When evangelist Billy Graham came to NZ and wooed the nation

by Redmer Yska / 04 March, 2018
Billy Graham addressing football supporters at Stamford Bridge in London. Photo/Getty Images

Billy Graham addressing football supporters at Stamford Bridge in London. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Evangelist Billy Graham

US evangelist Billy Graham, who died last month aged 99, addressed 350,000 enthralled Kiwis during a 1959 visit. 

He drew bigger crowds than the Springboks – and we would not see scenes of raw emotion like that until the Beatles arrived a few years later. Yet the spiritual stampede that evangelist Billy Graham touched off in 1959 now seems so unlikely that it’s all but vanished from the history books.

Over 11 heady days in March and April, Kiwis flocked to hear the American preacher with the burning eyes. An estimated 350,000 of us packed out a series of rolling “crusades” in the main centres, with 18,000 “making decisions for Christ”. The population at the time was 2.3 million.

His impact sounds intense. Newspaper reports told of a weeping constable bent in prayer on Lancaster Park, flinging his helmet and uniform jacket on the grass, as he stepped forward to pledge himself. Heart-throb Johnny Devlin, fresh from being mobbed by teenage girls, promised to mend his ways.

The great religious showman, who had prayed with queens and presidents, almost didn’t make it. Days before leaving for New Zealand, he’d gone blind in one eye, though his sight later returned.

He restricted local appearances; a total of eight meetings were held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, but Graham spoke only at the last in each city – the others were led by associate evangelists Leighton Ford, Grady Wilson and Joseph Blinco.

Billy Graham in action. Photo/Getty Images

Billy Graham in action. Photo/Getty Images

Raised as a Presbyterian, Graham came here at the invitation of the non-denominational National Council of Churches, led by Reverend Alan Brash, father of former politician Don Brash. Walter Nash’s Labour Government pulled out all the stops. Officials organised transmission of sermons live by landline to 60 town halls, cinemas, church halls and prisons from Kaitaia to Invercargill.

Crowds were transported on special NZ Railways “crusade trains”. And when Graham launched his New Zealand campaign before 60,000 at Carlaw Park in Auckland, the rail network paused. Timetables were rejigged to ensure his fiery sermon was not interrupted by trains passing nearby.

The capital was next. On the afternoon of Sunday, April 7, Prime Minister Nash joined the crowd at Athletic Park as Graham spoke on “God So Loved the World”. Today, his message seems surprisingly tough and direct: “Thousands of you here are dead, walking dead men and walking dead women … you look alive, but down in your heart you are spiritually dead.”

Juvenile delinquency, a major issue of the day, was another resonant theme. Graham was not surprised that adolescents were growing up confused, with nothing to believe in. Our young people are questing and longing, and unless we are careful, we in our generation are going to hand to man nothing but the hydrogen bomb to unleash on society and destroy the world.”

Graham with President Richard Nixon. Photo/Getty Images

Graham with President Richard Nixon. Photo/Getty Images

As Graham spoke, the Nash Government was coming under pressure for being “soft” on small groups of promiscuous, overdressed teenagers – colloquially known as bodgies and widgies. Keith Holyoake’s Opposition successfully needled it for refusing to reintroduce hard-line measures such as flogging of offenders.

Nash was therefore happy to pose for photographs with Graham and teen idol Devlin; editorial writers referred to the three “leaders”. Devlin, meanwhile, said he’d try to read a chapter of the Bible every day and encourage young people to take an interest in the church.

“I sat up in the stands with all the others and I was impressed with the way he conducted the crowd. I’d never seen anything like it. He asked me to tour with him around New Zealand and I had to decline because I’m on my own tour.”

Looking back, Graham’s timing was flawless. His visit came in a period when barely 1% of Kiwis claimed no religious belief. Churches were already emptying out by 1969 when his great spiritual bandwagon roared through for the second time, and crowds were just a fraction of the size.

This article was first published in the March 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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