Archives, a collection of important Christian documents related to Graham or of other religious significance (BGC Story).

Following graduation from Wheaton Graham entered what could be considered a transition state that lay somewhere between formal education and the great preacher that we know him as. During this time he amassed several personal skills that would benefit him once he began his own ministry, as well as made contacts with people that would later work for or with him. Immediately following graduation he took a pastorship at Western Springs Church near Chicago. He left this job to travel with Youth for Christ, an evangelistic movement geared especially for young people and returning servicemen. Youth for Christ was different in its approach than other evangelistic movements in that it focused on the benevolence of God rather than the God who was quick to invoke wrath. The message was displayed with upbeat music and flashy clothes. Graham stayed with them from 1945 until 1948, and there is no doubt that what he learned influenced him in his own ministry. To this day, Graham will tell you that he sees God as a loving father rather than a harsh judge (20/20). From Youth for Christ he also learned much about preaching to a crowd, how to gear a message to an audience, and how to manipulate a crowd's emotions. Also during this time Graham became president of Northwestern Schools, a system of Christian colleges in Minnesota. Ideally, he saw Northwestern becoming another Wheaton in order to train evangelists to face the unchurched world. Reality was that Graham was otherwise occupied most of the time, and he didn't have much time to devote to being an effective president. He remained in this office from 1947 until 1952. During this period he developed administrative skills that would later assist him in the formation of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA), the business end of his ministry. Contacts were also made through the college with several people who would later work with Billy Graham in his crusades. It was at this time that he began here and there to hold meetings on his own, during breaks from Youth for Christ and absences from the college (Brief biog.). This ministry gradually grew, and with it Graham's vision for the possibilities the future held. He eventually left both the college and Youth for Christ in order to obey the urge that had been controlling him for some time, Graham was called to be a preacher to the masses, and the best way for him to accomplish this was on his own -- on his own as much as one can be on his own with God on his side.

In 1949 in the city of Los Angeles, a group of men who called themselves "Christ for Greater Los Angeles" had invited Graham to come and hold meetings there. When at first Graham had questioned the invitation, they found more money and more church support. It seemed as though things were pulling together to bring Graham to Los Angeles. He came and on September 25 opened a series of meetings that not only left the city of Los Angeles changed forever, but vaulted Graham's previously unassuming ministry into national spotlight and into the decade of the fifties. The meetings began slowly with little press coverage and relatively low attendance. Empty seats were easily seen in the early nights in the Canvas Cathedral, a tent erected specifically for the crusade. The tide turned, however, when Stuart Hamblen, a well known radio celebrity invited Graham to be a guest on his show. Having boasted earlier to Graham that with his endorsement he could fill the tent, Graham was eager to accept the invitation. In many ways he was not far off in his boasting. Hamblen was well known up and down the West Coast for his popular radio show, heard every afternoon for two hours. Especially once news of Hamblen's own conversion at one of the meetings reached the airwaves, people came to see what was so great that everyone on the radio was talking about. A second media break came when Randolph Hearst, owner of newspapers across the country including two major ones in Los Angeles, inexplicably told his papers to "puff Graham." They did, and when Hearst's papers "puffed Graham," of course Hearst's competitors papers followed suit. Soon the Los Angeles campaign was being talked about and read about nationwide. The crusade was extended from its original intended length of three weeks to a length of eight weeks, at which point the tent was still being packed, but the organizers physically could not continue. On November 20, nearly two months after it began, the crusade closed (Graham 143). By the powerful hand of the media, with a little help from the powerful hand of God, Graham was compelled into fame, a fame that would carry him into the decade of the fifties. By the end of the fifties he had preached in countless American cities as well as in many foreign lands, among them Australia, India, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and most European countries.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

The inevitable question that comes to mind when looking at Graham's amazing success is why did it happen then? Why, at exactly this moment was the nation ready for an evangelistic surge? Why, in the nineteen fifties was this ordinary man so appealing, his message so necessary? The answer comes from examining the situation of the nation, who people were and what they were thinking. Without even consciously knowing it or purposing it Graham was the answer to all their questions about their state in life at that time. Both he and his message fit into the fifties. He met the people where they needed to be met, and they sought him out to hear for themselves the answers he was said to provide.

