London Letter

Has Billy Graham Rekindled England’s Faith?

Beverly Baxter May 1 1954

London Letter

Has Billy Graham Rekindled England’s Faith?

Beverly Baxter May 1 1954

London Letter

Beverly Baxter

Has Billy Graham Rekindled England’s Faith?

THE NAME of Billy Graham meant nothing to the British public. It is true that for a month before his arrival there were bill posters all over London proclaiming his coming meetings in the Harringay Arena but no one cared very much. I never heard of him until four months ago when a St. Catharines (Ont.) reader of Maclean’s sent me a magazine article about him.

I mention these facts to show that this young American evangelist had set himself a difficult task, made no easier by a newspaper interview in America which quoted him as saying that Britain had to be saved from the evil effects of socialism.

The Left-wing British newspapers let out a loud blast of rage, and were not calmed by Dr. Graham’s statement in America that he had not used the word "socialism” but "secularism.” The British are reasonably credulous but "secularism” was hard to believe.

Perhaps the attendant publicity did no harm because, when Graham and his associates eventually arrived at Southampton he had become Dig news. Some of the liveliest reporters in Fdeet Street were in attendance at the quayside. Fortunately for Graham and his wife, the reporters liked them both and gave a perfectly fair account of their appearance and conversation. Then the cavalcade entrained for London.

Twenty-four hours later if you had been near the Houses of Parliament you would have witnessed an odd sight, considering that it was a Friday evening when neither House is in session. Cars were arriving from all directions and dumping their dinner-jacketed occupants. About 250 males had been invited by a group of MPs and peers to participate in a complimentary dinner to Graham.

The list of guests was quite imposing: In fact I have seen

nothing more imposing since last summer in Toronto when I attended the final directors’ luncheon of the Canadian National Exhibition.

A big room had been reserved at Westminster for the preliminary reception. Each of us was introduced personally to Graham, after which the waiters served sherry. What! That old devil John Barleycorn at an evangelist’s dinner? It was even so. The Palace of Westminster has its own customs and it would have been

A big room had been reserved at Westminster for the preliminary reception. Each of us was introduced personally to Graham, after which the waiters served sherry. What! That old devil John Barleycorn at an evangelist’s dinner? It was even so. The Palace of Westminster has its own customs and it would have been embarrassing and misleading to our young American guest if we had altered the established customs.

Graham made an interesting study as he went through the prolonged ordeal of introductions. He was obviously pleased when the Chaplain of the House of Commons came along, and he was very interested in meeting the senior Chaplain of the Fleet. There were also four or five generals.

We studied our guest of honor and came to the preliminary conclusion that he was a fine Scandinavian male type. He would have looked at home in the mountains on a pair of skis. His features are good, his hair reasonably blond and his manner is sincere and masculine. He was not putting on an act. He was neither effusive nor falsely modest. Considering some of the prima-donna performances that guests of honor usually put up, this was a pleasant change.

Then dinner was announced and we took our allotted places. With the exception of the Chaplain of the House of Commons who wore his clerical cassock (as this was his parish) the dinner jacket reigned without a single dissenter.

You will agree that so far this was something new in evangelical procedure. One does not think of the penitent in a faultless outfit from Savile Row. In fact, looking about the familiar dining room I thought how elegant it all looked compared to an ordinary night when we eat in our working clothes. Grace was pronounced by the Chaplain and the dinner began.

Eventually the eating and the drinking came to an end. We toasted

Her Majesty the Queen, and out came the

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cigars and cigarettes as at any other formal dinner. Graham did not smoke and he did not drink any wine.

The principal host (one of our fellows in the Commons) then rose and welcomed Graham to the Mother of Parliaments. He did not embarrass our guest with fulsome flattery but spoke of the spiritual hunger of Britain and told us that wide backing had come from British churches for the campaign. As for the financial side, he explained that half the cost of Graham’s meetings and general expenses was being met in Britain and the other half in America. “You will be glad to know that the cost of tonight’s banquet is being met in its entirety by an anonymous American friend.” This was received with loud applause.

And then it was time for the star turn. I did not envy Graham his ordeal. Here at the heart of the world he was to speak in the Palace of Westminster that has resounded to the eloquence of Disraeli, Walpole, Lloyd George, Churchill . . . And he was to speak to a gathering of professionals. A juggler called upon to perform before an audience of jugglers could not have faced a more difficult task.

If Graham was nervous he did not show it. His voice is resonant but never strident nor nasal. Its quality is pleasing and it is only rarely that he slurs his words in the American fashion. Without any notes he expressed his pleasure at meeting us and admitted his nervousness at having to speak in such a historic setting. He talked about his Scottish ancestors but did not hurl them at us.

Then he told of the spiritual revival in the United States. Churches that had been almost empty are filling again. On television two of the most popular programs are religious in character. People over there are finding life empty without something deeper than materialism and the hunt for distraction.

He had come to the conclusion that the British were also hungering for something more than worldly pursuits. He believed that if another John Wesley mounted his horse and took to the road there would be as great a response as in those far-off dayp.

