Richard Haw is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. This interview is based on his new book, Engineering America: The Life and Times of John A. Roebling (Oxford University Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Engineering America?
RH: The simple answer would be that I wanted to understand the person who envisioned and then designed the Brooklyn Bridge, about which I’d written a couple of books. And I wanted more broadly to understand the world in which that bridge could come into being.
The more complex answer is that I wanted to understand a person who thought deeply about a host of different things—about science, politics, religion, national culture, philosophy, immigration, commerce, race, medicine, economics—and yet seemed to be composed almost wholly of contradictions. Roebling was a man of science who also attended séances and believed in spiritualism; he was capable of designing and erecting great works of engineering but he also wrapped himself up in a wet sheet most nights and ate charcoal on a daily basis; he was a man of great self-certainty but also quick to seize on a whole host of fads; he held deep religious beliefs yet loathed the established church; he read widely in Hegel, Emerson, and Channing, but also in Andrew Jackson Davis, Swedenborg, Baron Carol von Reichenbach. I wanted to explore how one person could be naive and fallible while also brilliant and visionary.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Engineering America?
RH: That John Roebling was a thinker, a seeker, and an ideas man. He had thousands of ideas during his lifetime and while most of them missed the mark in one form or another, some didn’t, and those ideas helped change the face of a nation.
JF: Why do we need to read Engineering America?
RH: John Roebling hasn’t fared well in the hands of historians. The last biography written about him was published over 70 years ago and since then our understanding of him—not helped by his son’s rather harsh memoir of his father, long available to researchers but only recently published—has ossified into something both unfair and unflattering. His genius has always been acknowledged but our sense of him as a person has become stuck in realms usually reserved for Hollywood Germans: overly formal, unbending, authoritarian, dispassionate, devoid of humor or humanism and prone to violence. The real John Roebling was a far cry from this.
In addition, we tend not to write about engineers outside of the narrow confines of … well … engineering. We write about politicians and soldiers and writers all the time but engineers are arguably just as central to our world although we rarely ask what they thought they were doing, outside of simply solving mechanical problems. To put it another way: engineering is central to our world, but engineers are rarely central to the writing of history. And even less central to the writing of biography.
But engineers are often deeply engaged people who think of themselves as performing a social or political role. Raymond Merritt once referred to engineers as “functional intellectuals” and that’s certainly how I think of Roebling. He believed in the moral application of technology, that bridges, railroads and the Atlantic Cable would band people together, heal divisions, make neighbors out of rivals, and free people out the oppressed or enslaved. He thought that railroads would help bring democracy to Russia, for example. And he believed and said all these things over two decades before Walt Whitman was writing about “the strong light works of engineers” and their unifying, ethical potential.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RH: I grew up in the north of England and I wasn’t at all interested in history. Or school or going to college. Until that is I’d had some experience of trying to get along without either ‘A’ levels (the British equivalent of a High School Diploma) or a college degree. When I did finally go to college in my mid-20s I didn’t really have any sense of disciplines. I was interested in periods—Victorian Britain, for example—but I couldn’t find a program that allowed you to look at a thing or a period from lots of different perspectives. The only degree that let you do that was American Studies, so I took American Studies, not really knowing the first thing about America! And I loved it. I loved thinking about Film Noir movies and the Cold War; I loved discovering the Hudson River School during a class on Jacksonian America; I enjoyed reading Virgin Land and The Machine in the Garden; and most of all I loved interdisciplinary thinking.
From there, I think I slowly made myself into a historian, albeit a rather ill-defined one. As an undergraduate, I think most of my interests were in the arts but that changed through my graduate training and my career at John Jay College. Over many years, I’ve come to think of most intellectual work (in the Humanities at least) as being about texts or about people. It’s a simplification of course, but broadly true in my understanding. And while I love teaching and talking about texts, I’m not terribly interested in writing about them. I’d much rather write about people and events.
JF: What is your next project?
