Evaluating Billy Graham 50 years on

If there has ever been a genuine revival in Australia, it was surely in 1959 at the time of the Billy Graham Crusade. Everyone who was a part of it, speaks of it as the high point in Australian Christianity.



It seems never before or since have we, as a nation, experienced such a manifestation of robust Christianity. It was front page news and we, as Christians, were proud to walk down the street and have people identify us as believers.

Christianity was mainstream. It was culturally appropriate to be a Christian in the Australia of 1959. You could stand up in your school or workplace and say “I went to the Billy Graham Crusade last night” and get nods of approval in reply.

There might have even been a few in the room feeling a little envious of you. “I wish I had gone and seen what all the fuss is about,” they might think to themselves. “I wonder if he’s speaking anywhere else?”

He was. The Crusade lasted four months. Well, actually Billy and his team were in Australia four months, but in each major city there was rally after rally. He was in Sydney alone for four weeks.

He went to Melbourne, Launceston, Hobart, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth and even nicked over the ditch to NZ. He was heard by millions on land line as they gathered in their Church halls to be a part of the moment. The audio tapes were even flown to several Pacific Island nations so missionaries could use them, often acting as interpreter as they were played.

The ’59 Crusade was a massive event. It is estimated over 3 million Australians came to hear him preach, a quarter of the nation’s population. On average, around 5% of those who heard him went forward at the appeal.

For 50 years we have proudly announced his 143,000 is a record for the MCG. On his final day in Sydney (May 10th) both the Showground and the SCG were used simultaneously; an audience of 150,000 braved atrocious weather.

And so we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the great event (he touched in February and flew out in May) by reminiscing and by analyzing this phenomenon. Why was it so successful and why has it never been repeated; not even by Graham himself in subsequent trips?

I was not around for the ’59 Crusade, but I was there for the ’68 Crusade. Ah, the memories. There I was sitting on a picnic rug, playing with my matchbox cars, asking for something else to eat. To be honest, I have no memory of it; my older brother described the scene to me. I was 2½ and pretty much acted like it.

I was there in ’79 as well. I was 14 and went to every rally. Graham was only in Sydney for a week this time. He was 60 and a bit over all the hoopla of earlier years. Unfortunately, so were most Australian Christians.

The generation of kids who had rushed forward to accept Jesus in ’59 became the generation of parents who stopped sending their children to Sunday School. Both the ’68 and ’79 Crusades were built of the foundation of the first Crusade and were nowhere near as successful. (Graham also came out to Australian in 1969, but only preached in Melbourne)

Basically, it was believed that by bringing Billy Graham out every 10 years, the effects of 1959 would automatically be repeated. After all it was the same man with the same message. But Australia was not the same. The world was not the same.

I spent some considerable time recently reading Billy Graham’s autobiography Just As I Am. It’s a surprisingly interesting read. I say “surprisingly” because I thought it was going to be about his favourite hymns or something, however it is a journey through a dramatic time.

From post war America, Graham begins preaching to millions and finds himself on personal roller coaster, moving through a changing political landscape, being brought in and out of the White House, meeting world leaders and even finding himself being lined up for the Presidency.

His private conversations with Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ and Nixon et al. are fascinating as are the admissions of his personal doubts and mistakes.

The book says quite a lot about the 1959 trip to Australia. Graham had to leave his wife & five small children behind to make the trip and had just been diagnosed with a serious vision problem. This was a tough tour.

But the committee, led by such luminaries as Archbishop Howard Mowell (who died just before the Crusade began) did an incredible job with the logistical nightmare they must have been presented with.

There were warm up rallies in most of the major cities Graham preached at. These warm ups were led by second string evangelists from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They included Leighton Ford who preached in Brisbane. Ford was Graham’s brother in law and has continued his ministry to this day.

Note for Coffs Harbour residents: Leighton Ford was brought to Coffs in 1985 by a committee put together and managed by Alan Smith. The chairman was John Smith (no relation) who would go on to become Coffs Harbour’s Mayor soon after. This is often spoken of as Coffs Harbour’s own revival. There was a week of meetings in a 5000 seat tent pitched at the Showground. The tent was often full and the messages had a lasting impact on many local people.

Leading up to the Southern Cross Crusade (its original name) there were thousands of prayer meetings across the county; something like 3000 in Sydney alone! Masses of people were trained as counselors and hundreds joined choirs which were put on a roster in the bigger centres like Sydney.

There was intense media interest as well. The news papers and TV stations wanted to talk to Graham and hear his views on just about everything. He obliged and never seemed tired or frustrated. Sales of the Bible hit record highs across the country.

