June 27, 2005
Reporting on Billy Graham
-- Martin E. Marty
My notes from a quick trip to New York to cover Billy Graham:
"The attention shown by the full house last night was a tribute to his organization and to his appeal. Authority and sincerity more than color and emotionalism contribute to that appeal. Last night's crowd, a pleasant and earnest group of Bible-and-binocular-toting church folk, was so polite that there was no jostling .... Billy Graham ... spoke about the heart of man. Though his outline wandered and though he claimed to present nothing really new or different, he easily held attention ....
"The pattern of the mission, it seems to me, is emerging .... It has to do with two cities, both named New York. The first of these is ... the Babylon of lust, the center of the structures of power in America, the wickedest city on earth .... The second of these is the quite different New York .... New York was just as good or as bad as any other place: it was most sinful simply because it had the most blocks. Against the first city he planned a crusade; for the second he prepared a rally. The meetings take on largely the character of rallies ....
"Press comment ... is largely congenial to the events, ... regarding them much like very, very large Sunday morning services repeated nightly for Christians .... The rally ... is carried on in the New York that is much like Nashville, Minneapolis or Glasgow. If the crusade hopes to attract sinners that their hearts may be strangely warmed, the rally is attracting semi-saints that theirs maybe re-warmed. The song leaders, the announcers and the preacher all treated us pretty much like church people almost until the moment of the call for a decision for Christ .... Most of the congregation were not the New Yorkers of the image being prayed for .... But here is Graham's great appeal, his great success .... Now, for one night of a summer and for the summer of one-year at least, the concealed church is being revealed, the latent become patent .... There is a contagious release and exhilaration for these church people; this morning Protestants have something to talk about at work and at home. When they unite, their numbers are large enough so they can make a noise. Graham is big: If he has his great weaknesses, this could be his great potential. The hunger that moves this minority of Church people may be something more than hunger for identification with size and power; it may be a judgment on us all ....
"The churches seem more than satisfied. There is in the message enough sin for the orthodox and enough palliation for the liberals, ... and there is enough Christ for both .... This leaves few critics. The rally is sufficiently popular to make dissent sound like 'sour grapes' .... The old-time infidel won't criticize; he has disappeared, finding nothing to burlesque in the new genteel happenings.
"The crusade rolls on in support, comment and prestige. It is a success. It brings solace to rededicating Christians and morale to discouraged churches. It is as cunning as a serpent in its drive for the first New York, harmless as a dove in its rally for the second. Yet it does not bring the two together. Perhaps that meeting can still come."
[Note: This "quick trip to New York" occurred on May 24, 1957, and I am reproducing here my published report from The Christian Century, June 12, 1957 -- forty-eight years ago, when the world was young. M.E.M.]
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.