[This was a lecture that I gave at Westminster Seminary California in April; the audio can be found here. The full title is "The Only Hope for America: Southern Presbyterians, Billy Graham, and the Mission of the Church." I thought that, in light of this conversation, this might be a helpful historical contribution.]
Many readers of the Southern Presbyterian Journal must have smiled in recognition and hope when they received the February 15, 1950, issue of the magazine. On the cover was an attractive young man, age thirty-one, with piercing eyes and a slight smile on his face, wearing his signature double-breasted suit with garish tie and protruding pocket handkerchief. The only indication of the identity of the young man was a simple line, “Billy Graham; see pages two and three.” It was all that was necessary—for, as the rest of the magazine explained, American newspapers had become preoccupied with the preaching ministry of the young evangelist. Journal editor Henry Dendy was not restrained in his thoughts about Graham: “As we heard him preach there came to us the definite conviction that God had raised up, in this our needy time, a servant on whom rests the mighty power of the Holy Spirit such as is rarely seen.”
Billy Graham represented not simply a gifted preacher who led significant evangelistic meetings; he embodied the hopes of many conservative Protestants, regardless of denomination, for spiritual renewal in America in the 1950s. As Dendy’s praise suggested, southern Protestants especially felt that theirs was a “needy time” for the world as they knew it was under attack. Plagued by social agitation from within over racial integration and from without by infiltrating Communists, worried by the centralizing thrusts of the National Council of Churches and the Federal Government, and convinced that the younger generation was moving toward spiritual bankruptcy and moral confusion, conservative Protestants in the South believed that the only answer was revival. In Graham’s ministry, southern Protestants believed that God once again was visiting his people and turning America to himself.
While Graham and his team sought to lead interdenominational meetings and while he held his church membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, southern Presbyterian conservatives felt extremely invested in Graham’s ministry in the 1950s. Both as a result of their ideology, which merged political, cultural, and religious conservatism seamlessly together in their southern brand of modern American conservatism, and their biblical and theological reflection, Graham represented a symbol of hope both for their nation and their church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). Convinced that the PCUS was veering off-track by not focusing appropriately on the church’s true spiritual mission of evangelism, southern Presbyterian conservatives used Graham’s evangelistic success and international prominence to bolster their position and make plain their deep differences with progressive fellow-churchmen. They earnestly believed that as the church returned to its fundamental commitment to evangelism, not only would they be in the place of God’s revival blessings, but God would use them to reverse America’s apparent downward decline by bringing spiritual renewal to the entire nation. In this way, God’s remnant people in his “Southern Zion”—and their southern Prophet—would be the means of salvation for the whole of his “Redeemer Nation” and even the world.
What America Needs
As southern Presbyterian conservatives looked at 1950s America, they had a generally pessimistic view. “To all who will consider the handwriting is surely on the wall. To America there must come a spiritual awakening, a revival of faith in the Son of God and a turning to Him in confession of sin,” Nelson Bell proclaimed. W. Twyman Williams asked whether “we really think that as a nation we are less drunken, less immoral, less corrupt in government and in business, more law-abiding, more God-fearing” than the European nations which bore the brunt of two world wars? The only conclusion possible was that God’s judgment was coming upon America. Bell assessed America’s moral decay by noting that “sin in every form is flouted before our eyes. We are a licentious people, an increasingly intemperate people. The Sabbath is more and more a holiday instead of a holy day. Only too often we have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof. There is corruption and bribery and intrigue in high and low places.” Elsewhere he observed, “Soft, loving pleasure, speaking often in terms of religion but living in ease and wallowing in impurity and lust, America is increasingly becoming prey to the inward decay which has again and again destroyed nations.”
The only way to reverse this American decay and so advert God’s judgment was revival. As Bell put it, America needed “a great spiritual and moral awakening which will in turn give that fiber of soul and character which will reflect itself in public and private life and again make our nation great, as God counts greatness.” Others agreed with Bell’s assessment of both America’s problem and God’s solution. Samuel McPheeters Glasgow observed that “the church must have a Revival or sag into deeper depths of failure and false assurance.” J. Kenton Parker held that unless God brought spiritual revival to America, it would experience “some sort of terrible catastrophe compared with which the French Revolution would look like child’s play.”
In order to bring such spiritual renewal to America, several ingredients were needed. Chief among them was whole-soul surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. Nelson Bell asked whether “our failures as Christians and as a Church [are not] due to our repeated attempts to accomplish a supernatural task with natural means alone.” There is “supernatural power available to all who come seeking Him in humility and truth. The possibility of world-wide revival will merge into the certainty of such a spiritual awakening when we as Christians and as the Church, go forth in that power alone.” In a 1950 article, Bell passionately claimed, “We must have a revival…we need more than anything else the power which comes alone from the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.” Only as God’s people humbled themselves and sought God in repentance and confession would the Spirit’s power come and revival occur.
