Billy Graham was a born salesman, and he knew it. In the summer of 1936, after graduating from high school, he crisscrossed South Carolina selling Fuller brushes door to door. By the end, he had posted the best record in the state. The experience taught him a lesson he never forgot: If you have the best product in the world, then herald it with fervent conviction and the best marketing tools at hand.
This background informs the story Uta A. Balbier tells in her new book, Altar Call in Europe: Billy Graham, Mass Evangelism, and the Cold-War West. Balbier, a senior professor of history at Oxford University, offers sparkling prose, razor-edged analysis, careful research in English and German primary sources, and the critical empathy of a self-identified Christian scholar. The result is one of the most important books about Graham published in the past few decades.
Balbier’s main argument is simple: Graham integrated evangelical Christianity with modernity in fresh and vibrant ways. He powerfully furthered what she calls “the seismographic shift in the religious landscape from a ‘culture of obligation and duty to a culture of consumption and choice.’” In the words of one journalist she quotes, “That old time religion has gone as modern as an atomic bomb.”
Altar Call in Europe focuses on Graham’s landmark crusades in London (1954), Berlin (also 1954), and New York City (1957) while glancing at crusades in other places. Balbier elaborates her thesis by examining five ropes that bound American, British, and German lives together in the 1950s, despite substantial cultural differences: Cold War fears, rampant consumerism, crusade experiences, Graham’s charisma, and the life-changing results of his ministry. In all these areas, Balbier stresses, Graham stepped into a set of cultural processes already well in motion.
Cold War fears
During the era Balbier chronicles, the twin menaces of secularization and militant communism loomed large. For Graham’s partisans on both sides of the Atlantic, the solution was re-Christianizing the West. In Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade, he exclaimed, “If you would be a true patriot, then become a Christian.” Eight years later, Vice President Richard Nixon addressed the New York crusade and, not incidentally, brought personal greetings from President Dwight Eisenhower.
The coalescence of church and state was somewhat less conspicuous in Europe but was far from absent. Anglican Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher offered a benediction at the London crusade. Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Graham to meet him at 10 Downing Street, his private residence. The following year, Graham preached in a private chapel for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
In Germany the drive for re-Christianization was more tempered, partly because German evangelicals feared antagonizing church leaders in East Germany. Still, Lutheran state church bishops endorsed him and his work, albeit with reservations.
In all three countries, Graham was criticized for wrapping the cross in the flag, but the doubters did not win much attention. The 1950s were not the 1960s.
In the 1950s, the West idealized prosperity as much as freedom. The economic revolution of the times promised material abundance, technological marvels, and the pleasures of travel and leisure.
Graham embraced it all. The problem, he assured his audiences, was not the good life but a willingness to let it eclipse spiritual aims. It was a matter of balance. It was also a matter of human nature. The ability to choose one brand of soap over another was also the ability to choose Christ over a lesser good.
Balbier highlights not only Graham’s preached words but also the movies the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association produced. Consider, for example, Oiltown, U.S.A., released in 1952. It featured a hard-driving Texas oil man, Les Manning, who came to Christ under Graham’s ministry. Manning’s heart was changed—but not his consumer habits. As Balbier puts it, “Shiny cars drove past abundantly stocked shopwindows; thick steaks sizzled on the grill; ketchup bottles and milkshakes decorated the dining tables. God obviously blessed those who he loved.”
In Graham’s view, the Christian life was compatible with a (white) middle-class, suburban, nuclear-family lifestyle: Balbier writes of him “playing golf, relaxing in front of the fireplace, and enjoying the company of his family at the table, with Ruth serving dinner.” Europeans embraced these consumer aspirations as eagerly as Americans. Admittedly, a few resisted. To them it looked like Graham was selling salvation the same way Americans sold everything else.
Graham’s crusades set countless statistical records. In New York, there were 2,397,400 attenders and 61,148 “inquirers” in 16 weeks. London recorded 2,047,333 attenders and 38,447 inquirers in 12 weeks. Berlin saw 88,000 attenders in a single night. As Balbier remarks, even for traditionally reserved Germans, unaccustomed to revivals, Graham’s “pulling-power was immense.”
