I can scarcely remember a time when revivals and revivalists did not fascinate me. As a small boy in Devine, Texas, in the late forties, I relished having the visiting evangelist over to our house for dinner during the annual “gospel meeting.” When the Baptists held a revival down the street, I often dropped in for a sermon or two, and numerous times I stood at the edge of a Pentecostal tent, wondering what might be going on inside the minds and bodies of the folk being whipped into a holy-rolling frenzy by the sweating, shouting, shirt-sleeved man striding back and forth on the flimsy little stage.
I didn’t hold any revivals myself until I was fourteen, but they were authentic for their time and place—held in the open air, illuminated by yellow bulbs, with the crowd seated on wooden-slatted church pews and singing from tattered softback songbooks. Not all of my outings were a success. One dismal, week-long revival seldom brought more than a dozen people out to sit in the oppressive August heat, and it was hard to be confident I had the full attention even of this faithful remnant, since the bare, unfrosted floodlight directly over my head not only drew hundreds of night bugs but, with the intense glow of its high wattage, fairly baked my crew-cut scalp and forced my auditors to look off to one side to avoid permanent damage to their stricken eyes.
Still, I was a pretty good speaker and my sermons were of sufficient quality to have merited previous publication—one of my favorites featured a stinging attack on the Bolsheviks—and when nice ladies said, “I’d sure love to hear you preach twenty years from now,” I never doubted that they would have the chance. As it happens, I don’t preach much anymore, but I am still intrigued by those who do and are really good at it. So I felt more than normal anticipation as I stood not long ago in the crowded lobby of the Jackson Hilton Hotel, waiting for a ride out to Mississippi Memorial Stadium to hear the world’s most famous preacher, Billy Graham.
For despite the small-town ambience and the Deep South setting, this was not some jackleg country preacher we were going out to hear, and the service would not have much in common with an old-fashioned camp meeting. This was, measured by results achieved during his own lifetime, the most successful evangelist in the history of Christianity. And the same sermon we would hear in a few minutes would eventually be heard and seen on television broadcasts around the world. Given their attitude toward popes and such, evangelicals are not likely to elect a pope anytime soon, but if they did, the only possible choice would be Billy Graham, who has been for almost thirty years not just the unquestioned symbol but also the single most dominating influence and power within the evangelical movement.
I caught a ride with a carful of Baptist preachers, who worried about the dark rain clouds, counted buses bringing pilgrims in from all over the state, and wondered whether the Lord could draw a bigger crowd with Jerry Clower than he had two nights earlier with Johnny Cash and June Carter. At the stadium, the late evening sun and heavy overcast made the turf appear intensely green and heightened the sense that this was a numinous event. In the center of the field, backed up along one sideline, was the large blue-draped platform from which Billy Graham would speak. Light and sound towers stood in front on each side, and a small television studio had been built into the rear portion of the structure. Stretched across the top of the stadium a banner proclaimed, “He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—John 14:6.” The audience, over 99 percent white, did not appear to be heavily weighted with pagans. Many carried Bibles; none looked out of place. The hairstyles and fashions of the women were those one stereotypically associates with Southern white ladies—neat, modest, feminine. Their husbands tended to favor double-knit sport outfits accented by white belts and shoes. Their children looked like pleasant little kids and were urged to act like it, too: “Michael, Becky, wave at Mr. Mac and Mrs. Jo.” “ T.C. be still! You don’t realize you bother people, son!”
As is his custom, Dr. Graham spent the hour before the service in a small trailer tucked behind a temporary fence in one corner of the stadium visiting with friends, dignitaries, and others. Those others, on this occasion, included me. It was strange to be in such a small space with Billy Graham. He seemed somehow out of scale. The impeccably tailored suit, the instantly recognizable features now heightened by television makeup, the familiar North Carolina voice, and the sheer, undeniable presence of the man left me feeling it would be more comfortable to talk with him in a larger room—the Astrodome, for example.
Momentarily it was time for the service to begin, and I took my position on the platform directly behind famous soloist George Beverly