Another ingredient for religious revival in America was a willingness to set aside denominational boundaries in order to foster evangelistic success. What was required was a “bigness of soul and spirit which welcomes true evangelism and evidence of spiritual power wherever it may be found.” Nelson Bell chided his Presbyterian readers for failing to pay attention to the Gospel ministry of “sideline” Protestant churches: “we have looked into the preaching of many of the pastors of these smaller churches and we find that most of them are preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he noted. “We find that God is blessing their ministry and honoring their witness to Him and His Word. We find a fire and a zeal too often lacking in our own pulpits.” The lesson here was that “revival will come when Episcopalians and Pentecostalists, Presbyterians and Baptists, Nazarenes and Methodists and others are willing to get down before God and pray for an outpouring of His Holy Spirit.”
Equally important, perhaps, was a belief that God still used mass evangelism and other evangelistic strategies to win people to the Christian faith. Nelson Bell, for one, pled that people “stop this talk of the day of mass evangelism being past. God yet uses any and every method which exalts Him and His Word. Certainly America needs the impact of this message—the message of salvation for sinners. Let us use and promote any method which brings men to know Him.” John R. Richardson also defended such evangelistic methods, nothing that “the most devoted servants of Christ have never felt ashamed to engage in street-corner evangelism.”
Even as they hoped and proclaimed that revival was possible, southern Presbyterian conservative leaders wondered why revival had not yet come. One elder suggested that the problem could be found in the general worldliness of the church: “The plain, blunt truth is that we church people, year after year, slowly but surely, have been compromising more and more with worldliness until the Holy Spirit simply does not see fit to use us as the human instruments through which to bring about a great revival in the church.” Not only were church people exhibiting worldliness which was preventing revival, but so were church leaders. Nelson Bell claimed that “if the pastors and officers will set the example necessary and with this example earnestly pray for the guidance of God’s Spirit we believe revival and blessing is sure to follow. Worldliness in the church is a symptom of spiritual sickness. Let us seek the cure of the disease, the symptoms will then disappear.” Preston Sartelle noted that “it becomes absolutely necessary to have an awakening and restoration in Christian lives before we can have a successful and sustained evangelistic outreach.” Such awakening meant that Christians needed to “put off sin and put on Christian living and service.”
Tied to the issue of worldliness was a spirit of indifference and complacency within the church that hindered the outpouring of the Spirit. “Why is there so much back-patting and so little getting down on knees and crying out to God for a spiritual awakening?” Nelson Bell asked rhetorically. “We believe it is because indifference and complacency have infected Christians and churches as a canker and we believe only a work of the Holy Spirit can bring about the revival which is necessary.” Such indifference was demonstrated in the fact that so few Christians were willing to pay the price for revival. “If we are to have a revival,” Bell held, “it will have to begin in our own hearts and we will have to open them to the cleansing and filling of the Holy Spirit.” Such a price would include “a total surrender of our minds, our wills, and our bodies.” If Christians would pay the price, revival could and would come.
For PCUS conservatives, the clearest reason for the lack of revival was the church’s failure to maintain a consistent doctrinal witness. In 1952, to make this point clear, a group of ministers and laymen took out a full page advertisement in the Southern Presbyterian Journal. The text of the advertisement made clear the connection between revival and clear doctrine: “The greatest need of the Church and the greatest need in America is a revival of Christian faith and practice; the weakness of the Church centers in her attempt to cater to men, through diluting the Christian faith and watering down the Christian message; the power of the Church stems from the presence of the Holy Spirit and revealed in body of truth which men are to believe and by which they live.” Repeatedly, southern Presbyterian conservatives made the clear connection between doctrinal faithfulness and spiritual renewal. “The one thing which can revitalize the Church, under the power of the Holy Spirit, is a restatement of the content of Christianity itself,” Nelson Bell observed. “The weakness and the failures of the Church in our age are due to a departure from the things which constitute the Gospel message.” At the end of the day, it seemed to be prima facie that “when one becomes committed to the modernistic position he has lost his power to win souls” and hence to see revival.
Central to this message is the church’s traditional emphasis upon the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Bell believed that “maximum spiritual power is in part conditioned on faith in the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures.” Because many in the PCUS were teaching a low-view of biblical inspiration and authority, the church was lacking in spiritual power. This failure of faith in the Bible’s authority characterized most of the Protestant churches in America, explaining both the low-tide of spiritual power and the sense of national decay. And yet, the answer was not simply apologetics that demonstrated the inspiration of Scripture; the final and sole solution was actually revival. “The solvent which will end controversy and restore to our church the emphasis which is paramount and central will be a genuine revival in our own hearts and in the courts of our church as well,” Bell held. “That is the solution and we do not believe there is any other.”