We sometimes look at the life of Billy Graham — that great evangelist — and fail to recognise the complexities and opposition that his ministry often encountered. This is particularly true of his early years of ministry.
A case in point is Graham’s first crusade in Great Britain, where he faced staunch opposition from politicians, the news media, and even church leaders. We can learn so much today from both Billy’s response in the face of opposition and how God worked despite this resistance.
The Lead-Up to the Harringay Crusade
In 1952, delegates from the British Evangelical Alliance invited Billy Graham to lead a crusade in London, England. The campaign took years to prepare for and ultimately took place in 1954 under the official campaign name “Billy Graham Greater London Crusade”.
After facing numerous obstacles in finding a venue, the crusade committee arranged to hire Harringay Arena. According to biographer William Martin, Harringay was “a drab barnlike structure used mostly for boxing matches and located next door to a dog track in a run-down and unattractive section of North London.”
The arena was also associated with gambling; however, while the committee feared this would lead Christians to avoid it, they didn’t have any better venue options.
Despite this, Graham resolved to do all he could to ensure that the event would succeed. In the lead-up to the crusade, 10,000 press announcements were made, while nearly 30,000 posters and hundreds of handbills were distributed to raise awareness.
Opposition from the Media and Secular Leaders
But it was not only the venue hire that posed a challenge for Graham and his team. They soon found themselves on the wrong side of the media and influential secular leaders, mainly due to Billy’s criticisms of socialism.
Influential journalists, papers and commentators caricatured Graham as “an American hot gospel specialist” who, while preaching, “drops” his listeners “abruptly in the Lake of Fire for a sample scalding”.
“Silly Billy”, as one outlet smeared him, was accused of “wild fanaticism” and ordered to “Apologize — or stay away!” for his comments on socialism.
Influential Labour MP Geoffrey de Freitas even accused Graham of “interfering in British politics under the guise of religion” and threatened to challenge his admission into the country.
Whereas media coverage in the United States had been overwhelmingly positive, and Graham had gained support from influential leaders, in the United Kingdom, the elites were doggedly against him.
It was only early days, and it seemed as though Graham’s evangelistic efforts would be a failure of epic proportions. The worldly powers were all set against him.
Church and Christian Opposition
Not only that, but numerous local Christian groups either refused to participate in the crusade or outright opposed Graham.
For example, the Socialist Christian League echoed charges made by de Freitas of political interference.
Even from the start, the position of various denominations had been lukewarm — if not outright hostile. The British Council of Churches, which represented the majority of Christians in the country, has chosen not to partner with the Evangelical Alliance in inviting Graham.
Geoffrey Fisher, the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, “left no doubt about his reservations concerning such a campaign”, according to Martin.
More general theological criticism came from multiple directions. Predictably, theologically liberal critics saw his beliefs as “fifty years behind contemporary scholarship” and “completely out of step with the majority of ministers and pastors”.
According to Martin, hardline fundamentalists also criticised the evangelist’s “willingness to associate with those considered theologically unsound.” Another group that disapproved of Graham’s crusade efforts was strict Calvinists, who opposed his practice of offering an invitation to unbelievers.
Even many evangelicals (the Salvation Army and the Plymouth Brethren excepted) seemed at best lukewarm in their support.
Consequently, when Graham arrived in England in the midst of intense media scrutiny and criticism and attended his first press conference, only one prominent Anglican joined him on the platform. That man, Suffrage Bishop of Barking Hugh Gough, said to Graham, “Well, Billy, if you are to be a fool for Christ’s sake, I’ll be a fool with you.”
Sadly, most Christian leaders didn’t seem to share that sentiment.
The Crusade: Harringay Arena
Even as he drove to his first crusade meeting at Harringay, Graham feared the worst. In the lead-up to the event, his team had noticed hundreds of reporters at the venue, while the actual crowd was still quite small.
According to Martin, Graham “steeled himself to face what he imagined would be a gang of mocking reporters, ready to slice him apart as he tried to communicate with scattered clumps of wet, dispirited Fundamentalists”.
Then, as Graham arrived at the venue and exited his car, he saw a member of his team rushing towards him. “The building is packed,” he said, “and thousands are on the other side trying to get in. They’ve come in the last twenty minutes from everywhere. Listen to them sing!”
Tears welled up in the evangelist’s eyes as he thanked God for His provision.
According to biographer David Aikman, “[e]ven on that first night… a damp, rainy evening, the stadium was jam-packed, and 178 people came forward. The second night had a few spare seats, because the rain had turned to snow, but for the next three months the stadium was packed every night."
The levels of attendance astonished even Graham and his team.
How God Worked
The crusade culminated in a 185,000-person meeting in Wembley Stadium, at which the archbishop of Canterbury finally agreed to read a blessing. During the event, he turned to a member of Graham’s team, Grady Wilson, and said, “I don’t think we’ll see a sight like this until we get to heaven.” Little did he know that Graham would later preach at Yoido Plaza — a huge runway in South Korea — to more than a million people.
Nevertheless, the Wembley Stadium service was the largest crowd ever gathered for a religious event in British history.
The media, too, changed their tune. According to Martin, “Graham’s open friendliness, transparent sincerity, and disarming humility transformed acid into warm milk.”
Daily Mirror writer William Conner had written two “acerbic attacks” on Graham before the evangelist offered to meet him in person. At Conner’s suggestion, the two met at the Baptist’s Head pub (an ironic jab at Graham’s Southern Baptist affiliation).
“He came into the Baptist’s Head absolutely at home — a teetotaler and abstainer able to make himself completely at ease in the spit and sawdust department, a difficult thing to do. He has a kind of ferocious cordiality that scares ordinary sinners stone-cold. I never thought that friendliness could have such a sharp, cutting edge. I never thought that simplicity could cudgel us sinners so… hard. We live and learn. The bloke means everything he says.”
Daily Express columnist William Hickey had a similar experience, reflecting that he had been inclined to be rude to Billy during an interview.
“[T]hat is where the personality of the man comes into the picture — he is not a man you can be rude to, for the simple reason that a voice inside you tells you that this is a man of integrity.”
He wrote that,
“I think he is a good man. I am not so sure that he isn’t a saintly man. I just don’t know. But make no mistake about this. … Billy Graham is a remarkable man. … He is an American. He hasn’t the inhibitions we suffer from. Perhaps he is what Britain needs. … It is a bitter pill to swallow.”
Amazingly, when Hickey recounted shaking Graham’s hand after his interview, he was shocked to realise that his “eyes were scalding with tears”.
How God Works
The long-term impact on Britain’s theological landscape was immense, with 70 per cent of Anglican clergy ordained in 1956 being evangelical (compared with just seven per cent before the crusade). These ministers have an ongoing influence today.
The 1954 Billy Graham crusade in England is an amazing example of how God can work despite all earthly opposition. As Martin notes, the Harringay crusade was covered in prayer by more than 18,000 Britons as well as many in America.
While Graham went out of his way to prepare for and promote the crusade, it rested firmly on a foundation of prayer. Its outcome was secure.
The campaign is also a testament to how graciousness, humility, love and authenticity can disarm even the most hostile of critics. The way Christians live their lives matters.
What we speak needs to show in how we act, and for Billy Graham that was certainly true. 1954 remains a reminder that God can bring revival despite the most stringent secular opposition, or even church division.
The main quotations and statistics for this article are drawn from two biographies:
William Martin, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, updated edition, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2018 (698 pages).
David Aikman, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2007 (309 pages).