The fifties came at the tail end of the World War II, a fact that I think is often overlooked when looking at the success of the Graham ministry. After the war America was in uncharted territory. Nuclear weapons were new, powerful, and strangely frightening. Just when it seemed as if America had successfully asserted her strength at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russians began their nuclear testing and destroyed all sense of security. And what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Even though we won the war, did we want to be a country that forever has to take possession of these tragedies? Communism, too, was spreading seemingly unrestrained through the world. America immediately became aware of her role in the whole world; the scope of thinking was enlarged from the confines of the boundaries of the country to a global scale (Frady 213). With this global position came responsibilities that no one was really sure of since no one had been there before. On the personal level, in a way that only war can cause, the concept of life and afterlife inched its way to the forefront of the minds of many Americans. The death that accompanies war is cruel, and reminiscent of just how temporary life is. In order to find answers and hopefully prepare themselves, many people after the war turned to religion. On the social level America needed a glue to bind her together again and provide security. Religion promised also to provide this. Graham offered that religion in a way that was friendly and refreshingly honest. The country was ready for religious revival, and Graham caught that readiness.

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? (Romans 10:14)

Billy Graham's crusades were far reaching, drawing people from all walks of life, from all denominations, and from many areas of the world. At the same time, Graham was one man who could only be in one place at one time sharing one message. It was to compensate for this weakness that Graham entered the realm of what was already transforming the face of society in the fifties: the media. Though television was the big development of the fifties, Graham did not restrict himself to that venue. In fact, it is probably fair to say that in the beginning of the decade television programming had not yet found its identity, and a Billy Graham crusade widely televised in the early fifties would probably have seemed, if nothing else, out of the ordinary and out of place. Radio, however, was a powerful avenue for disseminating information. The major broadcasting companies that we are familiar with as television powerhouses had their network of affiliated radio stations that often provided uniform, nationwide programming. Graham started off on the radio at a tiny station in Chicago by hosting a weekly Christian program entitled Songs in the Night. Being well received in Chicago with this program, soon after the BGEA was formed Graham began his weekly hour long segment entitled The Hour of Decision. Even at its beginning the program was carried by ABC on 150 stations. At its peak around 1970 the program was being heard on over 1200 stations nationwide, and it can still be heard today on stations around the country. With the popularity of the show on the airwaves, the BGEA soon brought The Hour of Decision to the television in a show that ran from 1951 until 1954. Sensing that the crusades, which were ever growing in popularity, could be made available to a seemingly infinite audience of television viewers, the BGEA soon began broadcasting portions of pre-recorded crusades (Brief biog.). Through these television appearances Graham undoubtedly grew in both popularity and name recognition, but publicity was never his motive, at least not his primary motive. Graham had a vision for film as a tool to spread the Gospel. In a time when film was sometimes considered to be work of the devil, Graham had the perception to know that, "...thousands of unconverted will come to a film that will never hear a preacher" (O'Donnell). His ministry produced countless videos and television specials centered around the gospel. In addition, he himself authored many books, as well as numerous books written by people on his staff. Graham was a man of the media, a man who knew what people watched, listened to, and wanted to read. Graham saw the media as a way of ensuring that many people heard the gospel in order that they might believe. For, according to the verse, how can they believe if they have not heard? By using the media, Graham allowed people to hear, and in the fifties people were definitely listening to the media.

