Altar Call in Europe. Billy Graham, Mass Evangelism, and the Cold-War West

Balbier, Uta A.
Anzahl Seiten
XI, 227 S.
£ 22.99; $ 34.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Michael E. O'Sullivan, Department of History, Marist College, Poughkeepsie

Uta A. Balbier’s new monograph, Altar Call in Europe, traces the history of Billy Graham’s revivalist meetings in New York, London, and West Germany throughout the 1950s. In so doing, Balbier explores the relationship between consumerism and secularization and demonstrates how campaigns for re-Christianization became central to fighting the early years of the Cold War in NATO-aligned countries. The book highlights the continued influence of Protestant Christianity after 1945 and illuminates how both Americans and Western Europeans experienced Graham’s religious outreach. The headings of the five main chapters indicate the points of interest: “Reviving Religion,” “Selling Religion,” “Politicizing Religion,” “Living Religion,” and “Experiencing Religion.”

Balbier builds on other scholarship that suggests the existence of a Christian revival during the 1950s. Leaning on the interpretations of Callum G. Brown’s scholarly classic, The Death of Christian Britain[1], she analyzes the enthusiastic response to Graham’s visit to London in 1954 and connects it to a wider Christian dynamism in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the book supports recent work on West Germany that illustrates high rates of spirituality among both Catholics and Protestants in this era. Although traditional measures of religiosity showed signs of decline in formal piety, religious experiences that took place outside the boundaries of weekly mass thrived. Balbier argues that in Graham’s visits to Europe, there was “no boundary between the sacred and the profane” and emphasizes “the stories of ordinary Christians who embraced Graham’s revival missions with or without the support of official churches” (pp. 7–8). Her scholarship converges with Monica Black’s recent analysis of miraculous healing in West Germany, Monique Scheer’s exploration of Marian apparitions, and my own work about the popularity of Catholic miracles. Forms of religious life that transgressed the restrictions of institutional churches characterized the postwar era in Western Europe.[2]

Balbier’s analysis of this transatlantic Christian revival models an effective approach to the global history of religion. While the book identifies similarities between the three countries under review, it is also sensitive to the distinctiveness of local churches and national political cultures. The book traces how Graham (1918–2018) integrated consumer capitalism into his “crusades.” Through his use of modern market-driven techniques to organize trips abroad and his rhetorical fusion of religious and capitalist principles, Graham offered both Americans and Western Europeans a form of Christianity that could overcome the traditional dissonance between materialism and faith. Balbier demonstrates how the success of this appeal relied on its resonance with local Christian leaders. According to her analysis, Graham achieved short-term success in West Germany and the United Kingdom because church leaders and congregants alike sought religious legitimacy for their materialistic lifestyles after the war. However, national factors, such as the German association of materialism with Nazism, limited the long-term influence of the revival meetings and their Christian-capitalist ethos. Nevertheless, Balbier illustrates how the debate over the role of capitalism in Christianity was significant even when Graham’s ideas did not persist.

Furthermore, this monograph contributes evidence about re-Christianization as a Cold War trope that united the West against the threats of postwar Communism despite different national variations on the theme. Balbier links the “US re-Christianization discourse” (p. 73) to the feeling of a Christian national culture that surrounded the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and the concept of Christian-Occidental culture (the Abendland) that animated Christian Democratic foreign policy in West Germany.[3] Graham’s crusades offer themselves as a case study through which to identify the common ways that NATO countries used Christianity to cope with Cold War fears.

Altar Call in Europe uses new methodologies in the history of religion to convey how Graham’s events were experienced by participants. It relies on oral histories, correspondence about the visits, sermons, and journalistic accounts from the Billy Graham Center Archives in Illinois, several Church archives in the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as an exhaustive list of relevant periodicals. Adopting the conceptual framework of lived religion, the book explores how those engaged with Graham’s preaching experienced religious moments against an increasingly secular backdrop. These visits sparked the creation of prayer groups, global prayer chains, bus fleets for transport to see Graham preach, and new leadership roles for Christian women. Although enthusiasm for such activities was less widespread in West Germany than in the United Kingdom, the crusades in all locations included emotive outbursts and successful attempts to embed Graham’s message within the traditional frameworks of local church teachings.

The book also deserves praise for highlighting how race shaped Graham’s appeal. He mainly catered to white audiences, and Balbier details Graham’s mixed record on civil rights in the United States; although Graham spoke out against racist violence, he never advocated for structural changes to American society that would create improvement. The book argues that his “white, middle-class religiosity” resonated exclusively with white European audiences in the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, European interest in the civil rights movement in the United States and protest against the Vietnam War coincided with the increased secularization of European society, making Graham’s religious appeals less dynamic.

This monograph’s interpretations raise questions for future research about spirituality in the postwar era. The primary tension in the book is between Balbier’s emphasis on the importance of Graham’s visits and past scholarship that contends these crusades had no long-term impact on nations that headed toward rapid secularization in the 1960s. She writes, “But a close reading of the initiatives taken by local churches in preparation for Graham’s crusades and during their running permits a different interpretation, one that captures a liveliness in religious circles that perhaps allowed them to resist secularization just a little bit longer.” (p. 124) If one combines Balbier’s work on European Protestants with other research indicating thriving Catholic and secular spiritualities, the case for a dynamic religious revival in the 1950s is compelling.

However, future work might frame questions of the transition from the spiritual 1950s to the secular 1960s differently. Rather than viewing the postwar era as a time where secular forces were kept at bay for a few more years in Europe, we might examine how the religious dynamism of the 1950s inadvertently contributed to the downfall of the institutional churches of Europe. Since Graham offered something so different from the local churches, he called the authority of local traditions into question as much as he buoyed them. The marketplace of religion grew in the 1950s and drew former Christians into a postwar world with many spiritual options. As traditional Christian identities fragmented, so too did the hold of churches on the spiritual lives of believers. Graham’s novelty may have generated more enthusiasm in the short term, but only emphasized the inflexibility of Europe’s Christian churches in the long term.

By presenting a sound transnational analysis of religion, participating in the continuing debate about the state of Western European Christianity in the 1950s, and deploying innovative methodologies to assess the importance of Billy Graham’s visits to Europe, Uta A. Balbier’s book deserves much praise. Scholars who wish to better understand the early postwar period will find Altar Call in Europe an illuminating read with its focus on the tensions (and also affinities) between consumerism and faith and the importance of Christian rhetoric in the early days of the Cold War.

[1] Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain. Understanding Secularisation, 1800–2000, London 2001, 2nd ed. 2009.
[2] Monica Black, A Demon-Haunted Land. Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany, New York 2020; Monique Scheer, Rosenkranz und Kriegsvisionen. Marienerscheinungskulte im 20. Jahrhundert, Tübingen 2006; Michael E. O’Sullivan, Disruptive Power. Catholic Women, Miracles, and Politics in Modern Germany, 1918–1965, Toronto 2018.
[3] For more on the Abendland, see Maria D. Mitchell, The Origins of Christian Democracy. Politics and Confession in Modern Germany, Ann Arbor 2012.