Peter Jensen: Billy Graham changed my life

‘So I stood from among my friends and I went down the front.’

American evangelist Billy Graham visited Sydney and Melbourne in 1959, and it’s estimated that half of Australia’s population heard him preach at the many major rallies he led (which were broadcast around the nation via ‘landline’). Many people point to the ’59 Billy Graham Crusade as the moment they decided to follow Jesus. One of them is Peter Jensen, the former Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney (2001-2013). Eternity spoke with Jensen about attending the life-changing rallies, what he made of Billy Graham, and whether there will ever be anyone like him again.

Why did you go to the Billy Graham Crusade?

I was 15 years old and I had been going to church, where my parents had sent me and my two brothers. I had basically heard that the Bible was the word of God but I didn’t have a personal faith in Jesus.

I didn’t know much about what to expect.

We were taken to the Crusade; I don’t remember being asked, we were simply bussed to the Crusade. It was the first Sunday of the Crusade, if I remember correctly. I think it was around April 20 or 21.

We were seated on the grass of the arena, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. We had never seen anything like it before – the great crowds of people at a Christian meeting, the choir made up of people from all the churches, and then eventually, Mr Graham. I had heard of him because there was a fair bit of publicity around. But I didn’t know much about what to expect.

What was it like?

From a distance, what struck me was that all the technology worked perfectly. It was the first time I’d ever been in church where the technology worked perfectly! The sound was excellent.

Mr Graham was, of course, good looking, enthusiastic, and obviously a man of great personal authority.

It was a very powerful moment; it was life transforming.

The thing that struck me was that he held the Bible in his hand and he preached the Bible. I already believed that the Bible was the word of God, so when he preached the Bible – and he preached that day from Noah and the Ark in Genesis – it seemed an inevitable thing to do to follow his invitation to come down the front, as a way of indicating that you wished to commit your life to Jesus Christ. It seemed inevitable to me that one would do that.

So I stood from among my friends and I went down the front. [My brother] Phillip followed me. He always says that he thought only alcoholics and criminals went forward, and he saw me going forward – so he thought he would as well. I remember looking back and thinking he was too young to make this decision; after all, I was 15, but he was only 13. But he went down the front and we were counselled there by a Dutch migrant, if I remember correctly.

It was a very powerful moment; it was life transforming. I then went back 17 extra times for the evenings and the Sundays to hear Mr Graham. My parents were beside themselves at this.

One of those times [Billy Graham] said we need people to go into the ministry, so then I decided to go into the ministry as well.

What was your impression of Billy Graham?

I once read a report about him that described him as “arrogantly humble.” He had immense power of his convictions. He was deeply centred on Christ and the need to make Christ known in what I would regard as a winsome way. But I regarded him as also strangely self-effacing.

He was himself. I thought he was a humble man, that was the impression he gave me.

What was the atmosphere like during those Billy Graham rallies in 1959?

People sometimes think that it was all manipulation and mind magic and that sort of stuff. I didn’t think so, I have to say.

We were in the open air, sometimes it poured with rain. It was usually in the evenings.

I don’t think it was intoxication, it wasn’t like that.

The thing that struck me was the coming together of all the churches. I couldn’t have put my finger on it at the time, but virtually all the Protestant churches got together and produced that choir, and got the people to counsel people down the front and all that sort of thing.

There was a unity in the gospel.

I don’t think it was intoxication, it wasn’t like that. It was appreciation of the work that had been put in to making this work.

It meant you were comfortable listening, you weren’t put off, but you were dealing with something really important because a lot of time and effort had been put into making it good.

Do you think the world will see someone like Billy Graham again?

I just listened to an interview of a historian who said that he didn’t think so because of the change in the mood and change of technology and so forth.

I’m not sure about that. God does different things in different times. You can never predict it, it doesn’t work like that.

But I tend to think that whether the technology will carry the message differently, it will still be a message carried by specially gifted and appointed people who stand and proclaim and there will be some. Every few decades, perhaps, there will be someone who speaks with extraordinary power and effect under the power of God’s Holy Spirit… but how, I don’t know.

The Billy Graham Crusades at the end of the ’50s reaped a harvest sown in the ’50s. It gave us a moment of decision, where you said, ‘Yes I am going to be a Christian.’ In the next decade it was a lot harder; nominals dropped away from church but those who were committed remained.

If we’d not had the Graham Crusade, I believe church-going would have decreased much more significantly than it did – and the level of commitment in church would be far less.

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