Graham held meetings with civic leaders and church leaders everywhere he went. And not all of the meetings were to “friendly” audiences. He went to Sydney University and preached a message challenging the students to consider the claims of God on their lives. In any era, this is a tough assignment and Graham did not back away from it. (More about this meeting soon)

It was a magnificent event staged beautifully and managed as well as could be imagined. More people turned up to the meetings than expected. Much more. And even atrocious weather didn’t stop people responding to the appeal, particularly at the last event in Sydney where the heavens opened right on cue.

And then there are all the anecdotal claims of lowering crime rates and fewer illegitimate births in the years following.

So, fifty years on, what do we make of the Billy Graham Crusade of 1959? More importantly, what has been its legacy. These questions can be answered simply; by all measures, the events of that time represent the only true revival Australia has ever experienced.

I’m not suggesting the whole country was converted. Obviously it was not, but it is impossible to imagine such a dramatic conversion of so many in so short a time without this Crusade.

In Sydney the staggering fact is around 5% of the population made a commitment at one of his rallies. That’s 57,000 becoming Christians (or at the very least claiming they had) in just four weeks. The statistics show that during the four months of the Crusade, around 2% of the entire Australian population made a decision for Christ.

Has there ever been anything to match this? Even if you were to be as sceptical as possible & claim those people were only swept up by emotion or perhaps went forward every night to swell the numbers, you can’t argue with the fact that they all received counselling and were referred to local churches.

Some churches received hundreds of referrals and had to employ new ministers just to cope with the influx. They literally did not have enough seats for their congregations the following Sunday. It’s staggering to think of this. Imagine an extra 200 people turning up to your church this week. At St Stephens in Sydney, 600 referrals were received. Unbelievable.

The Baptist churches were the greatest beneficiaries per capita. Baptists in 1959 accounted for just 2% of Christians in Australia, but they received over 10% of the referrals. Being a Baptist himself I suppose Graham’s message resonated with Baptist people somehow, but it’s not clear how because nothing in his messages was of a denominational nature.

So we must conclude that the Billy Graham Crusade of 1959 was a true revival in Australia. This cannot be said for his subsequent visits (1968 – Sydney, 1969 – Melbourne & 1979 – Sydney). Our churches are full of people today who made their commitment at this event. It’s a lasting spiritual legacy.

But what really makes me curious is how much of what happened 50 years ago could be repeated today. If Billy Graham was a 40 year today and we decided to bring him out to Australia, which are the elements of 1959 we would keep and which would we discard?

Here is my analysis;


Obviously the technology would change the way the Crusades worked. I suspect there would be no outdoor rallies organized due to the weather. The final day in Sydney was lousy. An old friend of mine who was a counselor that day told me of standing in front of Graham during the appeal and seeing ladies in their high heeled shoes sunk up to the ankle in mud. We have so many large indoor venues these days it would be unnecessary to go outside, even though there would be no world record crowds.

Graham would be seen on a big screen at the rally so those up the back knew what he looked like and it would be streamed live on the internet. Perhaps it would even be carried on live TV, but it’s hard to imagine a TV station considering it worthwhile.


There is simply no way a Crusade today would offer the music of 1959. By all measures this is the most significant change to the way we do things. Today, every rally would be warmed up by a “worship leader” and a world class band complete with light show.

In 1959 you had the big choirs and a piano; that was about it. The Crusade choir at the Myer music bowl rally in Melbourne was a standout. In Sydney there were two choirs; an “A” and “B” choir and they were rostered on to different rallies over the four weeks so singers could have a break. At the final rally in Sydney the ‘A’ choir was in the Showground and the ‘B’ choir was in the SCG next door singing simultaneously.

I think the best example of how different the music was 50 years ago is seen in what happened at the Saturday night youth rally in Sydney. Because it was youth night, the program was a little less structured than normal. This meant George Beverly Shea & Cliff Barrows could sing a duet of Old Time Religion to the accompaniment of a solitary piano. That was youth night!


I’m afraid I have to say some of what happened at the 1959 Crusade makes us cringe today. Most notably is the way everyone dressed up for the event. When you look at pictures of those people hopping off the double-decker buses you see men in suits and women in hats.

They dressed up not just in their Sunday best, but in their best Sunday best. Girls were over-frilled and boys lined up in safari suits. That’s what Australians did back then so don’t think if you were transported back there you would be wearing your jeans and T-shirt. That was not the culture, but to see it today is quite funny.

It’s as though the attenders had to show their respect for the event in the way they dressed. If you dressed like a dag, you were not serious about God I suppose.

But what happened at Mascot as Billy Graham prepared to leave our shores after four months takes the cake. Today, you might have a few dignitaries gather in the international terminal to thank him and say goodbye. They might then even watch as the plane took off in the distance. In 1959 we gave Billy the most overblown send off of all time.

