What Does a Religious Conversion Look Like?
One attendee on the “life-changing” experience of hearing Billy Graham speak.
In 1954, the American evangelist Billy Graham held a religious revival in London. Nearly every night for 12 weeks, Harringay Arena’s 12,000 seats were filled, and eventually landline relays also brought Graham’s voice to thousands more at overflow venues, churches and auditoriums throughout the United Kingdom. John Guest went to hear Graham speak at Harringay. Guest was 17 at the time, and what he heard that night changed his life.
At that time I was not a church goer. A girl had dumped me, broken my heart. She mentioned she went to church, and I chased her to church and never caught up with her. That's where I first heard the name, Billy Graham. Walking out of church [once] from an evening service, the minister said to me, "Will you come with us to hear Billy Graham?"
That was a life-changing invitation. The next night we're walking up to this huge structure with the crowds pouring in. It's not like turning up to church. You have the sense you're somewhere popular. When we got inside, it was so crowded we had to sit toward the back on the ground floor level.
There was a huge choir of maybe 1000 people behind the platform packed in there and singing. [I got] the impression that this is a joyful place to be, a popular place to be. It didn't look like church, didn't smell like church, didn't feel like church.
Finally Billy came to speak. He immediately had my attention. A young guy, attractive to look at, cool dress, American accent. His introduction started where I think my life was in those days: looking for some meaning, some purpose, for some sense of joy and fulfillment and relevance. The sorts of remarks he made spoke about us longing for something more, a kind of internal emptiness that we were looking to fill in some way and leads down a lot of wrong tracks. When he got into the preaching, he had a Bible which he occasionally picked up or waved around very dramatically, which I never, ever saw an English preacher do.
I never wandered or strayed from the intensity with which he prayed and preached and the intensity of what it was he had to say. He spoke about Jesus being alive, having died to pay for my sins. I was very much aware of being a sinner. I had broken my mother's heart. I felt like I'd let my mother down. I’d done some shoplifting, had one idea about what a girl was for. I was ashamed of myself. So when [Graham] spoke about Jesus dying for our sins, and that he paid the price, that was powerful. That if you ask Christ to come into your life, you could be forgiven, begin again.
I'm thinking, that's what I'm looking for. That's what I want. [Graham] spoke about the possibility of having a relationship with God, because he loves us personally—as if, when he died on the cross, he died for John Guest. [Graham] didn't mention my name, but that's the way his communication came across. And that this was for every one of us sitting there: Jesus is inviting you to come and receive him.
Then [Graham] said, "I'm going to invite you to come to the front." I'm way at the back of this huge auditorium, at least 10,000 [people]. And I thought, he's going to invite us to get out of our seat and go to the front? He's got to be joking.
He said, "the choir is going to sing, and I'm going to invite you to come." And the choir started singing, and the verse was ‘Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bid'st me come to thee, O lamb of God, I come.’ And it was clear he meant it. I thought, wow.
I said to my friend, "I don't know about you, but I'm going forward." And he said, "Well, I'll come with you as well then." So the two of us went forward. I don't know what it meant for him, but for me, that was the beginning of the rest of my life. It was the first time in my whole human experience that I felt clean on the inside.
I felt that the Lord was really there with me, a clear sense of this being more than just me going to the front of a building. And then the joy that I felt! I actually went from Harringay arena dancing through the streets of London, like Gene Kelly. I was singing in the rain. I was swinging around lamp posts with a sense of joy. I knew that my life would count for something. I knew I was headed somewhere when I died because Jesus had died for me, that heaven was my home when I died.
I'm a preacher now, but the only reason I became a preacher was that I wanted others to come to know this joy of the Lord and this relationship to him in the same way I had discovered. I wanted to give my life to something of consequence that would make a difference in other people's lives.
That all happened that night. The acorn is the oak tree. That was my acorn moment. Everything just flowed from that.
Our interview with Reverend Dr. Guest has been edited for clarity.