Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

Their budget is $350,000 (comparatively low for a Crusade of this size), and it's mainly to buy the 13 big billboards; 90 bus posters; an ad that flashes on movie-theater screens; newspaper ads; time on radio stations all over the dial; a TV ad created for Indianapolis, emphasizing the frenetic pace of modern life. The outdoor boards went up in mid-September; everything else started last week, and it's about to crescendo.

Billy Graham, meanwhile, has been reading our local newspapers for the past two months, learning our sins. He's glad to come to such a religious, family-centered community; after all, in 1996, Billy and Ruth Graham became the third couple since 1776 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for "outstanding and lasting contributions to morality, racial equality, family, philanthropy and religion."

Family? This was a husband who, when his wife was about to deliver their first baby, ignored her pleas and left for a speaking engagement in Mobile, Ala. "She said "Bill, the pains have already begun.' "No, I don't think so," I replied confidently," wrote Graham in his autobiography. "I predicted it might take another two or three weeks." He left, and would continue to leave, spending most of his life on the road, swept by handshakes and public appearances from one euphoric sermon to the next.

A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
Archive Photos
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s

Frady writes that, when Graham returned from one prolonged trip, his baby son William Franklin shrilled, "Who's him?" His youngest daughter, Bunny, remembers, "When Daddy was there, we weren't allowed to have friends in the house." She told writer Curtis Mitchell, "There were many forgotten anniversaries, and certainly many forgotten birthdays, because Daddy's mind was on so many other things that it was easy for him to forget those special days." Ruth Graham sheltered her husband from any upset when he was home, admitting softly, "I should like to see Bill oftener, to cook his favorite dishes and help him buy his clothes — but all that sort of stuff is done by the staff." As daughter Anne Graham Lotz told a reporter from the Houston Chronicle last year, "We were in one sense raised by a single parent."

Yet the Grahams represent the ideal American family.

"Men Wept and Children Leaped"

At First Evangelical Free Church in Des Peres, the ministry is expanding so fast that there's scaffolding outside, the beginnings of new rooms for the House of God. One of the 30 sites for BGEA's five-week Christian Life & Witness classes, First Evangelical happens to be the spiritual home of Larry Collett, chairman of both Cass Commercial Bank and the Crusade committee. On the evening of the first class, the parking lot is packed, and an overflow crowd watches closed-circuit TVs in the lobby. Inside, Christian music blares triumphant, and the more charismatic wave their hands in the air, open to the Spirit. Others clutch Bibles and Daytimers, awaiting direction. Rules beam from overhead projectors: Get booklets from your usher; pray about how much money to donate; be obedient.

After a hymn, Art Bailey, BGEA's longtime director of counseling, excitedly describes the event's headliners — including Mary Lou Retton, Lou Brock, African-American surgeon Benjamin S. Carson, the Charlie Daniels Band and, in Saturday night's "Concert for the Next Generation," dc Talk and Kirk Franklin. "We want to give you a legitimate invitation for your friends who do not go to church," he explains, promising a supply of 1.5 million invitations.

Graham's Crusades works chain-letter style, using the churched to reach the unchurched. (In the end, a total of 13,500 people attended these classes, and they're now charged with rounding up the unfaithful and transporting them to the Trans World Dome.) "The purpose," continues Bailey, "is to win this city for Christ. And everyone here knows it takes a lot of money to win souls for St. Louis!" Next, he announces the triumphant news that they've already passed out all 700 instructional booklets. (This happens regularly: In Tampa, they made the news by running out of publicity materials early.)

Bailey's main job is to invite the volunteer counselors who will work the altar call. ("This is not rocket science," he says later. "We send them on the field with read-through handouts." For each soul saved, a decision card is forwarded to the appropriate church for the all-important follow-up.) "God needs to come and sweep into this community," Bailey exhorts the crowd. "We have the opportunity for the greatest open window for evangelism that may ever exist in the St. Louis area." A minute later, he injects even higher purpose: "This crusade could be the last major event for evangelism in America in this millennium, the last opportunity we have to really call in souls." People stand a little taller, clap more vigorously. Cosmic significance swells their hearts.

Last year, Billy Graham told reporters he'd fallen short of his ultimate goal, "to turn the entire world to Christ." Still, he's changed the face of evangelism, and by doing so, helped elevate conservative Christians into a socially and politically powerful force. Now: Will he change St. Louis?

During the Golden Gate Crusade in '59, "strong men wept and little children leaped for joy ... habits were broken, cold hearts were melted and homes were restored," according to reporter-turned- minister Sherwood Eliot Wirt. As for actual conversions, added Wirt, "Only God Himself carries the true statistics of His Kingdom." BGEA churns out numbers after every Crusade: costs, expenses, attendance, altar-call conversions. "Because we're not in a city long-term, we don't have statistical information that tells us how long someone stays," explains Bailey. A 1988 BGEA study concluded that 70-80 percent of inquirers remain steadfast. But then, between 80-85 percent of the people who come forward already have a church affiliation.

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