a billy graham center archives exhibit
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item 28: from Collection 360, July 1957 file

Transcribed excerpts of Reinhold Niebuhr comments: “There are Christians who, while respecting Graham’s personal honesty, have their reservations about mass evangelism. This in turn means appeal to the Scripture in terms which negate all the achievements of Christian historical scholarship. Graham admits that success eluded him until he could merely, ‘The Bible says. . .’ Such a formula of salvation must also be simple and not include any of life's many ambiguities.

Thus Graham declares: ‘Every human problem can be solved and every hunger satisfied and every potential can be fulfilled when a man encounters Jesus Christ and comes in vital relation to God in him.’

Perhaps because these solutions are rather too simple in any age, but particularly so in a nuclear one with its great moral perplexities, such a message is not very convincing to anyone-Christian or not-who is aware of the continual possibilities of good and evil in every advance of civilization, every discipline of culture, and every religious convention....

Graham exemplifies a typically frontier American evangelism which has long flourished here. It sprang from the Protestant sects which at the time of the Reformation insisted that a man's ‘old self’ must be shattered in an encounter with Christ as a personal experience. These sects admitted to membership only those who had made an explicit ‘decision for Christ.’ They criticized the liturgy, leadership and theology of more formal church bodies, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. Indeed, they criticized all cultural disciplines-including theology-which did not make the Gospel seem simple, straightforward and almost entirely dependent on the individual Christian's evangelistic zeal.

In America these sects became the most powerful churches; chiefly by conquering the frontier, where their uncomplex message was particularly relevant to frontier conditions. Such evangelism, with its continual emphasis on the individual saving his own soul, neglected to explore the social dimensions of the Gospel. Graham typifies the great majority of American evangelists; though he has sound personal views on racial segregation and other social issues of our time, he almost ignores all of them in his actual preaching. As a result, although Graham claims that his present crusade is aimed at New York City, relatively few New Yorkers attend the Garden meetings. The bulk of his nightly audience comes from out of town....

A generation ago Billy Sunday, the ex-ballplayer, combined an evangelical message with a fierce opposition to the saloon in a fashion which made the prohibition movement appear the chief moral outlet for man's religious impulse. Compared to Sunday, Graham's campaign seems a pure gain, even among those who find Graham's approach to life's problems far too simple and narrow. To his credit, Graham is also free of every vulgarity and of the commercialism which marred Sunday's plea for ‘offerings.’

Graham is honest and describes the signers of his decision cards as ‘inquirers’ rather than ‘converts.’ It would be interesting to know how many of those attracted by his evangelistic Christianity are attracted by the obvious fact that this new evangelism is much blander than the old.

For it promises a new life, not through painful religious experience but merely by signing a decision card. Thus, a miracle of regeneration is promised at a painless price by an obviously sincere evangelist. It is a bargain.”


Article in Life magazine, “Differing Views on Billy Graham,” July 1, 1957. Life devoted nine pages and the cover to the New York Crusade. Dr. Reinhold Neibuhr, vice president of Union Theological Semiary and well known as a spokesman of Social Gospel theology, criticized from that perspective Graham’s approach to evangelism. Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell, a member of the executive committee, defended its effectiveness from the point of view of a pastor, citing many postive contriutions to the spiritual life of the city.

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