In the Summer of 1957, Billy Graham came to Madison Square Garden in New York City. In this excerpt from his autobiography,1 Graham discussed the opposition he received from fundamentalists prior to this Crusade, and his own reasoning for doing ecumenical evangelism:
Opposition also came from a few in the Roman Catholic and Jewish communities, although I had made it clear I was not going to New York to speak against other traditions or to proselytize people away from them. My goal instead was to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it was presented in the Bible and to call men and women to commit their lives to Him …
To my knowledge, the only vocal opposition from the Roman Catholic community came from a single article in a limited-circulation Catholic magazine. The author, an official with the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) in Washingtin D.C. wrote, “Catholics are not permitted to participate in Protestant religious services.” He went on to state that for faithful Catholics, “Billy is a danger to the faith.”
Such a statement seems harsh in light of present-day Protestant-Catholic relations, but four decades ago the situation was much different. The breakthroughs in ecumenical relations heralded by the Second Vatican Council were still several years away, and in all fairness, many Protestants likewise had strong anti-Catholic views. For me the central issue has always been Christ and our commitment to Him, not our loyalty to an ecclesiastical system, important as the church is to our spiritual growth and service …
Much more painful to me, however, was the opposition from some of the leading fundamentalists. Most of them I knew personally, and even if I did not agree with them on every detail, I greatly admired them and respected their commitment to Christ. Many also had been among our strongest supporters in the early years of our public ministry. Their criticisms hurt immensely, nor could I shrug them off as the objections of people who rejected the basic tenants of the Christian faith or who opposed evangelism of any type. Their harshness and their lack of love saddened me and struck me as being far from the spirit of Christ.
The heart of the problem for men like Bob Jones, Carl McIntire, and John R. Rice was the sponsorship of the Crusade by the Protestant Council of New York. The council, they contended, included many churches and clergy who were theologically liberal and who denied some of the most important elements of the biblical message. It was not the first time some of them had raised their objections to my growing ecumenism, of course, but the New York Crusade marked their final break with our work. I studied and prayed over their criticisms, wanting to accept their indictments if they were right. But I came to the firm conclusion that they were not, and that God was leading us in a different direction. Ruth likewise studied the whole matter; we discussed the issue and prayed over it frequently. Her conclusion was the same as mine.
In addition, my study of the major evangelists in history also showed me that the issue was not new; every one of them – from Whitefield and Wesley to Moody and Sunday – had to contend with similar criticisms, both from the right and from the left.
Early in our work, I had tried to answer any such attacks, but I eventually decided the only course was to ignore them. The critics showed no inclination to change, and at any rate I did not have time to devote to such arguments. In a 1955 letter to Carl McIntire about an article he had written opposing our work, I admitted that, “I felt a little resentment and I got on my knees and asked God to give me love in my heart … Beloved friend, if you feel led of the Spirit of God to continue your attacks upon me, rest assured I shall not answer you back nor shall I attempt to harm one hair of your head … My objective is to glorify our Lord Jesus Christ by the preaching of His word to sinners.”
A year before the New York meetings, one of our Team members, Dr Ralph Mitchell, had an extended conversation with Bob Jones. He came away convinced Bob Jones would never change his position, which was that our work was not of God. Ralph concluded by writing me, “You must not concern yourself unduly about such critics … Nevertheless, it is a fresh challenge to all of us in the whole Association to be much more in prayer.” I agreed wholeheartedly and asked God to help keep us from being diverted from His work by such critics. Occasionally my father-in-law, Dr. Bell, attempted to answer such attacks, but with little success. I often felt like Nehemiah when his enemies tried to get him to stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and come don to discuss the project; he replied that he was too busy building the wall (see Nehemiah 6:1-4).
My own position was that we should be willing to work with all who were willing to work with us. Our message was clear, and if someone with a radically different theological view somehow decided to join us in a Crusade that proclaimed Christ as the way of salvation, he or she was the one who was compromising personal convictions, not we.
The more vocal the opposition, however, the more the supporting churches in the New York area rallied to our side. God had a way of taking our problems and turning them to His own advantage.
1 Billy Graham, Just as I Am (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1957), 301-304.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?