The established church in Washington didn’t know what to make of Billy Graham.

By “established church,” I don’t mean the main-line Protestant churches: They were too busy trying to convert their churches into instruments of Democratic foreign policy to care very much about religion. The only established church that counts in Washington, as everyone knows, is the Washington Post.

When Graham was last in Washington, in the early 1970’s, he was clothed by the media in the tattered garments reserved for close friends of Richard Nixon. In the past decade, however, Graham’s successors—Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart—had superseded him, creating vast fund-raising machines that dwarfed anything Graham had produced. In the Post’s eyes, Graham was still a Fundamentalist Christian, yet there was no Billy Graham University, no Billy Graham City of Faith, and Graham had never passed judgment on whether or not God approved of the U.S. Department of Education. The Post could not damn him too heavily.

The Post‘s religion editor, bothered with actually covering religion instead of her usual beat of watching bureaucrats merge the main-line Protestant churches into the United Church of Everything, listlessly went to the first night’s sermon and pronounced the affair “a spiritual Tupperware party.” The Post‘s feature writer, Paul Hendrickson, who previously bored thousands with a book detailing his efforts to quit the Catholic Church, flailed about trying to find the finest metaphor to hang Graham. Graham looked like “he was descended from some prehistoric Blue Ridge tribe” . . . no, he was “Daniel Boone in golf togs” . . . no, his voice was “medieval, as if he had just stepped from a castle on a heath.” . . .

What Billy Graham is, of course, is the end of a tradition. Television transformed the nature of evangelism; it’s far safer to try to reach people through television (where you can combine short sermons with long appeals for money) than to have to go on a crusade and convince a huge audience. Only Billy Graham still had the strength to face the public on his own terms. I had to hear him.

Graham’s audience was unusual for Washington. There were no protesters, except for an old crank with a bedraggled sign saying “JESUS CHRIST WILLED MARINE HOLOCAUST; I WARNED THE WHITE HOUSE,” and a few people from “World Peacemakers” urging Graham’s flock to quit worrying about this gospel stuff and fret instead about all the “true Christians” being tortured by contras in Nicaragua. (The Sandinistas, of course, were squeaky clean.)

I walked in and sat in the press box, and began to absorb the press releases. Billy Graham blistered the world in 1985; first in Miami, then in Hartford, then in England, and finally in Southern California, where 95,000 people crammed into the 80,000 seats in Anaheim Stadium “creating a breathtaking spectacle . . . an 8.5 on the Lord’s Richter scale.”

I wasn’t about to measure audiences on the Richter Scale of Eternity, but the night I was there, there were 17,498 ordinary Americans and two politicians. Senator John Stennis (D-Mississippi) and Interior Secretary Donald Hodel. I wasn’t sure where all the other politicians were; no doubt they were throwing lightning bolts at each other, recharging their batteries, or whatever people do at “power parties.”

The service began with Mr, George Hamilton IV, a cousin of the tanning artist, who sang a few insipid hymns and sank into the shadows. Then Mr. Dave Roever, a Vietnam veteran who discovered Christ after having a fragmentation grenade blown up in his face, told stories about the struggle he had to recuperate. “I have an artificial ear,” Roever said. “When people ask, ‘How do you play the piano?’ I say, ‘By ear,’ and show it to them. . . . “

Roever disappeared, and George Beverly Shea (a 40-year-veteran of Graham crusades) began to lead the audience in a series of increasingly rousing hymns. First came “When We All Get to Heaven,” with its jaunty rhythm; then “Victory in Jesus,” and finally “God of Our Fathers.”

“God of our fathers, whose almighty hand leads forth in beauty all the starry band. . . . ” As soon as the choir sang “starry,” Graham rose from somewhere and strode to the stage.

Graham is still majestic in his twilight. Age has ennobled him; his hair has grown into a silvery-brown mane, and his face, still, as always, an American face, stern and joyous—bore the creases expected of a 67-year-old man. Yet Graham is tireless. “Someone asked me when I was 65 what was the greatest surprise in life? I said—its brevity! I feel like I’m 18 again! Just a kid!”

Graham spoke for an hour, peppering his sermon with quotations from everyone from Novalis to Led Zeppelin, with illustrations thrown in from Graham’s travels, which ranged from an alligator-shooting trip in Florida to a regrettable crusade in the Soviet Union, where “the Soviet people responded to the Gospel—just like you.”

The subject of Graham’s sermon was death, how people try to avoid the inevitable by wasting their lives accumulating wealth and power instead of accepting Jesus Christ as a preparation for eternal life.

The sermon was simple, but not simplistic, and Graham kept his speech lively by throwing in large dollops of folk humor. “Have you ever seen a house on the way to the cemetery with a U-Haul?” Graham said. “You can’t take it with you. Even if you got it all, what happiness would it bring you?”

Graham’s greatest strength, however, was the way he used his hands. At one point Graham was speaking of the death of Rock Hudson, and his hands summed up the vanity of Hudson’s life. “All those exercises!” Graham’s hands pulsed up and down, as if doing jumping jacks. “All those vitamins!” His hands were held outstretched, as if he was prepared to swallow more pills in a minute than Elvis Presley gobbled in a month. “And Hudson is still dead.” (“Dead,” in Graham’s accent, was pronounced halfway between “dod” and “daid.”)

The sermon went on for an hour and concluded with a parable about a jester on a ship, who had put all his wealth into a diamond-studded ball, which he flung and caught three times. The third time, the ball fell off the ship’s deck and vanished into the sea. “Your soul is like that ball,” Graham said. “Are you going to toss it away, or are you going to commit yourself to Jesus Christ? It’s time to make a public dedication to Jesus Christ.”

I didn’t know how many times Graham had asked people to come forward, but it was still moving to watch hundreds of people surge towards the stage. The choir sang soft hymns, and Graham’s voice had subsided into a whisper. “You haven’t come to me,” Graham said. “You’ve come to Christ.”

As the people moved forward, black and white, male and female, soldier and civilian, you could feel, at least for a moment, that the tensions had fled from the world, that, at least for a minute, all the factions of American life had fused into a harmonious whole. As I left, I could see how diverse Graham’s ministry had become.

“We need a Korean translator,” Graham said, “a Chinese translator, a Spanish translator. . . . “