What made Billy Graham’s sermons so successful?
The following excerpt is taken from a chapter Professor Emeritus of History Michael S. Hamilton contributed to a recent book on the Rev. Billy Graham.
In this chapter, Hamilton assesses what made Graham’s preaching so impactful. As he notes, Graham’s invitations to accept Christ routinely led to more conversions than any other preacher of the time, even though many agreed that others in the group were better preachers. Graham, who died in February at the age of 99, received an honorary doctorate from SPU in 1954.
Why did people stream forward at the end of Graham’s sermons? The answer has defied easy explanation because there is no secret; there is no single decisive element. It was, rather, the whole package that brought people out of their seats to give their lives to Christ. Most of the audiences were churchgoers who had already made their decisions for Christ. The potential inquirers came for any number of reasons — maybe a churchgoing friend invited them, maybe they wanted to reconnect to Christianity, maybe they wanted to see the famous evangelist, or maybe they were just curious. In many cases they could not say exactly why they came. But they came expectantly. The buildup to the crusade, the festivity and pageantry and music of the event itself, the milling crowds, and the platform filled with celebrities all generated anticipation — something special was going to happen.
Crusades were often held in sporting venues, but the crusade transformed the venue into a sacred space. Admission was free. A crusade audience was a broader cross-section of the population than a sporting event — more women, more older people, more children, more social classes. The very wholesomeness of the crusade created a temporary sanctuary from many of the world’s troubles and offered a glimpse of one version of what individual peace and social harmony might look like.
The crusade audience watched not a competition, but rather a string of politicians, sports heroes, well-known entertainers, and other celebrities take the stage and tell how Jesus Christ had changed their lives, while the churchgoers in the audience murmured and nodded in assent. This helped make giving one’s life to Christ plausible. The audience also heard a massed choir of ordinary people and famous musicians sing songs about Jesus, songs designed for gentle emotional appeal. By the time George Beverly Shea finished his solo and sat down, the potential inquirers were prepared in heart and mind, anticipating something momentous.
Then Graham, usually wearing a simple suit, stepped alone to the microphone. Once past his earliest years, he delivered his opening greetings in such a simple and unaffected style that it proved his reputation for genuineness and sincerity. He gave no sign of cleverness or subtlety, no hint of preening or basking in attention. All the markers of holy affections that Jonathan Edwards had identified and that Graham exhibited in conversations with reporters and interviews on television — lowliness of mind, lowliness of behavior, humbleness of heart — were now in view on the crusade platform. Potential inquirers could see it for themselves.
Then came the sermon. The confident authority of the evangelist provided an arresting counterpoint to his personal humility. Might this man with a godly character be speaking a message from God? When he appealed to the universal myth of decline from a former golden age and combined it with national myths cherished by his audience, listeners understood that Graham’s view of God in the world encompassed their own view of the world. Graham did not challenge his audience to throw out their old worldview; he merely asked them to enlarge it. When he then mixed images of national decline and crisis with images of personal failure and crisis, the open-hearted listener who trusted Graham heard a message that seemed personal. As one person who came forward at the 1962 Chicago crusade commented six years later, Billy Graham “was speaking directly to me. … He knew what I was thinking and what my problem was.” Social scientists call this confirmation bias, while others would call it a word from God.
All of this engaged the listener’s emotions and heightened a desire for change. The possibility of change — real, long-lasting change — seemed at hand. At this crucial moment, Graham then pointed the way to change. It began, he told them, when they said, “I want Christ in my life.” When this made rational and emotional sense to someone — when they desired to have Christ in their life — then they made their decision. In that instant the listener became an inquirer, stood up, and started walking forward. It was psychologically significant, perhaps even costly. Thousands of people were watching, including friends or family. There were no histrionics. Audience members typically sat quietly, perhaps praying, sometimes singing softly to themselves. Graham himself did no pleading or weeping, typically standing in silence, head bowed, for several long minutes. Inquirers typically came forward in orderly fashion, with none of the noisy displays that so often accompanied Pentecostal worship.
However, even though inquirers remained calm, they reported the decision to go forward as a deeply emotional moment. And, more often than not, the personal change they hoped for seemed really to have taken place. The crusade and its pageantry and the testimonies of the famous and the gently emotional music and the affirming audience and the humble man who spoke with the authority of a messenger of God — they all came together and formed a powerful memory marker of the special ritual through which the inquirer had passed.
Sometimes the memory landmark matured into a family legacy. In 1996, at the final crusade Graham did in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, the journalist Ken Garfield interviewed Nellie Roth, a mother of four. Years earlier her own mother, at that time pregnant with Nellie, came forward at a crusade. Because of that decision Nellie was raised in a Christian home and was now raising her own children in a Christian home. So Nellie went to the Charlotte stadium 44 years later. She took in the sights and sounds, listened to the testimonies, remembered the familiar songs, and drank in the sermon. Then, with tears in her eyes, she sat and watched hundreds of people make the same pilgrimage her mother had made, testifying to their desire and their decision for a new life in Christ.
Adapted from Billy Graham: American Pilgrim edited by Andrew Finstuen, Grant Wacker, and Anne Blue Wills. Copyright © 2017 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.