One of the most controversial and significant events to take place in Britain in the 1950’s happened right here in Haringey in the Spring of 1954. The Billy Graham crusade held at the Harringay Arena proved to be a landmark event on three levels: firstly, it was a watershed for the church in this country, demanding and delivering a level of unity previously unheard of; secondly, it envisioned Billy Graham with what God could do in a major city and thirdly, it put the young American evangelist on the international map, setting the pattern for decades of world-wide crusades that would reach countless millions of people with the Gospel. But the path to such blessing was not an easy one!
It’s amazing how a printing mix-up handed Billy Graham unprecedented and priceless publicity for the Crusade in 1954, and how God used the schemes of detractors for the blessing of His Kingdom.
The American Evangelist was on board the SS United States just a day away from Southampton when news reached him of the furore that had broken out in England. He was informed that an MP would be challenging in Parliament his admission to the country. Headlines in the London Daily Herald screamed: “APOLOGISE, BILLY – OR STAY AWAY”.
The controversy centred upon a prayer calendar that had been distributed in America urging people to pray for the crusade. Under a picture of London ran the caption: “What Hitler’s bombs could not do, socialism, with its accompanying evils, shortly accomplished.”
Journalist and spiritualist, Hannen Swaffer, writing in the left-wing Daily Herald, called it “a highly political insult to the Labour Party”, which had some 14 million members in Britain at a time when the term Socialist was almost synonymous with the term “Labour Party”.
“Billy Graham has more gravely libelled us than anyone has dared to so since the war,” he wrote. “It is a foul lie…I urge the Bishop of Barking (the Crusade’s most visible church supporter) to disown all this ignorant nonsense before the Big Business evangelist, whom he sponsors, opens his Crusade….And I urge him to call Billy Graham to repentance before he has the effrontery to start converting us!”
The resulting uproar spread to the front pages of the rest of London’s papers. The irony was that up until that point, hardly a line had been written in a single British newspaper about the forthcoming meetings.
What had happened was this. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association distributed calendars to encourage prayer and financial support. The draft text of this particular prayer calendar had been drawn up in the United States by someone unfamiliar with Britain. The printer’s proof had indeed used the word “socialism” (though with a small “s” – the newspaper had changed it to a capital “S”, giving it more political connotation).
When the draft of the calendar was shown to a British supporter, he immediately spotted the possible misunderstanding, and changed the word “socialism” to “secularism”. However, through a mix-up, the printer in America used an uncorrected copy and 200 calendars had already been printed before the mistake was rectified. It was always a mystery how one of those 200 calendars found its way into the hands of Hannen Swaffer in London. Billy’s biographer John Pollock suggested that Swaffer’s use of the capital S had been quite deliberate.
Billy Graham immediately wired apologies to the British Parliament and the Press, explaining the error and expressing regret for the misunderstanding. But the printing mix-up and the ill-will of an antagonistic reporter had conspired to hand the Harringay Crusade the kind of publicity money can’t buy, and to make Billy Graham’s visit to London the most talked about event of the decade.
Opposition to the crusade came from all quarters. On the secular side, the national press described Billy Graham as “a religious racketeer, a hot gospeller, a Hollywood version of John the Baptist and a profiteering American capitalist”. One Labour MP announced he would challenge in the Commons the admission of Billy Graham to England on the grounds the American evangelist was “interfering in British politics under the guise of religion”. The day before the crusade began the Sunday People splashed headlines about “Silly Billy” and wrote: “Must we be turned into better citizens and kinder husbands by the antics of Billy Graham’s American hot gospel circus? He would have done more good for his cause by staying away and sending over the money that would have been saved on the fares to buy candy for our poor kids”.
There had also been opposition from some church quarters. One bishop pronounced that Billy Graham would return to America with his tail between his legs. The British Council of Churches had refused to endorse the campaign unless Billy Graham first tried a pilot scheme. One rector in Central London who found fault with Graham’s belief in sudden conversions told his congregation one Sunday night: “I do not know of a single case in the whole Bible of a sudden, complete conversion”. Oddly enough he was preaching in a church dedicated to St Paul.
But God was working all things for good. In the midst of the storm of controversy raging as he landed at the port of Southampton, a Customs Officer checking Billy’s suitcase said “Welcome to England and good luck sir. We need you!” Moments later a dock worker said “God bless you, sir, I’m praying for you.” The encouragement was gratefully received.
The crusade was supported by a thousand churches in Greater London, two thirds of them Anglican. Many pastors went along, reluctantly, expecting no great good and praying that no significant harm would result. British church attendance was at a hundred year low, and there were few signs of the religious upsurge that was already appearing in the United States. When Billy Graham returned to London for the Earls Court crusade in 1966, 52 Anglican clergymen sat on the platform one night, all of whom had been converted in the Harringay meetings.
As to the crusade itself, the bare statistics hardly do justice to the worldwide impact and influence that resulted. The Harringay arena, a 12,000 seater indoor venue, was used for greyhound races, hockey, boxing and circuses. One newspaper had complained that in taking the Harringay arena the British public had been denied three months of ice hockey. But the managing director of the Greyhound Racing Association, who owned the arena, went on record to say: “Gentlemen, we know that this will adversely affect our business if it succeeds, but we are concerned for the welfare of our country, and we believe it needs some such activity of this sort. We’ll give you every help we can.”
The crusade was expected to fail – no speaker had ever filled the arena for more than one night. Billy Graham wrote in his autobiography “Just as I am” that the opening day of the crusade, Monday March 1st 1954 “remains one of the most memorable days of my ministry”. He spent the entire day in his room in prayer and study. An hour or so before the scheduled start, the sleet was hammering down in North London and only a handful of people had trickled into the arena. As he was leaving his hotel room for the half hour drive to the venue, Billy received a message to say that 2,000 people had come in now, but there were still 10,000 empty seats. By the time he and his wife Ruth arrived at Harringay, to their astonishment, the arena was jam-packed, overflowing, with hundreds unable to get in.
