Billy Graham
Billy Graham; drawing by David Levine

In May of 1934 [Billy Graham’s father] lent a pasture to some thirty local businessmen who wanted to devote a day of prayer for Charlotte because the depression had spread spiritual apathy in the city…. During that day of prayer on the Graham land, their leader, Vernon Patterson, prayed—as [his father] would often recall between Billy’s rise to fame in 1949 and his own death in 1962—that “out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”

—John Pollack, Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography

Of course. Billy Graham was first raised up when Charlotte tried to pray itself out of the Depression, God having so clearly looked down His nose at the world that he could choose for us even then the prophet who takes our minds off our national sins. If we begin to think of the Depression again, it is not so much because we fear its return as because we have begun to understand that our America was born then.

Our President is the son of a Depression storekeeper. He is our most admired citizen, first on a list that had certainly to be prepared in advance by the Gallup people, since the admirable are not in that condition of national surplus where the names of heroes leap spontaneously to the mind of any man stopped on the street. Mr. Nixon is not given to recollecting occasions which reflect on the ways of God and the stewards of His economy. But as witness to the permanent wounds of a childhood in a small and failing store, we may freely substitute Hubert Humphrey who, the parts of Gallup’s list being interchangeable, would now, with better news from California in November of 1968, be our most admired American.

Humphrey’s place in Edward Robb Ellis’s splendid history of the Depression is as a young man who had to leave college to help his father in the family drugstore in Huron, South Dakota:

Sullen, disgusted, feeling trapped, Hubert went about his work mechanically, eager to get back to college, to escape a prairie turning into a desert. Seventy-two dust storms in South Dakota in one year—that was too much. One day, unable to control the ferocity that was building up inside himself, Hubert smashed a dozen glasses in the sink behind the drugstore. Hubert adored his father but even this deep love was not enough to hold him in South Dakota. The elder Humphrey, sympathizing with his brilliant son and wishing to ease his tensions, offered him half ownership in the family business. Hubert replied, “I can’t stay. These dust storms—I just can’t take them anymore. I’m so tense I’m sick all the time. I get these pains and I know it’s because of the worry. But the depression, the dust, the drought—they’re wearing me out.”

The young man developed a lifelong habit of vigorously dusting everything within reach.

We remember other habits, some as affecting, all as understandable. There was the basic depression underneath all those strenuous assertions of cheer; Humphrey, like Mr. Nixon, had one of those childhoods which make it a necessity to remind oneself to smile. What is otherwise inexplicable in anyone so likable is that indifference to the cruelties of Saigon or Chicago. Reality was the intruder the Depression trained its children never to notice; otherwise we should be surprised at how many of the persons who lived through those days insist to Studs Terkel that they never saw a breadline. And, last of all, there was the avidity, baffling in a populist, of Humphrey’s clutch at the good opinion of the associations of bankers, manufacturers, and publishers: remembered Failure still submitted its triumph over that sin to Success, the only proper judge. Bob Leary, a cab driver, tells Studs Terkel about his father who was out of work for two years:

He never forgot it. I guess it does something to somebody being out of work so long. It destroys your confidence in yourself. Not that it destroyed my father’s self-confidence. But I could see how it affected his outlook on life, his reaction to success. He was inordinately impressed by men who make it in business. It’s my feeling the depression had something to do with this.

Billy Graham is our second most admired American. It is a badge of his origins in this moment of our birth that he should have begun his evangel as a Fuller Brush salesman.1

“Just to get the brush, most of them would let us in,” remembers Grady Wilson, his partner then and now:

Sometimes they’d just let us talk and we’d each slip in a little bit of sermon to round things out. At least half the time, they’d take the sample, and, as soon as we started with the message—business or religious—they’d slam the door in our faces and tell us to get the blazes out of there. Now, brother, that sure was a test of your Christian patience. Never seemed to bother Billy. You just couldn’t stop that fella.2

The religion of the Depression is defined for us by Herb Goro in The Block, his examination of persons in the East Bronx who had never known anything else. “You’re lucky if you have a good job,” the Block’s Pentecostal minister tells Goro. “You have time to get rich or get some money, but who doesn’t believe in God he won’t become rich.”


