NEW YORK — "Finally, the Big One," blared a headline in 1957, when a dashing young evangelist named Billy Graham was poised to launch his first crusade in the largest and, by reputation, most wicked city in the nation. "Save New York!"
The buzz surrounding this famous itinerant preacher's foray into Manhattan was at times more pulp than truly epic, but that crusade still stands as one of the most momentous events in American religious history. It not only marked the first time a preacher reached a significant audience through television, but it also helped establish him as the leading spiritual figure in the country, a pivotal player in the reemergence of US evangelical Protestantism.
Now, this weekend, as he prepares for his perhaps final crusade, the Rev. Billy Graham returns to "the big one," New York City, at the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens.
The octogenarian evangelist, dealing with several ailments, has proclaimed it almost certain that he will not preach in such a public venue again. If true, this Sunday will mark the end of a career that, spanning six decades, has made Mr. Graham one of the best-respected public figures in the nation's history.
It's a fact not without irony, since Graham came of age when evangelists were seen more as Elmer Gantry figures - traveling hucksters, hypocrites out to make a buck. Evangelical Protestants, too, bruised after decades of battles with Darwinism, liberal Christianity, and academic critiques of the Bible, had mostly withdrawn from public life, retreating into a defensive "fundamentalism" that could only react to culture, not shape it.
"Billy Graham, for evangelicals, put us on the national stage in a light that reflected well on us, maybe for the first time in a long time," says Larry Lyon, professor of sociology and dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "There was great pride in his accomplishments, especially at that time in the 1950s and '60s, when the idea of 'evangelical Protestant' was seen with a more jaundiced eye by the establishment than they are today, when they've largely become the establishment."
Even now, few Christian leaders can claim the near universal respect given to Graham. Many others have large followings and significant political clout, but none has transcended his or her particular constituencies to play a larger national roles quite as he has.
Like most evangelists, Graham had the requisite charisma to be an exciting and inspiring preacher. With his James Dean good looks, his chiseled jaw, and fiery blue eyes, he had a rare ability to exude both determined strength and gentle sensitivity.
But the key, perhaps, was his message. Unlike many of his evangelistic peers, both before and since, Graham decided to preach a simple, positive message, one that avoided the controversies that obsessed other conservative Christians.
"He was reared as a fundamentalist, who very self-consciously, early in his career, decided to forsake the fundamentalism of his childhood in favor of a broader, more inclusive, evangelicalism, which was not so separatist or sectarian," says Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Barnard College in New York.
"Here is a man who wasn't damning everyone and everything to hell unless they were exactly like him," says Dr. Lyon. "Here was a man preaching peace and love in a nonthreatening manner that really spoke to a much broader audience."
In many ways, Graham's simple message of peace and reconciliation, rather than the more contentious approach of other fundamentalist evangelicals, helped revive the evangelical optimism that had shaped a broad American self- understanding since the time of the Puritans. America was a land of innocence and purity, a "city on a hill," as an early Puritan minister famously proclaimed.
At the same time, Graham was the first to employ electronic media in a way no one had before. His "Hour of Decision" radio broadcast, first aired in 1950, became the most listened-to religious program in the world - a position unchallenged for decades.
"He came to prominence at a unique moment in history," says Mr. Balmer, "when various media technologies were just emerging in the country. And he, and more particularly his associates and his team, jumped on them and exploited them brilliantly in order to advance his career."
At first a country preacher, dressed in pastel suits and flashy ties, Graham transformed himself in the 1950s, taking on a more conservative, middle-class attire. By the time he came to New York in 1957, and began the era of televangelism, he conveyed an image that many Americans would find appealing.
"Perhaps influenced by the entertainment industry in California, the site of his first crusades, he began to adapt himself, or at least his image, to broader American popular cultural tastes," says Dr. A. Daniel Frankforter, a church historian at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College. "He began to look more like a businessman. He combined that image, that popular image of respectability and prosperity, with a version of Christianity that affirmed it."
Yet, like most iconic figures, Graham struck a complex pose, and he could be both prophet and healer, brilliantly combining the threat of judgment and promise of salvation in his sermons. His optimism was still rooted in traditional Protestant teaching - an integrity that was part of his appeal.
As his popularity grew, evangelical Protestants, too, began to emerge from their protective pose. Here was one of their own being courted by US presidents and other world leaders. Though many criticized his accommodating style, evangelicals began to engage culture in way they hadn't for decades.
By the 1970s and '80s, Graham's influence began to extend worldwide. He was able to preach in countries hostile to the US, becoming the first Christian minister of any kind to preach publicly behind the Iron Curtain.
He persuaded repressive regimes in China, Hungary, and the Soviet Union to allow giant gatherings for his sermons - events normally never allowed.
"In terms of his statesmanship, Billy managed to travel the world without becoming an ugly American," says Marshall Shelley, coauthor of the forthcoming book "The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham." "He managed to travel to all of these countries - many of them with heightened political sensitivities - and by and large manage not to inflame the situation, but to be an ambassador of peace and reconciliation."
Now that Graham's career is at its close, few see any other ministers able to match the charisma and widespread appeal that made him such an important figure in American religious history.
"The reach of his preaching - nobody has ever come close, and I suspect no one else ever will," says Balmer. "His people claim that he has preached to more people than anyone else in history, and I don't know anyone who would seriously dispute that claim."