Billy Graham, the first and most enduring of the modern American evangelists, brought his mission to Britain 35 years ago. He returns next week, after talking to A.N. WILSON, who found him crusading in New York State.
27 May 1989

There is something immediately likeable about Billy Graham. I think it is his combination of genuine intellectual humility with a rather innocent personal vanity.

He freely admits that he does not understand the intellectual questions which have led so many people in the West to lose their religious faith, and he has no time for modern biblical scholarship. "I can't explain it all," he smiles, tapping his copy of the Bible - the King James version. "I accept it by faith."

At the same time, one notices that this 70-year-old does his best to freeze his features for the photographer into expressions which have now been reassuringly familiar to the faithful for nearly half a century. He has been liberal with the lip gloss. The hair is regularly dyed - when a New York hairdresser once got the shade too garish, Graham summoned another one to do a better job - but he dresses modestly in suits off the peg from Sears.

I met him at a Holiday Inn in Syracuse, New York State, where he was conducting a crusade. It was not the hotel where we were both staying, and I was not informed of the location of the interview until I was taken there by a driver who did not himself realise whom we were going to meet, even though he was an employee of the Billy Graham Organization. I could not tell whether this cloak-and-dagger stuff was necessary for security, or whether Dr Graham himself just liked it. Thus we met in the unlikely setting of a bedroom, surrounded by large double beds and trays of ersatz coffee and Danish pastries. He has become deaf and lame, the result of a bite from a Brown Recluse spider at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. But his hand shake is as firm as ever, and his eyes are as blue and as penetrating. Their hypnotic quality derives partly from the fact that he suffers from a deficiency of the tear ducts and is unable to weep.

As he spoke, the line from an old song drifted into my head - "You oughta be in pictures". I was not at all surprised when, in the middle of a conversation about the Sermon on the Mount, he dropped in the phrase, "When Paramount Films made me an offer to be in films, I told 'em I'm never going to do anything so long as I live except preach the Gospel."

"What were they offering you?" I asked. "Was it to preach on the screen?"

"Oh, no." He was anxious to get this straight. "They wanted me to be an actor. That would've been in the spring of 1950."

"Would they have offered you religious roles?"

"Well, I have no idea. Mr. de Mille, by the way, was at the table, too."

In the version of this story which Graham told his official biographer, Cecil B de Mille offered him "an important supporting part" in Samson and Delilah. "But I just laughed. I told them I was staying with God."

One notices that he had got as far as sitting round a table with Paramount, and took the trouble to have a lawyer present. The temptation must have been real. Perhaps the difference between Paramount and the career Billy had mapped out for himself was that Cecil B. de Mille only offered him an important supporting part, whereas God offered him a lead.


William Franklin Graham Jr's own religious conversion took place in September 1933, when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy in Charlotte, North Carolina. He went to hear the famous fire-and-brimstone preacher Mordecai Ham, who was conducting an 11-week revivalist mission in the area. Billy had gone along to hear Ham in a resistant mood. He was angry with Ham for claiming that “fornication was rampant among the high-school students at Central High in Charlotte", a generalization which struck Billy as wildly untrue. But the atmosphere of the revivalist services, the bright lights, the big crowds, the gospel choruses sung by the choir "in white shirt-sleeves with faces shellacked with sweat" created a powerful impression, and when the preacher one evening pointed in Billy's direction and bellowed, "You're a sinner!", the destiny of the future evangelist was sealed. "There's a great sinner here tonight," Ham repeated, and Billy Graham felt that it was him. After some attempts within himself to resist, he gave in, and returned home to his parents' farm to inform them, "I'm saved, Mother, I got saved." His mother cried a little, and said, "Son, I'm so glad for what you did tonight."

Billy was the eldest of four children. The family was reasonably prosperous, and presumably, if he had not received the call from God, Billy would have been a dairy farmer like his father. He was up at five every morning to help milk the cows, and even now, beneath the showbiz veneer and the film-star good looks, he is very recognizably a countryman.