Graham did not threaten hell fire nor offer free harps for the saved. It was a restrained, simple but dignified argument that mankind has been gripped for years in an era of the scorched spirit. He did not actually use those words but that was his message.

I looked around at the faces of the assembled saints and sinners. They had not come to pray or to scoff but to assess the calibre of this muscular Christian. Above all they wanted to see if he would open the emotional gates and try to flood us with the glory of his vision. But Billy Graham is obviously a man who knows not only what he is saying but how he is saying it. He was determined not to treat us like a public assembly.

Never once did he indulge in emotionalism. He might have been an ambassador from the Kingdom of the Spirit presenting his credentials at the worldly Palace of Politics.

“I like him,” said Cyril Osborne, a Tory MP on my left. “I like him, too,” said the Chaplain of the Fleet who was at our table. Graham had undoubtedly won a difficult audience because he was wise enough not to try to capture it.

A major-general proposed Graham’s health and did quite well for a majorgeneral. There were two or three other short speeches and the evening was nearing its end. But suddenly a young

man, not a politician, rose and asked the chairman if we could stand for two minutes in silent prayer for the success of Billy Graham’s mission to Britain.

The previous speeches, including that of Graham himself, had avoided emotionalism. Instead the emphasis had. been on the need for religion to offset the barren worldliness of contemporary life. Therefore, the sudden intervention of the two minutes’ silence was faintly embarrassing. Two minutes is a long time . . .

On the following Monday evening Graham held his first public meeting at the Harringa.y Arena. The arena is primarily a vast half which is devoted to cirouses, prize fights and occasional political, rallies during a general electio^. There is an open-air section dedicated to greyhound racing.

There was a whirlpool of humanity on the opening night with thousands of people trying to get into the arena to hear him; and not so many thousands trying to reach the dog-racing section. The Cockney must have his joke and there was a roar of laughter when a cloth-capped Londoner shouted: “If there’s a dog called ’Alleluia I’ll back ’im.”

In the great hall the journalists were sitting at their tables with pens poised. The condensed suppressed emotionalism of the vast crowd only needed one spark of hysteria from Graham and anything could happen.

But that is not Graham. His oratorical effects were, of course, broader than at Westminster—-they had to be —but he never descended to ranting nor hypnotism. He had come to tell the people that there was a better way qf life and that the Bible pointed that way for every man and woman. “I like him!” Everywhere one heard that same phrase which had been spoken spontaneously at Westminster.

There was a massed choir of a thousand and there were solos as well. At the end Graham asked those who wanted to lead the Christian life to come behind the platform where he would meet them. A trickle of 150, mostly young people, made up the response.

The newspapers were quite fair the next morning. They took the view that it was a welL-meant effort by the young American but implied that the show was a flop. The “hot gospeler” they had expected had not. materialized.

One reporter described Graham as a type often seen in America—a salesman of such superior appearance and manner that somehow he convinces you that his product is also superior. It was not a bad description of Billy Graham or America. The next night there were many empty seats. As for the newspapers, they had lost interest; they turned to the world, the flesh and politics once more.

But the empty seats at Harringay began to fill. Graham was right in his belief that the British people were hungry in spirit. One newspaper broke its silence and in noisy headlines asked Graham why he did not carry his message to that district in England where the U. S. Air Force is stationed and where the debauching of British girls is a disgrace both to Britain and America.

“I shall go there,” said Graham and he made plans accordingly. But first he had to fulfill his long engagement at Harringay Arena. Every night he labored with great audiences to point the way.

A Lot Of Opposition

I am not in a position to examine the spiritual balance sheet of Graham’s mission and say whether it shows a profit or a loss. But it does not mean that I have any doubts in my own mind. His pilgrimage to Britain can do nothing but good.

It is a foolish mind which attacks Graham on the charge that he has turned religion into big business. In a struggle between Good and Evil why let the devil have all the organization? If television and radio and the Press have made it possible for a holy man to speak and show himself to a million people why should he stand in the market square where only a few hundred can hear his words?

“He’s here to make the workers do what the bosses want.” That is the whine of the Communist Daily Worker. But is it necessarily wrong for workers to do what the bosses want? How can industry survive if there is hatred and suspicion between the employers and the employed?

But the opposition to Graham does not end there. Many clerics feel that the Word of God should only be preached in the temple. Sunday after Sunday they go through the ritual in their almost empty churches and preach their “Firstly,” “Secondly” and “Finally Brethren” sermons which have been their prop and comfort so long.

Atheism is not the deadliest enemy of the Christian religion. Atheism is almost a creed in itself for it declares: “I believe in disbelief.” The real enemy is indifference, which neither supports nor opposes the Way of God. And a smaller, but deadly foe, is the arrogant scientific mind which, because it has perfected the means of human destruction, thinks that it is more powerful than simple faith.

Weeks have passed since Billy Graham came to dinner at Westminster. H he does no more than relight the candle of faith we should be grateful, even if for a time it shows only a flickering flame, iç