It had been on Tuesday 23rd February 1954 that the American evangelist Billy Graham arrived at Southampton for the start of his first British religious campaign. It was not an ideal arrival as he found himself in the middle of a storm about his political intentions and facing a press that was almost unanimously hostile. Three months later when he departed, British newspapers were lavishing praise on the tall blond evangelist and a staggering 1,300,000 people had attended his meetings.
For six nights a week from March through to May, Billy Graham drew capacity audiences at the Harringay Arena. At the start the arena seating had been increased to around 12,000 but he was so popular that an ‘overflow’ room was added so that another 1,000 people could hear the services.
As the campaign grew in success Billy Graham’s critics faded quietly away. Originally the Bishop of Barking had been one of the few Anglican ministers to give Billy’s crusade his complete support. By now the Archbishop of Canterbury had become interested and promised to speak at Billy’s closing rally at Wembley Stadium. And they were right. On Saturday evening, 22nd May 1954 Wembley Stadium was filled to overflowing with around 120,000 people, some of them spilling out on to the grass. So great had been the number who wanted to be there that an extra afternoon rally was arranged at White City, attracting a further 65,000.
When the red-top Sunday papers feature religion, it is generally for the wrong reasons. But that was not the case over 60 years ago on Sunday 23rd May 1954. “Britain’s biggest religious meeting of all time” screamed the News of the World on its front page. “Billy Graham – Amazing Finale” echoed The People, adding: “Drama at Wembley: 10,000 converts surge forward in the rain.”
The two meetings were the culmination of the 12-week Greater London Crusade, during which, every night, thousands filled the 11,400-seat Harringay Arena, in north London, to hear the American evangelist. When all the numbers were counted, it was estimated that attendances had exceeded 1.5 million, and that 38,000 people – nearly two-thirds of them under 18 – responded to the invitation to come forward at the close of the message.