Hot Gospel

This writer enjoyed his visit to the evangelist crusade at Harringay. He listened to Billy Graham, the newest American revival preacher, and went home feeling that sin had a lot to be said for it.

It has been impossible for even the most uninterested to know nothing about the London revivalist campaign, in the same way as it is impossible to be unaware of the Cup Final or the Derby. For three months the hoardings had giant yellow-and-blue Billy Graham posters; for three weeks before he came the papers reported, praised and—mostly—blamed Billy Graham. “He runs religion like big business” said The People, and called him “Silly Billy.” The Mirror thought London “a poor sort of Sodom and Gomorrah for such fervid cleansing treatment.” The “New Statesman’s” versifying wit sparkled with “Jesus Inc.” “Start your crusade among your own people. London can wait,” growled the Pictorial; Reynolds‘ had the same line—”Now this Yank says we’re heathens!” And, though most of them agreed about his film-star charm,” Nathaniel Gubbins wouldn’t even allow that. ” I have seen,” he wrote, ” many butchers with kindlier faces.”

The unfriendliness of the Press has disturbed the Graham entourage but little: “You can say what you like about me. I will not hate. My Christian heart will not allow it.” Mrs. Graham was possibly a little nearer the real heart of the matter when she said: “Billy would rather people said bad things about him than that they said nothing at all.” It sounds a pleasant and naive euphemism for the familiar business maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The campaign is, indeed, a very business-like affair. The reported cost of the London meetings is a hundred thousand pounds. American and British supporters, most of them business men, are the backers; a shipping line provided free first-class passages from America for Mr. and Mrs. Graham, and his own salary is five thousand a year.

At the time of writing, in the early stages of the campaign, Harringay Arena has been filled every night. Few of the eleven thousand free seats were empty on the night we went; nor should they have been, with all the advertising and all the showmanship. Loudspeakers everywhere; snappy brochure-like hymn books passed round; in the centre, over the spot where Tommy Farr fought Max Baer, a huge red box-kite proclaiming ” Jesus says ‘I am the way and the life’.” At one end was a railed-in pulpit (with an American Broadcasting Corporation placard), and behind it, sweeping down from the roof, rank upon rank of white-bloused choristers.

Everything was bigger, better, brighter. The announcer was a breezy, salesman-like young American. He talked and boosted and wisecracked for half an hour. Introducing the publisher of Billy Graham’s book, now on sale; informing mothers we have a room where children may be left; tomorrow night an evangelist from Hollywood will tell his experiences among the stars (one visualised Miss Monroe, all a-flutter and cooing “The Scriptures is a girl’s best friend”). The announcer conducted the choir. His arms waved high: “Gee, that was grand, folks! How about the last chorus again? All together …” But the singing was magnificent.

And finally Billy Graham. He was preceded by Beverley Shea, who sang a religious song in the Perry Como manner; and, as the last treacly note died away, Graham stepped into the pulpit. Everybody stand up; everybody be still; let no man or woman make a sound. Now you may sit. Hold up your Bibles—we wanna see that everybody’s gotta Bible. That’s it.

The timing and the psychology were marvellous. Billy Graham himself was a disappointment. It could reasonably be said that he had to be, that the build-up was too good; nevertheless, the Manchester Guardian’s comment was fair enough—”he lacks the oratorical gift.” The expected storm of hellfire gospel materialized as a mere stiff breeze. This writer heard hotter Bible-thumping one Sunday in a local mission hall, from a preacher whose name was that of a famous murderer.

Billy Graham’s pulpit manner, in fact, reminds an East Londoner of nothing so much as a market cheap-jack’s. He talks loud and fast, holding his Bible aloft as if to emphasize its startling value and slapping it with a knocked-down-to-you-madam finality. His approach is that of a man with a wonderful bargain who will nag you into buying it. In one respect, however, he is different from the street salesman and from most orators: instead of working up to his climax, he works down to it. In the last few minutes he became calm, he heeded Hamlet’s advice “Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus”; he talked in a soft, persuasive voice and asked for silent prayer. People bowed their heads, and the organ played softly. It was in this skilfully created atmosphere of churchy calm, of sentiment and “uplift,” that he asked the converts and witnesses to come forward.

At first there was only a trickle; it would be uncharitable, but probably correct, to surmise that some at least hoped to encourage others. The trickle grew, until in ten minutes a good three hundred stood in front of the pulpit. They were led away to have their names and addresses taken, presumably because the Crusade knows conversion is likely to be short-lived. There was another hymn, and the meeting was over.

