In 1959 Billy Graham visited Australia for four months, which included some time in NZ. This was the first and most significant of three Australian Billy Graham crusades (in 1968 & 1979). The ’59 Crusade was perhaps, at a national level, the closest Australia has come to what could be described as a revival. The numbers of people involved in preparation, attendance and response were astounding.
It would seem that the view of many in our churches today are sceptical of the effectiveness of this style of mass evangelism and large events now. They would say that we have “moved on” from that approach to evangelism. While this may be an acceptable view, it could be helpful to look closely at the ‘59 Crusades and consider why they made such an impact.
In the Australian culture of 1959, it was not usual for people to go and hear an American preacher. In fact the last US evangelist in Australia before Graham was Oral Roberts. He rolled up his huge tent and left Melbourne after the site was hit by stink bombs. US preachers did not have a great track record down under!
Billy Graham was invited to Australia after huge and successful crusades in Los Angeles (1949), London (1954) and New York (1957). He was becoming a household name with an international reputation. Following a meeting in Sydney of 600 protestant clergy and church leaders, led by Anglican Archbishop Mowell, an invitation was extended to Graham to come to Australia.
Preparation across the nation resulted in surprisingly large numbers of people getting involved. Counsellors were trained for the crusade meetings in huge numbers – Adelaide 4,500, Melbourne 5,000 and in Sydney between 8,000 & 9,000 were trained. There were also volunteers for the support roles and massive choirs. So great was the response to the call for choirs in Sydney that there were two separate choirs each with 1,000 people.
The churches also prepared their local areas by surveying homes to gauge the spiritual state of the nation. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least 300,000 of the 500,000 homes in Sydney at the time were visited and surveyed.
Prayer was mobilised in incredible numbers for these crusade meetings. There were local cottage prayer meetings as well as large gatherings, like the one in Sydney where 5,000 people attended. By April 1959 there were 40,000 prayer partners in prayer for the Crusades across Australia.
Once the crusade meetings started the statistics continued to be off the dial with massive crowd numbers and enquiry responses. There were 114 meetings in 106 days across Australia and New Zealand. Meetings were held in Melbourne, Hobart, Launceston, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney.
To gain an understanding of the interest in these Crusade meetings the Melbourne story gives a clear picture. The meetings started at the moderately sized West Melbourne Stadium which held 7,500 people. When 10,000 turned out they realised the venue of hopelessly inadequate, so five days later they moved to the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl. On the first night at this new venue 25,000 people attended. This grew to 70,000 on the Sunday afternoon. Sadly due to the yearly Moomba festival the Crusade meetings had to be moved again, this time to the less than desirable Agricultural Showgrounds. Even with a very poor venue and unseasonable rain and cold weather the nine meetings had attendances varying between 18,000 & 25,000. The final event of the Melbourne Crusades turned out to be a history-making event. It was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with a staggering 143,000 people attending. To this day, the record still stands as the biggest crowd ever to assemble at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The Melbourne story was repeated across the country. The final Sydney meeting was an event in two venues side by side, the Sydney Cricket Ground and the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds. Between these two venues there was an estimated attendance of 150,000 people.
The overall attendance of all the meetings was 3 million. Many thousands more heard Graham preach on radio, television or in cinemas. They read about him on the front page of all the metropolitan newspapers. Landlines relayed over 3000 services to over 400 remote and regional communities throughout. Australia.
At the end of the Billy Graham Crusades, a conservative number of enquirers at all these meetings was 146,000 people. That is, the number of people who walked forward at Crusade meetings to make a response to the message of Jesus which Graham had preached. It is helpful to ask what happened to those enquirers and did these responses make a difference to our nation?
Those who made a response at the meetings were referred to local churches. Some churches had an enormous number of referrals.
- St Luke’s Anglican in Liverpool had 215 enquirers referred to them.
- Port Kembla Methodist, which only had about 100 members in 1959, received 50 new enquirers after the Crusade. (An overnight growth of 50%!) Forty seven of the 50 enquirers stayed as members of the church while the other three became members of other churches.
- The biggest numerical growth was in the heart of the city of Sydney. St Stephens Presbyterian Church on Macquarie Street had a staggering 600 new people referred to them in 1959. The church had to hire an extra minister to deal with the influx. Over 75% of these enquirers stayed as regular members of the church.
There was also significant influence in several other areas. While statistical coincidence doesn’t necessarily mean causality, there are some statistics that correlate with the timing of the 1959 Crusade. These may give us a glimpse into the impact of the Crusade on people’s lives:
- The Bureau of Statistics showed a 10% reduction in alcohol consumption for 1960-61.
- Australian Crime Statistics show a brief halt in the increase of crime for 1960-62. (The rate had doubled from 1920 to 1950, doubled again between 1950 and 1959, and then the upward trend continued in the late 1960s).
- 1960 recorded the slowest growth in the number of ex-nuptial births in a decade in which the figure had been steadily growing.
This impact can also be seen anecdotally:
- Businesses reported an “epidemic” of repayments of bad debts
- Counsellors at the Crusades reported burglars handing in the tools of their trade when coming forward. Even a revolver was handed in!
- A Sydney District Court magistrate reported a 50% drop in alcohol-related crime.
Another profound impact was on people’s life and career decisions. In this sense, the Crusade had an immeasurable but enormous influence, the ripples of which were still felt 50 years later. The impact in theological colleges training people for Christian ministry was felt almost immediately:
- More than half of Melbourne Bible Institute’s 160 students in 1969 were there due to the 1959 Crusade.
- Of Adelaide Bible Institute’s 118 enrolments, 25% were there because of the 1959 Crusade.
- In Moore College in Sydney, numbers peaked at an unprecedented level in 1960 and 1961. (They had a first year intake of 44 students in 1960, and a record level of 104 total students in 1961).
- Every female student at Moore College in 1961 had been involved in or converted at a Billy Graham Crusade.
- The leadership and personnel of missionary organisations, like CMS, or Wycliffe Bible Translators are full of those impacted by the 1959 Crusade.
Overall, there was a widely-reported “deepening of spirituality” because of the Crusade. This is hard to measure of course, but nevertheless we do know that:
- During the Crusades, sales of Bibles trebled in capital cities.
- An additional 140,000 copies of the Gospel of John were given away free.
- Scripture Union memberships almost doubled between March 1958 and November 1959 (from 58,000 to 104,400).
The 1959 Billy Graham Crusade in Australia had a remarkable impact at the time and an ongoing long-term influence. This was not just the result of one great preacher coming to town. It is the outcome of the church working together, sustained prayer, an anointed preacher who presented the Gospel is ways that could be clearly understood and without apology, outstanding organisation and the power of the Spirit of God at work in the lives of those who heard the message. Whilst it would be foolish to try to replicate these events, it is a challenging reminder of what God can do when we focus on the Gospel and work together for Kingdom outcomes.
Karl finished in his position as Senior Pastor of Gymea Baptist Church in late 2014 where he served for over 20 years but he is still deeply committed to resourcing the local church and helping equip believers to be sure in their faith and effective in evangelism. Olive Tree Media is the organisation which strategically brings together the media ministries of Karl through which he seeks to bring the message of Jesus into the complex and challenging world of the media to help listeners and viewers consider a fresh perspective on life and faith.
– Some of the background material and information for this article came from research by Mike and Nikki Thompson as well as scripts written by Martin Johnson.
For more on being ‘Revitalised in Witness’ please read the other posts in this series: