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Harringay Crusade

1954: The Harringay Crusade

Christians will look back on the Harringay Crusades as the closest we came to mass revival in 20th century Britain. Organised by Billy Graham and the Evangelical Alliance, the events – officially titled the Greater London Crusade – saw an aggregate attendance of two million people, the biggest Christian event of its kind in UK history.

The crusade came about when evangelical Christian leaders in the UK started to mull over the possibility of holding an evangelistic event for adults after having seen Billy Graham conduct a number of popular evangelistic youth events in the UK. After Youth for Christ was formed in 1947, Dr Graham returned to attend their annual conference. It was here that the link between him and the Evangelical Alliance began – a relationship that was to continue for decades to come.

The Alliance’s passion for evangelistic outreach had been roused by the introduction of new members of staff between 1946 and 1949 keen to see revival in the UK. This group of Alliance staff held delicate discussions with Dr Graham and his team both here and in the US and eventually facilitated an organising committee for the 1954 Harringay Crusade.

As part of the preparations, a meeting was organised in which Dr Graham addressed some 700 UK church leaders. Plans to hold an evangelistic outreach event the likes of which had never been seen before in the UK were underway.

Maurice Rowlandson, a staff member of the Evangelical Alliance, was to become one of the key figures in the Harringay organising committee. Mr Rowlandson’s life was to become so intertwined with Dr Graham’s that his autobiography would be entitled Life With Billy.

Mr Rowlandson, now in his 80s, recalled his memories of the planning stages for the crusade. “There was not a lot happening in English Christianity at the time,” he said. “We were very post-war. A lot of young people had never seen any evangelistic things in their lives and there were not very many evangelical churches. We had heard of Billy Graham and had received so many reports of what he was doing in America. It seemed right to bring him here.”

But he adds: “Some people were very skeptical and nobody was prepared to put the money up for it, so the Evangelical Alliance put the whole money forward even though we had no great experience in planning an event of this kind.”

This decision was to cripple the Alliance financially as they spent so much money on the crusades and the follow-up work that they used up all their reserves. But the popularity of the Graham Scotland crusade the following year brought in much-needed funds and the Alliance was brought back from the brink of extinction.

A marker of Billy Graham’s crusades was his insistence to not work in isolation from local churches. For him, this would have meant limited opportunities for turning converts into disciples by following them up and getting them involved in local churches.

Following the decision to go ahead with the crusade, months of tireless planning and long hours ensued at the Alliance’s head office, with the organising committee working round the clock to ensure the crusade went off without a hitch.

“The very first night was significant, because nobody thought anyone would come,” says Mr Rowlandson.

In fact, an estimated two million people turned up to the events at 15,000-capacity Harringay Arena. The rally was supposed to run for four weeks, but ended up being extended to three months. Around 120,000 people turned up on the last night of the crusade at Wembley stadium. Demand was so high that the Evangelical Alliance had to organise an overflow rally for some 55,000 people at White City.

During the crusade, Dr Graham employed his trademark style of preaching the gospel in an accessible way before inviting people to make a response in an altar call. Thousands did.

The unprecedented success of the Harringay Crusade happened despite initial skepticism both within the Church and in the press. A meeting involving Dr Graham, Sir Winston Churchill and a journalist called Cassandra in a pub called The Baptist’s Head is thought to have been a turning point, making the press take notice.

“The press had initially been very critical,” Mr Rowlandson recalls. “It was not until about the third or fourth week of the crusade when they suddenly changed their tune. From the very first night, Harringay was completely filled with people that couldn’t get in.”

Part of its popularity was down to the huge profile given to the outreach event. A number of other special events were held around the capital, along with the evening meetings, including rallies in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, as well as an invitation for Dr Graham to preach before the Queen in the chapel at Windsor Castle.

The Alliance’s publication Evangelical Christendom said in September 1954: “Harringay marked a turning point in the history of the Alliance.” It is also thought to have been the launchpad for Billy Graham’s international crusade ministry. Thus far, it had been confined to the US.

Writes Ian Randall in a paper presented to the Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain project in 2009: “Graham’s visits to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s helped to broaden his own outlook. In turn he helped shape the advancing post-war evangelical movement, not only in the US but in Britain too.”

One Body In Christ, a book detailing the Alliance’s history, explains: “It was widely recognised that the Graham crusades of 1954 in London together with a highly influential Scottish crusade in Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, in the following year had made a major contribution to a change in evangelical outlook. The sponsorship of Harringay by the Evangelical Alliance could have substantially narrowed Graham’s support but in the event, evangelical Christianity was given a significant boost.”

David Hilborn, former head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance and now Assistant Dean at St Mellitus College, said: “When Billy Graham first came to minister in the UK in the 1950s, the Evangelical Alliance was privileged to play a key role in helping to co-ordinate his campaigns. The relationship between the Alliance and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association continues to this day, and the shared vision of the two organisations for united mission in the gospel of Christ is as strong as ever. The churches and communities of Britain have been greatly blessed by Billy Graham’s work and witness: his impact in these islands, and across the world as a whole, has been immense. So many here and in other nations have reason to thank God for raising up this good and faithful servant.”

Recalls Maurice Rowlandson: “The Harringay Crusade was the most amazing experience of my life. The atmosphere was quite incredible and it captured the imagination of the British public very well.

“I’m honoured to have worked with Billy Graham. His total refusal to take any credit himself for anything he did was always a great thing.”