God In Earls
OH, SING TO THE LORD A NEW SONG! FOR HE
HAS DONE MARVELOUS THINGS.
Early in February 1966, when all hands were busily preparing for the gigantic June Greater London Crusade, Billy Graham telephoned me in Minneapolis. "We need to get millions of people praying for London," he said. "I want you to fly over there and see what kind of preparations are being made. Then come back and spread the word in Decision. We want to get everybody in the American and Canadian churches and the people on our mailing list praying that God will pour out His Holy Spirit on Britain."
What an assignment and what a challenge! When I arrived in London, I found a beehive of activity being generated from two offices the crusade office in Piccadilly, headed by Bill Brown of the team, and the editorial office of Billy's newspaper The Christian, a mile away, headed by its editor, Dr. J.D. Douglas.
London, the ancient city of Londinium built by Roman troops in the first century A.D. on the banks of the Thames River, was being prepared for the closest thing to revival since the days of Moody and Sankey. The city itself was a fascinating sight. Old churches that had been standing on corners for centuries, ministering to a hardy few, were coming to life and opening their doors wide. Gallons of tea were
served as Christians showed up off the street offering to "do something." They stayed to pray.
Robert and Lois Fern of the team had spent two years alerting churches and pastors of Britain about the crusade and were even beginning to talk with an English accent! The city's clergymen predicted a "spiritual hurricane." Prayers for the crusade were offered at ministers' fraternals, ministers' wives' meetings, youth rallies, sacred concerts, film showings, television appearances, training sessions for personal workers, choir rehearsals, ushers' meetings, Christian Life and Witness classes, and meetings in schools and industrial plants. Mini-crusades using closed-circuit television from Earls Court were being set up to take the message of salvation to ten major cities of England and Scotland.
Attractive posters adorned the double-deck buses and the billboards, inviting the public to the coming meetings. Hundreds of men's prayer meetings went into action in industrial plants and other places of work. Thousands of "cottage prayer meetings" were being formed by women who said they were planting them "on every street in London." The number actually reached 9,000.
The person in charge, Mrs. Jean Rees, wife of Evangelist Tom Rees, was a fireball. She told her ladies, "Put the chairs in a circle... coffee and a biscuit to begin... then a little 'praise talk,' thanking God, and then to the issue.... No nonsense now about verbal participation; if you can talk, you can pray.... Suppose the Lord were here now, and you were going to ask Him something what would you ask Him? We're going to pass this little New Testament around from hand to hand. When it reaches you, you pray. If you don't feel like praying, read a passage.... There, that's fine; it will be easier next time..."
The Anglican bishops of London and Southwark sent identical letters to their hundreds of clergymen calling for prayer for the crusade. Other denominational leaders followed suit. Buttons, badges, pennants, and banners were being manufactured by the thousands, all urging the population to pray for London. Special crusade tours were arranged from the United States. I suggested to Billy that we should prepare free church bulletins with blank inside pages for any
church that asked for them. The outside pages would carry a message from Billy asking Christians to pray for London. He readily agreed, and thousands of North American churches wrote requesting those bulletin covers.
Looking back, one might wonder why the British people became so involved in the evangelistic efforts of a Baptist preacher from America. Why all the excitement because of a Yank crossing the Big Pond to visit Blighty? But there was a far deeper motive at work. A love confrontation has been going on for centuries between God and Albion, God and the "Scepter'd Isle," God and England, Scotland, and Wales. America has no such ancient tradition. A thousand years ago when that man of God, Alfred the Great, was king of England, it was said that a woman could walk across the island from the Irish Sea to the North Sea without a man laying a finger on her.
In the sixteenth century the Puritan movement became England's Reformation, as the people set about returning their church to the God they knew in Christ. John Richard Green wrote in his History of the English People, "No greater moral change ever passed over a nation than passed over England (between 1583 and 1623). England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible.... The
whole temper of the nation changed. A new conception of life and of man superseded the old. A new moral and religious impulse spread through every class... The whole nation became, in fact, a church."1
In 1966 the conscience of Britain was beginning once again to show itself. Shades of Bede, of Latimer, of Whitefield, and Wesley! It's as if Billy were the incendiary, as if the British people were calling across the Atlantic saying, "You are the torch, and we are the heather; set us afire!"
After several days I returned to my desk in Minneapolis, and in late May my wife and I flew back to Heathrow Airport with others of the Graham team. We traveled by train to Southampton to welcome Billy and Ruth and attended his press conference aboard the H.M.S. Queen Mary. We then rode the boat train back to Waterloo Station, and that evening we attended a team meeting in a quiet room at our London hotel. Holy Communion was served. Billy told us, "I want with all my heart to lay my life on the line for Jesus Christ. I'm
not even sure I know how, but I want to." What a thrill just to be there! In each heart excitement was running high. A hush of expectancy came over us we realized that God's only limitation in London was the limitation we as Christians put on Him.
On the eve of the crusade, the huge Earls Court with its sixteen restaurants was polished spick and span. The ministers and churches were ready.