His desire to preach the Gospel never wavered after his initial conversion, and in 1940 he entered the Florida Bible Institute and was subsequently ordained in the Baptist ministry. He then spent a brief period at the prosperous little liberal arts college at Wheaton, Illinois, which now boasts an enormous Greek revival building in honour of its most famous alumnus, known as the Billy Graham Center. He did not read theology at Wheaton; indeed, as he told me, he had never studied divinity in an academic way at all. At Wheaton he read anthropology, and it was here that he met his wife, Ruth, a fellow-student, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China. Even at this early stage, Billy was revealing his extraordinary qualities of oratory. It was not long before he was catapulted from being a preacher at United Gospel Tabernacle, Wheaton (in the suburbs of Chicago), to being a popular radio evangelist on one of Chicago's most popular religious shows, Songs in the Night. That started in 1943, and some of the figures who were with him on that show, most notably George Beverly Shea, the gospel singer, are still part of the Billy Graham entourage. For the next six years he built up his reputation, preaching to hundreds of thousands of people at missions and crusades all over the United States.

A decisive turn in Billy's early evangelistic career came during a visit to Los Angeles in 1949, when his star potential was noted by William Randolph Hearst. "When God gets ready to shake America, he might not take the PhD and the DD and the ThD. God may choose a country boy! God may choose a little nobody to shake America for Jesus Christ in this day!" When this speech was reported to him, Hearst sent a famous memo to all his editors - PUFF GRAHAM.

Billy Graham has been in the limelight ever since. And from the beginning, he has never lost the distinctive twin hallmarks of his approach: a simple adherence to old-fashioned salvationism combined with an equally innocent delight in the company of famous and powerful people. He has been close to two presidents - Eisenhower and Nixon - and on terms with each one since Truman. In a country where very nearly a third of the population claim to be born-again Christians, Billy's place in the scheme of things has not diminished as the years pass.

William Blake wrote: "The strongest poison ever known/Came from Caesar's laurel crown." For those who see the truth of these words there will be a paradox in the thought of an evangelist who enjoys a round of golf with Richard Nixon. As easily could one imagine John the Baptist attending chariot races with Pontius Pilate.

For Billy Graham, these encounters with power have a genuinely Christian purpose and he spoke to me admiringly of the religious position of the established church in England. "You have a state church which means that you can do things religiously, which we cannot do in this country."

It's an old idea - perhaps as old as Constantine - but are not the demands of the Gospel so otherworldly as to be irreconcilable with the demands of practical politics? Did such questions ever crop up, I asked him, when golfing with Richard Nixon? He said that they did, but would give nothing further away. "I don't quote the Queen. I don't quote the Prime Minister. I don't quote the President," he said, with the satisfied tone of a man who was used to having private conversations with them all. True, he has moved away from his more hawkish positions, as when he assured Truman that the bombing of Nagasaki was the judgement of God, or urged Eisenhower to keep up the Cold War since anyone influenced by Communism was "controlled by the supernatural power of evil".

On Vietnam, he went on record as saying "We tend to blame America too much and the Vietcong too little." In 1969 he submitted to Nixon - whom he had known for 20 years and regarded as a man "of strong moral integrity" - a "Confidential Missionary Plan to End the Vietnam War". It involved withdrawing American troops and using North Vietnamese defectors to bomb the North.

This aspect of Billy Graham's career -his heavy commitment to the American Right- is not something which much affects his English audiences. He first came to London in 1954, when he was 35, preaching in the Harringay Stadium. It was not long before "Full up" signs were posted in nearby tube stations to repel the thousands who swarmed to hear him. Many British Christians, not all of them of an evangelical persuasion, began their life of faith at these rallies, which have been repeated at regular intervals ever since.

One of the secrets of his success is that he never asks his converts to join a particular church, merely to give their hearts to Christ. The counsellors who are on hand to advise those who are converted at the rallies usually direct you to the church with which you have some vague previous connection - whether Baptist, Anglican or Roman Catholic.

But undoubtedly another reason Billy became and has remained popular in England was the easy way in which he became an "institution". From the first, he has hob-nobbed with archbishops of Canterbury, lord mayors and monarchs, and his missions have always had a flavour of jamboree. Those who might mock his beliefs or oratorical techniques feel a soft spot for him of the kind they might feel for a much-loved if slightly hammy film star.

Moreover, there is something transparently straight about Graham. He is without humbug, and without embarrassment even when discussing potentially embarrassing things. He is not like the bogus television evangelists whose guilty secrets came tumbling out of motel closets so entertainingly some years ago - Bakker, Swaggart or Oral Roberts. All the most damaging things about him are worn openly on his sleeve, above all the easy way in which he appears able to identify the aims and method of the Republican Party with the messianic purposes of Christ.

I asked Billy how one could reconcile modern defence policies with the Gospel injunction to turn the other cheek, to resist not evil and so on.

"I don't think Jesus was a pacifist... he didn't lead any attack against Rome. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever led demonstrations."

He obviously thought that "pacifist" meant someone who got involved in violent demonstrations with the National Guard.

He conceded, "I think on a personal level, like when Peter took a sword and cut off the ear of a man, then that's a different thing from national."

"But aren't you asking a young man to take up a sword if you allow the existence of war?"

There was a long pause. 'Jesus predicted there'd be wars and rumours of wars till the end of time." He added, "That's predicted in the 24th chapter of Matthew."

What is not predicted in the 24th chapter of Matthew is that these wars would have been perpetrated by Christians themselves.

Graham takes a similarly breezy view of the Gospel call for poverty, the call to give away everything to the poor, to live as if there is no tomorrow, clothed like the lilies of the field and the fowls of the air.

"Now," he replied, "you're all dressed up in a nice suit and tie and I believe you came in a plane. How do you reconcile that?"

Fair comment, but, as I pointed out, I do not reconcile these things with Christianity; I regard them as hopeless contradictions and stumbling blocks, whereas he seems untroubled by the fact that he preaches about the "infallible word of Scripture" on the one hand while on the other hand disregarding Christ's most distinctive teachings, to divest yourself of property and not to resist evil by violent means. No doubt this is difficult to do if you are the head of an organization which in the end-of-year accounts, on 31 December 1988, had publicly declared net assets of $109,142,062, and the control of many lucrative television networks. "It must," I said, "be a problem."

"That's not my major problem," he replied. "My major problem is your soul, which lives within you and is eternal, which is going to heaven or hell depending on the choice you make about Christ."

How can he tell whether people have given their hearts to Christ?

"We know how many receive Christ," he said. "We know all that on our computers." And he began to speak of his television ratings, and the way in which he had built up control of primetime on ABC, NBC and other television networks. I found his belief in television more puzzling than his beliefs in theology. He would hear nothing of my suggestion that television was an essentially spurious medium on which it was next to impossible to say anything serious.

"I'm not going to criticise the medium I have used so well," he said. The fact that televangelism, of which he was the first exponent, has developed a shady history, did not really worry him.

Members of the audience at a Billy Graham rally in Syracuse, New York State, last month.

Graham stood aloof from the absurdities of such holy rollers as Oral Roberts, who assured his devoted viewers on television that God would "call him home" unless they sent in their money ("You give me $100 and God'll give you $1,000"), or Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, whose sexual antics in motels and elsewhere created the scandal known as Gospelgate or Pearlygate.

Bakker's multi-million dollar PTL Organization (Praise the Lord was its real title, though cynics thought the letters might have better stood for Pay the Lady or Pass the Loot) established a sort of Christian Disneyland in South Carolina where the faithful could see replicas of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Crystal Palace and Noah's Ark. Trips could be arranged through Heaven or Hell. You could sit inside Jonah's whale. In the midst of this fun park, known as Heritage USA, is to be found Billy Graham's Boyhood Home, bought by Bakker from an unscrupulous estate agent after the death of Billy's mother.

"I've never been there," said Billy, clearly uncomfortable on this subject. Then he chuckled. "I don't get upset with things," he added. And it was clear that he was telling the truth. Obviously, it was annoying to have his name associated with a charlatan like Bakker, but it would perhaps have been more annoying to have been left out of Heritage USA altogether.

No one has ever been able to accuse Graham of corruption on the vulgar level of the other televangelists - he gave control of his financial affairs to a board of businessmen in 1950, and receives a straight salary of $59,100 (36,500) a year, plus $19,700 (12,000) housing allowance. But has he in fact been more insidiously corrupted?

"When Jesus was tempted by the Devil," he said, "he didn't argue or struggle, he just quoted Scripture." It has to be added that Jesus also turned down the kingdoms of this world and the glory thereof.

What is one to make of a man whose only public condemnation of Nixon after the Watergate scandal concerned the use of bad language on those notorious tapes? It seemed like the archetypical example of the puritan ability to strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel.

