Skip to main content

On Wednesday, a superstar evangelist died at age 99 after decades of bringing his 'crusades' to the faithful around the world. His first one in Canada, in 1955, began with a fiery sermon in Toronto. Here's how The Globe and Mail reported on it

Billy Graham in Toronto, 1955. The American evangelist held four of his ‘crusades’ in Toronto between 1955 and 1995, more than any other Canadian city. His last was in Ottawa in 1998.

Sept. 18, 1955, marked the debut of evangelist Billy Graham's first Canadian crusade. He was 36 years old. Below is reporter Stanley Westall's report for The Globe and Mail on that first sermon at the CNE Coliseum.

Over the decades, Mr. Graham would launch hundreds of crusades in some 185 countries, become an adviser to presidents and transform evangelical Christianity into a powerhouse of American religious life.

On Feb. 21, he died at his home in North Carolina at the age of 99.

Ten thousand heads were bowed when Billy Graham ended his sermon.

Speaking softly, but intensely, he said: "Slip out of your seats. Come and stand before me in silent witness."

A slim crew-cut young man was first to rise from the crowd of 10,000 at the Coliseum yesterday. Within 20 minutes, 187 children, teen-agers, housewives, businessmen, elderly men and women were, in Billy Graham's words, "receiving Christ."

The first meeting of the Greater Toronto Evangelistic Crusade was over.

There had been no build-up to his sermon. The great crowd, led by a 1,200-voice choir, sang several hymns and heard an explanation of what the crusade was attempting to accomplish.

But the atmosphere changed when Billy Graham, dark-suited, strode to the lectern.

"I want every eye closed; every head bowed," he said. "There must be no moving around, no whispering. There are so many here with burdens to be lifted. Some of you feel the aching void that is in your soul. You are searching for the secret of life."

Jesus Christ was no strong-arm man, forcing his way into their lives, he said. He was there waiting to be accepted.

The evangelist used for this opening meeting of the campaign the text he used for a sermon in Great Britain, chapter 6, verse 14 of St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians:

"But far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified to me, and I unto the world."

Thumping his Bible, the eighth he had used in his crusading life, Graham said it was the answer to every problem: "more modern than tomorrow's morning newspaper – this is the warp and woof of our society."

Pointing his fingers upward, he asked: "Why is the cross so important?" Christians could have chosen to glorify the fact that "from flaming fingertips He flung worlds into the sky," but the cross was the sign of Christ's death and suffering for the sins of the world.

With graphic phrases, he described the scourging of Christ and His death on the hill of Calvary. With head held proudly, Graham flung his arms outward as he thundered: "The cross is the symbol of human iniquity."

The human race has a disease, he said. "sin is a disease, worse than cancer, worse than heart trouble. You are all infected. All greed and lust and war rise from sin. Sin is a transgression of the law. My God," shouted Graham, "I am a sinner."

Sin was malice, gossip, the white lie, anger. "It gets into the holy eyes of God."

Billy Graham’s 1955 crusade in Toronto drew crowds to the CNE Coliseum through September and October.

Pointing into every corner of the great auditorium, Graham's eyes burned intensely as he accused:

"You just don't have time for God. You have crowded Him out of your life. You have no time to read the Bible, yet you have time to read your newspaper, no time for church but time for television, no time for prayer but time for gossip. You are full of yourself."

Stamping his foot, he said religious indifference is the common sin of modern man. It was Pontius Pilate's sin of cowardice, fear to stand up for religious conviction, fear of what other people might think. There were those at the prayer-meeting with the immoral thoughts of Herod and the greed of Judas.

"We all had a part in the crucifixion of Christ," he said. "He was not crucified by the Jews, or by the Romans, but by the human race. Ladies and gentlemen, we stand condemned today and wages of sin is death."

As fast as he could speak, Graham poured forth the Biblical texts of salvation. The one unpardonable sin, he said, is the rejection of the love of God. It is easy to believe in God – even the Devil believes in God. But it is a different thing to receive him.

He had been speaking for 45 minutes when he asked those who were willing to accept God to come forward. "You don't have to understand everything about Him. Faith is beyond logic." Standing in front of him would not save their souls, said Graham.

It was a long walk from the back of the Coliseum to the platform, he admitted. "But I wish it were 10 miles. Remember the distance which Christ walked with the cross."

Two elderly women with white hair rose to their feet, but walked to the exit door, despite Graham's plea that no one should leave the building.

Then the young man walked forward. A woman counsellor – one of several hundred attending the crusade to advise the converts – walked forward to stand beside him. Women from the choir, young girls from the audience, many smiling self-consciously, joined the growing crowd before the rostrum.

An organ began to play quietly in the background. Now the converts were moving forward quickly – a father clutching his six-year-old son by the hand, an elderly man on cructhes, a young couple holding hands.

"There is still time," said Graham softly. "There are many people God is speaking to." Overcome by emotion, two women were crying. But there were no demonstrations. The only sound was the young evangelist's voice, encouraging without cajoling, prompting but not demanding. Many in the crowd were praying, eyes closed and lips moving.

The Globe’s coverage of the Graham visit in the edition of Sept. 19, 1955. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When more than 300, including counsellors, were standing before him, Graham asked them to go to the counselling room.

There they gave their names to the lay workers of the crusade and the efficient business of modern evangelism went into action.

Rev. Douglas Percy, Toronto Bible College, who heads the crusade committee with Dr. E. Crossley Hunter, said the response was almost unbelievable.

"I have put 20 months of effort into this crusade," he said afterward, "but somehow I didn't expect such a magnificent show of faith."

Rev. Joseph Blinco, a British Methodist minister, who is on the Graham team of evangelists, sasid the response compared favorably with opening meetings of the London and Glasgow campaigns.

"Despite the heat there was an alertness in the audience," he said. "It was obvious that those coming forward were sincere in their conviction."

Earlier Mr. Percy had opened the preliminaries by saying that Toronto was going to be the scene of "a religous movement such as we have never known."

Rev. Harold Lewis, president of the Baptist Union of Ontario and Quebec, prayed, "We are conscious that we need Thee." Dr. Hunter spoke of the "cloud" that Billy Graham had removed by his sincerity from the name of evangelism.

"He is a humble man," he said. "We appreciate his essential humility." Graham should be approached free from prejudice and "nasty convictions."

"He is a man we can follow safely."

Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips welcomed Billy Graham to the city in 1955, offering him an illuminated manuscript as a gift. HAROLD ROBINSON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Mayor Phillips, who offered a civic welcome to Billy Graham, was introduced as a "deeply religious man, who follows the faith of his fathers."

This day, the mayor said, prayers were being offered up to God from churches, temples and synagogues in the city in 20 different languages. "There are these slight differences between the people of the city," he said, "but there is unity in recognition of the common brotherhood of God and man."

The illuminated manuscript of welcome which he handed to Mr. Graham wished the evangelist "many years in which to cast the spell of your magnetic personality on the peoples of the world."

"We are going to see a spiritual awakening in Toronto and Ontario which will sweep like a prairie fire from coast to coast of this great Dominion," replied Graham.

"We have come to see the city awakened out of religious indifference. Hundreds will commit themselves to Jesus Christ. Churches and church members will see a spiritual revival. It will have a moral and social impact upon this community, a spiritual regeneration. But the purpose of this Crusade is to exalt the Lord and Saviour, not to exalt Graham or any organization."