The ‘Religious Affections’ of Billy Graham’s Evangelism

On the evangelist’s 99th birthday, we look at the role desire played in so many decisions for Christ.
The ‘Religious Affections’ of Billy Graham’s Evangelism
Image: David McNew / Getty Images

Deciding for Christ

In the fall of 1958, Billy Graham returned to his hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina, for a five-week crusade. He was just thirty-nine years old, but he already had ten years’ experience preaching around the world to the largest crowds ever to hear an evangelist. By the time of the Charlotte crusade, he knew exactly what to do at the end of his half-hour sermon. With the organ softly playing the hymn “Just As I Am,” he closed with these words:

I’m going to ask all of you in this building to get up out of your seat right now. … And say tonight, “I want Christ. … I want him to fill my life. I want him to help solve my problems and forgive my sins and lift my burdens. I want him to come in and be closer than a brother. I want him to come in and help me and forgive me and cleanse me. …” I’m going to ask you to come right now. … Now you come, quickly.

Nearly a half-century later, an eighty-seven-year-old Graham was in Baltimore where he gave one of his last public sermons. With the piano softly playing “Just As I Am,” he ended by saying,

I’m going to ask you to do something that we’ve seen thousands of people do in different parts of the world. I’m going to ask you to say, “I do want my life to change. I want to be certain that if I die I’ll go to heaven.” I’m going to ask you to come and make this decision. Make certain that you know Christ as your Lord and Savior. You may want to rededicate your life. You come.

Thus, Billy Graham concluded his sermons with more or less the same words for more than sixty years. He invited his listeners to get out of their seats and come forward to show that they had made a decision for Christ.

And come forward they did. From the very beginning of his preaching, people responded to his invitation in far greater numbers than anyone expected. The very first time he ever gave an invitation he was a “boy preacher” in a little storefront church. Nearly a third of the one hundred people there came forward. A few years later Graham was one of several staff evangelists for Youth for Christ. Fellow evangelist Chuck Templeton noted that night after night, Graham “got more results than anybody.” Everyone in Youth for Christ thought that Templeton was the better preacher, but when he and Graham preached on consecutive nights in the same circumstances, Graham won the bigger response. “I would get seventeen,” Templeton recalled, and “he would get twenty-three, or I would get two hundred and he would get three hundred.”

This is the puzzle of Billy Graham’s preaching. Why did so many people in so many times and places get out of their seats and come forward? Not even the biographer William Martin was able to figure it out. “The reasons,” he concluded, “defy facile explanation.” No one, including Graham’s wife, ever rated him a great preacher. Critics often ridiculed his exaggerations—“seventy-five percent of all movies are immoral”— and his oversimplifications—the rise of the Soviet Union was “masterminded by Satan himself.” After Graham’s 1950 crusade in Portland, Oregon, Christian Century magazine struggled to understand how such “immature” homiletics could prove so compelling to an audience. And nearly everyone, including Graham himself, observed that his sermons had an unmistakable sameness to them. Yet, at the end of every sermon, people streamed forward anyway. Why?

Graham’s sermons over time suggest a pattern. Though the destination was a decision, the road was desire. Consider the first two paragraphs of this essay. Notice that in both those invitations Graham gave his listeners a script for a dialogue they should initiate with God. Notice especially how every sentence of the dialogue began with the words, “I want.” People may not have known exactly why they came to the crusade, but Graham did. They came hoping for help with some kind of problem in their lives. The purpose of his sermon was to get them see that they wanted help and wanted change. His method was to awaken desires that his listeners brought with them to the crusades, either by rousing slumbering desires or sharpening desires already astir. Having awakened desire, he would then channel it toward the only thing that would satisfy it—a decision to begin a new life in Christ.

This formula was nothing new. It had been discovered two centuries earlier by one of America’s greatest theologians, Jonathan Edwards.

Awakening Desire

Back in the 1740s, the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards was trying to understand the revivals of religion that had happened under his own preaching and under that of the evangelist George Whitefield. After much experience and thoughtful analysis, the sharply analytic Edwards concluded that emotions—in those years called “the affections”—lie at the heart of true religion. The emotions, he wrote, are “the spring of men’s motion and actions” in all matters, worldly and religious. The emotions motivate our actions by awakening and uniting our understanding and our will. One of the most important emotions is desire, and Edwards cited numerous Bible passages to demonstrate that the desire to know and live for God is the foundation of true Christian faith. He therefore reasoned that all religious practices—preaching, singing, worship, and sacramental rituals—ought to appeal to the emotions, especially the emotion of desire.

In recent years, evangelical writers have given new attention to the role of desire in Christian life. The philosopher James K. A. Smith’s 2009 book Desiring the Kingdom tries to move the focus of Christian education away from a preoccupation with the mind and toward inclusion of the heart. “We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals,” Smith argues. What we desire defines who we are and “what we worship.” Writing a couple of decades before Smith, the Baptist preacher John Piper rose to popularity with a book called Desiring God. The book borrowed heavily from Edwards to say that people come to Christ not through thoughts or ideas but through their desires, which he described as the things people crave. Piper argued that evangelism should not persuade people to make decisions for Christ; it should lead them to desire Christ.

