Revivals came to the church of my childhood during that dark January period between the celebration of Christmas and the introspective Lenten period. It was common, in Methodist churches at least, for local pastors to invite other clerics who had been their friends in seminary days to visit and serve as the lead preacher for a week of revivals.
So there were services every night for a week, and our family showed up for most of those nights. The services always ended with an altar call, an invitation for folks to leave their seats and walk prayerfully to the front to show publicly that they were accepting Jesus as their savior and intended to change their lives to follow him.
None of these guest revivalists were particularly memorable for me, nor could they claim the influential reach of those with a national reputation and charismatic personality like Billy Graham, who died yesterday at 99 years of age. Rev. Graham, a farm kid from North Carolina, rose to worldwide fame as he persuaded thousands, probably millions to respond to his altar calls in huge stadiums packed with believers. It’s safe to say that most Americans, even those born in this century, know his name, and many of us have heard him preach.
My lone in-person encounter with this good man occurred in the huge auditorium at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, when I was 13, maybe 14 years old, in the late 1940s, shortly after the end of World War II. This religious enclave on the Jersey shore had attracted my family as an affordable vacation destination. In three of four successive summers, our family went there during Camp Meeting, a period of special emphasis on reviving one’s faith. The event attracted big names to the auditorium’s pulpit which filled its seats and offering baskets.
He was much younger then, of course, tall, with an athletic build, wavy blond hair, and his booming voice, unaided by microphones, filled the large wooden building. The auditorium, built in 1894, nearly entirely of wood. Its acoustics were remarkable. Leonard Bernstein once compared them to Carnegie Hall. Originally, the place seated 10,000, but adding more comfortable theater-style seats reduced that to 6,000 or so. During Camp Meeting, the place was full, and Billy Graham had no trouble being heard in the farthest corner.
I don’t recall too much of what he said then, this many years later, but I do clearly recall this. The ocean was particularly rough on this day, surf was high, tossing about those brave souls who ventured in for a dip. The Rev. Graham, strong of body, was knocked down a time or two. He turned that experience into an illustration of God’s power over us mere mortals, acknowledging his own weakness.
Billy Graham went on to demonstrate considerable power of his own to change lives, and the world is better for him and his remarkable ministry. Rest in Peace, Billy.