RH: I’m writing a book about a somewhat forgotten New York artist called Leon Bibel who was very active during the late 1930s thanks to the New Deal. (Most people encounter Bibel as the first man in the breadline at the FDR memorial in Washington, DC. He was molded by his great friend George Segal, the sculptor commissioned for the memorial.) Like many New Deal artists, Bibel was deeply committed to social justice and he produced lots of great art attacking racism, fascism, political hypocrisy, war, and injustice of all stripes. If not for the New Deal, Bibel might have spent his life working as a carpenter like his brother. But he didn’t. He enjoyed a brief, precious moment when a government program enabled a person to be an artist. And because of that, Bibel’s art is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, among other prestigious museums. I find those aspects of history fascinating.
JF: Thanks, Richard!
I took some heat for this post. I still stand by it.
I am guessing that my post might get the support of Whitney Tilson. He is a 53-year-old retired hedge fund manager who lives in New York City. His wife is Jewish and they have raised both of their kids in the faith. He is liberal on most social issues. He has also been one of the most committed and dedicated volunteers at the Samaritan Purse field hospital in Central Park.
Here is a taste of Yonat Shimron’s piece on Tilson at Religion News Service:
In the course of the past four weeks, Tilson, who is not religious and had never heard of Franklin Graham, the conservative Christian leader of Samaritan’s Purse, has become one of the field hospital’s most dedicated volunteers and champions.
He’s befriended many of the staff, donated shovels and sleds to help spread 2 tons of mulch across the muddy lawn in between the tents, and gifted thousands of dollars worth of bananas, apples, Starbucks Frappuccinos, soda, potato chips and other snacks to those looking after the sick.
“It’s an incredibly impressive organization,” said Tilson, 53, a retired hedge fund manager who writes an investment newsletter. “I have no doubt they are delivering world-class critical care to my fellow New Yorkers stricken with COVID-19. Every single person I’ve met has been a genuinely nice person and very competent and good at their job.”
In this time of growing polarization and identity politics, Tilson has stood his ground, even as it has cost him some friendships.
He and his wife, who is Jewish, have been members of Central Synagogue, one of the city’s oldest Jewish congregations, for 20 years — rearing their three daughters in the faith.
But Tilson, who said his views about same-sex marriage (as well as his views on Muslims and abortion) are “polar opposite” those of Graham, has continued to defend his volunteer work.
“I’m supporting a hospital that is saving people’s lives,” he said. “I’m not endorsing the ideology of the founder of the organization.”
In recent weeks, Tilson has offered the use of his address for any of the field hospital crew who would like to receive mail while they’re working at the hospital. He’s also made available four bicycles for their use and emailed them some trails they might like to use around the park.
Last week he took a call from Graham, who wanted to thank him for his volunteer efforts.
“He’s a great human being,” Graham said of Tilson. “He might disagree with me, and I might disagree with him, but that’s not going to stop us from working together to help people.”
Graham even invited Tilson to come down to North Carolina to tour the organization’s headquarters.
Tilson said he plans to take him up on the offer. He’s a businessman and he likes to study what he called “high-performing organizations.”
Read the entire piece here.
For example, Brad Hoylman, a New York state senator representing Manhattan, wants to make sure that Graham’s views on traditional marriage do not get in the way of helping all New Yorkers. In this NBC News piece, Hoylman says that it “is a shame that the federal government has left us in the position of having to accept charity from such bigots.” He added, “this health crisis is too delicate to leave it to televangelists, purveyors of the faith, to handle our medical needs.” New York Council Speaker Corey Johnson issued a statement describing Graham’s efforts in New York City as “extremely disturbing.”
The Gothamist is also up-in-arms about Samaritan Purse’s presence in Central Park.
