The last crusader
America has a long tradition of evangelism, with preachers reaching out to settlers and communities with limited access to congregational worship. Until Billy Graham arrived on the scene, it was a small-town affair, with evangelists addressing gatherings in tents and covered markets. And then the son of a North Carolina farming family used the force multiplier of media to reach out to radio and TV audiences across the country, and the world. Graham may not have been the first to leverage the media, but he was the first to use it systematically, to gather his flock in crowds big enough to fill Olympic stadiums and Madison Square Garden. These live audiences connected with million of listeners and viewers the world over, thanks to translations on the fly, which were beamed out to satellite networks.
America will remember Graham as the Gospel preacher with the widest reach. His name is familiar in every city and neighbourhood. And his huge following made him a national preacher, without the licence of a pontiff. He led a service in the US National Cathedral for the victims of 9/11, and, most recently, preached in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He corporatised evangelism and made his brand a closely held family concern.
But Graham’s influence spread beyond the US, and even beyond Christianity. His model inspired Gospel preachers everywhere. It has been adopted by Muslim TV preachers like Zakir Naik, and faith and wellness channels on Indian TV owe something to it. But they can never aspire to the global reach of Billy Graham’s sermons, which he termed “crusades”. In comparison, they are just neighbourhood conversations.