Royal Faith

There is an intriguing scene in Season 2 of the wildly successful historical drama, The Crown, on Netflix. For the uninitiated, the award-winning series revolves around the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the now 91-year-old sovereign of the United Kingdom. 

At the beginning of episode six, Elizabeth (played by Clare Foy) is studiously watching Billy Graham preach on television in 1955 while sitting with her mother in Buckingham Palace. The Queen Mother (played by Victoria Hamilton) finds Graham to be more than an acquired taste for the upper class British religious sensibilities. She appears perturbed that the public is captivated by a man who learned his trade “selling brushes door-to-door in North Carolina” and that British subjects turned “out in droves for an American zealot.”

“He is not a zealot,” Elizabeth responds. 

“He’s shouting, darling,” her mother replies. “Only zealots shout.”

Much to the chagrin of the palace staff, Elizabeth asks that an invitation be extended to Billy Graham for a visit. In The Crown, Graham (played by Paul Sparks) fittingly preaches in Windsor Chapel on what it means to be a Christian: “As I was thinking about what to preach about today, I considered various topics which speak to me personally, but I thought that I would start with a simple question. What is a Christian? The Bible tells us; Colossians 1:27 says that a Christian is a person in whom Christ dwells. It’s Christ in you, the hope of glory. It means that you have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. That encounter has taken place. You have received Christ as savior. And that is what a Christian is.”

“I enjoyed that very much,” Elizabeth tells Graham after the service. “You do speak with such wonderful clarity and certainty.” She admits her “great joy” at being “a simple congregant, being taught, being led … to be able to just disappear and be…”

“A simple Christian,” Graham says to assist in finishing her thought. “Yes,” Elizabeth replies, “Above all things, I do think of myself as just a simple Christian.”

Script. Off script. Of course, that dialogue was all from the creative mind of The Crown creator David Morgan. We actually don’t know much about their encounter except from what we learn from Graham. “When we filed into the Royal Chapel, I looked around to see the location of the pulpit. I was stunned to realize that the chapel had no pulpit, just a place to stand. I carried a thick sheaf of handwritten notes on extra paper and was forced to leave them behind when I got up to speak,” the evangelist recalled in the pages of Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador, a memoir of Graham’s photographer Russ Busby. “I had prayed so much about this moment that I knew however simple and full of mistakes my sermon would be, God would overrule and use it – but I’ll tell you, I could really feel my heart beating.”

The earlier mentioned tense exchange between mother and daughter in The Crown may have utilized a tad too much artistic license in the screenwriting technique of having the Queen Mother give voice to the many naysayers within British society who were overtly skeptical of Graham’s message and style. His visit was an overwhelming cultural moment and a headline-grabbing experience. Great tension and passion surrounded his rallies. There were more than 30,000 posters with the face of the evangelist and the simple message: Hear Billy Graham!

“No one in Britain has been more cordial toward us than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” Graham wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am. He is now 99 years old and living in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I believe one reason for the Queen’s spiritual interest was the warm faith of her mother, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother,” he wrote. (The Queen Mother died in 2002 at 102 years of age.) 

The unscripted reality is that there was an undeniable special connection between Graham and Queen Elizabeth. “I always found her very interested in the Bible and its message,” he wrote. “After preaching at Windsor one Sunday, I was sitting next to the Queen at lunch. I told her I had been undecided until the last minute about my choice of sermon and had almost preached on the healing of the crippled man in John 5. Her eyes sparkled and she bubbled over with enthusiasm, as she could do on occasion. ‘I wish you had!’ she exclaimed. ‘That is my favorite story.’”

While the relationship was warm between certain members of the royal family and Graham, the young fiery evangelist was still acquainting himself with becoming the preeminent international Christian evangelist.