People won't always listen to things they don't want to hear, but they listened to Graham. Why? The mere basis of what he taught was sacrifice of your life, your very self to God who will reward you. This idea of giving up what makes you comfortable is threatening, so why were so many people willing to do it? The answer lies in the fact that he asked people to give up their souls, but not their televisions, their new houses in suburbia, or their McDonalds hamburgers. In fact he preached along the lines of the Bible when it says "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." "All these things" were viewed as the material possessions that were so endeared to peoples' hearts in the fifties. Like many others in the fifties, Graham grew up during the Depression and appreciated the material wealth he had. Under this philosophy, you commit your life to Christ, and he rewards you. Therefore, any material wealth that you have can rightfully be regarded as a blessing from God, and better yet you can keep it. This is misleading, in that it causes it to sound like Graham encouraged wealth, which is a concept quite in contrast to Biblical teachings. On the contrary, he simply didn't see the necessity of selling your clothes and living in rags to show gratitude to the Lord. Rather, stewardship of what the Lord has given you will show your gratitude. This message in the fifties was an important one because it was a time of materialism. A different message would likely have alienated people who valued their material wealth. Graham even closed his sermon once with the line, "God bless you and thank you, and God bless the Holiday Inns." (Frady 235)

Graham was welcomed in the fifties because he was the fifties. His appearance and style embodied all that the fifties is known to be. He was handsome and strong, definitely the leader of his family. His wife, Ruth, was a strong woman, but never stronger than her husband. She knew her place in the home and rarely accompanied him on crusades. She stayed at the house and cared for the children, raising them and instructing them in the God that both she and her husband knew well. He would ask her for advice, but she would never cross him on a decision that was made. After all, he was the man of the household, and what would a woman know about decision making that a man wouldn't know. Ruth Graham was a very wise woman and a very devout Christian, but she was first a wife. When he would leave on trips she would say her good-byes then calmly and with a low profile go about the business of the house and the children until he returned again. This is how families were supposed to function in the fifties. They had three beautiful girls and two bouncing boys; pictures of the family could easily be used in posters of the ideal fifties family. People were drawn to the man with this image. He knew what the fifties were about, so people thought perhaps what he had to say could elevate them to the "perfect man" status. Not only did they want the spiritual life he offered, they wanted the image and the comfort of the solid fifties man that he seemed to be.

Finally, allow me to offer as a hypothesis that the Billy Graham evangelical movement was welcomed into the fifties because the faith that it offered was a rebellion against the norm, not unlike the Beat movement or the jazz music that was springing up around the country. The beatniks, for example, were rebelling against social stereotypes and complacent normalcy. Jazz musicians were rebelling more or less against ordered form and melody in music in order to express emotion, quite often the emotion of pain or hurt. The faith that was talked about at Billy Graham crusades was an alternative to society as well. The pain that many people felt was replaced by hope in God. The injustice that many either hated or felt victim to was eased knowing that in God's eyes all are equal. People left out of the loop of affluence came seeking consolation that their treasures awaited them in heaven. Crowds gathered at Billy Graham crusades looking for what they felt their lives were lacking. What Graham offered was peace, a peace of soul that was lacking in the fifties. It was a time of mass production, and in many ways that included mass production of minds. Television, in many ways, taught and continues to teach today what to think and how to act. People were swept up in the tide of mass culture, and found themselves blurred together with the rest of humanity not really knowing who they were or what they stood for. They began to look for their identity wherever they could find it. Graham told them they were perfect creations of God, and this fact alone was a reason to live and a source of contentment. Contained implicitly in this understanding of self worth were convictions about how to act and respond to society, convictions not dictated by the media or mass culture (which were often indistinguishable from each other), but by a source much higher than man and absolutely unchanging and true. David Harrell, Jr., professor at Auburn University stated clearly, "The search for intuitive truth in the charismatic movement was not unlike the subjective cravings of the counterculture" (Blumhofer 202). The people that didn't like what was going on in society could see new hope in what Graham taught. They could also see hope of social reform, for, after all, if enough people believed wouldn't the world be a better place? While some peoples' rebellions turned them to new forms of expression, some peoples' turned them to God.

Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:1)

With Graham so well adapted to the flow of the fifties, it was impossible for him to avoid the social issues that the people he ministered to were facing. A popular Christian song holds, "In this world, but not of it, caught in the storm we've got to rise above it." Graham was in the world facing problems that everyone else faced, but he had God's perspective on the issues. Graham was popular because he preached to the people where they were, and people were struggling with certain issues. Graham spoke clearly and strongly on these issues, but was careful to not conform to the worldly opinion.

In the nineteen fifties the world seemed to rotate on an axis called communism. Everyone was talking about it, and America was frightened. The culmination of their fright appeared most noticeably in a man named McCarthy. McCarthy claimed to have lists of names of people that secretly held allegiances with the communist party, lists that often contained names of many high ranking public officials and celebrities. The media, which was so important to the fifties, picked up on McCarthy's "blacklists" and ran them in the papers. In the attitudes of the fifties, if it was in print, it was infallible truth. As a result, not only was communism a force from overseas to fear, it was a force within our own boundaries threatening to tear apart the post war threads that tenuously held the nation together. Billy Graham was not immune to what was going on. When he spoke about communism, he spoke as a person not completely removed from the attitudes that were prevalent in the nation. He, too feared communism. In a message delivered as early as 1947 he stated,

Communism is creeping inexorably into these destitute lands, into wartorn China, into restless South America, and unless the Christian religion rescues the nation from the clutch of the unbelieving, America will stand alone and isolated in the world (Frady 236).

In many ways, he became swept up in the fear that was embracing the nation. Further attacks of his on communism were strong, and almost single minded. In 1954 in a magazine article he announced, "Either communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ" (Frady 237). He referred to Europe under the grips of communism as "a colossal inferno of lies and deception" (Frady 237). While stating that "...men like Senator McCarthy have gone too far; false accusations can be dangerous," he none the less supported repealing the Fifth Amendment protection for witnesses brought before committee (Frady 237). The way Graham saw it, whatever was necessary to rid American borders of communism was just that; necessary. How else did Graham intend to deal with Communism? Naturally, since he felt "No man with Christ in his heart can be a Communist," Graham saw the best way to deal with this menace as being religious revival; a turning back to old fashioned Christian ideals that he saw as being part of "old fashioned Americanism" (Frady 418,237). He stated often, "The United States needs a spiritual revival, or we'll be licked before the Communists get here" (Frady 237). Did religious revival have anything to do with the passing of this American red scare? Arguably, it did not. McCarthy was condemned by the Senate, a fact that Graham was none too happy about, saying it hurt the dignity of American statesmanship (Frady 237). With McCarthy's passing went the bulk of the substantial evidence for Communism in this country, and Americans returned to simply fearing other countries as we entered into the Cold War era. Graham had, however, spoken out against communism on a moral basis and his voice had been heard across the nation.

For you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:7)

Billy Graham knew that in order to unite all Christians, the Bible was the only place to turn. Different religions had different doctrines, and different people held different theologies. Therefore, when it came to Graham's stand on race and segregation, he turned not to what society had to say, but to what the Bible said about race relations. Verses like Revelation 5:9 led Graham to a conviction that the Bible allowed no grounds for the practice of segregation, or even for the notion of white supremacy. Simply through this decision, and his tangible support of it through his ministry, Graham broke away from society and from other Christian leaders of the time. This idea was new, unprecedented on a scale as large as Graham's had the potential to be, and likely volatile. On March 15, 1953 in Chattanooga, Tennessee the first purposefully integrated crusade began, more than a year before the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education. Integrated it was, but this was not accomplished effortlessly. Graham personally arrived early at the stadium to tear down the ropes that separated the white and black sections. Even after the head usher resigned as a result of his action, Graham did not back down on his conviction to hold an integrated campaign (Graham 426). Disappointingly few Negroes attended, but the few who did took their seats without mishap (Pollack 97). While idealistically Graham would have held all subsequent crusades integrated, often organizers wouldn't allow it. This was still the segregated south; people didn't swallow forced integration well, and more than likely full integration would have been moving too quickly. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. advised Graham early in the civil rights movement:

You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than if you marched in the streets. Besides that, you have a constituency that will listen to you, especially among white people who may not listen so much to me. But if a leader gets too far out in front of his people, they will lose sight of him and not follow him any longer (Graham 426).