Does salvationism itself numb the moral sense? ("I'm goin' to Heaven solely on the basis of what Christ did on that Cross. If He hadn't died on that Cross, I would be a lost sinner.") But I sensed the faintest soft-pedalling even of the old, old story which Graham has been telling since he was 16. He told me, for instance, that he had changed his mind about Hell.

"I used to think of it as, you know, Dante's Hell. Now I think of it more like separation from God."

If he went on at this rate, there might even be some meeting-ground between himself and the Bishop of Durham. But no, he said. He and the bishop disagreed theologically, though they "disagreed agreeably". He had, needless to say, met the bishop on television.

He looked forward to his crusade in London next month with excitement. "I'm going to see Terry Wogan," he said. "He's having me on his show. And David Frost. Do you know David Frost?"

I said that was not my privilege.

"I've known David since he was 13. His wife is just a lovely person. She's the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, Corinna. Lady Corinna, I should say."

It was hard not to be disarmed by this line of talk, but I wondered later in the evening, as I attended one of his rallies in an enormous sports stadium, whether the fire had gone out of his belly.

The Billy Graham rally has followed a more or less set form for the past 40 years. There is a warm-up routine, usually by his trusted old colleague Cliff Barrows, some gospel songs, and then usually a number by the choir. In Syracuse, where he had not held a mission since 1953, and where his followers were hoping for crowds of 20,000, the numbers were slightly down. Only about 14,500 turned up the night I attended. The choir of 3,000 was impressive, though, and by the time they had sung "How Great Thou Art" with Bev Shea, we were all in a suitably receptive mood to be told how to fill out a banker's order to the Billy Graham Organisation. Each service sheet had one of these forms attached to it, and there was a pause while donations were collected by the ushers in giant cardboard tubs.

Then Billy stepped forward.

His pulpit manner is very different from the time when I last heard him preach live in the 1960s. There were jokes and pleasantries, and much of the time was devoted to purely secular considerations. On the night I heard him, we were all reeling from the news that Lucille Ball was dead.

"I can't but help think of Lucille Ball," Billy told us. "I had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions. The world is going to miss that great comedienne. I saw former President Reagan on TV talking about her and what a great friend he was to her. I went to see the Reagans the other day in their new home in California. What wonderful people they are. I'm not a Democrat or a Republican tonight."

His theme for the evening was "a cure for heart trouble", and he launched into the tale of Eleanor Roosevelt asking the great Jewish leader Bernard Baruch ("I knew him well," Billy added) which to follow if her head was at war with her heart. "Follow your heart," said Baruch. Billy rambled for about quarter of an hour after telling this anecdote, reminding us that it was National Organ Donor Week and quoting a number of miscellaneous texts in which the word "heart" occurred. Then he gave us a glimpse into his own heart.

"Sometimes I have to fall down on my knees and say to God, O God, cleanse me and forgive me, I've spent too much time in front of that screen tonight when I should have been prayin'. Prayin' for the people of Africa." He paused. Then he added, "I was watchin' a little bit o' The Ten Commandments the other night, they had it on one of the stations. Now Pharaoh, he hardened his heart..."

Did the thought of the great biblical epic stir thoughts in him of the decision he had made in 1950 to put such things behind him and strive for a more substantial role in American history than Gary Grant or Lucille Ball? Whatever it was, his reverie about glimpsing The Ten Commandments on television seemed to jump-start him into his old routine, and we at last heard the Billy we had all been waiting for.

"Now Pharaoh hardened his heart… And it'll be too late for you if your heart is hardened. It'll be too late. You say, 'Now, Billy," and we appeared to be saying it to him in a southern accent deeper than his own, "Ah've bin baptised, ah've bin confirmed. Ah try to lead a good life, but Ah don't alwuz succeed."

I sat up at this point because as it happened these had been almost my very words to him that morning, as we parted over the uneaten Danish pastries.

"But that is not ENOUGH! You've got to pray to God to give you a new heart. It'll be too late for you if your heart is hardened. It'll be too late..."

And then, as the choir crooned 'Just as I am", he asked us to come forward and give our hearts to Christ. About a thousand people did so. Since I was already on the floor of the auditorium in the Press seats there was some ambiguity about whether I was forward or not. His words to the new converts were rather moving. He told them about an old woman who was asked why she went to church. "She replied, 'I go to show which side I'm on.' That's not a bad reason." I didn't think it was a bad reason either.