Fifty years ago, Billy Graham made a big but not lasting impact in Britain

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

LONDON (AP) Plenty of people were suspicious when a clean-cut American evangelist arrived in London in February 1954 for a 12-week mission: Newspapers sneered at the ''Yankee spellbinder'' and ''hot-gospeller'' and at least one columnist predicted that the man's brand of ''Bible-based evangelism'' would fail to ignite conservative Britons.

Billy Graham proved them wrong, at least for a time. An estimated 2 million people attended the preacher's 72 rallies and up to 38,000 people more than half of them aged under 19 responded to his altar calls.

Looking back 50 years later, however, some wonder how lasting Graham's impact really was.

On that first, snowy night, it seemed as if only a few hundred of the 12,000 seats in the barn-like Harringay Arena in east London would be filled. But by the time the 35-year-old Graham rose to his feet to address the question ''Does God Matter?'' the stadium was almost at capacity. At the end, some 200 people came forward to accept Jesus Christ.

''Those meetings galvanized us,'' said Michael Baughen, former Church of England bishop of Chester in northwest England, who attended some of the rallies while still a theology student. He fondly remembers subway trains loaded with hymn-singing converts leaving the events.

''It was like divine adrenaline for a jaded church,'' Baughen recalled.

Each night in the spare, square brick arena, gospel singer George Beverly Shea, backed by a 1,000-voice choir, led the vigorous singing of favorite hymns like ''To God be the Glory'' before Graham took the podium, clutching a Bible that had seen much use.

''We were engaged in a spiritual battle for Britain,'' Graham said in his 1997 autobiography, ''Just As I Am.'' If successful rallies in Los Angeles in 1949 ''had marked a decisive watershed for the Billy Graham Team in the USA, Harringay was the watershed for the international ministry,'' he wrote.

There is evidence that, for a while anyway, Graham's crusade increased churchgoing in Britain and boosted the numbers seeking ordination. But despite a spike in the 1950s, church attendance in Britain slipped back into the downward trend that began in the mid-19th century.

''The 1950s was relatively conservative, with people coming back to hearth and home after the war, and Billy Graham surfed that wave quite well,'' said David Hilborn, head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance. ''That was blown apart in the 1960s.''

On May 29, Graham's son Franklin, now leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, preached at an anniversary service at London's Royal Albert Hall. The meeting was billed as ''time to turn our eyes to the future.''

Graham himself is 85 and in frail health. He's now hospitalized, recovering from a pelvic fracture.

Graham evangelists addressed 53,000 people in Britain last year but, writing in the latest issue of ''Decision,'' the association's magazine, Franklin Graham despaired that ''there are many strong churches and devout believers, but overall the state of Christianity appears to be in decline.''

A recent British Broadcasting Corp. poll found that 67 percent of Britons believe in God or a higher power, but just 21 percent regularly attend a religious service.

According to Christian Research, a church research body, in 1980 there were 4.7 million churchgoers in England, or 10 percent of the population. The figure for 2005 is expected to be 3.3 million, or 6.7 percent.

And ultimately, only a small percentage of those who attended Harringay were converted, says Callum Brown in his book, ''The Death of Christian Britain.''

Yet many believe the effects of Harringay still linger.

Graham's arrival ''interrupted an overall trend of religious decline,'' said Derek Tidball, principal of the London School of Theology. ''Many not only found their lives transformed as they were converted to Christ, but hundreds subsequently went into full-time Christian work as a result.''

Even allowing for those who fell away from the faith, a large number went on to ordination, and several rose to high positions in their churches, contends John Pollock, Graham's biographer.

One of these was Canon Robert Warren, who says that he along with nine members of his family, ''came to faith either at Graham rallies or connected events and none of us fell away.''

Maurice Wood, former bishop of Norwich, said that during his time as principal of Oak Hill Theological College in London from 1961 to 1971, ''about half our 65 students had made a commitment to Christ at a Billy Graham rally.''

''When Billy held rallies in Earl's Court (in London) in 1966,'' said Wood, ''I rounded up lots of our young priests who had made a commitment at Harringay and had 50 of them sitting to the side of the stage.''

By the end of the 1954 mission, the crowds were so large that the final meeting, on May 22, was held at the 100,000-seat Wembley Stadium in west London. Such was the demand for seats that another rally was held earlier in the day at the nearby White City Stadium; all 65,000 seats were filled.

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