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Christian History Home > News > 2005 > One Last Gotham Visit for Billy Graham


One Last Gotham Visit for Billy Graham
The evangelist's upcoming New York crusade recalls his historic confrontation with segregation, fundamentalism, and mainline theology nearly 50 years ago.
Collin Hansen | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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His body racked by age and infirmities, Billy Graham will depend heavily on the Holy Spirit to endure his speaking schedule for the New York City crusade later this month. The 86-year-old evangelist is determined not to let even hearing loss, prostate cancer, and Parkinson's disease stop him from delivering the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Nearly 50 years ago, during his first major Gotham crusade, Graham faced different—yet similarly daunting—impediments to his ministry. Instead of disease, Graham warded off withering attacks from Reinhold Niebuhr, fundamentalists, and segregationists. The remarkable response to Graham's preaching effectively marginalized the extreme ends of the theological spectrum and helped carve out a prosperous middle ground for the burgeoning civil rights and evangelical movements.

Confronting the Mainline Establishment

Granting a rare interview, Graham this week told The New York Times that sentiment prompted him to choose New York City for what could be his last crusade. Given the significance of his 1957 crusade, the symbolism is obvious. Only eight years earlier, Graham burst onto the American scene in Los Angeles, and his 1954 visit to London marked Graham as a global figure. But New York City had yet to embrace the dynamic young evangelist.

Leading the charge against Graham was none other than Reinhold Niebuhr, the venerable professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In an article for Life magazine, Niebuhr vigorously denounced Graham for presenting Jesus as the all-sufficient answer for man's ills. "Perhaps because these solutions are rather too simple in any age, but particularly so in a nuclear one with its great moral perplexities, such a message is not very convincing to anyone—Christian or not—who is aware of the continuing possibilities of good and evil in every advance of civilization, every discipline of culture, and every religious convention," Niebuhr wrote. "Graham offers Christian evangelism even less complicated answers than it has ever before provided."

Despite repeated requests by Graham, Niebuhr refused to meet with him. So Graham simply complimented Niebuhr and explained away their differences. "I have read nearly everything Mr. Niebuhr has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning," Graham told reporters. "Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about. . . . If I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered they would walk out."

This charitable yet honest response was a common leadership tactic for Graham, as shown by Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley in their forthcoming book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham. He did not prolong the controversy, and with the crowds exceeding all expectations, Niebuhr's critique lost credibility. During 16 weeks of preaching at Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Ebbetts Field, and elsewhere, more than 2 million people attended crusade events, and more than 61,000 indicated decisions for Christ.

Retired Sen. Mark Hatfield turned out for the crusade's closing event, held in Times Square, to see Graham for the first time. "As those streets angled off of Times Square, and he was standing in the center and they had the platform and microphones and a PA system down those streets—it was just a mass of people in every direction and all funneled into the center of the square," Hatfield recalled for Christian History & Biography.




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