As anyone who reads my work knows, I am no fan of Franklin Graham’s culture-war language and diehard support of Donald Trump. I do not support his Christian nationalism. He should not be surprised when some New Yorkers don’t want him there. Sadly, his support of Trump and his caustic attacks on the LGBTQ and Muslim communities have damaged his Christian witness. I wrote about him and other court evangelicals in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
But I defend Graham’s right to practice his faith and preside over a relief mission that reflects the beliefs of that faith. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian organization. Millions of American evangelicals believe that sex is something reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. This is a deeply-held religious conviction. Samaritan’s Purse, in order to uphold the integrity of its ministry, should have the freedom to employ volunteers willing to embrace this belief.
The attacks on Samaritan’s Purse’s presence in New York City reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of evangelical relief work. I know of no evangelical relief organization that discriminates in the area of care. To suggest that the doctors, nurses, and volunteers working in the Central Park field hospital would refuse to treat LGBTQ coronavirus patients says more about Graham’s critics than it does about the mission of Samaritan’s Purse and the work of evangelical social concern generally. Watch Franklin Graham here.
Two final thoughts:
- We live in a pluralistic society. I have argued that those on the Christian Right, Franklin Graham included, need to understand this. Today it is time for those on the Left to come to grips with this reality.
- The preservation of life is paramount right now. It is more important than church attendance. It is more important than the culture wars. The extreme ends of both the Left and the Right need to learn this lesson.
I have been a strong critic of court evangelical Franklin Graham. But today I am going to put my disagreements with him aside.
Graham’s relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has set up a field hospital in Central Park in partnership with Mount Sinai Hospital. This is the evangelical community at work in times of crisis.
Last week I quoted theologian N.T. Wright. His words are worth repeating today:
…when God wants to change the world he doesn’t send in the tanks…he sends in the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, the incoruptibly pure in heart. That was never a list of qualities you need to try to work at in order to get to heaven. It was always a list of human characteristics though which God would bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven. That is how God works. And by the time the bullies and the arrogant have woken up to what’s happening, the meek and the mourners and the merciful have built hospitals and schools; they are looking after the sick and the wounded; they are feeding the hungry and rescuing the helpless; and they are telling the powerful and the vested-interest people that this is what a genuinely human society looks like…
ADDENDUM (March 30, 2020 at 8:48pm): Over on Twitter, people are calling my attention to this piece at The Gothamist. All I have to say is that the people behind Gothamist, like Franklin Graham and the court evangelicals, need to learn how to live in a pluralistic society.
What do DeWitt Clinton, John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani, Bill DeBlasio, and Michael Bloomberg have in common? They were all New York City mayors who ran for president.
So that brings us to 2020 and Bloomberg. Interestingly enough, he’s emulating Giuliani’s skip-the-early-states strategy, but he’s putting his vast wealth into ensuring that when the calendar does turn to Super Tuesday in March he will be extremely well-known and have a solid campaign in those states. And it’s looking like he is lucking into a landscape in which all of his surviving rivals will have weaknesses he can exploit. Whether it’s a one-on-one cage match with current front-runner Bernie Sanders, or a large field of wounded and underfunded candidates struggling from state to state, Bloomberg is positioned to do a lot better than Rudy did and perhaps as well as or even better than DeWitt Clinton. If he blows this opportunity, it could be a long time before another New York mayor ventures onto the presidential campaign trail.
Read the entire piece here.
Thousands of historians have converged on New York City this week for the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (and other history-related meetings).
I arrived in New York this afternoon, checked into my hotel, and headed straight to 30 Rockefeller Plaza where I chatted with NBC News Now anchor Alison Morris about the “Evangelicals for Trump” rally in Miami. (The video is not yet available).
After the interview I went back to my hotel and watched some of Trump’s speech in Miami and then attended the dinner board meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH). There are lot of good things happening in the CFH these days. Stay tuned. The Call for Papers for our 2020 Fall meeting at Baylor University in Waco will be released soon.
Tomorrow I am going to finally register for the AHA conference, spend some time in the book exhibit, and attend a breakfast and two sessions sponsored by the CFH.
