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Billy Graham’s 1954 Harringay Crusade in England: What It Teaches Us About Revival

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

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