The next day, as the sleet turned to snow, the crowds came again. By the first weekend, the arena was full at least an hour before the service, and crowds of 35,000 queued outside unable to get in. Extra services were added to cope with the response.
It continued this way for the entire three months. Total attendance was put at over 2 million, and more than 40,000 people answered the invitation at the Harringay Arena and made Christ their Saviour.
As the crusade drew to an end three months later, it was obvious that Harringay Arena could not hold the crowds. And so Wembley stadium was booked instead for the final meeting. But it quickly became apparent that that too was not enough. They eventually held two meetings on the final day – the first at White City Stadium where 65,000 people packed the place - the second at Wembley where 100,000 filled the stands and another 22,000 were allowed to sit on the famous turf.
Among the 40,000 conversions were countless fascinating, heart-warming and sometimes humorous stories of how ordinary people came to Christ. Like the undertaker who was converted as Billy Graham preached on the raising of Lazarus. Then there was the pickpocket who got converted and handed back the wallet he had just stolen from the man next to him. The stage actress Joan Winmill gave her life to Christ one night and later testified of how her life was transformed. Richard Carr-Gomm, captain of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, was already a believer, but re-dedicated his life at the Harringay meetings. He resigned his position and dedicated his life to serving the poor, eventually founding both the Abbeyfield and Carr-Gomm societies.
There were some fascinating conversions that made front-page news. Dedicated Communist Charles Potter did not like Americans or capitalists, and was not anxious to become a Christian. He only went along out of curiosity. But after hearing Billy Graham preach he wrote to his local chairman: “Due to a deep and unsatisfied rest within, I have decided to resign from the Communist Party and to rejoin the Christian Church. This does not mean that I shall take up a position of treachery and antagonism to comrades whom I respect and esteem, but that I feel belief in Jesus Christ to be incompatible with membership of the Communist Party.” His conversion made front-page news both sides of the Atlantic and led to a storm of media interest. He went on in later years to instigate invaluable evangelistic work among blue-collar workers in the UK.
Rex Walcott, a young man from Guyana, arrived in London in April 1954 dreaming of adventure and opportunity. Within 24 hours of stepping ashore, he found himself going forward to receive Jesus at the Harringay meetings.
The stories could go on and on. But did the converts last? Writer Stanley High was asked by Reader’s Digest to return to Harringay a year after the crusade to check the results. He expected to be critical, but found “a surprisingly large number of converts carrying on”. In his book on Billy Graham published in 1957, High said that in every British or American city where a crusade had been held, there were individuals who had become “contagious Christians for whom life’s most important business has become the spreading of that contagion.” Author Edward O England said that three years after the Harringay Crusade, more than 50% of those who went forward were still in regular church fellowship and a further 20% were attending occasionally.
At the close of the ‘54 Crusade the then Bishop of Barking stated: “A new flame of hope has been lit in our hearts, new courage and new faith. A fire has been lit which will continue, please God, if we are willing to obey the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit in the days and years to come. May the church of Christ in this great area be united in spirit more and more in the days to come, and let us go forward together in faith with recognition of the glorious possibilities these coming years hold for us”.
Billy Graham himself wrote in his autobiography of the fourfold impact of Harringay:
That thousands of lives had been touched with the transforming message of Jesus Christ, and seeds planted that would bear fruit in God’s timing;
That the churches had been strengthened not only by the influx of new converts but also by the opportunity to participate in what God was doing in their city and catch a new vision of His will.
That the London meetings had given him a new vision of what God could do in a world-class city.
That what happened in Harringay in ’54 marked a watershed, internationally, for the Billy Graham ministry. He said:
“News of what happened at Harringay travelled like lightening around the world, challenging Christians to believe that the particular place where God had put them was not beyond hope, but that He was still at work.”
This last quote from Billy Graham is of particular significance to us here in Haringey today, as we firmly believe that firstly, God is not finished with Haringey yet, and secondly, what He is doing in this place will once again be of world wide significance.
After just four weeks, the Harringay meetings were extended in a totally unique way. The team hit on the idea of hiring long distance telephone lines from the Post Office. They then used these “landlines” to relay live broadcasts of the meetings to countless “satellite” venues the length and breath of the country. What was happening in Harringay was suddenly being relayed across the nation – Harringay became a nation-wide crusade. It was a first. It was also amazingly successful.
In 1998, just as Pray Haringey was in the “womb” so to speak – Sharon Stone, a recognised prophetic minister - visited a local church in the borough. Knowing extremely little about Haringey and nothing about the Pray Haringey movement that was about to burst upon the scene, she began to share what God had laid on her heart. In delivering an astonishing prophetic report about what God had planned for our borough, she touched on two areas of particular importance.
Firstly, she already knew that Billy Graham had held crusades here in 1954, but said she heard the Lord saying that He still had plans for us.
Secondly, she heard the Lord saying that just as Alexandra Palace had been connected with broadcasting (the world’s first ever regular high definition TV service was broadcast from there) – so God wanted great communication to go out from this area, that God had always planned there to be a multiplying of testimonies from here, that what He does here should be propagated. This was, she said, God’s destiny for us.
Where are we over fifty years on from that momentous crusade? We once again have record low church attendances across the country, a society that is largely indifferent and often antagonistic towards the Gospel, and problems of violence, crime and terrorism. But we also have a church that is moving in relational unity and prayer, and a God for whom the miraculous and impossible are run of the mill. The time is ripe for a move of God. Maybe Harringay ’54 was just a taster of what God will do in and through Haringey in our generation.