But Graham—who had named his magazine Decision and his radio program Hour of Decision—had good reasons for emphasizing decision. When he was starting out as an evangelist in the 1940s, mass revivalism had endured two decades of hard times. In the 1920s the decline of the bigger-than-life Billy Sunday and the advent of the fictional but all-too-believable Elmer Gantry had made many Americans skeptical about evangelists. So in November 1948, during a crusade in Modesto, California, Graham called his team together and asked them to come up with a list of the ways evangelists damaged their own reputations. They immediately thought of the obvious personal sins that might bring down any religious leader—financial irregularity and sexual impurity—but they also thought carefully about problems particular to mass evangelism. One was inflating success, so they chose to call those who came forward at the end of the sermon inquirers rather than converts. They also determined to keep careful counts of attendance and inquirers, rely on outside counts whenever possible, and report only conservative estimates to the press. Another problem was the perception that people came forward solely because the evangelist had whipped them into an emotional frenzy. So Graham and his team resolved to limit emotionalism in their services. To put further distance between what they were doing and the taint of emotional manipulation, they adopted the term decision to describe the commitment people were making when they gave their lives to Christ. A decision did not exclude emotion, but it did emphasize that coming forward was a calm, rational, and considered choice.

Despite downplaying emotion, Graham continued to be hit with the charge that he was manipulating people’s feelings to get them out of their seats. Whenever a Graham crusade arrived in a new city, the newspapers asked local ministers to comment. In the mid-1950s ministers frequently criticized Graham for using mass psychology and religious emotionalism. Graham became so sensitive about this that he often mentioned it when he met with the press. In 1954 he promised that there would be no “mouth-foaming hysterical emotionalism” at his upcoming three-month crusade in London. At the end of one sermon in Manchester, England, in 1961 he abruptly stopped and said, “I have been criticized for emotional appeal, for choirs singing softly and for artificially urging people to come forward. Tonight the choir will not sing. I will just say, ‘Come forward.’” And they did—twelve hundred people, much to the surprise of skeptical onlookers.

Despite his disclaimers, Graham actually had mixed feelings about emotional appeals. He knew that the main obstacle an evangelist faces is complacency, and that there is no better solvent for complacency than strong emotion. His ambivalence about emotion was never on better display than in a sermon he gave at the 1965 Houston crusade. He told the Bible story of the Philippian jailer who was so terrified by an earthquake that he threw himself at the feet of Paul and Silas, asking what he must do to be saved. Graham acknowledged that this was an emotion-driven conversion, and he praised it. The church, he said, needs more emotion:

I know that in this type of evangelistic services one of the accusations … is, “It’s too emotional,” and we have leaned over backwards not to have any emotion. … But I believe we have made a mistake. I believe we need to feel our faith in Christ.

He then praised the emotional conversions of John Newton and Martin Luther, both occasioned by intense fear in the middle of a major thunderstorm.

But as Graham continued his sermon he was soon urging his listeners to ignore their emotions:

As you go through this world with all its storms and its trials. … keep your eyes on the Bible, keep your eyes on Christ, and you won’t go wrong. Don’t you follow your feelings. You follow Christ.

By the end of the sermon, however, he finally found his way back to a more balanced position. He said that belief in Christ requires commitment, and

[c]ommitment involves the mind, the emotions and the will—the whole man is involved when you come to Jesus Christ. … My mind says he must be the Son of God. My emotions watch him on the cross dying and suffering and bleeding . . . and I say . . . I could follow a man like that. But I’m not really saved, I’m not going to heaven until my will makes the final decision.

Late in life Graham revised his own conversion narrative along similar lines. For most of his adulthood he described his conversion like this:

I didn’t have any tears, I didn’t have any emotion, I didn’t hear any thunder, there was no lightning . . . I didn’t feel all worked up. But right there, I made my decision for Christ. It was as simple as that.

But in his 1997 autobiography he described it more holistically:

Intellectually, I accepted Christ to the extent that I acknowledged what I knew about Him to be true. That was mental assent. Emotionally, I felt that I wanted to love Him in return for His loving me. But the final issue was whether I would turn myself over to His rule in my life. … That was the moment I made my real commitment to Jesus Christ. … I simply felt at peace.

Graham was never enough of a systematic thinker to articulate exactly how he understood the role of emotion in Christian faith, but his functional model of conversion involved a person’s understanding, emotion, and will all working in concert. His framework of how one comes to faith was, in fact, not so different from that of Jonathan Edwards.

Moments of Decision

Most of the crusade 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. Unlike a sports contest, there was no competition, no winners and losers, no beer vendors, no cursing, no cocky young men strutting and spitting, no dancing young women in skimpy outfits. 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.”

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 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, 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 forty-four 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.

Michael S. Hamilton, vice president for programs and special initiatives at the Issachar Fund, is currently working on the book Calvin College and the Revival of Christian Learning in America (Eerdmans, forthcoming).

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.

June
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The ‘Religious Affections’ of Billy Graham’s Evangelism