If you could not make it to the conference this year, we’ve got you covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. We have several great correspondents reporting from the floor of the conference.
More to come…
Today in my Age of Hamilton class I built an entire lecture around this 1771 image. And boy was it fun! (I hope the students thought the same thing).
Source: Prospect of the City of New York. Woodcut from Hugh Gaine, New York Almanac, 1771. Copyprint. The American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (49)
On July 9, 1776, colonial soldiers pulled down a statue of George III on horseback located at Bowling Green, New York City. It is a famous story of revolutionary resistance. Most of the broken statue was sent to Litchfield, Connecticut where the lead was melted into musket balls.
But one part of the statue did not make it to Litchfield. The blog of the New York Historical Society tells the story of the horse’s tail. Here is a taste:
After the gold was removed, the broken statue was carted off to Litchfield, CT, where the 4,000 pounds of lead were supposed to be melted down into musket balls for the coming war. In all, over 40,000 balls were made, but some key segments went missing along the way: The head, for instance, was apparently returned to England, where it disappeared from record. As for other pieces, the legend goes that the cart’s drivers stopped in a tavern in Wilton, CT, and local loyalists took the opportunity to spirit some of the segments away—including the horse’s tail.
What happened to the tail after that is not known. Nearly 100 years passed before it and several other pieces were found in a swamp near a Wilton farm in 1871. They were irresistible artifacts of the American Revolution, and in 1878, members of the New-York Historical Society banded together to purchase the fragments for one hundred dollars. They’ve been in our collection ever since, and the horse’s tail is currently on view in our second floor Dexter Gallery.
Read the entire piece here.
The Times recently started a walking tour of New York City women’s history and they are looking to expand:
This summer, The Times started a walking tour to document some of the little-known locations where women made history in New York. (Want to check it out? Use the special offer code INHERWORDS for 15 percent off tickets or enter here for a chance to win two.)
Now we’re expanding our list beyond the city — and we need your help.
Is there a location in your town where some bit of remarkable women’s history took place?
It could be a bar that barred women until a groundbreaking law in 1970 (Barbara Shaum was the first to be allowed inside McSorley’s in Manhattan), a street corner where a woman was arrested for smoking in public (Katie Mulcahey, in 1908), or a nondescript office building where a group of women decided to start a feminist zine (Bust). Or something else entirely.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about your spot. Where is it, and what happened there? Please provide as many specifics as possible — the more unexpected the better.
Read the entire piece here.
Crowds at Penn Station, New York City awaiting the arrival of evangelist Billy Sunday, 1915.
Source: Library of Congress
Trinity Church in New York City was formed in 1697 by a small group of Anglicans. Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler, three of the stars of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” are all buried in New York City’s Trinity Church. Alexander and Eliza baptized five of their children at Trinity. John Jay was also a parishioner.
Today, Trinity Church is very wealthy. Over at The New York Times, Jane Margolies writes about the church’s real estate investments in the city and its own construction of a $350 million glass tower. Here is a taste:
While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.
The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer.
After being instrumental in changing the zoning laws in Hudson Square, a neighborhood between West Houston and Canal Streets, Trinity Real Estate has entered into a joint venture that gives it a majority stake in 12 buildings that contain six million square feet of commercial space. A lucrative deal with the Walt Disney Company, valued at $650 million, was signed just last year.
And as it builds its glass tower — which will house administrative offices, public gathering spaces and, yes, commercial tenants — Trinity is also renovating the interior of its historic church, which is expected to cost $110 million.
Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.
But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.
Read the entire piece here.
Here is a taste of Bell’s post:
The museum’s announcement says:
On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution.
The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.
The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow.
As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier.
Read the rest here.
Check out Michael Grunwald‘s fascinating article about power politics, partisanship, Donald Trump, and America’s crumbling infrastructure. Trump is in favor infrastructure development, as long as it helps his base, his brand, and his party. This is approach may be putting New York City, and the nation’s economy, at risk.
