The Rev. Billy Graham, whom the New York Times called "a pastor to presidents and the nation’s best-known Christian evangelist for more than 60 years," died at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, on Wednesday, at age 99. News of his death prompted Senior Pastor Scott Black Johnston to inquire about Rev. Graham's past association with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. We are grateful to our archivist, Dale Hansen, for the following historical sketch.
At least two of our senior pastors—the Rev. Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell (1893-1992) and the Rev. Dr. Bryant Kirkland (1914-2000)—were friends of Billy Graham. In 1956 and 1957, Dr. Bonnell preached three times on Rev. Graham's hugely successul "Crusade for Christ" at Madison Square Garden, which drew more than two million people to a series of rallies over a period of 16 weeks.
The years 1956 and 1957 were a time of intense engagement between Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Billy Graham ministry.
On Oct 14, 1956, the Rev. Dr. Gerald F. Bearman, executive secretary to Rev. Graham, spoke on the "Mission of Evangelism" at a church event sponsored by the World Service Committee of the Women’s Association and the Business and Professional Women’s Club. On Nov 21, 1956, weekly prayer meetings started at Fifth Avenue, seeking names of men and women who wanted to participate in the New York crusade. These prayer meetings continued for six months.
Dozens of members of the Fifth Avenue congregation volunteered for the New York crusade. The October 1956 issue of the church publication, The Fifth Avenue Voice, reported that “Dr. Bonnell, also a member of the Executive Committee, and [Associate Minister Ralph B.] Nesbitt, who has taken an active interest in Dr. Graham’s coming to New York, are eager to have this Church adequately represented in the work of the Crusade." A follow-up article in February 1957 reported that 44 church members had enlisted to provide counseling, serve as ushers and handle other tasks.
And on Nov 3, 1957, the New York premiere of the Graham film, Miracle in Manhattan, was held at the church.
In a sermon on May 16, 1964, Dr. Bonnell spoke about "a one-day retreat when Billy Graham, Charles Templeton, and Jesse Baeder met for a day in my study in New York. I related to them the story of the breaking of the light upon my bewilderment and darkness, and Billy Graham was good enough to say that this experience shed a brighter light upon the Person of Christ than he had ever gained from a textbook of theology.”
Dr. Kirkland met Rev. Graham in 1962. The Archives contain Graham's "nice to meet you" note to Dr. Kirkland, which also included an invitation to preach at Montreat. In 1963, Graham sent a cablegram from Santiago, Chile, to New York to congratulate Dr. Kirkland on his installation as senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian.
On Jan. 5, 1969, at Dr. Kirkland's invitation, President-elect Richard Nixon and Rev. Graham attended Sunday worship here. Later that month, Rev. Graham would offer the invocation at President Nixon's first inauguration.
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