Prophet of the New South
For many southern Presbyterians during the 1950s, their great hopes for a national revival were represented by Billy Graham. In fact, Graham came to represent a prophetic figure for southern Presbyterians; as his father-in-law, Nelson Bell put it: “There can be no question but that God has raised up for this generation a man of truly prophetic vision, for Billy Graham has a sense of divine call and destiny as impelling, in some measure, as the prophets of old.” Southern Presbyterians began following Graham’s ministry as early as 1948 while he served with Youth for Christ International. Five years removed from Wheaton College and his marriage to Nelson Bell’s daughter, Ruth, Graham’s evangelistic meetings in Des Moines, Iowa, were the first to be highlighted in the Southern Presbyterian Journal. Declared the greatest meetings since 1914 when Billy Sunday preached in that town, Graham’s team was credited with bringing 725 people to faith in Christ and an additional 417 “young people under the age of 35” to commit for full-time missionary service. One local business leader gushed, “This is the greatest thing that has happened in my 32 years as a Christian. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The turning point for Graham’s career was his 1949 evangelistic campaign in Los Angeles, during which William Randolph Hearst famously instructed his newspapers to “puff Graham”; it was also the sign to southern Protestants that Graham had arrived as the surrendered servant who would bring revival to America. Southern Presbyterian Journal editor Henry Dendy characterized the meetings as “one of the most remarkable and fruitful city-wide revivals in modern times” because Billy Graham “captured the imagination of the entire city and under the blessing of God’s Spirit has been the means of literally winning thousands for Christ.” Originally scheduled to last only three weeks, the campaign continued into its eighth week and was used to convert “some of Los Angeles’ best known citizens,” including Stuart Hamblen, a prominent radio host; even mob boss Mickey Cohen sent for Graham and “spent two hours talking to him about his soul.” Surely this was evidence that “the day of revival is not over”; all southern Presbyterians should pray “that these revival fires may spread over our land, not only to the salvation of countless souls but also to stem the tide of iniquity which is engulfing our nation.” Southern Presbyterians had to reason that if God could use Graham in a godless place like Tinseltown, then surely God could use him throughout America, north and south.
Two such places were central places in the South’s self-identity, Columbia, South Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, which Graham visited during 1950. He spent three weeks at Columbia, where he packed out the University of South Carolina football stadium with over 40,000 people. It was reported that “around 2,000 people were converted at this final Sunday afternoon service. It was said that strong men stood and wept under great emotion at the sight of the hundreds who came forward to accept Christ.” Such was evidence that “truly the day of revivals is not over.” Graham came to Atlanta at the end of 1950 in order to call the city “to repentance and to turning to Christ, ‘the only answer to world needs today.’” In one message, he told city leaders, “Prepare to meet God, oh, America,” highlighting the spiritual, moral, and social deterioration of the nation: divorce, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency and crime, sexual sin and sexually-motivated crime. “I think we are done for in this country unless we have a great revival—a great spiritual revival,” Graham said. His crusade once again was successful; and for the first time, all the nation could see it—from the unofficial capital of the South, Graham gave his first “Hour of Decision” broadcast on the American Broadcasting Company’s television stations.
As Graham’s ministry advanced, southern Presbyterians believed that they saw revival fires falling elsewhere, especially on the younger generation. Cary Weisiger III reported that spiritual emphasis week at Grove City College in Pennsylvania was unusually blessed, leading him to speculate that “perhaps what we are seeing today is an upsurge of religious revival unknown on our campuses for fifty years.” Others, like J. Kenton Parker, agreed; after noting Graham’s evangelistic success at Boston University and a recent spiritual uptick at Wheaton College, he suggested that “I feel that this is one of the most interesting ‘signs of the times’ and may be the beginning of a great outpouring of the Spirit upon us as a people.” Even H. H. Thompson, director of evangelism for the PCUS, hoped that there was “every reason to believe the Church is deeply stirred in the matter of evangelization and that surely God is speaking to His Church at this time.”
Graham’s triumphs throughout the South were reported with regularity in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Journal: Fort Worth was transformed with 12,500 nightly packing the Will Rogers Coliseum; Houston, the murder capital of the country, saw their Graham crusade extended an extra week; Chattanooga built a new auditorium to hold the Graham meetings; Dallas filled the Cotton Bowl with 75,000 people to hear Graham preach; and Montreat set abuzz by Graham’s appearance at the 1952 PCUS Church Extension.
Coinciding with his preaching at Montreat, an entire issue of the Journal was dedicated to his ministry. There was a retrospective of his southern preaching campaigns with Presbyterian pastors and elders testifying to the good which Graham had done in their respective towns. Repeatedly, his success throughout the South was attributed to “the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit.” Typical was the praise from John Reed Miller, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi: “I have never heard a more dynamic, Spirit-filled and gifted evangelist than Billy Graham. I am convinced that he is God’s man to bring the revival in America for which all of us have been praying…I gave all-out support to Billy Graham—and how grateful I am that I did! There has been a spiritual awakening throughout my entire church.” And one minister, reflecting on the effect of Graham’s ministry at the church extension conference, sighed, “In the past, Billy Graham has been used to reach a city for Christ. Here at Montreat this summer God has used him to reach an entire denomination.”
Soon it seemed clear that God intended to use Graham to reach the world for his sake. After a triumph season preaching to American troops in 1952 during the height of the Korean conflict, Graham prepared to conquer London with the Gospel in 1954. Six months prior to the beginning of the London meetings, the Journal editor requested “importunate prayer” for Graham’s ministry in England, “a practically pagan country.” In the weeks leading up to the March 1 start, details of the campaign’s preparation were reported to southern Presbyterian readers so that they might gain a sense of the magnitude of the spiritual battle, “a bold, valiant, and well organized challenge to win England back to Christianity.” The entire campaign was given full reportage in the Journal and the verdict became increasingly clear as the weeks rolled: London was experiencing “a work of God not paralleled before in our generation,” one that would result 36,431 people filling out decision cards. And there was great hope that the revival would not stop there; Nelson Bell pled for southern Presbyterians to “covenant to pray for a world-sweeping revival which will solve the problems of individuals and of nations. Too long we have limited Him by our puny faith.”
While southern Presbyterians continued to maintain an abiding love for and interest in Graham and his ministry, the London campaign was the height of their hopes for spiritual renewal. Here was a prophet who was wholly surrendered to the power of the Holy Spirit, preaching faithfully God’s Word and evangelical doctrines, cooperating with those of evangelical conviction across denominational lines in mass evangelism for the good of the nation and the world. Graham presented the true solution to the problems both the church and nation faced; as Nelson Bell put it, “The way out of our dilemma is to pray for such a mighty work of the Holy Spirit across America that we shall again center our interest, time, and money on winning souls to Jesus Christ. This controversy [on church union] can be used of the Lord to clarify our thinking on vital matters of both faith and polity. But it could also be used of Satan to disrupt, divert, and divide.”
As a matter of fact, the controversy over church union would distract southern Presbyterian conservative leaders from the need for revival. And Graham’s own 1957 crusade in New York City would cause great for them and other conservatives who had supported him that point, the result of his inclusion of key northern Presbyterian liberals like John Bonnell, pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, in the sponsorship of the crusade. By then, southern Presbyterians would have their own home-grown evangelists, like Bill Hill and his Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, who would seek spiritual renewal in smaller, southern venues.