The Nostalgia Column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

MILLIONS throughout the world have been mourning the death of Billy Graham, the American evangelist, who died last week.

Among these mourners will be many people from this district who once followed him on his crusades throughout Britain.

DEWSBURY'S GREAT TENT CRUSADE: Church of Holiness Tabernacle in Dewsbury in 1934, later to merge with Church of the Nazarene.

DEWSBURY'S GREAT TENT CRUSADE: Church of Holiness Tabernacle in Dewsbury in 1934, later to merge with Church of the Nazarene.

Although he never visited Dewsbury thousands from this area went by coach to hear him wherever he was holding a crusade.

Paul Ellis, a member of Westborough Methodist Church, remembers going with his church to Liverpool to hear him preach – a memorable occasion.

Others went to Sheffield, Manchester and London, but the nearest Billy Graham ever came to Dewsbury was when he visited Bradford.

But his voice was heard in Dewsbury, thanks to Dewsbury Elim Church, who set up a telephone link line and relayed his sermon from Bradford to Dewsbury Town Hall.

For the many hundreds packing into the hall that night, it was a memorable experience, and I’m sure there will be many reading this today who will remember it.

Dewsbury – once called God’s Town – has a long history of welcoming high profile evangelists to this area.

The Reverend John Wesley, founder of Methodism, and General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, both visited this area.

They had a huge impact on local people and preached very much in the way of Billy Graham by going out to the people wherever they were.

John Wesley first preached in Dewsbury in 1742, delivering one of his powerful evangelical sermons in the open air in Westtown.

His voice echoed loudly throughout the valley and those listening said one could not believe a human voice could have reached so far.

In 1905, General Booth visited Dewsbury, where it was reported that the rapturous scenes heralding his arrival would long be remembered.

Over 15,000 spectators gathered in the town centre, the crowds being so great, the mounted police had great difficulty clearing a space for his entry.

In the 1930s, another group of less famous evangelists visited Dewsbury,and despite being unknown took the town by storm.

There were five of them and they belonged to the International Holiness Mission, who preached wherever they felt there was a need.

Many of their services were in the open air in the market place, and often they would preach outside mills and factories, morning noon and night. They set up a marquee which held 600 in Cloth Hall Street near Dewsbury Market, but even that wasn’t big enough for the vast crowds clamouring outside.

So great was the rush by local people to hear their message and to witness to the spiritual healings taking place, they often had to also hire Dewsbury Town Hall and, the Playhouse Cinema.

Everywhere they preached it was standing room only and often the overflow was so great the marquee had to be used and also nearby Salem Methodist Chapel. These too would be packed to capacity.

It was said that it was the earnestness, enthusiasm and energy of these five young men which had attracted widespread attention.

They wore distinctive blue shirts with a special badge, and they brought with them their own camp beds, not knowing where they would have to sleep.

Their fame spread and visitors came from all over the area to hear their message of salvation and to witness the many healings taking place.

By the time the evangelists left Dewsbury, they had established a Mission bearing the name “Holiness Mission” in a warehouse in Pepperoyd Street, Eastborough.

Later it would merge with the Church of the Nazarene and move to the old YMCA building in Wakefield Road.

Later it moved into premises in Aldams Road where I’m delighted to say it still thrives today.

THE face of Christianity has changed in Dewsbury since those days when people flocked here in their thousands to hear the Word.

These changes are clearly seen, not only in the closure of traditional churches, but also in the growth of the evangelical churches.

Instead of closing churches the evangelicals are re-opening them, and like their predecessors, they believe in taking to the streets and knocking on doors.

Their numbers are growing and they are moving into buildings vacated by the established churches, like the Gospel Church, which moved from Willans Road into what was once St Mark’s Church in Halifax Road.

Elim Church, once in Swindon Road outgrew its building, and moved into Central Methodist Church in Daisy Hill, a once thriving church with hundreds of members, which sadly closed some years ago. Churches of all denominations have closed over the years in Dewsbury, and no church now considers itself immune from closure, not even Catholic churches.

St Anne’s in Thornhill Lees closed some years ago, and only recently St Thomas More in Chickenley closed.

It was good for me this week to look back and read of the triumph of those five young evangelists who came to Dewsbury in that summer of 1934.

They were certainly the Billy Graham’s of their day, and they did leave a legacy in Dewsbury – the Church of the Nazarene.

I am glad I have had the opportunity of showing once again the picture of Dewsbury’s Great Tent Crusade. I think Billy Graham would have approved.

The joyful faces of those pictured lifted my spirits I never tire of looking at it. I hope you think the same.

If my article has rekindled any memories, please share them with readers by emailing tresham3@gmail.com.