Billy Graham, hippies, and the rock concert

The 1969 Miami Rock Music Festival featured the Grateful Dead, Santana, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, Vanilla Fudge and, interestingly enough, Billy Graham.

What follows is Billy Graham’s description of his countercultural gospel message at the Miami Rock Music Festival found in his autobiography Just As I Am.

It was eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, but I was most definitely not in church. Instead, to the horror of some, I was attending the 1969 Miami Rock Music Festival.

America in 1969 was in the midst of cataclysmic social upheaval. Stories of violent student protests against the Vietnam War filled the media. Images from the huge Woodstock music festival that took place just six months before the Miami event near Bethel, New York – for many a striking symbol of the anti-establishment feelings of a whole generation of rebellious youth – were still firmly etched in the public’s memory.

Concert promoter Norman Johnson perhaps hoped my presence would neutralize at least some of the fierce opposition he had encountered from Miami officials. Whatever his reasons, I was delighted for the opportunity to speak from the concert stage to young people who probably would have felt uncomfortable in the average church, and yet whose searching questions about life and sharp protests against society’s values echoed from almost every song.

“I gladly accept your kind invitation to speak to those attending the Miami Rock Festival on Sunday morning, December 28,” I wired him the day before Christmas. “They are the most exciting and challenging generation in American history.”

As I stepped onto the platform that Sunday morning, several thousand young people were lolling on the straw-covered ground or wandering around the concert site in the warm December sun, waiting for such groups as the Grateful Dead and Santana to make their appearance. A few were sleeping; the nonstop music had quit around four that morning.

In order to get a feel for the event, for a few hours the night before I put on a simple disguise and slipped into the crowd. My heart went out to them. Though I was thankful for their youthful exuberance, I was burdened by their spiritual searching and emptiness.

A bearded youth who had come all the way from California for the event recognized me. “Do me a favor,” he said to me with a smile, “and say a prayer to thank God for good friends and good weed.” Every evening at sunset, he confided to me, he got high on marijuana and other drugs.

“You can also get high on Jesus,” I replied.

That Sunday morning, I came prepared to be shouted down, but instead I was greeted with scattered applause. Most listened politely as I spoke. I told the young people that I had been listening carefully to the message of their music. We reject your materialism, it seemed to proclaim, and we want something of the soul. Jesus was a nonconformist, I reminded them, and He could fill their souls and give them meaning and purpose in life. “Tune in to God today, and let Him give you faith. Turn on to His power.”

Afterward two dozen responded by visiting a tent on the grounds set up by a local church as a means of outreach. During the whole weekend, the pastor wrote me later, 350 young people made commitments to Christ, and two thousand New Testaments were distributed.

As I have reflected on my own calling as an evangelist, I frequently recall the words of Christianity’s greatest evangelist, the Apostle Paul: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known … ” (Romans 15:20). … I once told an interviewer that I would be glad to preach in Hell itself-if the Devil would let me out again!

Excerpted from Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (Harper Collins 1997).

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