The “Modesto Manifesto”

IN 1948, 31-YEAR-OLD Billy Graham was coming off a successful stint as a Youth for Christ evangelist and entering a period of independent ministry that would last almost six decades. His revival team included Bev Shea, Grady Wilson, and Cliff Barrows. The quartet was young and charismatic. As Christianity entered its heady postwar boom, Americans flocked to revivals. Some sought salvation, but others had different aims. Politicians saw the revivals as a hedge against communism; entertainers saw a chance to promote themselves. Temptations loomed. To guard against allegations or the actual abuse of money, sex, and power that had felled previous evangelists, the Graham team decided to take concrete steps to avoid the slightest whiff of controversy. 

The team gathered in a hotel room in Modesto, California. They drew up a compact that became known as the “Modesto Manifesto,” though they produced no written document. The manifesto included provisions for distributing money raised by offerings, avoiding criticism of local churches, working only with churches that supported cooperative evangelism, and using official estimates of crowd sizes to avoid exaggeration. These policies would help Graham and his team avoid charges of financial exploitation and hucksterism. 

But nothing loomed larger than sex. The most famous provision of the manifesto called for each man on the Graham team never to be alone with a woman other than his wife. Graham, from that day forward, pledged not to eat, travel, or meet with a woman other than Ruth unless other people were present. This pledge guaranteed Graham’s sexual probity and enabled him to dodge accusations that have waylaid evangelists before and since.

The pledge also enabled Graham to capitalize on his good looks without worrying about an oversexualized image that might scandalize his fellow evangelicals. In coverage of the famous 1949 Los Angeles crusade, reporters mentioned Graham’s “curly hair,” “broad shoulders,” and “blue eyes.” Several articles reported that Graham “has repeatedly turned down offers to go into the movies.” Nearly every piece commented on Graham’s good looks. 

Graham managed to benefit from all this adulation while remaining safely off-limits to sexual advances. Both the Modesto Manifesto and his marriage to Ruth made this possible. The manifesto ensured that Graham would avoid tempting situations, while Ruth seemed content with a marriage full of long absences. She frequently said she “would rather have a little of Bill than a lot of any other man.” The line spoke both to Ruth’s contentment and to Billy’s desirability. Standing in front of thousands, Graham’s rapid-fire delivery and piercing stares won both converts and admirers. The letters that flooded BGEA offices testified to his wholesome appeal. Graham’s 57 appearances on Gallup’s annual “Ten Most Admired People” poll derived in no small part from his reputation for sexual fidelity—a reputation guaranteed by the most famous provision of the Modesto Manifesto.

By Seth Dowland

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #111 in 2014]

Seth Dowland teaches American religious history at Pacific Lutheran University and is the author of Family Values: Gender, Authority, and the Rise of the Christian Right.
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