I cannot possibly recreate for you the atmosphere at the crusade meetings that went on night after night in Earls Court. The music, the preaching, the tears, the smiles, the laughter, the vast crowds, people surging to the altar, the preaching of God's Word, the television cameras, and the singing of old hymns are memories that never seem to die, even though they fade a bit. What I can do best is tell you about some of the curious things that took place during the four weeks.
After one has watched Billy Graham in many different pulpits, it becomes apparent that he never takes charge of a meeting. He always considers himself to be a guest and expects the inviting committee to deal with any unusual behavior among those present.
One evening when Billy had barely started his invitation, a skinny young man with a bad complexion and poorly dressed walked to the front. He stood alone in front of the crowd, looking up and shaking his fist at Billy. Then he turned around to the audience and shouted, "Don't believe it! It's not true. I've tried it!"
Billy immediately stepped back and waited for the host committee to respond. While people prayed for the young man, he was gently escorted out and counseled, and the work of God went on. After all, you can't "try" Christianity. I'm sure someone explained to the young man that only when we stop trying does the grace of God take over our lives.
I remember a similar incident at a meeting in Buenos Aires after Billy had extended an invitation to come to Christ. As people were responding, a robed guest on the platform stood up. He was a bishop of a local Catholic group of churches that were at some variance with the Roman hierarchy. Stepping to the edge of the platform, he began lifting his hands and blessing the people who were walking forward.
A committeeman approached Billy and whispered to him, "You'll have to ask him to stop doing that."
Billy replied, "He's your bishop. You ask him!"
During the London crusade, three American women Barbara Holmyard, Toni Johnson, and Mildred Dienert arranged for high teas in one of the Earls Court restaurants and invited society leaders and members of the London aristocracy to come and stay for the services. They came! The women had even provided a dignified announcer who called out the names of the honorable lords and ladies as they made their entrances.
Barbara Holmyard, who had attended one of our writing schools, leaned over to me. "Woody, go over there and come through the entrance, and we'll have you announced." I laughed. Imagine! "Woody, Wirt, the Friar of Sherwood Forest," perhaps? But if one of our team should hear that dignified gentleman singing out my name, my goose would have been cooked. My polite refusal may also have been motivated partly by poet Bobby Burns, who wrote:
You see yon birkie [young fellow], ca'd [called] a lord,
Wha' struts an' states an' a' that?...
He's but a cuif [goof] for a' that...
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a' that.2
Early in the crusade Dr. Nelson Bell, Billy's father-in-law, sent a worried message by cable from North Carolina to Billy. It seemed the crusade was not attracting much attention in the American press. Some dispatches from London were negative, reporting the audiences below average. The exciting things that were happening at Earls Court, the television breakthrough, the visits to the Soho district, the presence of dignitaries, Billy's visit with the queen, the astonishing youth night services, the vast numbers of inquiries each night were ignored.
I was told Billy wanted to see me in his dressing room at Earls Court. When I got there he was on the telephone to the Associated Press downtown, and the AP was apologizing for the lack of coverage.
The manager was telling Billy that if he could furnish them nightly with crusade news, it would be cabled to America. I heard Billy, "I'll have a man deliver a story to your office every night at seven o'clock." The AP office apparently thanked him, and Billy put down the phone and left the room.
It seemed everything was settled. No one said anything. Finally I asked Walter Smyth, director of overseas crusades, "Was that me he was talking about?"
"Walter, I'm going home in two days. We've got our tickets. I have a magazine issue to get out."
"You're not going anywhere, Woody. Let Winnie go. You're here for the duration."
A week later Dr. Bell reported that crusade publicity in the American press was picking up.
Much has been written about Billy's visit to the Soho district of London during the crusade. The visit was intended to be a quiet,
friendly interchange with the shopkeepers of the rather notorious area, and it ended in a near riot. Billy had made such visits elsewhere. This one, however, was doomed the minute the huge television sound trucks rolled into the area and the crews began rigging up powerful lights. They, more than Billy, were the ones that drew the crowd. Most people had no idea what was going on.
Frustrated by the growing number of spectators in his attempt to visit Soho door to door, Billy, holding a "loud-hailer," jumped on a car and began to address the crowd. At this point a blonde stripper in a miniskirt and little else was lifted up and passed hand-to-hand over the crowd toward him. This was an obvious setup. She reached the car just as Billy jumped down. To get his own waiting vehicle, Billy had to press through a mob that was becoming increasingly mean. It was push and shove, and his helpers were vastly outnumbered. Something unpleasant was in the air. A fist fight was imminent.
At last Billy's bodyguards reached the corner, slipped him into the car, and slammed the door. Slowly the car pulled away. As it did, the crowd turned around and dispersed as if nothing had happened. In my book it was a close call. God was present.
One evening in Earls Court, Billy had finished preaching and gave his invitation. Nearly a thousand people came forward to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. He was on the platform, praying silently, waiting for the last inquirers to reach the front. The choir had stopped singing. All was serene.