Billy Graham brings that spirit to us intact from the years of his birth in the Depressed Jesus. “Stand along the track, don’t come on the grass,” he abjures in Shea Stadium in the moment of invitation. “Today is the day of salvation. He died for you. Take the little things to Him—your boy friend, your girl friend, problems in the office. You’ll be amazed at what God can do for you.”

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is the testament of Anita Bryant and it reminds us that, in sacred studies, the Exemplary Life has an importance for teaching second not even to the Word. The saints in Graham’s calendar run to notables either dimly remembered or never noticed; persons who have not heard of Miss Bryant might need to be told that she was voted “The Number One Female Recording Artist,” that she was second runner-up at the Miss America Pageant of 1958, that she is the first woman to head Freedom’s Foundation in Valley Forge and the first ever to appear in the same year on the podiums of both the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions.

Miss Bryant was born in Oklahoma in 1941. She was not completely a child of the Depression; but the circumstances which led her family to concentrate all its hopes of rising on her talents do call to mind those fathers desperately drilling their tiny sons at basketball in the Harlem playgrounds. Her parents moved to Oklahoma City when she was nine so that she could have singing and dancing lessons. She had a career at ten:

Looking back now I marvel at how the Lord sent me more opportunities every time I showed him I could take a little more responsibility.

In moments of stage fright, she says, “I told myself God would simply have to help me once again.”

On opening night of the high-school senior performance of South Pacific, she prayed:

“Lord you know what I’ve got to do tonight…. Help me always to live my Christian testimony, especially as I perform on the stage. And, oh, yes, Lord, please help me remember my lyrics.”

Each night, from my heart, I know He heard me tell Him what I had so often said to Mother. “Lord, I really do want to become a star.”

Then she won a chance to fly to New York and be seen on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts.” Her pastor was dubious; would she compromise her Christian testimony? “Lord, please guide me, I prayed. I really do want you to do Your will for me.” Then there grew in her the peace beyond understanding:

I knew just as well as I have ever known anything in my life that God fully intended me to travel with Mother and appear on the Talent Scouts program. What God really wanted of me, I realized, was my submission. Of course He wanted me to have my professional opportunity, but He also wanted me to go, perform and act in full obedience to my inner guiding from Him.

Going out in submission to His will, I watched as He opened doors to me that I never dared hope would open. For example, after my “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” appearance, I got to visit his popular morning show every day.

She did not win the Miss America contest, because God “had a wonderful new door for me to enter instead.” He had intended her for the Don McNeill “Breakfast Club.” And, “as that year wore on,” her recording of “Till There Was You” moved “up to the million mark in sales.”

Again I could see the Lord’s hand guiding my life. Had I won the Miss America Pageant, according to the terms of the contract, I could not have performed (certainly not have recorded) for a year. During that time, Miss America’s appearances and performances are under the strict sponsorship of the pageant, and her talent belongs to them exclusively.

In time she married Bob Green, a Miami disc jockey. “God stepped in and took over and Bob felt led to confess Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.” Thereafter, “We both knew that God wanted Bob” to become her manager, and he seems indeed manfully to have undertaken the vocation of Holy Procurer. It was his idea, for example, for her to mix sacred and popular songs in her repertoire:


“Bob, you don’t know how hard it is for me to do this,” I stammered. “It’s easy for me to get up in public and sing a pop song, or get up in front of church and sing a sacred song, but to put those two images together…. For one thing it really wouldn’t be commercial. You’re going to get a lot of people who wouldn’t want me on certain television shows because they’re going to say, she’s too religious, too fanatic. On the other hand it could hurt my church image as much as the pop image.”

But, as Bob had predicted, her album of hymns and ballads

…did reach a far wider audience than we could have imagined. It became a sure, steady seller that continues to do well, and, in so doing, gives my Christian testimony as I really wanted to do.

The pilgrim’s path spread out by Him Who knows what can be commercial led her at last to the White House and the singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Mr. Johnson’s dinner for Henry Cabot Lodge. Before she sang, “I retreated to an office and sank to my knees”:

“There’s a crisis in Viet Nam, Lord. [It is understandable that the Great Watchman Who sees that every vacancy on the Don McNeill “Breakfast Club” opens up for His child might, in that passionate concentration, have lapsed in His attention to Southeast Asia.] These men have such weight on their shoulders. Please push Anita Bryant aside. Let your message come forth through the words I sing, to comfort and reassure them.”

