In the first of Scotland's great Yes campaigns, two and a half million people attended his rallies, many at the Kelvin Hall or Hampden Park, others at the 'relay meetings' in churches and public halls the length and breadth of our spellbound nation. Fifty thousand converts were made in six weeks. Eat your heart out, Eck.
Billy Graham brought snow to Glasgow in the early spring of 1955. He was a stratospheric vortex made human. He even warned of the Beast from the
East: Russia then as now. Scotland was so captivated by the right-wing American evangelist that if he had declared a 6pm curfew because the commies were coming, half the population would have gone along with it and locked up their daughters.
Among the peoples of the world, none responded more overwhelmingly to
the Graham alchemy than the Scots. What happened to us in that strange
year has never received a proper clinical examination. It would probably need a week-long conference of the world's psychologists to make any sense of the phenomenon.
As with a subsequent Yes campaign – the political one 59 years later – most of the No voters were sensible enough to keep shtum. When Graham urged one of his audiences to carry on the work of 'persuading the Jew to turn his face to Jesus Christ,' even when he assured them that 'wherever the Jew has gone, whatever he has done, he is still a Jew,' the voices of tolerance and compassion – whatever they amounted to in the Scotland of 1955 – raised no objections. In the face of popular adulation amounting to hero-worship, it paid to batten down the hatches until Storm Billy had passed.
And yet, even in the acquiescent Church of Scotland, which gave Graham a prominent place in the throne gallery at that year's General Assembly, there were a few subversives. They deserve an honourable footnote in history, which is exactly what I intend to give them.
The then minister of Rattray, the Rev E G S Traill – the Kirk was big on initials in those days – may have been the first of the refuseniks to speak out. Traill, a member of Perthshire education committee, was so disturbed by the mass emotionalism of the Graham meetings that he objected to a proposal that a teacher and 29 pupils of Breadalbane Academy should be granted leave of absence to attend one of them. The provost of Pitlochry invited members to treat Traill's opposition 'with the contempt it deserves.' They duly did.
That was the last we heard of the humbled minister of Rattray. But two more infidels blundered into the vacancy. The minister of Fraserburgh, the Rev A Q Morton, wrote: 'The Graham campaign is fundamentalist. A supporter of the crusade said he believed the whale swallowed Jonah because the Bible said so. Indeed had the Bible said Jonah swallowed the whale that too would have commanded his belief. There is no point in criticising this crusade, for its beliefs are beyond the reach of reason. There remains a duty to say clearly and with conviction that this man and his beliefs are not universally accepted and that it is not necessary to surrender intelligence and integrity to become a Christian.'
How did these unfashionable sentiments go down in Fraserburgh? Not well, it is safe to assume. When the next of the heretics, the Rev H S McClelland of Trinity Church, Glasgow, referred in his sermon to 'Dr Graham's incredible world,' he was interrupted by a member of the congregation accusing the minister of being a blasphemer and a servant of Satan. McClelland invited the protester to join him in the vestry after the service, where they chewed the theological fat for several hours before agreeing to differ.
Among the Kirk's senior figures, only one voice, a predictable one at that, uttered a dissenting note. George MacLeod asked his fellow Scots to consider if, perhaps unconsciously, they were not being true to the Scottish tradition, which went beyond personal salvation and dealt with the needs of society as a whole.
Graham did have a certain view of the 'needs of society as a whole,' though not one that appealed to George MacLeod. On 29 March, in front of an audience of 16,000 in the Kelvin Hall, he rounded on the values of popular culture, condemning plays, novels and films as 'vehicles of the salacious, the vulgar and the profane.' Why, it was terrible that even women were using foul language.
Something of this judgemental mood leaked at once into the general life of Scotland, often in ways that now seem comical and absurd. There was respectful press coverage of a meeting in Troon of the British Women's Temperance Association which called for a complete ban on the use of alcohol in television drama. In the seaside resort of Gourock, the licensing authority refused permission for pubs to open beyond 9.30 on summer evenings. Magistrates in Edinburgh resisted a modest plan to permit Sunday play on municipal golf courses on the grounds that the city had a duty to support the Graham crusade. And local court reports show how minor offenders were punished with unusual severity in the spring of 1955; among the more bizarre examples, a football fan who ran onto the pitch during a Celtic-Airdrie match, but did no more than run onto the pitch, was sent to prison.
'The largest evangelistic meeting in history' – Graham's final gig in Glasgow – drew a crowd of 100,000 to Hampden Park. In gathering darkness the last 2,259 converts filed past the barriers to stand on the perimeter track and make their symbolic 'decision for Christ.' Tom Allan, the chain-smoking, plain-speaking minister of St George's Tron, who had done much of the leg work for Graham's tour, predicted that historians would see in the crusade 'a significant landmark in the long history of the Scottish church and people.' The brutal arithmetic told a different story: from a peak of around 1.3 million in 1955, the membership of the Church of Scotland entered into a long and sustained decline. It continues to shrink.
So the crusade failed to inspire the hoped-for revival of institutional religion. But the influence of the 50,000 Graham acolytes, or the unquantifiable minority who went on to serve the national church as ministers or elders, may have been long-term and fairly profound. It is only a hunch based on anecdotal observation, but the Church of Scotland ministry seems to this outsider to have fewer thinkers and sceptics, and more evangelicals, than it once did. If I am right, and an anti-intellectual strain now dominates, we have Billy Graham to thank for his pioneering work that long-ago spring of 1955, the season of converts, when we were ready to believe that Jonah swallowed the whale.