It was 60 years ago this year that vast crowds gathered across Australia to hear world renowned US evangelist Billy Graham preach the Gospel, setting records for attendance – including at the Melbourne Cricket Ground where the crowd was estimated at more than 130,000 (some estimates go as high as 143,000) - which stand to this day.

Speak to any Australian Christian of a certain vintage and most likely they’ll have some memories of those events in 1959 which impacted the nation on a scale evangelists today can only dream of. It’s estimated that some 3.3 million people – a figure which equates to almost a third of the Australian population at the time – attended one of Graham’s events during the four month tour.

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 Billy Graham at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1959 where estimates say at least 130,000 people (some piut the total as high as 143,000) came to hear him preach. PICTURE: Courtesy of BGEA.

Such figures don’t appear in any way daunting to Rev Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s eldest son and now the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The 66-year-old is in Australia to hold a series of free evangelistic events in six cities which both commemorate the 60th anniversary of his late father’s 1959 tour and also deliver his own call for people to come to Christ.

Speaking to Sight in Melbourne this week ahead of an event at Melbourne Arena on 16th February, Graham says that the message he has brought is essentially no different than that delivered by his father six decades ago.

“My father had a huge impact on the church in this country and a lot of the people who came forward in his meetings in ’59 went on to be pastors and missionaries and Bible school teachers. And not only here in Australia, but many of them went on to be missionaries to other countries…and they’ve had an impact on those countries. And it all came out of ’59.”

- Franklin Graham speaking of the impact of his father's tour in 1959.

“It’s just a simple Gospel message,” he says. “And I want this also to be a reminder to the churches that the Gospel works. There’s power in the Gospel and the Gospel does not need help – just preach it, that’s all you have to do, and invite a person, give an invitation for the person to put their trust in God through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Graham, who first came to Australia in 1975 and was last in the country in 2005, says he is very conscious of the legacy of his father – who died on 21st February last year at the age of 99 - on this trip.

“My father had a huge impact on the church in this country and a lot of the people who came forward in his meetings in ’59 went on to be pastors and missionaries and Bible school teachers. And not only here in Australia, but many of them went on to be missionaries to other countries…and they’ve had an impact on those countries. And it all came out of ’59. So I’m very conscious…” 

Graham’s tour is not without controversy. The US evangelical preacher has been criticised for his support of US President Donald Trump and his policies, both at home and abroad, including in Australia where one Anglican theologian Michael Bird going on the record saying he wouldn’t attend one of Graham’s events because of what he called Graham’s "idolatrous devotion" to Trump.

Asked how he would answer his critics, Graham points out that he didn’t campaign for him, nor did he make him the President.

“Sixty million Americans voted for him. And I think, since he’s our President…we need to work with him and we need to support him where we can. I don’t agree with everything that he does but I certainly agree with trying to lower taxes – I think that’s good [and] trying to defeat ISIS [Islamic State] - I think that’s a good thing because I’ve got a lot of Christians friends in the Middle East that have suffered under ISIS…He has certainly defended pro-life and I supported him on that, very much.”

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Franklin Graham preaches at on event in Perth on 9th February. PICTURE: Courtesy of BGEA.

Asked about comments he made last year in which Graham said Trump was a changed person since becoming president, Graham says that the issues people fault the President with – “his multiple marriages, various women that he’s had relationships with over the years” – all related to the time before he was President.

“And I believe he has changed and he’s got a wonderful wife [in] Melania…, he’s got an incredible family, children, and they love their father so he’s done something right…We’re all flawed people, we’re all sinners and I think whoever doesn’t have guilt can throw the first stone.”

Graham points out that Trump is the President, not the pastor, of the US.

“He’s not the pastor-in-chief, he’s the Commander-in-Chief, and I think we need to back him and then, if he’s the president for four more years, we continue to back him till the next president comes and we try to back him or her, the best that we can.”

While it was only early in the tour when Sight spoke to Graham, he said the response from Australian audiences so far – the tour has already taken in Perth and Darwin and hits Melbourne tonight - had been “very strong”. 

“And I believe he has changed…We’re all flawed people, we’re all sinners and I think whoever doesn’t have guilt can throw the first stone.”

- Graham speaking about US President Donald Trump.

While more than 13,200 people turned out to the event in Perth, Graham was particularly impressed with the response in Darwin, where he said the more than 3,100 people who attended his event at the convention centre there exceeded the roughly 2,000 who attended church in Darwin and surrounding regions each week.

“It’s an area that’s not churched and that’s where I like to go…” he said. “There was about 360 people who made a decision for Christ that night and that’s like adding about 18 per cent to the church in two hours. So that was very encouraging to go to a small place where you know the churches will be impacted.”

The events are being fully funded by the BGEA which Graham says is part of the organisation’s desire not to be a burden but to be a support to the church in Australia.

“We want the churches to be edified, lifted up…” he says.

The BGEA is working with churches to ensure those that attend the events and make a decision are followed up – in Melbourne Graham says that number comes to about 300 churches.

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The vast crowds at the MCG during a 1959 Crusade. PICTURE: Courtesy of BGEA.

Graham, who says he tries to be a voice in country on "moral issues" including abortion and same-sex marriage, also has some advice for those who may think that large evangelistic events don’t work or aren’t culturally relevant any longer.

“First of all, we don’t have to be relevant to the culture – the Gospel is relevant to every culture, period,” he says.

“And I want, especially...younger pastors, to know that the Gospel still works and there’s something about preaching a simple Gospel message and giving an invitation and, for the younger pastors that are sitting in the audience, for them to see a demonstration of God working just through a simple Gospel message. 

“You don’t have to trick people to come forward you don’t have to offer them anything…People ask me how does it work? I have no clue. All [that] I know is that’s what God uses to touch people’s hearts and lives.”

For tour dates and more information, head to grahamtour.billygraham.org.