London’s Trafalgar Square, people descend on this place from all over the world but on April 3rd 1954 it was jammed packed with Londoners who came to listen to an American preacher who stood over there next to the famous lions and told them about the God of the Bible. It was the halfway point of a whirlwind three months that would see two million people hear him just up the road from here. The site is now a bulk standard shopping centre but it in 1954 it was the location of the colossal Harringay Arena, a premier venue for world title boxing matches and also the 1948 Olympics. This is the story of theGreater London Crusade.
Billy Graham was just 35 at the time and almost unknown this side of the Atlantic but his reputation in America was significant. To set the scene we need to go back a further five years to 1949 when the young evangelist had powerfully proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Los Angeles inside a 6,000 seater tent that was pitched on the corner of Hill Street and Washington Boulevard. Both the tent and the schedule were extended several times to accommodate the masses wanting to hear Billy Graham speak. More than once the organising committee tried to bring the curtain down on the daily meetings but Billy said “How we can we stop when a new church is being born every day?”
And then, one night in November 1949, the young evangelist arrived at the tent and the place was running over with reporters. He asked the stewards what had happened “You have just been kissed by William Randolph Hearst” came the reply. At the time, Hearst was the owner of several national newspapers read by millions of Americans. For some reason, he had told his editors to cover the story of Billy Graham in Los Angeles. The preacher and the businessman had never met and never would but it seemed that God had used the favour of the greatmedia tycoon to ignite a flame for the Gospel that would burn for decades to come, not just in America but all over the world.
By the time Billy Graham died in 2018, just shy of his 100th birthday, he had been a friend to Queen Elizabeth II, every American president since WWII and countless leaders and celebrities across the globe. Much more importantly, he had spoken to 215 million people in 185 countries and seen countless numbers find forgiveness, hope and new life in Christ. The remarkable scenes in Los Angeles propelled Billy Graham into a global ministry and five years later he was right here in London speaking to 10,000 people a day in that barn-like arena at Harringay. It happened at a time when the Londoners were still reeling from the war, hungry for hope and completely switched off to religion.
The legacy of the Blitz on England’s capital was devastating. Whole districts were flattened, 70,000 buildingsbombed out and 40,000 people had died. Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament were both hit and many churches were gutted by fire, never to rise again. Fathers, sons and husbands had returned from the battlefields of Europe and Asia with physical and emotional scars that would last a lifetime. Added to that, no one had ever filled Harringay Arena for more than one night, let alone every night for three months and a Christian evangelist at that.
As Billy Graham stepped onto the gangway of the Queen Mary at Southampton, there were dire predictions of failure from the press and even the church. One Anglican Bishop said “Billy Graham will fall on his face in London and return to America with his tail between his legs.” A famous journalist described him as ‘a religious racketeer and a profiteering American capitalist.’ The leading British newspaper in the 1950’s, which is still huge today, ran the headline ‘Silly Billy and his Gospel Circus’ Not exactly a generous welcome.
History would tell a different story as the multitudes descended on Harringay. Millions more tuned into the audio signal that was broadcast throughout the nation into churches, cinemas and theatres 40 years before the internet. I’ve met people who were there among the 40,000 who responded to Billy Graham’s simple invitation to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. He preached here at Trafalgar Square and also in Hyde Park but Harringay Arena was the epicentre of that spiritual earthquake as the tectonic plates of God’s love and power moved together and the shockwaves went around the world. The final gathering was at Wembley Stadium with a vast overflow gathering at the now demolished White City Stadium.
A total of 185,000 listened to the Gospel that day, 20,000 of them wading through the mud to commit their lives to Jesus. I’ve got a very old audio recording of Billy Graham preaching the Gospel just 6 years after Harringay to a very large audience in Chicago. He told them that the clock of their lives was ticking and the hour glass had already turned over “The choice you make tonight about Jesus” he said “will determine where you are a thousand years from today.” That is the heart of the Gospel. On that final night at Harringay in May 1954, one of the most prominent leaders in the British Church at the time turned to the exhausted evangelist on the platform and said these remarkable words “Billy Graham, England is at your feet, you have preached this nation to the very edge of revival”
Throughout the next 35 years he would return to Great Britain many times. 9 million people would hear him proclaim the Gospel of Christ and nearly 400,000 of them would commit their lives to Jesus. What God did in Harringay back in 1954 lit a fire that I pray will reignite in our generation, we need it so desperately.