Puff Graham: American Media, American Culture and the Creation of Billy Graham, 1949--1953


George Harsch

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Charles Bolton

Advisor Department



This dissertation examines the early years of the career of noted twentieth century American evangelist Billy Graham. The central revivalist of his era, Graham preached a message that affirmed postwar social trends and supported the emerging military, industrial, and government alliance. His apocalyptic declarations and religious appeals resonated in the Cold War climate. With a persona that seemed to embody national traits and an ability to express the populace's sentiments, Graham struck an appeal that extended well beyond religious audiences. Focusing on the period 1949 to 1953, years in which the mass media coalesced and Graham's career took off, the dissertation ties Graham's rise to prominence into contemporary developments, including the economic, political, and social imperatives of postwar America, and specifically, the rise of a national news media. The work explores qualities about Graham and his message that appealed to the press and asserts that Graham acquired influence not so much through a strikingly unique message, but through the professional imperatives of a burgeoning medium, national news journalism, that was busily creating a mass consumer culture. Graham's approach--using religious appeals to promote America's mid-century consensus--attracted the attention of powerful publicists, including William R. Hearst and Henry Luce, as well as lesser journalists. Perceiving the symbolic value of Graham's persona and seeking to advance the ideals on which America's consensus thrived, newspaper publicists turned Graham into a star. In the decades after World War II officials established a national agenda that emphasized economic growth and stability. Promoting consumerism, domesticity, and anti-communism became official priorities. Members of the press and their commercial sponsors had a stake in the effort; boosting a religious leader who advanced these ideals helped sanction the dominant configuration of the postwar era. Through publicity provided by the mainstream news media, Graham quickly became a cultural icon. By placing Graham within a specific cultural context and consulting mid-century developments for an understanding of his success, this study questions the dominant interpretation that poses Graham's widespread renown as evidence of the evangelist's unique eligibility to interpret religious matters to the public. It demonstrates that contemporary currents exerted a strong influence on Graham and his message and argues that the news media had an interest in making him a public figure.