This moment of dedication to a national purpose is unique in an Exemplary Life of Prayer otherwise committed to self. Anita Bryant prays most of the time as to a Booking Agent; even Billy Graham has a curious tendency to pray as to a Party Chairman or a Marriage Broker or some other custodian of worthy worldly satisfactions. He prayed “every day for a quarter of an hour,” his biographer tells us, that his fiancée would not break their engagement; when she did, he determined “to let God have his way.”

In 1960, Henry Luce persuaded him to write an article for Life endorsing Vice President Nixon. Mrs. Graham objected; her husband found himself tormented by complaints from Democratic governors until

On Thursday night—the night Life magazine goes to press—Ruth and I got on our knees and prayed, “Oh, God, if it is not Your will for this article to go—stop it!”

The next day, Luce called to say that at midnight he had killed the article because of protests from Senator Kennedy, and Billy Graham could reflect on the mercy of that God who will even move through Rome his miracles of rescue to perform.

There is very little room in the Grahamian creed for service to anyone except, of course, to convey him to Christ. A visitor moves through the born-again at Shea Stadium; it is wicked to intrude upon such privacies, empty though they are. Still there is an occasional clearly audible proclamation of the good news. “Twelve years old,” a counselor cries. “What a wonderful age to come to Christ.” And there the celebration seems to end; the redeemed trails away with his copy of My Personal Commitment, the special study guide for children. (“Hi! Giving yourself to Jesus Christ is the most important thing you will ever do…. On your mark…get set…go! On your first Bible study lesson.”) There is Faith (“Lesson One: Heaven is God’s home. You want to be there with him, don’t you? Of course you do.”)

But, more important, there are Works: “My Personal Wall Chart”—“Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God”—with its check list of the virtues the redeemed child is commanded to display “without being told.”

I make my bed and clean my room; I clean my teeth regularly; I help around the house when possible; I obey my parents; I am careful with my clothes and shoes; I respect my teachers and older people.

There is, in all these commandments, no reference to service to strangers; the home is a fortress.

Billy Graham’s moral authority endures because he has never imperiled his ministry with any leap beyond this teaching of mere deportment. The president of the Mutual Insurance Company of New York came to Shea Stadium to remind the congregation that the New York Crusade budget was $200,000 short and to read the evening’s collect, “All good things cost money.” The substance of his presence was an assurance of stability: so long as Billy Graham conceives the first duty of a Christian as abstention from being in any degree an inconvenient person, the economy will provide.

Still there are faint symptoms of unease, not about being endowed, but about being listened to; having used up our curiosity, he seems to feel a want of resource to call upon our attention. He let his hair grow for this crusade, hoping, he almost confessed, for some fellowship with the wandering young, but succeeding only in looking like those middle-aged men who hang around high-school gates with some wistfully wicked intent; he has the withered look that Timothy Leary and Raymond Duncan got from the struggle to be seen as still young, and rather less of their visible Grace.

And he has been forced, despite these promptings to a wider ministry, to take his stand in the war between the young and the old. “Parents who have reared their children right should not carry guilt if the child goes wrong. It was not the father’s fault that the Prodigal Son chose to live a wicked life,” he preached at Shea Stadium.

The arms were open in the attitude appointed by the theater; but there was the cold sound of iron gates closing. All those years spent cultivating the art of excluding no one have come to an end, and with them that agreeability which used to explain the tolerance, even the affection, which those who came to scoff so often took away from the confrontation with Billy Graham. Surprisingly, for the first time, you want the Team caught out now; and you begin to search their books of revelation for some suggestion that one of them may have fallen. Which moment at what Damascus turned the Reverend Jerry Beavan from his life’s journey to leave the Team and become vice president of the Rexall Drug Company? The authorized version carefully closes a door into which it would have taken a very spiteful spirit indeed to imagine peeking: “[Beavan] remains close friends with Billy Graham who often seeks his advice.”