Firstly, a stage was constructed on the tarmac just in front of the plane. (I’m serious – a wooden stage complete with banners and a P.A. system!) In those days passengers walked out onto the tarmac & boarded the plane via moveable steps. While the steps were being wheeled into position, Graham was asked to climb the platform of the ad hoc stage and say a few words to the crowd gathered in pelting rain. He gave a farewell speech which seemed more like a sermon.

There was a comment about how fast the four months had gone, all sorts of thank yous and some words about how John the Baptist had told his disciples to forget about himself and concentrate on Jesus, so the crowd had better do the same.

Then, as Graham waved and offered his final “God bless you”, the crowd spontaneously broke into song with To God be the Glory complete with harmony! It seems the Crusade choir didn’t want to quit.

At this point, Graham began to sing along; “… so loved he the world that he gave us his Son…”. Then, in a moment so foreign to us it seems like it was from another planet, the good folks singing to Graham pulled out their white handkerchiefs, held them up in one hand and began to wave them.

This bizarre ritual was then reciprocated by Graham who had brought his handkerchief for the occasion. There they were, Billy Graham and the crowd, in the rain, waving hankies to each other. What the ?

It’s a cringe moment which makes you wonder how this can be only 50 years ago, but everyone seemed to get it. It was right for the time. That time is long gone.


However, when it comes to the messages we have to look carefully at the issues. The Crusade was really all about Graham’s preaching and to be honest I think it holds up pretty well today. But that doesn’t mean a Crusade today would have the same message. The question is; should it?

I was somewhat surprised to hear a retired minister tell me recently that when he and his friends at the time (they were in their twenties) first heard Graham preach, they weren’t all that impressed with him. It seems they were expecting someone who would follow in the footsteps of the great fire & brimstone preachers of the era who could move an audience to tears.

Graham did not overly use emotion in his sermons, but when you listen to them today, they sound very dynamic and forceful. Look at what Graham said to the audience on the final day in Sydney;

“The Bible says the way of the ungodly shall perish. The Bible talks about the lake of fire. The Bible talks about the second death. The Bible talks about outer darkness. The Bible talks about hell. Whatever all of those terms mean, they mean one thing; they mean separation from God. And destruction. And judgement. That’s the end of the broad road. And I’m here this afternoon asking you to turn from the broad road before it’s too late. I’m asking you to surrender your life to Jesus Christ and enter the narrow gate. The Bible says Jesus said there is a gate. A narrow gate. It’s a narrow gate but thank God there’s a gate!”

This is exactly the type of preaching which has become parodied as the pulpit-thumping fire & brimstone message of damnation. And you cannot get the atmosphere by simply reading the words. His delivery had passion and volume. And I suspect hearing it on tape today is nothing like it was for those who were there live 50 years ago.

I wonder where we could go these days to preach sermons about hell, judgement, the lake of fire, destruction etc. Not even in some churches I know of. Certainly not to non-believers. We just don’t say that stuff anymore. Times have changed and I fear so has our message, but are we better for it?

At the Myer Music Bowl, Graham got onto the subject of the second coming;

“I tell you there is going to be a resurrection. And all of those loved ones of yours that have died in the past in Christ; they knew Christ as their saviour, they’re going to be raised. And there’s going to be a glorious and grand reunion in that day!”

We’re OK with this theology today because it sounds positive and comforting, but it doesn’t come up a whole lot because you have to be on the subject of the end of the world or judgement or something similar and when that happens you are automatically saying something about people who have died without Christ. We don’t go there much either.

And on day one of Sydney Crusades, Graham opened up with some of the most uncompromising and direct Gospel centred preaching possible;

“I want you to listen to this minute of what I am going to say because this is the most important thing I’ll say. You must be willing to repent of your sins. Jesus said ‘Except ye repent ye shall likewise perish’. I didn’t say that. Jesus said it. Have you repented?”

Then it’s into Just as I am (i.e. the song) and at the appeal, they came forward in their thousands. There was hardly enough room for the people to stand.

You cannot say he was merely talking to Christians. That just doesn’t agree with the facts. The conversions were unprecedented and, we now know, long lasting. But those people were certainly moving in a more Christian culture than the population today and I think that has a lot to do with why there was such a harvest.

However, not all the meetings were for churchy people. As I indicated before, Graham went to Sydney University and addressed the students with the same positive message, albeit framed in apologetics.

Here is some of what he said to the students that day;

“To receive Christ is not anti-intellectual. God says ‘Come now let us reason together’ saith the Lord. All the way through the Bible it tells us to use our minds to seek after wisdom and knowledge. To study to show ourselves approved unto God. But the Bible does use this word ‘faith’ many times. And in order to receive Christ and to have your life changed, you must be willing to readjust your way of living. That’s difficult. And the reason many people don’t come to Christ and the reason they cover it up with intellectual arguments is because they are not willing to meet the demands of Christ. Christ demands that we deny self. That Christ becomes Lord and master of our lives and that we turn from our wrong doing and start living for him.”