What prompted the three hundred, and their counterparts on the other nights? Billy Graham claimed, before the meeting ended, that over sixty per cent, of those who came forward were genuine first-timers in religion. What, then, prompted the two hundred? Without doubt it was curiosity for some; possibly, considering the size of Harringay Arena, the desire for a closer look at the preacher. For most of them there are two suggestions to make. The first is sentimentality: the agreeable, maudlin sentimentality that we all indulge on occasions. It is mainly a matter of surroundings and properties; moonlight, babies, cats and dogs and draught beer are notorious stimulants of it; and at the revival meetings, the circumstances for religious sentimentality are organized with scrupulous care. The splendid choir and the rich-toned organ, the soloist’s lush crooning, the handsome, fervent preacher and the culminating silence of thousands of people give a feeling of elevation, of being in touch with higher matters, and warm the heart. And that is just what they are meant to do.

Nevertheless, many of the converts undoubtedly are attracted by the appeal which is made from the pulpit. A century ago, preachers could and did attract poor starved creatures in the nineteenth-century industrial abyss with hopeful fantasies of what was astutely nicknamed “pie in the sky when you die.” Social circumstances have changed a little since then, and popular consciousness has generally rejected whatever concern it had over heaven and hell. Who asks for pie in the soup-kitchen world of the Welfare State? Most people want this life to be much better—and that is what Billy Graham claims to offer. Peace, happiness, contentment; accept the gospel, and these desirable conditions are yours. It is not surprising that people should be willing to try it, and it will be surprising if they have any luck.

But what is Billy Graham’s—still more to the point, what is his backers’ object? A revivalist, but what is he hoping to revive? He says his first aim is to bring people back into the Churches, but working people in this country have never gone to Church to any extent worth talking about. They went when they were made to, and a minority of them has always been susceptible to ” the hope of what is called heaven and the fear of what is called hell”; otherwise they never have participated much in religious observances other than weddings, christenings and funerals.

There is no reason for doubting Graham’s sincerity of conviction that his purpose in life must be inducing others to religious belief. It does not follow that his backers are paying out so handsomely to the same end. Probably some of them are; the rich seem to observe religion a little more than the poor, and most people want to see their own beliefs spread. The clergy, too, are anxious to have more people in their Churches. There have, however, been reports of other motives. Mr. Alfred Owen, a wealthy industrialist who is treasurer to the Crusade, asked other businessmen to support it because “the growth of Communism … is seeking to infiltrate the whole of our national life.” Billy Graham has spoken against Communism in America—”because he thinks it is evil,” says Mrs. Graham.

It is curious how many people look on Communism as an irreligious affair, when contrary evidence is before their eyes. Christianity flourishes under State benefaction in Russia and the “democracies” of Eastern Europe, and the Dean of Canterbury maintains a dual priesthood. Religious belief is always good for the regime (that is why it was not long out of favour in Russia); religious people do not seek to change the world much, and are usually prepared to worship temporal as well as spiritual rulers. Some American and British businessmen are willing to pay for a campaign which promises to confirm people’s acceptance of capitalism in the western world; Russia’s rulers support religious work for exactly the same reason. Certainly Billy Graham has no objection to capitalism: ” There’s nothing wrong in being rich,” he told his audience at Harringay. It was very surprising, considering his insistence on literal acceptance of the Bible and the Bible’s insistence that the rich do not easily enter the kingdom of Heaven.

Yes, religion is still “the opium of the people.” even though there are other narcotics for this day and age. Schools still teach prayers before they teach letters, religious observance is still magistrates’ criterion of fitness for the care of children. Billy Graham’s opium-peddling has had its share of success, and probably will continue to have it. Capitalism makes the world a pretty poor place for most working people, and consequently they are given to grabbing at even remote possibilities of fulfilling their needs. Some buy a shillings worth of hope in the pools, some live vicariously at the films and the speedways, and some “take it to the Lord in prayer.” These, however, are the symptoms and not the cure. And while evangelists are on their knees, while the confused seek comfort in a fable which came (in strict rotation) from primitive man watching his shadow to the medicine man with his painted face, to the temples of the ancient East, to Pythagoras, to Plato, to Jesus if he ever lived—the wicked materialists are learning and telling how mankind’s sickness may really be cured.

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