None of this happened by accident. Massive orchestration preceded everything: meticulous planning, mass advertising, systematic media exposure, and innovative programs that encouraged crusade-goers to bring friends. Balbier emphasizes the prayer chains. Arranged months or even years beforehand, they ran in what Balbier calls a “business-like manner.” Cities were divided into grids of neighborhoods, and neighborhoods into blocks. Graham’s top lieutenants made sure everything ran by the book, but they delegated the actual operations to local workers.
Three features of the prayer chains stand out. First is the conspicuous involvement of women, which is no surprise, given that they formed a slight but consistent majority in crusade meetings and generally controlled the domestic spaces where house meetings took place. Second, the prayer chains stretched around the world, creating a global evangelical community sustained not only on virtual waves of prayer but also on actual waves of international postal and telephone services. Third, the prayer chains solidified the demographic that supported Graham, which in the 1950s was disproportionately white—overwhelmingly so in Britain and Germany.
Graham’s ministry was celebrity focused. By all accounts, he was a man of exceptional personal humility, but he understood that he was the centerpiece. As did the press. Graham credited the Los Angeles newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst as pivotal to his success.
Avid media interest in Graham comes as no mystery. He made good copy, and good copy sold papers. As Balbier puts it, this “young, handsome, American evangelist, dressed in a sharp business suit and with a distinct southern drawl” commanded attention on both sides of the Atlantic. He embodied “the American Way of Life.” Playing golf with various American presidents, often in front of cameras, only added to his media visibility.
Then, too, Graham’s sermons were artfully simple. He was a master of short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. He laced his messages with illustrations drawn from daily life, including national and international political threats that ordinary people worried about. He never pretended to be a theologian. Rather, he focused on the evangelical essentials of God, Bible, sin, repentance, salvation, mission, and Christ’s second coming.
Critics accused Graham of naiveté. The German American theologian Paul Tillich admired his seriousness yet called his methods “primitive and superstitious.” But learned defenders appeared too. One Anglican dismissed the critics’ obsession with “the dry sawdust of theological correctitude.” German theologian Helmut Thielicke, once a sharp dissenter, visited a Graham meeting and publicly retracted his dissent. He wondered, in Balbier’s words, “what he and his colleagues lacked that made Graham’s mission necessary.”
Relying on first-person testimonies, Balbier plows new territory by paying close attention to the array of sensations crusade visitors remembered. Before entering, for example, they registered the smells of hot dogs and roasting chestnuts from sidewalk vendors. In auditoriums they felt the press of bodies, and in stadiums they endured heat and humidity or cold and rain.
Sounds undoubtedly predominated. Visitors heard the scraping of chairs, the clatter of conversation, the “clink of coins dropped into the offering tins,” the singing of massed worshipers, and the swelling voices of the choir. They took in the reverent baritone of soloist George Beverly Shea, the laughter at Graham’s self-deprecating jokes, and the crisp cadence of his preaching.
And then the silence, the stunning silence that fell once Graham finished his sermon, stepped back, and called for inquirers to descend the steps or walk the long aisle to the front. As Balbier explains, the process “turned the secular arena into a sacred space.”
Taken together, such smells, sights, and sounds formed the memory bank that visitors drew on to make sense of their experience.
The world stage
My only reservation with Altar Call in Europe is actually a compliment: It’s too short! Balbier could have added a concluding chapter exploring how (or to what extent) the conditions that fostered Graham’s transatlantic ministry in the 1950s persisted into the later decades of his remarkably long career.
In a brief epilogue, Balbier argues that in 1960s America, Graham’s influence was sustained by a “loyal and large evangelical community of followers” but was compromised (my word) by its “quasi-civil … reputation.” In Europe, growing secularization and dismay with American foreign policy eroded his base of support.
Balbier’s story effectively ends here, at a moment when Graham increasingly fixed his eyes on the world stage. In the 1970s and 1980s, the evangelist launched a series of megaconferences bringing together white, Black, and brown leaders from around the world.
Graham also changed personally in ways that made his message more compelling to global audiences. He became more attuned to racial (though not gender) injustices, warier of partisan entanglements, and dramatically more worried about nuclear war. He said less and less about hell, and more and more about heaven. But the fundamental message of human sin and God’s redeeming love never changed.
Grant Wacker is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Christian History at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.