Immediate integration would have caused his audience to lose sight of him, because they were not ready for and did not understand the moral implications of race that Graham based his decisions on. This advice came not only from a respected religious civil rights leader, but also from a trusted friend. To Graham King was "Mike," a nickname handed down by King's father (Graham 360). They met together often, and were once even stranded together in Trinidad after a plane malfunction prevented them from reaching their destination (Graham 360). In an effort to bridge the gap between whites and blacks, especially Christian whites and blacks, King was invited to deliver the opening prayer at a crusade in Manhattan in 1957 (Graham 314). King also spent time with other white Christian leaders in Graham's circle, where the obvious friendship between King and Graham facilitated King's acceptance not only as a leader, but as a respected Christian gentleman. King and Graham saw themselves as complements to each other, each one working towards the same goal with methods as different as night and day. Yet, both ministries were powerful and, in their own way, necessary. Both men viewed the world in the way they thought God would view the world, with color being a wonderful gift ordained by God, not an indicator of worth or status. Both longed for the day and worked towards the day when this philosophy could be embraced by the white population at large. After the Brown decision of May 17, 1954 Graham could insist on integration, which he did, despite it costing him some friends and bringing him abuse. Graham stated, "Jesus Christ belongs neither to the colored or to the white races. He belongs to all races, and there are no color lines with Christ, as He repeatedly said that God looks upon the heart" (Pollack 99). Graham proved to be a pioneer in integration in the deeply divided south.

At my home we receive the magazine, Decision, put out by the BGEA. Occasionally I flip through it when it is left on the coffee table. In every issue there is a letters section where people have written to the Billy Graham headquarters. In every issue there are countless letters, all with the same story to tell. "My life was changed at a Billy Graham crusade." It is hard even to estimate the impact this one man has had on the world, and he continues to share the gospel to this day despite health problems. It all began in the nineteen fifties with a younger, more charismatic Billy Graham. Yet, the message has remained the same. The world is not the same as it was in the fifties. Different issues face us, and Graham strives to address these new issues -- homosexuality, abortion, etc. -- with the same Christian perspective he's had throughout the years. Billy Graham proves that faith is the only thing in this world that is ageless and unchangeable.


"The Billy Graham Center Story." http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/bgcstory.html (16 Apr 1997).

Blumhofer, Edith L. and Randall Balmer, ed. Modern Christian Revivals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1993.

"Brief Biography of Billy Graham." Billy Graham Center Archives http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/bio.html (14 Apr 1997).

Frady, Marshall. Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1979.

Graham, Billy. Just As I Am. San Francisco: Zondervan. 1997.

High, Stanley. Billy Graham. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc. 1956.

20/20. Interview with Billy Graham. NBC. May 2, 1997.

O'Donnell, Bro. Cornelius, O.P. "A Graham of Faith: Inquiring into the Life and Preaching of Rev. Billy Graham." 2 Nov. 1995. http://digidesk.p52s.hioslo.no/niwg/bgraham.htm (16 Apr 1997).

Pollock, John. Billy Graham: the Authorized Biography. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company. 1966.

"Profile -- William (Billy) F. Graham." http://www.graham-assn.org/bgea/bginfo/bgbgbio.htm#profile (16 Apr 1997).

Scharpff, Paulus. History of Evangelism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1966.

"What is a Billy Graham Crusade?" http://www.asheville.com/crusade1.html (16 Apr 1997)

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