n 1949, under an enormous tent in Los Angeles, a young fundamentalist preacher from North Carolina named Billy Graham began preaching nightly. The initial plan was for the Greater Los Angeles Revival to last for three weeks. Attendance was underwhelming at first, with thousands of seats unfilled. As closing night drew near, the local organizing committee was uncertain about whether to extend the meetings. It decided to ask God for a clear sign, like the one Gideon received in the Old Testament.
“It came at four-thirty the next morning,” Graham writes in his autobiography, “Just As I Am.” A jangling phone awoke Graham in his hotel room. On the other end was the popular entertainer Stuart Hamblen, one of radio’s first singing cowboys, begging to meet. As Graham tells it, he dressed and met Hamblen and his wife. After they talked, Hamblen “gave his life to Christ in a child-like act of faith.” Graham said it was then that he told the organizers that the crusade should go on. Hamblen discussed his newfound faith on his radio program, and, during a subsequent revival meeting, Graham was startled to find his tent “crawling with reporters and photographers.” Graham learned that the publishing giant William Randolph Hearst had issued an edict to all of the editors in his newspaper chain: “Puff Graham.” The evangelist had never met Hearst, but the magnate’s sons later told Graham that their father had come to the revival, in disguise, with his mistress, Marion Davies. Attendance swelled, and an estimated three hundred and fifty thousand people eventually passed through the canvas cathedral, as it came to be called, in the course of eight weeks.
The Los Angeles revival turned Graham into a national figure at a turning point in the history of American Protestantism. Religious leaders such as Harold Ockenga, the pastor of the Congregationalist Park Street Church, in Boston, and Carl F. H. Henry, a theologian of Fuller Theological Seminary, outside Los Angeles, had become increasingly critical of fundamentalism’s push to separate believers from society. But they were also uncomfortable with the theological liberalism of church reformers who had embraced modernist thought. They sought to unite Protestant conservatives in a broader movement, New Evangelicalism, which they hoped would maintain a commitment to historic Christian tenets while actively engaging with the prevailing culture. Graham would become the leading figure in this movement, which went on to eclipse mainline Protestantism as the dominant force in American religious life.
Graham’s death, on Wednesday, at the age of ninety-nine, comes as that movement is enduring fissures that have parallels to those that he and his brethren sought to mend more than a half century ago. From the mid-nineteen-seventies through the mid-eighties, evangelicalism, led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, began its steady march rightward into the embrace of the Republican Party. The movement came to be defined by its social conservatism, though Graham himself tried to steer clear of issues like abortion. “I’m just going to preach the gospel and am not going to get off on all these hot-button issues,” he told the Times, in 2005. “If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I’m promoting. I’m just promoting the gospel.”
Other evangelical leaders, including Graham’s eldest son, Franklin, who has inherited his father’s mantle as the leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, adopted a very different tack. Many evangelical leaders have been stalwart defenders of Donald Trump, even in the face of allegations of adultery, sexual assault, and harassment, believing they have found in him a staunch ally. “I believe Donald Trump is a good man,” Franklin Graham said on CNN, last month. “He did everything wrong as a candidate and he won, and I don’t understand it. Other than I think God put him there.” Last November, many of these same leaders continued to back Roy Moore in his Senate bid in Alabama, despite allegations he had sexually assaulted teen-age girls.
The result is a brewing existential crisis, particularly among younger believers, many of whom are choosing to shed the evangelical label. Graham and his cohort sought to forge a movement that was distinct from the fundamentalism of their day, yet that is precisely what modern evangelicalism has come to be associated with. The overriding interest of Graham and other neo-evangelicals, as they were called, was in spurring a religious revival in the United States. That was why they sought to overcome the divisions that beset Protestants at the time. The question, today, is whether evangelicalism’s leaders remain primarily interested in the spiritual, as Graham was, or if their agenda has become purely political. If it turns out to be the latter, that may well spell the end of the movement Graham helped forge.