You come to cherish Mrs. Billy Graham for the small but spirited heterodoxy that fortified her in refusing baptism by immersion and wearing lipstick when the Team landed in London. You search the scarred face of George Beverly Shea, America’s Beloved Gospel Singer, with the hope that its unexplained cast of pain and loss may conceal the closet drinker. But here is Bev Shea’s testament3 and it tells not of rescue but of a lifetime so immune to all but the mildest perils that Shea can remember only one struggle with the flesh. That was when he had his audition with the Lynn Murray Singers, won the approval of that master, and was commissioned to learn the “Song of the Vagabonds.” He stopped at the words “…and to hell with Burgundy,” and asked, “Father, dear Father, why have you led me into this dilemma?” He knew the answer without having to open the return-reply envelope: it was to test him, and he broke off the consultation to decline the job. They are all this perfect.

Perfect, you become afraid, except in the survival of love. They have turned rather nasty with time and with being a little too old for their nick-names. A photographer asks Gil Strickland, the Team’s press director, if he might take pictures from behind the speaker’s platform. “What do you want to do?” rasps Strickland, the smile no more now than a tic. “Show 20,000 empty seats?” In the beginning Billy Graham disarmed us all because he believed so plainly, so intimately, so earnestly that God might find him unworthy and turn his lips to clay. That holy trepidation has now been reduced to nothing more than this peevish anxiety that the Sponsor might be counting the house.

Edward Robb Ellis and Studs Terkel have different ways of dealing with the Depression in which there was born this mind that brings to us now the official National Revelation. Ellis has worked through the documents and newspaper clippings of the time and Terkel through conversations with those who endured it.

Ellis has been a rewrite man and an author of a popular history of New York, a species of letters whose canons require that the message be cheerful or, if not cheerful, sentimental at least. We are surprised to find him drawn to a subject so intractable to his accustomed instruments of relief; but we ought to thank him for having known his duty when he was trapped there. What he has brought most to our attention is not the suffering, which generally passed, but the indifference that endures. It has not been Ellis’s trade to leave us angry; but he faced up when he had to.

He has preserved for us the observations of those wise men whose tablets never lost their command on the public reverence:

“In the House of Representatives, in a debate about appropriations for Indians living on reservations, a Congressman said that 11 cents a day was enough to feed an Indian child. A Senate subcommittee learned that the president of a textile firm had told his workers they should be able to live on six cents a day.”

“People began to feel that they were to blame for everything, that, somehow, somewhere, they had failed. Maybe the depression was punishment for their sins. After all, Protestant Episcopal Bishop John P. Tyler attributed it to lack of religion.”

“When Dwight Morrow was running for Governor of New Jersey, he said: ‘There is something about too much prosperity that ruins the fiber of a people. The men and women who built this country, that founded it, were people that were reared in adversity.”‘

“President Hoover denied that anyone was starving, but said: ‘The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”‘

“Henry Ford, who liked to boast that he always worked, declared in 1930 that the very poor are ‘recruited almost solely from the people who refuse to think and therefore refuse to work diligently.’ Roger W. Babson, the statistician, pontificated two years later, ‘Better business will come when the unemployed change their attitude towards life.”‘

“In 1932, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation lent $90 million to [the Central Republic Bank and Trust] and $30 million to various states for relief. In other words one private bank got three times as much as the needy states.”

When Samuel Insull’s collapse cost his investors three quarters of a billion dollars, he was indicted for embezzlement and theft:

Some of the Insull jurors had been convinced of his innocence even before he took the stand and, five minutes after being locked in a room together, all twelve men decided on acquittal. But, as one of them pointed out, the trial was so significant and its publicity so widespread that, if they returned their verdict in a mere five minutes, they might be suspected of bribery. One juror’s birthday fell on that date, so the gentlemen of the jury ordered cake and coffee and held a small birthday party, managing to kill two hours that way. Then at 4:30 p.m. they returned to the courtroom to announce their verdict.

