Billy Graham in Canada
It has now been more than two months since the death of Billy Graham.
Most of us know how he rose from humble beginnings on a dairy farm in North Carolina to become one of the greatest evangelists in history, speaking in person to more than 200 million people in almost every country in the world over the course of his career, including Canada.Graham’s first Canadian crusade took place in Toronto in 1955. At the height of the crusade, those coming to hear his message packed out Maple Leaf Gardens. Loudspeakers broadcast his words to the crowds outside who could not fit into the arena. The Toronto crusade was the first one to use the hymn "How Great Thou Art," which became a staple of Billy Graham crusades.
Graham returned to Canada a decade later for crusades in Vancouver (1965), Winnipeg (1967) and Toronto (1967). Over the following decades he preached in Canada ten more times, the last time in Ottawa in 1998.
His work here was made possible by a well-organized team, including several Canadian evangelists like Leighton Ford, who not only took part in Graham’s crusades but did evangelistic work of their own.
Graham was important in bringing together Canadian Christians. He insisted on widespread support from the churches in a city before he would undertake a crusade there. When I visited the Billy Graham Center archives several years ago, I was struck by how people from different denominations worked together to support his mission.
The 1955 Toronto crusade, for example, only happened after a group of local pastors worked together for years to persuade Graham to come to Canada. The Toronto Evangelical Fellowship included representatives from nearly every Protestant denomination in the city and 11 parachurch organizations such as the Gideons. In the fellowship’s invitation to Graham, its president (Presbyterian pastor William McRoberts) testified, "The Spirit has drawn all the brethren together, burdened with one common desire for revival."
Graham insisted on widespread support from the churches in a city before he would undertake a crusade there.
Likewise, Harry Faught, the Toronto pastor who helped found The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in the 1960s, was inspired in part by Graham’s vision of Christian co-operation.
Graham also had his critics. Some of them were theologically liberal clergy who disagreed with his firm commitment to the authority of the Bible and his frank emphasis on our sin and need for salvation through the shed blood of Christ on the cross.
When Graham was planning his trips to Canada in the 1960s, for instance, United Church minister Frank Morgan told the press that "Billy’s theology is a hundred years out of date." David Mainse recalled a similar comment from a liberal churchman who charged Graham with setting the Church back 50 years. Graham’s response, delivered with a grin, was that he was disappointed – he had hoped to set the Church back 2,000 years!
3 MILLION ESTIMATED NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO ACCEPTED CHRIST AT BILLY GRAHAM’S CRUSADES
But the critics were not able to stop the crowds from coming and hearing the gospel message. Nor were they able to stop them from coming forward and accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association estimates more than 3 million people accepted Christ at his crusades, an impact that will echo through eternity.
Yet Graham never attributed this success to himself. The pages of his autobiography are filled with accounts of his own sense of inadequacy and total reliance on God in prayer. Even though he met people like Winston Churchill, was a frequent guest at the White House and maintained a warm friendship with the Queen, he stayed humble. He combined confidence with humility, seriousness with hope and truth with grace.
Prior to his first big city crusade in Los Angeles in 1949, he struggled with intellectual doubts about the reliability of the Bible, but after studying as much as he could about the issue – including Jesus’ testimony to the reliability of the Old Testament – he decided to fully trust God’s Word. He believed the subsequent power of his ministry came from that simple reliance on the authority of the Word of God.
Yes, Graham did set the Church back 2,000 years – to Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and proclaimed forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson