George Burnham: When Richard Nixon Sat In On Billy Graham Crusade

  • Monday, October 31, 2022
  • Earl Freudenberg
Billy Graham and VP Nixon in center
Billy Graham and VP Nixon in center
photo by Burnham family collection

Chattanooga News Free Press reporter George Burnham covered Billy Graham crusades beginning with the Warner Park Field House Crusade in 1953. Burnham even traveled with the evangelist to Europe including England, Scotland and parts of Asia. The Chattanooga reporter sat on the platform during the 1957 New York crusade and he later authored several books on Dr. Graham.

Burnham’s daughter Lynn has made available three original articles written by her father while covering the Graham crusades. Two have already been posted by the Chattanoogan.com.

This article is about Graham’s preaching before an overflow crowd in 1957 at Yankee Stadium with then Vice President Richard Nixon as special guest.

“The people heard him gladly” – by George Burnham

New York City - - The center – field sign at Yankee Stadium read. “Say Seagram and be sure.”

Directly behind home plate was a banner, “Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Jammed between the two viewpoints were 100,000 people—the largest crowd ever to attend any event in “The house that (Babe) Ruth built” in 1923. About 20,000 were turned away after standees filled the outfield area.

The wide open spaces covered by the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were covered by the Smiths and Joneses from Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Jersey City.

It was the hottest night of the year, with reporters in the dugouts perspiring more than Casey Stengel during a ninth inning rally. Seventy persons were treated for heat exhaustion. Over 2,500 ushers did a magnificent job of keeping confusion to a minimum.

Underneath the stands in the Stadium Club, several hundred special guests chatted and munched on dainty little sandwiches before the festivities began. Some looked at the big pictures of former Yankee greats on the walls. The guests came from California, Tennessee, Oregon, and Europe.

Shortly before 7 p.m., a wave of applause began rippling across the stands and grew into a mighty sound. Walking side by side toward the platform at second base were Billy Graham and Richard M. Nixon, Vice President of the United States. They were trailed by guards, friends, and a few who sneaked in under the blanket of applause.

The Vice President, during the short walk, remarked to Graham that it must bring a great satisfaction to attract the largest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium.

“I didn’t fill this place,” Graham replied. “God did it.”

In the opening moments of the program all stood and said the Lord’s Prayer. Later, another mighty sound rolled across the surrounding blocks as the voices joined in singing “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name.”

It seemed impossible that complete quietness could come to such a throng, but it did as George Beverly Shea and the 4,000-voice choir, superbly led by Cliff Barrows, sang “How Great Thou Art.”

After moving his eyes slowly around the vast expanses, Graham said in his opening remarks:

“A fellow was walking home alone through the graveyard one night and fell into an open grave that had been dug during the day. He pulled up roots and clods of dirt in a desperate effort to get out, but couldn’t make it. Exhausted, he sat down in a corner to wait for daylight. It wasn’t long before another fellow came walking along and fell into the same grave. He tried with all his might to get out but wasn’t getting anywhere. The man who had been dozing over in the corner touched him on the shoulder and said, ‘you can’t get out of here.’ But he did!

“They said Yankee Stadium wouldn’t be filled, but it is. God has done this and all the honor, credit and glory must go to Him. You can destroy my ministry by praising me for this. The Bible says God will not share His glory with another.”

Mr. Nixon, who was given a standing ovation, said: “I bring you a message from one who is a very good friend of Billy Graham and one who would have been here if his duties had allowed him, the greetings and best wishes of President Eisenhower.”

“America,” he said, “is a great nation because of its faith in God.”

Noises from planes taking off from LaGuardia Field drowned out some of the early parts of the program. A phone call to the airport brought quick results.

The tower instructed all pilots to turn away from Yankee Stadium.

Graham, citing the perils of Communism from without and moral deterioration from within, said, “I believe there is glorious hope. There is only one solution for our collective problems that can guarantee the survival of America and its continued prosperity. Jesus Christ is the only answer.”

Clutching his familiar Bible, he gave the listeners a choice between heaven and hell. “You make the choice by accepting or rejecting the Son of God, Jesus Christ. There is no middle ground."

With no room for the people to walk to the platform, he asked all who would accept Christ to stand. An estimated 2,500 did so.

One man had made his decision before the address began, Posing as an usher, he collected about $500 in the bleachers when the offering was given. He was only a few steps from escape when a policeman grabbed him.

On May 13, 1957, two days before the opening of the Billy Graham’s crusade in Madison Square Garden, George Burnham was reporting for the Chattanooga News Free Press and the wire services. Burnham’s first article was entitled: “This could happen in New York.”

After the historic crusade, Burnham and Lee Fisher wrote the book: “Billy Graham and the New York Crusade.”

A young Paul Harvey reported live on ABC TV from the New York Crusade and said it was the largest crowd to assemble in a stadium since the 1953 Cotton Bowl. Harvey said police had to close the stadium because of the overflow crowd. An estimated 20,000 listened outside over loud speakers.

Harvey called the Graham crusade on ABC TV “the television sleeper of the year.” It scored higher ratings than Jackie Gleason on CBS and Perry Como on NBC.

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