Studs Terkel’s Hard Times has no source except the disparate memories of the persons to whom he talked. Terkel’s method is an art whereas Ellis’s is artisanship, however of the most admirable sort. You do not rise from Terkel, as from Ellis, with the assurance that the thing has been defined. These are not witnesses to anything so orderly as a thesis. The matter of Just-Who-It-Is-Who-Deserves-to-Be-Taken-Seriously, fixed in journalism, slippery in the novel, may, to take a case, have been the one riddle which contained the great lesson the Depression offered us, and which we kept the national faith by not puzzling out. Terkel’s voices remind us that Who-Deserves-To-Be-Taken-Seriously is not often enough official or, for that matter, even respectable. Sally Rand was one who noticed. (“It was weeks before anyone discovered I wasn’t wearing anything. It was economically sound, because I didn’t have money to buy anything…. The rich still eat rich and wear mink coats while people in Chicago literally starve to death in the streets.”) William Benton was one who didn’t notice. (“We didn’t know the Depression was going on. Except that our clients’ products were plummeting, and they were willing to talk to us about new ideas. They wouldn’t have let us in the door if times were good…. Progress through catastrophe.”)

Terkel finds our instructors in the most unexpected places—ports of exile to which respectability banished them years ago. How untrustworthy all our categories seem when he brings us to just two such outcasts—the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith and Claude Williams, the old agitator, unfrocked by the Presbyterians on imputations of Stalinism.

“I was recommended to a little church in Paris, Arkansas [says Williams]. It was a coal mining town. They were trying to organize against all odds. We staged a strike and won…. One of the elders, a merchant, was furious. ‘You’ve got those cantankerous miners—those blatherskites.’ They accused me of Red-ism and corrupting the minds of the youth. I lost my church. The presbytery met and ‘dissolved the relationship of the Reverend Claude Williams and the church for the good of the Kingdom of Heaven.”‘

“I was introduced to the Depression while I was in Shreveport, Louisiana [says Gerald L. K. Smith], and I was pastor of the most sophisticated church. The leadership included the top men in the community…. Then came the Depression, and sophisticated people became penniless. Fifteen thousand homes were coming up for mortgage foreclosures in the city. The building and loan company decided to foreclose, before the HOLC could advance loans. I couldn’t stand the tears of these people, and I offered aggressive resistance to this. I urged the company to postpone these foreclosures. They said it was none of my business. Lo and behold, I was waited on by the leaders in my church. They brought pressure on me to resign.”

Smith called his friend, Governor Huey P. Long, who bullied the building and loan associations into canceling the foreclosures. “It confirmed my great affection for Huey Long and it lost me my job as pastor of the King’s Highway Christian Church.”

So they melt together, the one discarded as an inconvenience of the Left, the other of the Right, until we can scarcely tell what was learned by the one from what was learned by the other.

“Did I ever tell you about that time in Georgia? [says Gerald L. K. Smith] A state with a lynching tradition. I was going to speak in a nearby town. We set up the sound equipment in front of the courthouse. Here came the mob. All the little farmers, all the little rich. The backbone of America are these little rich.”

“The rabble-rousers hated me [Claude Williams remembers]. I had the longest horns in the country because I was using the very book they were using. I turned the guns the other way as it were. I interpreted it as I thought the prophets would have interpreted it, given the situation.

“We have a religious phenomenon in America that has its origin in the South. Established churches followed urban trends. People out here were isolated and delivered religion on the basis of what they saw. Store-bought clothes which they could not buy out of poverty became worldly and sinful: ‘We had rather be beggars in the House of the Lord than dwell in King’s palaces.’ They were denied schooling. They were called rednecks and crackers and damn niggers. But the Bible was God’s Book. Refused access to medical aid, faith healed the body as well as the soul: ‘We seek another world.’ It was a protest against things economically unavailable. I interpreted this protest and related it to the Bible—instead of calling them hillbillies and rednecks.

“At one gathering five or six Klansmen were around. I said, ‘I want to speak about the Ku Klux Klan.’ All the people who are in the Klan are not vicious. My brother was a member. You try to reach the people at the consciousness of their needs. I quoted Peter on the day of Pentecost: ‘Save yourselves, don’t wait for somebody else.’ Peter made contact with every person in the language in which he was born. I won over a number of Klansmen.”

There is a gaiety in these recollections which ought to have been transfiguring yet somehow wasn’t. The thing did not teach us what it should have; Terkel draws his appropriate envoi from Virginia Foster Durr:

“Among the things that horrified me were the preachers—the fundamentalists. They would tell the people they suffered because of their sins. And the people believed it. God was punishing them. Their children were starving because of their sins.