Here is a taste of Grunwald’s long-form piece at Politico: “The Tunnel That Could Break New York“:
By the end of the 40-minute meeting, it sounded like Trump was on board with the entire $30 billion Gateway program, not only the tunnel but a suite of related projects along the most congested stretch of American passenger rail. He delighted Gateway’s boosters by calling the tunnel vital for the economy, though he did note that it would be tough to get credit for, like an air conditioning project in the basement of one of his hotels. “Nobody’s gonna see it,” Trump told the group, “but you still gotta do it.” The politicians in attendance thought the president had even embraced an Obama administration commitment for federal taxpayers to foot half the bill. “Ask anyone on either side of the aisle. It was very upbeat, total agreement this needs to get done,” Christie told me. King describes the meeting as a love-in: “Not a single negative word, great body language, everybody on the same page.”
After the meeting, though, Trump asked Schumer to stay behind. He bluntly offered another deal, an offer suggesting he had a rather different conception of Gateway’s larger importance: Schumer could have his tunnel if Trump got his border wall with Mexico.
Schumer said he couldn’t make that trade. And ever since, the Trump administration has been doing just about everything in its power to derail the Gateway project.
Read the entire piece here.
Victoria Johnson is Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York. This interview is based on her new book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, a division of W.W Norton, 2018).
JF: What led you to write American Eden?
VJ: Eight years ago, in the course of research for a journal article on contemporary American botanical gardens, I came across David Hosack (1769-1835) for the first time (in Peter Mickulas’s Britton’s Botanical Empire). I love New York City, and I was floored to learn that Rockefeller Center had once been a botanical garden—the first founded in and for the young United States. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about Hosack. He was a polymath and involved in several dozen organizations (quite a few of which he helped found) and he was not famous enough to have had a critical edition of his papers published. Following his trail as I reconstructed his life eventually took me to about thirty archives in the US and Europe.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Eden?
VJ: There is a botanical garden two centuries old buried under one of the most iconic urban spaces in the world. The man who created it, David Hosack, is a forgotten architect of New York’s rise to civic primacy in the nineteenth-century United States, and his life story thrusts us into the post-Revolutionary generation’s battles over what kinds of institutions make cities and nations truly great and stable.
JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?
VJ: Many, many historians have written eloquently and rigorously on politics and natural history in the early Republic, and I’m deeply indebted to them for their scholarship. Because American Eden is a biography, we get to see through David Hosack’s eyes the very fraught political relationships all around him and to feel the excitement and heartbreak of institution-building and scientific inquiry. In the process, certain figures from the Founding era take on new complexity: not only the shadowy Hosack, long known simply as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel, but also Hamilton and Burr themselves, both of whom loved botany and horticulture. New York City likewise comes into clearer focus in American Eden. We don’t usually think of nature, agriculture, and natural history when we think of New York in the early Republic, but Hosack botanized right in the city as well as on Manhattan’s beaches and farms and in its meadows and woodlands. Finally, I’d add that while history is a field of intellectual inquiry that matters regardless of any explicit links we make to our present circumstances, I’ve found Hosack’s struggles enlightening as I try to make sense of contemporary American political culture and our divided views on science and nature.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
VJ: I’ll answer the “historian” part first and then the “American” part. My PhD is in sociology, with a specialty in organizational sociology, but I was drawn to historical research early. One of my dissertation advisors in Columbia’s sociology department was Charles Tilly, who had a huge influence on my choice of dissertation topic: political relations between the French government and the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to Napoleon. That became Backstage at the Revolution (Chicago, 2008). For my second book, American Eden, I crossed the Atlantic and began studying American history because of my fascination with David Hosack and his enormous, unacknowledged contributions to New York, his young country, and translantic scientific networks.
JF: What is your next project?
VJ: Book tour! I will be sharing Hosack’s story of intense civic engagement and devotion to science with as broad an audience as wants to listen, in both the US and the UK; I have talks lined up running through 2020. In the meantime, I’m slowly starting to think about what comes next (to quote a certain king).
