AMAC Exclusive – By Seamus Brennan
As unimaginable as it may seem in today’s increasingly secular culture, not too long ago some of the largest and most popular events in America’s cities were not pride parades or pro-abortion protests, but rather massive Christian preaching tours that drew millions of people to city streets and converted countless hearts, minds, and souls to Christianity.
This summer marks the 65th anniversary of one of the most notable of those events, Billy Graham’s famous 1957 “crusade” in New York City—a legendary multi-week campaign of preaching, religious music, and fellowship in a city that had seemed to abandon religion entirely. Though Graham conducted hundreds of crusades in nearly 200 countries throughout the course of his life, the New York crusade was the longest and among the most prominent.
“I believe the Lord would have us go to hard places,” Graham recalled of the event. “Over half the people in this great metropolis of New York are completely unchurched. However, I am convinced that in the sight of God and by heaven’s evaluation this crusade will be no failure and Christ will receive the glory and honor. I have prayed, worried, and wept over New York more than any other place in which we have held a crusade.”
By every available indication, his prayers were answered. Graham filled New York City’s Madison Square Garden for 16 straight weeks, ultimately drawing nearly 2.5 million Americans. Of those in attendance, more than 60,000 vowed to dedicate their lives to serving Christ, and an additional 30,000 who watched the live telecasts pledged the same. Though the crusade—which kicked off in May of 1957—was initially scheduled for only six weeks, after record-breaking attendance it was extended until September, at which point the final rally was held in Times Square.
According to the recollection of attendees and others involved in the crusade, the event’s success was immediately apparent. “I remember the first night, seeing the Garden,” recounted George Beverly Shea, Graham’s vocal soloist. “I had to sing before the message. Billy teased me because the Garden was full. Then it stayed full, night after night. It confirmed for Billy that this was what he should continue doing.”
“About the fourth week, we knew that God was doing something that was out of our control,” said Cliff Barrows, Graham’s then-master of ceremonies. “Normally, attendance dwindles; there are peaks and valleys. But there was this momentum. People who had sneered at [Graham] knew that something was going on. There was evidence that we ought not to stop something that was the work of God.”
Though Graham was himself a Protestant evangelical, his influence was not strictly confined to Protestant circles. He was also friendly with Catholics and encouraged cultural unity among faithful Christians of all stripes—an attitude that ultimately paved the way for “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” a 1994 ecumenical document spearheaded by Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, and Charles Colson, a national Protestant figure.
At a time when church membership and the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has reached an all-time low, Graham’s extraordinary witness decades ago is as relevant as ever. Though most Christian leaders today share a general pessimism about America’s declining religiosity and increasingly decadent culture, prior to his New York crusade, Graham, too, was notably skeptical of any possibility of meaningful spiritual revival. “Materialism, indifference and wickedness are apparent to even a casual Christian observer in New York,” Graham wrote in his diary. “I sometimes stand in the middle of that great city,” he later said, “and wonder if I can ever reach it for God.”
Yet, needless to say, he did.
Despite his initial doubts, the historic success of Graham’s crusades—in New York City and elsewhere—should serve as a source of tremendous hope and encouragement for Christians everywhere today. If Billy Graham—who was derided by secular culture almost as viciously and unfairly as many Christian leaders are today—could defy the odds, spread the Word of God to the most unhospitable of places, and ignite a massive spiritual revival in America’s liberal epicenter, who is to say Christians now are incapable of doing the same?
“I am willing to give my life, ready to die in New York, to see a true spiritual revival in New York and America,” Graham preached in July of 1957. May every Christian pray that Graham’s courageous witness will reverberate in churches, congregations, and Christian communities all across our great land—and that Christians of all stripes can follow in Graham’s footsteps and once again be salt and light in American life.
Our nation, our culture, and Almighty God deserve nothing less.
We hope you've enjoyed this article. While you're here, we have a small favor to ask...
Support AMAC Action. Our 501 (C)(4) advances initiatives on Capitol Hill, in the state legislatures, and at the local level to protect American values, free speech, the exercise of religion, equality of opportunity, sanctity of life, and the rule of law.Donate Now