Lost In Charlotte’s Web Part II: The Billy Graham and Elevation Church

Ok so maybe the title of this entry is a bit of a misnomer, but everybody’s into sequels these days so I figured I would get into the mix. We didn’t actually get lost in Charlotte again. If that did happen, we might as well pack things up and head back to Boston, heads down in shame.

However we did make it to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte; very easily, it turns out, since it was only a few minutes from our hotel. We pull into the parking lot, surprisingly full considering it’s a Wednesday morning. The first thing that strikes you is the barn, a towering structure featuring an etched out cross in front.

billy graham library

Billy Graham Library (pic is from the web but I'll be replacing it with my own once I get my pics uploaded!)


The grounds of the library were beautiful, with blindingly bright flowers dotting the paths leading the barn. Billy’s late wife, Ruth, is buried to the right of the barn under a simple but elegant tombstone.


Inside the place was bustling, with a full tour group already in session. We’re instructed to follow the tour line as a cow begins to talk. The talking cow in question is Bessie, Billy’s childhood cow, whom Billy practiced his sermons on…according to Bessie at least. I’m not sure how reliable a source a talking cow is but why would a cow lie to you?

So why are we visiting a dead guy’s library when we’re supposed to be visiting megachurches? First of all, it’s Wednesday morning, not much activity going on. But more importantly, in order to understand the concept of a megachurch, or a mega-preacher for that matter, you have to understand Billy Graham, who was one of the biggest of all time. Billy Graham wasn’t the first of his kind; you can trace his type of mass Christian gatherings back to people like Billy Sunday or Dwight L. Moody, preachers who attracted thousands and especially had a gift for getting the attention of young people. But Graham accomplished more, in some ways, than any before him, in that he virtually become the official spiritual guide for every US president since JFK. No one toed the line of religion/politics more delicately, and more skillfully than Billy Graham. So to appreciate the meteoric rise of the current crop of preachers, you have to first look at Graham’s impressive career.

Billy Graham was the first, and arguably the last, mega-preacher. Even for those uninterested in religion, the name at least rings a bell. He attained celebrity status in the late 40′s, as he traveled the country with his “tent revivals”, preaching the gospel to more people than anyone in history.

Billy G doin his thing

I honestly didn’t know a whole lot about Graham beforehand, but have been somewhat obsessive in researching him since we visited the library. What interested me the most was Billy’s antagonistic relationship with communism. In fact, I wonder whether he would have gotten as big as he did had he not been so militantly anti-communist at a time in America when communism was worse than drugs, sex and violence put together. The stresses on his anti-communist views got William Randolph Hearst‘s attention and, from there, Billy flew skyward. Heart built the biggest chain of newspapers in the country at that time. He’s known for popularizing the technique of “yellow journalism” which sometimes stretched facts to further an ideological viewpoint. Many attribute the stories of Hearst to our involvement in the Spanish-American War, as well as the demonization of marijuana, later leading to its illegal status. He’s also renowned for being the influence for Orson Welles’ character in Citizen Kane.

Hearst’s was interested in this preacher who connected the need for spirituality together with the need to root out godless communism. Not to make too many assumptions, but it seems more likely that Hearst was less interested in the spiritual aspects and more motivated by the anti-communism, since Hearst would have been a prime target if communism had taken hold in America. Billy Graham’s views on communism appeared to come from his wife Ruth, who spent her childhood in China, but escaped when Mao’s “cultural revolution” took place. Her experience clearly had an impact on her husband.

Another important contribution was Graham’s efforts with Youth For Christ, which held outdoor events and camps to engage the youth. The group came in response to the worry among adults that kids were increasingly engaging in “juvenile delinquency” in the 1950s. Remember, this was a time when Rebel Without A Cause was a huge hit among the youth, as well as the advent of the “greaser”. The real greaser that is, not John Travolta…he’s a Scientologist.

Youth For Christ was notable for its use of popular music, which is now almost obligatory among megachurches. Graham’s gatherings attempted to use teenagers natural enthusiasm and emotionality and channel through other means, besides sex, drugs and rock n roll (which was also coming into its own around that time). It marked perhaps the first time that religion attempted to co-opt mainstream pop culture for the purposes of seeking new converts to be “saved.” Whether you consider this an ends-justify-the-means situation or simple manipulation, the point is that Graham’s techniques influenced religious leaders all the way into the present. Approve or disapprove, you at least have to respect Billy’s accomplishments.

As for the relationship of Hearst and Graham: I think it showed the sometimes parasitic use of religion to further an ideological agenda. We see that even less subtly these days, where many of us only know the term “evangelical” as “those people who hate gays” or “those people who block abortions.” Evangelicals have become highly politicized, used as pawns in the game of partisan politics. What I realized throughout this trip is how warped my view of evangelicals was, how I expected gay marriage or abortion to be the topic of every sermon, only to find very little mention of the topic at all.