JF: Thanks, Victoria!
In case you have not heard, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio is considering removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name. David Marcus of The Weekly Standard explains how that statue got there:
The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.
These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.
It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.
This is interesting. Many have argued that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments need to be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy. In other words, we need to understand these monuments in light of the meaning they carried at the time they were erected. Could a similar argument be made for Columbus statues?
I am half-Italian. I have spent a lot of time listening to my late grandfather (died a few years ago at the age of 103) talk about discrimination against Italian-Americans. White Americans treated him as a member of another race. None of my grandfather’s stories about working in the breweries of Newark, New Jersey were as bad as the lynchings that Italians suffered in 1890s New Orleans. And like Marcus, I do not pretend to believe that the story of Italian-Americans is synonymous with the sufferings faced by African Americans in this country. That would be bad history. But Columbus became a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans. The statue in Columbus Circle, as Marcus points out, was erected “as a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.”
What do you think? Should Columbus go?
Historian Jonathan Den Hartog of the University of Northwestern is working on a project on John Jay at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington this month. At his Facebook page he shared this great 1789 letter from Washington to John Jay.
The President of the United States presents his Compliments to Mr Jay, and informs him that the Harness of the President’s Carriage was so much injured in coming from Jersey that he will not be able to use it today. If Mr Jay should propose going to Church this Morng the President would be obliged to him for a Seat in his Carriage.
The letter is dated “April-Dec. 1789.” Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, so it is unclear if he is POTUS yet. There is no place mentioned on the letter, but all signs point to New York. This was the site of the Federal Government until 1790 and it was the home state of Jay. I would guess Washington needs a ride to New York’s Trinity Church where Jay was a church warden.
Hey, we all need a ride to church every now and then.
ADDENDUM: See the comments section. It looks like GW was probably asking for a ride to St. Paul’s Chapel, not Trinity Church. Nice work!
I have always been fascinated by this Billy Graham crusade. When I was in divinity school I wrote an M.A. thesis on separatist Protestant fundamentalism in the 20th century. The 1957 crusade was a key part of my story.
Here is a taste:
Setting aside whatever influences on the culture this crusade might have had, historians recognize that one of the most significant internal legacies from this summer was Graham’s decision about partnering with modernists, moderates, and mainliners.
The New York crusade embodied and portended one of the most important strategic decisions of Graham’s entire life. He determined that he would work with anyone who would work with him if (1) they accepted the deity of Christ and if (2) they did not ask him to change his message.
In practice he quietly overlooked the “deity of Christ” provision. He accepted the help mainline of Protestants who probably would have the affirmed the divinity but not necessarily the deity of Christ, and of Jews, who found his emphasis on God, patriotism, and decency appealing.
But the second provision—“if they do not expect me to change my message”—proved absolutely non-negotiable. There is no evidence anyone tried.
Inclusiveness worked—on the whole. As I noted earlier, the invitation to New York came from a majority of the churches, evangelical and mainline. It is hard to generalize about Catholics, but signs abound that thousands of ordinary believers and many members of the Catholic clergy supported him. Some Jews, too.
That being said, fundamentalists relentlessly opposed Graham’s effort in New York and, from then, pretty much everywhere else. By working with so-called liberals and Catholics, they reasoned, he had sacrificed doctrine for success, and the price was too high. Their opposition could be called “the bitterness of disillusioned love.” In their eyes, Graham had once been one of them, but he had left the family, never to return.
The diversity was not only religious but also included men and women from a variety of occupations and social levels. The crusade was sponsored and undoubtedly partly funded by leading figures in the business community, such as George Champion, vice president (soon president) of Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the largest in the nation. The nightly meetings featured a retinue of testimonials from prominent entertainers, politicians, and military men. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of ordinary people—more often readers of the New York Post than the New York Times—talked about the meetings on the subways and in street corner diners.
Read the entire interview here.