In Prophet Without Honor, Graham biographer William Martin gives a taste of the reception the evangelist received from the British press. The London Evening News, for example, called Graham an “American hot gospel specialist” who took “his listeners strolling down Pavements of Gold, introduces them to the rippling-muscled Christ, who resembles Charles Atlas with a halo, then drops them abruptly into the Lake of Fire for a sample scalding.” Other media outlets dismissed him as “Silly Billy” and peppered him with questions such as, “Who invited you over here, anyway?” “Do you think you can save England?” and “Don’t you think you’re needed more in your country?”

During his first visit to England, Graham learned that his bright ties and socks proved to be a distraction to the understated British society. On his second go-round, he was very concerned about making the right impression by arriving with a new fedora and a conservative dark coat. He also asked his wife, Ruth, to not wear lipstick since some of the church leaders viewed it as worldly. 

“Bill stooped from being a man of God to become a meddlesome husband and ordered my lipstick off,” Ruth wrote in her diary. “There was a lively argument – then I wiped it off. He got so busy getting the bags together I managed to put more on without notice.” She later commented, “It doesn’t seem to me to be a credit to Christ to be drab.”

When the Grahams arrived in Waterloo train station, they were met by a “perfect mob,” recalled Ruth. William Martin quotes an eyewitness who stated that “women screamed and fainted, babies and children were passed over the heads of the crowd, newspaper stands were overturned, and burly railway policemen were swept aside….” Ruth remembers, “The press of the crowd was so terrific that Bill and I were instantly separated. Cheers went up, and the air was filled with ‘God bless you’ and ‘Welcome to England.’”

A Royal Faith

Long before Billy Graham appears in The Crown, the creators had already given slight indications of Queen Elizabeth’s sincere Christian faith. She is shown kneeling next to her bed in prayer and inquiring of her elderly grandmother, Queen Mary, about the divine “calling” of royalty. “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth,” Elizabeth’s grandmother tells her before her consecration. “To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed. It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant. Which means that you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.” 

Once again, these are the scripted words of The Crown’s creators. Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth has used her Christmas address each year to publicly profess her faith with her own conviction. “Christ not only revealed to us the truth in his teachings,” Elizabeth proclaimed in 1981. “He lived by what he believed and gave us the strength to try to do the same – and, finally, on the cross, he showed the supreme example of physical and moral courage.”

As the Queen of the United Kingdom and the head of the Church of England, Elizabeth has never been timid about admitting her allegiance to Jesus Christ. “To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance,” she said in 2000. “For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Although she oversees a nation that is better known for empty cathedrals than religious revival, the Queen remains a beloved world leader who speaks eloquently, humbly, and respectfully from a heart of faith.

“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” she said on Christmas in 2014, “is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role-model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

Rockin’ to the light

It was a surreal scene for a teenage girl to be cruising down the highway in 1956 wedged in the front seat of a Pontiac Star Chief between her father and Elvis Presley. But that was the dizzying case for 18-year-old Wanda Jackson right at the time when rock and roll was percolating and beginning to flip American teen culture upside down. 

As a budding country music starlet from Oklahoma City, Jackson was recruited as the lone female performer to play alongside rock and roll pioneers such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and Elvis. “They were kind of like my brothers,” Jackson told Good News. “I always kind of preferred the company of men, anyway. I had my dad there and it made it possible to work with that many men. I wouldn’t have done it had I been alone. I couldn’t have.”  

With her father as her chaperone and the watchful guardian of her reputation, she was not permitted to ride with the guys, but Elvis was allowed in the front seat of their Pontiac on the way to the next concert stop. 

Jackson, 80, known as the Queen of Rockabilly, still performs live, has released dozens of albums, and has been nominated for multiple Grammy awards. Her many fans include Bob Dylan, Adele, Jack White, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello. Jackson’s new autobiography Every Night Is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (BMG) is a coming-of-age memoir of how a knock-out performer could have a five-decade career in country, rock, and gospel and not lose her soul. 

Without a doubt, Jackson’s relationship with Elvis played a key role in the trajectory of her career. When they first met in 1955 at a radio station on the first stop of a tour, she had never heard of him. Nevertheless, Jackson thought he was handsome and charming. Not long after, they began dating. “He asked me to be his girl, and I had his ring,” she said. She wore it around her neck for about a year before their career paths tamped out their long-distance relationship. The romance did not last, but she still has his ring – and fond memories. 

