As we approach the 60th anniversary year of the momentous 1959 Billy Graham Crusade in Australia, Bishop Tony Nichols recalls how Graham touched the people around him, and what flowed out of this and later Crusades.
Bishop Tony Nichols ministers at St Lawrence’s Dalkeith, WA and beyond.
Next year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Billy Graham’s first visit to Australia in 1959 when he led ‘crusades’ across all capital cities over a four-month period. To commemorate the remarkable outpouring of God’s Spirit in which thousands decided to follow Christ, Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, will speak in each capital city in February 2019.
Billy Graham was invited to Australia by the Primate of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Howard Mowll who did not live to witness the extraordinary results. His initiative, however, launched an unprecedented ecumenical movement which saw thousands of Christians from different denominations meeting weekly for prayer for God’s blessing on Australia. Over 8,000 enrolled for counsellor training in Sydney alone. Those training sessions were a great blessing to me personally, not least because we had to learn off by heart over twenty passages of Scripture. Volunteers were also organised for support roles and each of the choirs had a thousand members. The organisation was superb.
Crusade statistics have frequently been rehearsed. Attendances totalled three million. Australia’s total population at the time was twelve million. Melbourne attendances totalled 719,000. The Sydney Crusade drew 980,000. In the other capitals, meetings were taken by associate evangelists with Graham speaking at the final meetings. In Perth, the attendance was 106,800. A broader radio audience heard his trademark, ‘The Bible says’. Landlines relayed hundreds of services to rural communities. Of those who heard Billy Graham, over 150,000 made ‘decisions for Christ’. Not a few subsequently became significant leaders, both in Australia and in overseas missions.
Some colourful stories made newspaper headlines: ‘Thug Gives Up Revolver’, ‘Burglar Hands over Tool Kit’. Businesses reported an epidemic of repayment of bad debts. Enrolments in Bible Colleges doubled over the next four years. Churches which supported the Crusade were undoubtedly revitalised.
Not all church leaders supported the Crusade. The Bishops of Newcastle, Canberra-Goulburn, and Rockhampton derided Billy Graham’s simplistic use of the Bible. But many of their flock heard the gospel for the first time in language they could understand and confessed faith in the Lord Jesus.
My home parish of St. Augustine’s Bulli did not support the Crusade. The rector was a good man, but he, and all members of the Parish Council, were members of the Masonic Lodge. So an older layman, Bill Lackenby, and I organised a bus for the four weeks of the Showground meetings in Sydney, 70 km away. I still do not know how we paid for it. Astonishingly, the parish received about 200 referrals, almost all non-church goers. The rector fell ill and a young curate from Moore College, Reg Barker, was recruited. He faithfully visited all who were referred. The parish experienced new life and to this day is a vibrant fellowship. Our elder son and his family moved to the district ten years ago and are keen members of ‘Bulli Anglican’, as it is now known.
God’s blessing was also evident among the students of the University of Sydney where about 700 made commitments to Christ during the Crusade. The Evangelical Union organised Bible study groups. I was charged with the task of forming two such groups in the Faculties of Vet. Science and Pharmacy. One afternoon, Billy Graham actually came and preached on the lawns of the University. Inevitably, pranksters did their best to disrupt his address. They rang triple zero to report that the Uni was on fire. We could hear the sirens of fire engines coming from all over the city. But Billy persevered with good humour.
Emotionalism was a predictable explanation for the impact of Billy Graham’s preaching. Certainly, to hear thousands of voices singing ‘Just as I am, without one plea’ and to see hundreds of enquirers coming down quietly from all over the stands was unforgettably moving. But the power was in the clear proclamation of the gospel. The most remarkable evidence of this for me occurred in the following year, 1960, when I was appointed to Temora High School in country NSW.
In Temora, I threw myself into the life of St. Paul’s, the local parish—youth club, Sunday School and parish council. I was unaware of a looming crisis. No church in Temora had supported the Billy Graham crusade. However, two laymen had organised a landline relay. The rector was vexed because a number of his congregation claimed to have come to Christ through Billy Graham’s ministry—and that via a crackling landline in a cold Shire hall. A year later he was still ridiculing their experience and sought to counter Graham’s ‘The Bible says’ with homilies that regularly questioned the reliability of Scripture.
As he could not be persuaded to respond more pastorally, I commenced a Bible Study with 27 people aged 17 to 79 years. We met every Friday night for almost two years in the home of the oldest member, Mrs Donaldson, until I left for CMS service in North Borneo. It was a wonderful fellowship, but it was grievous that we did not have the blessing of our parish priest. In fact, I was denounced from the pulpit before an astonished congregation and told to leave. I declined to do so and begged for an interview. He reluctantly agreed. I turned up with Bible and prayer book, but no meaningful discussion occurred. I was henceforth tolerated.
That was a traumatic experience for a 22 year old, and it was perhaps strange that it did not alienate me from the Anglican Church. Rather I saw so many of God’s people as sheep without a shepherd and had a growing sense of his call to the ministry of that Word that Billy Graham had faithfully proclaimed.