The Billy Pulpit

Graham's career in Mainline Protestantism

From the Nov. 15, 2003 issue of the Christian Century

Billy Graham and I hit New York City at the same time, the summer of 1957. He was 38 and about to clinch his reputation as the premier evangelist in Protestant history. I was 12 and about to taste freedom. But not yet. Night after night my parents packed themselves and me into a steamy subway to go down to Madison Square Garden to hear the Great Man preach. Soon our first family vacation to the Northeast was over, and we headed back to the bucolic quiet of southwest Missouri. I couldn't figure out what the big whoop on Graham was all about.

If the Graham sensation left at least one adolescent bemused, it left the men and women in the tall steeple churches of the Protestant mainline divided. Many deplored the evangelist's success, but many others-perhaps a majority-cautiously welcomed it. It is the second group, the cautious welcomers, that chiefly attracts our attention. Figuring out why Graham won at least measured approval from them illumines both the complex structure and the persisting strength of the mainline in modern America.

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But first the deplorers. Though the critics on Graham's theological left represented diverse voices-serious theologians, denominational leaders, academic elites and practiced journalists, among others-they sounded similar notes of dismay. As far back as 1952 the British Council of Churches, which spoke for the majority of British Christians, refused to join the British Evangelical Alliance's invitation to Graham to speak in London. When he arrived two years later, one newspaper judged that he displayed "all the tricks of the modern demagogue."

In 1956, during a trip to India, Graham suggested that the U.S. government might give Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru a "white air-conditioned Cadillac." That recommendation prompted the Christian Century to conclude that Graham "hasn't a glimmer of a notion about what is really going on in the world." A Filipino paper likened him to a religious Liberace trying "to sell American friendship to India in the same manner that she sells, say, toothpaste or brassieres." When Graham visited Yale in February 1957, the Yale Daily News judged him "embarrassingly overdramatic" and "clearly underintellectualized." His insights, it said, were "banal" and his message irrelevant to the Yale undergraduate.

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