Given the news yesterday of the death of the great evangelist Billy Graham, I felt I needed to blog a few words in honour of a man who God used to do so much for the cause of the Gospel in the 20thcentury. Of course, much will be written about him over the next few days, and there is little need for me to add to that. But I would like to highlight two things about Billy Graham in relation to church growth and revival in the UK.

Billy Graham and Church Growth

There is evidence that the Billy Graham meetings in the UK had a measurable effect on church numbers. Figure 1 shows the membership of the main Protestant denominations in Great Britain since 1900 [1]. The decline from the 1930s to the present day is clearly seen. But there is a plateau in the 1950s before the decline accelerates again. It cannot be totally proved [2], but the likely reason for the plateau is the effect of the Billy Graham crusades in the UK, 1954-55. There are no other reasons unique to that period that would cause such a large change in the normal decline pattern between 1930 and 1980. Billy may not have brought church growth to the UK – but the conversions that came as a result of his meetings were enough to arrest church decline for a while.

Figure 1

Indeed the mood in the UK denominations by the end of the 1950s was positive, with a belief that the post-war church decline was over. The preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones made note of this optimism in his sermons on revival in 1959 [3]. Preaching on the hundredth anniversary of the revival of 1859, he lamented that the contemporary need for revival was falling on deaf ears as the denominational reports were so good – so much positive activity. And, of course, church decline had slowed – the Billy Graham effect.

But Lloyd-Jones had rightly discerned that things in the church were not good. The Billy Graham effect was precisely that, due to Billy. The church was unchanged, it was still not making enough converts, it was the Billy Graham crusades that were largely responsible for the 1950s conversions. And once he went, the decline continued.

But Billy did affect church membership positively. Indeed, in every church I have belonged to, there have been members who were converted in one of his 1950s crusades. Critics complained that many “converts” did not stick. But many did – and they have been working in the churches ever since. His impact was huge. Sadly, the denominations did not follow his example.

Going back to figure 1, note also that church decline has slowed from the 1980s onwards. This is almost certainly the effect of the Charismatic renewal from the 1960s onwards. As in any long-term revival, it takes time to impact membership figures as the movement builds. 20 years is typical. From the 1980s onwards, many churches found new confidence through that work of the Holy Spirit, along with associated movements in evangelical and reformed circles. Part of that confidence came from a return visit from Billy Graham in the 1980s, Mission England. Billy still helping to dent church decline!

Billy Graham and Revival

Billy was an evangelist, not a revivalist. But if revivals are to see conversions, then they need evangelists. And a good evangelist needs the revival power of the Holy Spirit. To find the origins of Billy Graham’s power, we need to go back to 1946.

In 1946, Billy conducted his first two campaigns in the UK with Youth for Christ. At this point, he was not the well-known evangelist he became, just another visiting American preacher [4]. Part of the second campaign took him to Wales, in particular to Gorseinon, which had been one of the centres of the 1904/5 Welsh Revival, near Loughor, the starting place of that revival. Billy was booked to take the final meetings at an evangelistic campaign in Caersalem Free Church in which local Welsh evangelist David Shepherd was the principal speaker [5]. David Shepherd takes up the story [6]: 

Billy preached that afternoon, I remember what he preached about, the Rich Young Ruler, “What must I do to be saved”. I was not greatly impressed. And then he made an appeal, and no one came forward. Unlike Billy Graham as we know.

And he went up to “Edwards Caersalem”, as we called him, the minister. And in that lovely openness that belongs to Billy he said: “Edwards, there’s sin in your church, because I always preach that sermon the first night, and people always get converted”. Now I thought, how different from us preachers in Wales and England. We say, it may be tonight that I could possibly be led by God to preach what I did before. Not Billy, terribly open he was.

And Edwards did something for him he said: “Billy preach the Gospel, boy. God will bless you”.  “But I do preach the Gospel, Edwards”. “No you don’t” he said: “you’re preaching the New Testament, but not the Gospel”.  And Billy Graham, great man that he was, hung his head, he said: “You know Edwards you’re right, you’re right. There is something I haven’t grasped.”Now by a quirk of circumstance I heard Billy three years later in Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s chapel in London. And strange to say, the same message. But it wasn’t the same message. He had grown out of all dimensions. It wasn’t the same Billy.

David Shepherd reckoned Billy left Wales a different man. He went on [6]:

When Billy came (to Gorseinon), he stayed with people who were in the Welsh revival [7]. In fact one of the ladies was a team singer with Evan Roberts, indeed she was a member in my church. Billy learned first hand what it was like to be in a genuine revival. A God-sent revival. It made a profound impression on him. He was never the same man. I was in a prayer meeting in Birmingham, about say two years later. And I heard someone pray. I could not see who it was. What a prayer. Of course it was Billy. Billy had grown. I believe his visit here had contributed greatly to it.

Indeed, evangelist Stephen Olford recalls a specific time with Billy in Pontypridd, Wales, in that second 1946 visit, where they both had an experience of the Holy Spirit’s fullness and anointing [5]. He preached that night at Tabernacle Baptist as a man anointed. Such was the power of the Spirit that people came rushing forward before he finished [5].

So, although Billy Graham was an evangelist, he was more than that. He was a man who knew revival, empowered by the same move of God that had shaken Wales forty years previously. He subsequently went on to make his own contribution to church growth; at least, it was a dent or two in the church’s decline.  

May the Lord that Billy Graham served now grant him the eternal rest and joy won for him by Jesus Christ. And may we all be inspired to follow his example and make converts for Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  

Notes and References

[1] The denominations are Churches of England, Scotland and Wales; Baptist; United Reformed (and earlier constituents); Pentecostal and late 20th-century charismatic churches; the Presbyterian Church of Wales; and the Free Church of Scotland. The Roman Catholic church was excluded to eliminate the effects of Irish immigration in the 1950s. Northern Ireland was excluded as there were unique factors influencing church numbers there.   Data from various volumes of UK Church Statistics, Peter Brierley Consultancy, and Religious Trends 1-7, Christian Research.

[2] Ideally, the number added to the churches from 1930-1980 would help prove or disprove the hypothesis. However, few churches publish recruitment figures, let alone give a breakdown as to their source.  

[3] Revival. DM Lloyd-Jones, Marshall Pickering, 1986. Also available on audio from the Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones Recordings Trust.

[4] The 1946 meetings are not listed in the official list of Billy Graham Crusades, probably because they precede the formation of his own mission organisation. A poster from that time appears in reference [5].  

[5] Billy Graham’s Encounter with the Holy Spirit in Wales, The Welldigger, David Edward Pike, 2012.  

[6] All Things Considered, BBC Wales, When Billy Graham came to Wales, including an interview with Welsh Evangelist David Shepherd. This was broadcast in the 1990s. A version is to be broadcast on 25/2/18.  

[7] My mother was taught in Sunday School by people converted in the Welsh Revival and could give me vivid testimony of what it was like to spend time with such people. She would often tell me, “You could see it in their eyes” – “it” being the respect and awe they had for the Lord Jesus who had come so close to them in saving power. 



Tags: , , , ,