Billy Graham's Australian ministry - a personal reflection

Peter Corney reflects on how Billy Graham shaped Australia's faith

By Peter Corney

February 27 2018 

My first encounter with Billy Graham and his team was in Perth in 1959. I was 22 years old and a youth counsellor at the Perth meetings. His influence was profound and many people owed their faith or its renewal to his ministry. It’s important to remember it was only 14 years after the end of WWII and our family, like many others, had billeted a young American sailor at our home in 1944 from the submarine base at Fremantle. Sadly his boat went missing protecting Australia. Billy arrived in Australia just six years after the Korean War ended (1950-53) in which many Australians served again alongside US troops under the UN banner, and so we were still in awe of the Americans, their movies, their Coca Cola and their ‘can do’ attitude.

The Billy Graham Crusades were organised on a scale and with an efficiency that my generation had not experienced in Australia where church events were generally amateurish. You have to go a long way back to the R.A. Torrey revival meetings of 1902 in Melbourne to find anything on the Billy Graham scale. Torrey, an American evangelist, spoke to up to 250,000 people a week in multiple meetings in the Exhibition Building over several weeks, and remember, Melbourne’s population then was just one million!

Billy’s Melbourne meetings in 1959 started in the West Melbourne Stadium that seated 7000, moved to the Myer Music Bowl and grew from 25,000 to 70,000, and then to the MCG with the final meeting attended by 143,000, the largest crowd ever at ‘The G.’

The following year, 1960, I began my theological studies at Ridley College. It was the largest enrolment Ridley ever had in one year and many of the students had either become Christians at the Graham meetings or had been influenced to enter ministry. This was a familiar story at many other theological and Bible colleges around the country. People from all walks of life enrolled; in my year I remember an ex-army officer who had served in Korea, an opera singer and a milkman! The influence of this generation of ministers was to percolate through the Australian Church for many years. There was also a surge in candidates for missionary service. Because Billy insisted that all denominations be involved the effect was spread through all the churches.

Billy was a powerful and rapid speaker but able to speak simply, clearly and relevantly. Through the 1950s a large percentage of Australians had been to Sunday school and had some significant contact with the Church. There was still a strong Christian memory in the culture and so Billy’s message and terminology still resonated. But whatever sociological factors one considers there was without question, to anyone who witnessed it, a real movement of the Holy Spirit in the 1959 meetings. The Church historian Stuart Piggin says that outside the R.A. Torrey meetings in 1902 it is the closest we have come to a revival in Australia – even the crime statistics went down!

In 1965 I became the full-time youth minister at St Hilary’s Kew, a Church that had participated strongly in the 1959 meetings. It was remarkable to discover how many adults I came across, especially men, who had made a decision to follow Christ at the ’59 Crusade, even at landline meetings in the country. I remember an ex-dairy farmer who told me his story of listening to Billy in a country hall, no choir or special atmosphere, just a tinny loud speaker! The next day while milking the cows he knelt in the cowshed and gave his life to Christ. The other remarkable thing about these conversions is how many of them stuck. These people became strong members of their local churches and many still are.

Billy returned in 1968, by which stage I was the Youth Director for the Diocese of Melbourne, and was asked to be the chair of the youth committee in preparation for the visit. That meant being on the main organising committee and so I got to see the inner workings of how things were organised. Dr Leon Morris was the very efficient chair. It also meant I got to personally meet the great man himself! My impressions were consistent with what I had been told; he was a charming, humble and gracious person. The financial and organisational integrity of the Graham organisation was also impressive and full accounts were published at the end of the crusade.

But the Australian culture had significantly shifted in ten years since his first visit. That was pre-television, now the Baby Boomers had become teenagers and had begun to dominate the popular culture and its music and advertising, and the ‘Counter Culture’ was beginning. We were in the middle of the Vietnam War and an unpopular military conscription. May ’68 was the Paris student riots, the 60s were dominated by the Civil Rights movement in the US and then the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. There was a shift in values taking place, driven by the large Baby Boomer population. It was a turbulent time. In Melbourne the Revd Geoff Evans and I organised a series of youth events to try and tap into this, we called them ‘Youth Quakes’, which was very apt. We organised these in the new Shopping Centre Malls as a pre-Crusade event to attract young people.

Billy’s message was the same but the methods, the music, the style seemed dated to the young “Boomers”. Vietnam had changed the attitude of young Australians to America. Billy would not comment publicly on Vietnam. While there were still many people who were genuinely touched it had nothing like the impact of 1959. I was in charge of youth counselling and spent most of my nights in the Music Bowl after the meetings discussing with students why Billy would not speak out against the War.

Billy came again in 1979 just to Sydney but my experience was limited to ’59 and ’68.

To use the word ‘Crusade’ in an evangelistic campaign today would not even be considered for the obvious offence it might cause to Muslims and the frequent citing of the historic Crusades as a negative criticism by atheists and anti-Christians. It would also sound far too aggressive and triumphalist. How much has changed in fifty years! And yet Billy’s message is still true and still valid and still needs to be communicated to this generation, but it’s now a tougher gig.

The Revd Peter Corney is Vicar Emeritus at St Hilary’s, Kew.