“The Depression affected people in two different ways. The great majority reacted by thinking money is the most important thing in the world. Get yours. And get it for your children. Nothing else matters. Not having that stark terror come at you again…. And there was a small number of people who felt the whole system was lousy.”

It is, you suppose, the memory of this great chance somewhere not taken that saddens the recollections of the radicals of the Thirties and makes them think less of their own achievements in that time than they deserve to. Here is C. B. Baldwin talking about his struggles managing the Farm Security Administration and able to call to mind no permanent result except those pictures of the rural poor which he commissioned from Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Margaret Bourke-White. (“I think our most lasting contribution was this collection of photographs. I think it most effectively dramatized the plight of poor people.”)

It cannot, in common sense, be true that in a landscape from which arise so many boasting claims no sight sticks in the mind so much as that of its wrecks, its wasted faces, its broken promises.

Some of this impression has to do with the social untidiness of a country whose cities must be the only ones where European film directors with a need to recapture the immediate effects of the devastation of war can find at hand settings ready-made. Some of it may be in some limitation of photography, which does have a way of embalming success and making the homes of the comfortable look like rooms in museums; showing success as in some way waxen and only failure alive, the Kodak display in Grand Central Station so often seeming contrived, the dusty ruin of a slum never other than natural.

Herb Goro’s The Block is a record of the faces and the talk of that area of the Bronx whose cultural hub is 174th Street and the Third Avenue El. It is a work of great complexity and sadness, intractable to the glib understanding of any reader. We shall, one fears at the end, go on failing. Goro’s people are the tenants of these apartments and a few of the public servants we have left behind to deal with our leavings.

The Fireman:

“We had a fireman mugged at a fire. Now you don’t call that normal…. They stamp their feet and they stamp their feet by burning the building. It’s the whole bloody city, not these people any more than anybody else. I don’t blame these people for anything. It’s these characters that come in…. Beautiful they’re going to put twenty million dollars—in this community. Twenty million dollars—the people don’t even know how to count that high. And two months later they’re still standing there waiting for the twenty million dollars.”

Or the Policeman:

“You can walk down the street and ride down the street and feel the hatred there…. Whether they want to believe it or not we have feelings. There’s nothing different about me than there is about you, and, when I’m called filthy debasing names in the street, I go home, sure and my hand shakes sometimes. Not in fear, but in plain rage…. I believe that, if we’re ever going to make a decent society out of our whole stupid country—the way it’s going now—we’re going to without a doubt just have to get along. That doesn’t mean you have to jump fences to shake hands with a guy. And it don’t mean you have to move out of the house if somebody you didn’t like before or whose ethnic background you have a low opinion of moves in.”

The Conductor on the Third Avenue El:

“The people suffer and they bitch to me. They bitch to the motorman and the rest of the guys. They don’t bitch where they should bitch. Maybe they don’t know how to bitch.”

The Demolition Worker:

“You can’t blame the landlord…. They’re lazy people…. You know something. You can’t blame the people…. What can you expect of them? They have a dozen kids and they can’t afford to take care of them…. You want to know something? Between you and me, sometimes I’m glad the people don’t take care of the place—that’s why we have plenty of work.”

The talk of these outsider witnesses seems always to begin in hostility and wander its way to a certain curious, however bitter, sympathy. We come closest to an exception in The Teacher, who knows much more than the others about what conventional liberalism thinks ought to be done, and yet who is somehow colder than the others, more final in her moral judgments, more likely, one decides, to quit the block. Everything fails, but Respectability fails with a peculiar sense of grievance.

The people themselves are heart-breaking in the impossible hopes they cling to while the walls appointed for them close in. So much wisdom about their past and present can cohabit with so much foolishness about their future. Still it is odd how Respectability can assert its claim over us and raise our only real defense against their appeal, which is to lose patience with them, to clutch at any deficiency in their sense of reality as an explanation that their failure is somehow their sin. The unwed mother judges the unwed father as mothers judged fathers in the Depression. A part of each of us remains a child of that Depression and condemns the victim for the sin.

This Issue

August 13, 1970