Every age of American history has had its star evangelist, a celebrity preacher whose call to repent and believe drew throngs of the faithful and the fallen. They convinced their followers that they could win the country for Christ, and earned the attention—and sometimes even the grudging respect—of elite observers. During the middle decades of the eighteenth century, George Whitefield rode up and down the Eastern Seaboard, enrapturing crowds of tens of thousands. In Philadelphia he impressed a skeptical Benjamin Franklin, who recalled in his Autobiography, “I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”
A few decades later, the Methodist evangelist Lorenzo Dow—a mangy, long-haired character known for great faith but dubious personal hygiene—gained such popularity that his autobiography sold more copies than any book in America except the Bible. His name was second only to George Washington’s as parents’ top choice for their babies. Dow was an abolitionist, and later activist-preachers like Charles Finney and Henry Ward Beecher (whose fame landed him sponsorship deals with soap companies and watchmakers) also used their spiritual celebrity to champion earthly freedom for the slaves.
These men (and a few women) worked in different theological traditions and stomping grounds, and in different eras, but they shared several common traits. All were masterful showmen who sometimes condemned worldly theater but understood its lessons. All stuck simply to the call to conversion and skimmed over niggling doctrinal details. All grasped the anxieties and opportunities of their age, and capitalized on both. Even if their exhortations to come to Jesus make you roll your eyes, they still deserve your attention: how these revivalists sold the Gospel to their time tells us something about the time itself.
In our own era, the greatest celebrity evangelist of all is Billy Graham. He is 96 and has been mostly retired for almost a decade, but in his heyday he displayed all the soul-winning showmanship of Whitefield. History also offered him the political opportunities of Dow, Finney and Beecher. Graham achieved international fame during the 1950s and ’60s—a time, like the polarizing age a century earlier, when no Christian could avoid taking some kind of stand on race and social revolution.
For many decades, scholars and journalists have scrutinized Graham’s every statement and appearance, and they continue to press him harder than anyone ever grilled his predecessors. Perhaps this is because of the sheer scale and duration of his fame: during his sixty years of full-time evangelism, 215 million people heard him preach in person, and another 2 billion tuned in to telecasts. His radio (and later television) show Hour of Decision reached 20 million homes in the 1950s. His many books sold millions of copies. A 1978 survey of notable “achievements in religion” in Ladies’ Home Journal ranked him ahead of everyone except God.
The central decades of Graham’s career coincided with the rise of the United States as a Cold War superpower abroad, the hard-won defeat of Jim Crow at home, and the emergence of evangelical Protestantism as a national force in American politics. If the mega-revivalist is often a window onto his age, then perhaps Graham’s popular appeal and political gestures can help explain a time when priests and pols dueled with prophets, when Christianity seemed to sanctify structures of power and injustice while also gnawing at their foundations.