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.#
Michael S. Hamilton

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.

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