Guest commentary by John A. O’Brien
Billy Graham, the most prominent Christian preacher of the 20th century and pastor to several United States presidents, died on February 21, at the age of 99. Graham spoke the word of God before millions of people who attended his revival-style “crusades,” and many more millions through his innovative use of television as an evangelical tool. In his efforts to extend his ministry, Graham engaged with many traditional church pastors. He had a particularly strong connection with George M. Docherty, the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., from 1950 to 1976.
Docherty was skeptical when he received an invitation to meet Graham at a revival scheduled for January 20, 1952, in the Washington, D.C. National Guard Armory. He had been aware of Graham since his breakthrough revival in Los Angeles in 1949 that attracted 350,000 to the “canvas cathedral,” a huge tent that had been erected for the eight-week event. Revivals are not part of the Presbyterian tradition and Docherty was suspicious that this was more about marketing that redemption.
But Docherty accepted the invitation and, still unsure of the message his presence would convey, took his place on the stage. There he enjoyed the choir and “the basso profundo voice of George Beverly Shea,” inviting people to come “talk with Jesus and be told we are his own.” Now enthralled, Docherty soon became aware of a hand stretched out to him. “I’m Billy Graham. I believe you are Dr. George Docherty. I am so glad you have found the time to be with us this afternoon.” Graham told two quick anecdotes about his connections with Docherty’s native Scotland, then moved on to the lectern.
Graham paused to survey the large crowd before him in the cavernous armory and requested that he have everyone’s full attention. He then launched into his sermon. Docherty described that he was “both bewildered and dazzled” by what he saw and heard. The hopeful message of God’s love was powerful and the delivery at rapid-fire pace was overwhelmingly successful. Docherty reflected on his own ministry and preaching and thought that he came up short by comparison. He believed that while his own sermons were more academically grounded and structurally effective, what he heard Graham do was “reveal the Word hidden within the words of Scripture.” Docherty was moved by the unalloyed spirituality of Graham’s delivery that went to the heart of Christian belief and devotion.
Unitarian leader A. Powell Davies was not so impressed with the Billy Graham crusade. He wrote a letter to the Washington Post complaining that Graham was encouraging people to leave things in God’s hands when they should be more active in getting rid of some of the hell on earth. “We need a religion,” he wrote, “not of escape but of courage.” Docherty took up the defense with his own letter suggesting that the perceived deficiencies were more in the Unitarian’s unwillingness to accept fully “the Revealed Truth of God in Holy Scripture.” Davies described his disagreement as about “simple adherence to the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus as exemplified by Billy Graham and George Docherty” (as recorded by George N. Marshall in “A. Powell Davies and His Times”).
Graham called Docherty the day his letter to the Post was published to invite him to lunch. They met in a small diner near New York Avenue Church where Graham thanked the Presbyterian for his support at a time when “my ministry is passing through a critical stage.” The friendship that began here would include numerous visits and acts of kindness throughout the years of Graham’s active ministry.
When Graham would call on President Eisenhower, and later Nixon, he would also visit Docherty at the manse on Cathedral Avenue in Woodley Park. They would have tea and talk about their ministries in Docherty’s study. Sometimes their conversations would continue over a round of golf. When Graham told Docherty of the plan for his first overseas crusade in Britain, Docherty insisted that he also hold one in Scotland the following year.
Docherty knew many pastors in Scotland and wrote them to promote the Billy Graham Tell Scotland Crusade of 1955. Over five weeks of revival meetings, more than one million people attended Graham’s preaching. Busy as he was with the massive outpouring of interest, Graham still made time to visit Docherty’s mother in Glasgow. On his return to the U.S., Graham shared with Docherty many of the letters he had received from Scots churchmen. Docherty was amazed to see that so many of his old colleagues in the sedately conservative Church of Scotland were as taken as he was with Graham’s talent for injecting such vibrancy in the Word and bestowing new strength and power to those preachers who heard him.
Docherty would continue to help with upcoming crusades and assisted by offering prayers to open the Madison Square Garden Crusade in 1957. Docherty made national news when he spoke out against organizations that were urging people not to attend while predicting that crowds will “throng” to the crusade. Docherty used the opportunity of his Mothers’ Day sermon of 1957, the week before the crusade opening, to describe the importance of Graham’s ministry to all Christians. Though Graham’s means were unconventional, Docherty argued, he is skilled at delivering Christ’s message just where sinners are abundant. At a second Washington revival in 1958, Docherty had his church serve as the crusade headquarters.
Docherty described Graham’s struggles with biblical authority. Was the Bible to be accepted as the literal, dictated word of God? Was the earth created in six days? Or, was it inspired by the Holy Spirit through writers who interpreted through their own language use, thought forms and literary fashions of the places and times in which they were written? Docherty had been part of Graham’s interactions with learned authorities who urged less literal interpretations of Scripture. Docherty had hoped that Graham would be the one person who could heal the breach between the Bible Belt south and the more liberal north. But Graham would not engage in such academic controversies. These were questions that Graham acknowledged he could not answer, saying only, “I just know what belief, without question, without reserve, has let God do in my life.”
Docherty and many of his pastor friends would acknowledge that after hearing Graham preach, they had found new strength and power for their own ministries. Docherty began to question whether his sermons were too analytic and logical. He worried that they conveyed his own need for sophistication over the unstinting love of God. For Docherty, the essence of ministry is described in 1 John 4:7, from which he observed that “it is in loving one another that our knowledge of God grows.” Docherty remained consistent in his learned preaching style, but always considered that his Christian witness and revelatory parables grew stronger because of his appreciation for the nation’s leading evangelist, Billy Graham.
John A. O’Brien is a retired healthcare executive and a member of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. He writes on the many significant events and leaders that New York Avenue has experienced in its more than 200 year existence in the nation’s capital. This article on Dr. George Docherty is part of the 50th anniversary documentation of the church’s role during the 1960s civil rights and Vietnam era protests. His work on the close relationship between President Lincoln and his Civil War pastor, Phineas Gurley, will be published this summer in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
For more, see “I’ve Seen the Day” by George M. Docherty.