No matter where he preached, Graham spoke an uncompromising message. It could be titled “The Lordship of Christ”. It was always about turning from your sin and following him. This is undoubtedly why so many made decisions for Christ in 1959.

But we must acknowledge that the culture of the day had prepared the harvest for reaping. The people of Australia were a Sunday School generation. They were not all Christians, far from it, but when they heard the Gospel, the pieces fell into place thanks to years of preparation by all those faithful Sunday School teachers across the nation over so many years in so many churches.

But that is where it ended.

So, what happened?

The biggest question I want answered out of this entire event is: Why did the generation of the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade stop sending their kids to Sunday School?

I guess we only have to look at the 1960’s to find our answer. My conclusion is that if the committee which called Graham over to Australia had waited just five more years, it would have been a non-event.

By 1964, the Beatles had arrived on our shores and we wanted what they represented; rebellion against authority. Rebellion against the culture of their parents, against the fashion of the fifties and against the religious constrictions they had been brought up in.

When you look at pictures of the Beatles in 1964, they look absolutely squeaky clean, but that is to make the mistake of placing today’s culture into another era. Back then, you could be fired for having the wrong hair cut. When the Beatles grew their hair long, they called out to the young people of the day to reject society’s norms and to enter a counter-culture no matter what the cost.

How ironic that this is what Graham was preaching just five years before and the nation said “Yes!” In the Gospel, Jesus called people to leave their old life and follow him no matter the cost. Pre-1959 Australia was ready for this message, but Australia from the 1960’s onwards was not listening.

Not that I’m suggesting the Beatles are the cause of all our current problems. Just before they took the world by storm, the contraceptive pill was an even bigger hit. In 1959, Billy Graham called people to a life of purity. Within two years, they were being called to a life of promiscuity.

The 1960’s also brought the Cold War with its threat of nuclear destruction and, of course, Vietnam which became so big even Billy Graham could not escape. In his autobiography he speaks at length about the how the Vietnam war threatened to derail his ministry.

“America’s Pastor” became a symbol of the old establishment which the younger generation believed needed turfing out. Graham’s tours of Australia in 1968 (Sydney) and 1969 (Melbourne) were mostly successful amongst those who were there in 1959 and there was definitely an element of nostalgia to his 1979 visit.

People got converted at those later events, but it was hard work, as evangelism always is. 1959 remains a watershed event in Australian Christianity and one we are eternally grateful for, but it will not be repeated. Not because God can’t do it, but because as a nation, we reject his rule.

We want “tolerance” of all religions and equal time for every world view. You’re not supposed to say there is only “one way” these days, but in 1959, people entered the Sydney Showground to see the text of John 14:6 in huge letters on the billboard overlooking every meeting.

I would not want many of the elements of the 1959 Southern Cross Crusade if I was to organize it today, but I would definitely want the Lordship of Christ preached. Why would I want anything else? As Paul said:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”. (Romans 1:16)

Church unity

I’m afraid today there would just be no way we could get all of the churches to join together over such a prolonged period for an event to match the ’59 Crusade. For a start the charismatic and evangelical churches in Australia really only have a very shallow relationship.

Once when I was trying to pull together people from all the various churches for a similar style (but much smaller!) week of outreach I met with an apathy which was hard to overcome. This was a tent style meeting with a choir, evangelist & counselors; very much in the Billy Graham mould.

Many churches were happy to be a part of it, but at either end of the spectrum, there were problems. The fundamentalist, independent churches refused to be involved in anything where there were charismatic people in any position of influence, especially if they were counselors. Apparently they convinced the new converts would be put through exorcisms & tongues speaking when the “penty counselors” got hold of them.

And the big Pentecostal churches told me they would rather do their own thing. After all, they have the weight of numbers to be successful at just about anything they do, so they didn’t really need us & our feeble attempts to hold a mass rally. On one of the evenings we had booked a band from the mega church in town hoping they would do their thing and wow the audience. They didn’t even bother to show up.

It made me realize how different the church landscape is to 1959. Back then, the only opposition was from the Roman Catholic Arch-Bishops who advised their people to ignore the whole event completely. Perhaps nowadays Christians simply don’t want the outdoor, travelling evangelist type meetings, but I was left with the strong feeling that local churches simply don’t want to work together on evangelism anymore.

There may be another reason; perhaps we have discovered the churches don’t all preach the same Gospel as they used to. In 1959, the denominations definitely had their funny ways, all of them. But if you went to each church in your area and asked them to explain the Gospel to you, I think you would pretty much get the same answer. I doubt you would today.