Suddenly a large woman in the front row stood up, threw her head back, and began praying, or perhaps I should say braying, in a loud voice. I had just left my seat at the side and was about to tiptoe around behind the inquirers with a local photographer, looking for an interesting picture or two. Not a person moved toward the vociferous woman, who was actually preventing Billy from speaking. He stepped back and waited. I walked over to her and took her by the arm and in a whisper suggested that we be seated. She threw off my arm and made more noise than ever.
By this time Associate Evangelist Joe Blinco had left the platform and joined me. With the lady in the middle, we gently but firmly
walked her down the long center aisle to the end of the Court. She continued screaming, "I plead the blood! I plead the blood!" With all London staring at us, it was the longest walk of my life. Not another sound was heard in the vast arena.
Among the many spiritual gifts I lack is the power to exorcise spirits, but that night I had had enough. Halfway down the aisle, I spotted a policeman standing against the far wall, but he made no move to help us. I turned to the woman and said, "I rebuke you in the name of Jesus Christ and command you to come out of her!"
She continued to shout, but now I heard her saying, "I rebuke you too! I rebuke you too!"
It was my first, last, and only attempt at driving out evil spirits. Joe Blinco and I turned our Cassandra over to the law, while at the other end of the Court, Billy continued undisturbed with his words of inspiration and exhortation to those who had come forward.
Toward the end of the crusade, a call came to the London Billy Graham office from a church in Plymouth, England. They would like a team member to fill their pulpit the coming Sunday. Unfortunately everybody else on the team was already engaged in ministering in churches that day everybody except Woody. Would he go? He would.
Taking the overnight train, I arrived in Plymouth early on Sunday and was escorted to the church. After preaching from the high pulpit at the rather sparse morning service, I was invited to attend the afternoon youth meeting held in a separate building nearby. There an elaborate "tea" was provided, with plenty of sandwiches for the church's young people and their friends. And there I met the "rockers."
There were four, all wearing badges, gaudily dressed in leather jackets, all long-haired and extremely hungry. I remember two of their names, "Rick" and "Paddy." They ignored my challenge to the young people by remaining outside smoking. Only when it was time to eat did they slip in and gulp sandwiches as if they were starving.
I was fascinated by these young rebels and tried to dialogue with them. One responded, "You don't want to talk to me, I'm just a sex-crazed maniac." But I did want to talk, and I brought up a subject that interested them.
"Have you heard about Billy Graham?" Yes, they had heard. (Practically everybody in Britain had heard.) So I stuck my neck out too far out. "Would you like to meet him?" They pricked up their ears. "Next Sunday," I said, "he will be closing the Greater London Crusade in Wembley Stadium. There'll be a huge crowd. But I'll be there, and you show up, I'll introduce you to Billy. Would you like that?" They thought they would. "Can you get transportation?" They shook their heads. Each one had a motorcycle that had been impounded by the Plymouth police for traffic violations.
"Can you hitch rides? Take a bus?" They might. "I'll you see Sunday at Wembley."
During the week I had occasion to mention to Billy that some authentic, real-life rockers were coming up from Plymouth for the final meeting at Wembley and were hoping to meet him. Would he like to meet them? He would. On Sunday morning I explained to him that the rockers would be waiting to shake hands with him in the tunnel as he was leaving the stadium that afternoon.
I arrived early at the stadium and found that three of the rockers had arrived after riding all night in a bus. They were already picking a fight with the ushers. It seems the staff was not too interested in admitting these rude young characters. I took them off the ushers' hands and welcomed them. I explained that as Billy's editor, I had access to the press section, we found it empty. No ushers were around. I placed the rockers in the back row of the section and told them to stay there while I went for refreshments.
I returned to find that another fight with the ushers had broken out. The last row of the press section was in front of the first row of the choir's soprano section, which was already overflowing with charming ladies. They indignantly resented the noisy youths sprawled in front of them.
It took all my brass to insist again to the ushers and all concerned that these three young men were special guests of the team and that I had "every right as Billy's editor" to put them in the press section. Finally they were left alone, and they sat with me through the service, along with 94,344 others in that packed stadium.
The songs were sung, the Gospel was preached, and when the invitation was given, I beckoned them to follow me. We slipped quietly to the secret tunnel that allows Wembley Stadium special guests to make a quick exit to the parking lot. In the middle of the rather lengthy tunnel, I stopped and asked the fellows to stand against the wall. Visibility was not the best, but I noticed that only two of them were with me. After several minutes we heard voices, and a large body of men came thundering through the tunnel. I stepped out squarely in front of them, and they looked as if they were going to run me down. However, I caught Billy's eyes and pointed to the young men standing against the wall.
"Oh!" he said with a sudden smile. He stepped over and shook hands quickly. The entourage went on, and I praised the Lord. The great crusade was over. I had kept my promise made in Plymouth, and the rockers had come to Wembley and met Billy Graham.
All except the third rocker. He had gone forward with nearly 4,000 other inquirers. He did not meet Billy. He met Jesus. And, as I learned later, so did one of the other two.
1. John Richard Green, A Short History of the English People (London: Macmillan, 1881).
2. Robert Burns, "Is There for Honest Poverty," in Great Poems if the English Language, ed. W.A. Briggs (New York: Tudor, 1936), 357.
Chapter 17 || Table of Contents