Billy Graham, often called ‘America’s pastor,’ was an American evangelist, a prominent evangelical Christian figure, and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, who became well-known internationally in the late 1940s. In his six decades on television, Graham hosted annual “Crusades,” evangelistic campaigns from 1947 until his retirement in 2005. Rather than affiliate himself with a single church, he preached a non-denominational brand of Protestantism and was endorsed by faith leaders throughout the world. He was said to be the greatest innovator in the art of preaching to those not present. His ministry took advantage of nearly every significant communications development of the 20th century—newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movies, and the internet—to cast the seed of the gospel as broadly as possible.
From the time his ministry began in 1947, when he was 28, Graham conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents. He would rent a large venue, such as a stadium, park, or street. His 1949 evangelistic tent meetings in Los Angeles brought him to national attention, and his 1957 New York meetings, which filled Madison Square Garden for four months, established him as a major presence on the American religious scene. As the sessions became larger, he arranged a group of up to 5,000 people to sing in a choir. He would preach the gospel and invite people to come forward. Such people were called inquirers and were given the chance to speak one-on-one with a counselor, to clarify questions and pray together. The inquirers were often given a copy of the Gospel of John or a Bible study booklet.
Graham also held evangelistic meetings on a number of college campuses: at the University of Minnesota during InterVarsity’s “Year of Evangelism” in 1950–51; a 4-day mission at Yale University in 1957. In 1955, he was invited by Cambridge University students to lead the mission at the university; the mission was arranged by the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, with London pastor-theologian John Stott serving as Graham’s chief assistant. These activities were enough to earn him dozens of appearances on Gallup’s annual list of the world’s 10 most admired men and women. Graham gained further exposure and stature through nationally publicized crusades in Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, and other major cities from 1949 to 1952. He also held stunningly successful months-long revivals in London (1954) and New York (1957), as well as triumphant tours of the Continent and the Far East.
Sociologically, it is believed that Graham’s success was directly related to the cultural climate of post-WW II America. Graham spoke out against the evils of Communism—one of the biggest fears threatening the American consciousness. In a 1954 interview, Graham stated, “Either communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ.” Graham caught the attention of the aged newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who was impressed that Mr. Graham was preaching a fiery brand of anti-Communism. “The Hearst newspapers gave me enormous publicity, and the others soon followed,” Mr. Graham said years later. “Suddenly, what a clergyman was saying was in the headlines everywhere, and so was the box score of commitments to Christ each night.” Time, Newsweek and Life magazines followed suit. All told, Graham led more than 400 crusades that reached an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Graham saw the power of television in its infancy and used it to spread his message globally. In 1957, Billy Graham’s visit to New York City filled Madison Square Garden for an eye-popping 16 consecutive weeks. That caught the attention of ABC News, which produced a TV special on Graham. Later, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association would make time buys on local and national TV outlets for specials derived from his sermons and live events. Graham was also a frequent guest on mainstream TV talk shows. He made numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show” during Jack Paar’s tenure as host and made four visits during Johnny Carson’s reign.
Graham also hosted a radio program on ABC called The Hour of Decision. It was initially transmitted to 150 stations before reaching its peak of 1,200 stations across America. Eventually, this program was converted into a television show which ran for three years. The success of Graham’s radio and television programs speak to his role as a Christian media visionary. Graham used the media as a means for spreading the gospel of Christ, allowing him to access millions of people around the globe.