Originally, Wanda’s father couldn’t comprehend Elvis. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that,” he told Wanda as they both watched Elvis with a bright yellow coat and slicked-back pompadour getting into the front seat of his bright pink Cadillac. “Elvis might as well have been getting into a rocket ship,” Jackson recalls in her book. “You might should stay away from that one, Wanda,” her dad said. “I think this Elvis character could be a nut.”

Eventually her father grew to admire Presley. It was the young singer from Memphis that convinced Jackson to transition from country music to the newly minted rock and roll sound that was becoming a cultural sensation. “We knew that Elvis had stirred things up and times were changing,” Jackson told me. Presley tried to convince the Jacksons to look to the youth market – the ones buying the records and calling the radio stations. 

Wanda’s father saw the wisdom in the advice. “I think Elvis is right,” he told his daughter. “I think there’s a new trend coming.” Everything was happening so quickly. “We didn’t know how long it would last but Elvis made me promise that I would try it,” she said. Despite her misgivings, she eventually knocked out spitfire hits such as “Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama,” “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” and “Let’s Have A Party.”

Jackson was a certifiable shimmering star and glamorous renegade in the male-dominated golden era of rock. She played guitar, got scolded at the Grand Ole Opry for trying to get on stage with exposed shoulders, and provocatively had an African-American piano player at a time when strict segregation was brutally enforced. Her 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction finally celebrated her indisputable musical legacy. 

At the same time, Wanda and her husband, Wendell – an IBM computer programmer who became her manager and publicist (who died last year) – were suffering all the side effects of fame, partying, and life on the road. “After about 10 years it was pretty hard,” Jackson said. “Wendell was very jealous and that caused problems. … There was a lot of drinking – the outcome of that was treacherous. … We loved each other. We didn’t ever think about divorce. Murder, a couple of times,” she joked with laughter. “No, we loved each other, but we were drinking too much. We were gone too much. We were arguing. I couldn’t live that way and neither could he.” 

The success, liquor, and showbiz lights were not enough distractions to heal her spiritual ache. “Sometimes I would lie in bed at night with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was missing,” she wrote. “I felt restless and anxious. … But I still couldn’t shake that dull but persistent sense of emptiness inside.”

In 1971, The Living Bible, paraphrased in common language, was published and she read it out loud to Wendell as they were on the road. “We tried to make sense of it,” she said. “We were really searching.” While they were away, the Jackson’s two children were being cared for by Wanda’s mother. The kids loved the new pastor at their church and hounded their parents to hear him preach.  “Even though we were open to trying to understand the Bible during those long stretches of interstate, we weren’t that anxious to go hang out with a bunch of church people,” Jackson wrote. “That wasn’t really our crowd.” 

Between tours, the pastor informally connected with the Jacksons and ended up being as personable and engaging as their children had reported. What Wanda and Wendell remembered from their time with the minister was his direct message: “Everyone needs Christ, no matter who you are. Sometimes people are afraid to admit they need Christ, and they’re afraid to turn to Him because they feel like they’re not good enough or they’ve done some things that make them feel like God couldn’t possibly love them. But He does.”

They wrestled with the weight of those words while they were back on tour. “We were running,” she recalls. “Running from the reality that our marriage was suffering. Running from the fear that our lives were unraveling. Running from Brother Paul’s words that everyone needs God.” 

When they returned home from the concerts, they fulfilled the promise to their kids that they would attend church. “We got up late – kinda hung over – but we were late getting to church,” she said. While in the service, Wanda sensed a divine voice say, “Walk with me.” She turned to Wendell. “There is something I’ve got to do,” she said. “Let me out of this pew. I’ve got to get right with the Lord.” He joined her. 

“We took hands and walked down the aisle and gave our hearts and lives to Christ,” she recalled, as the congregation sang the old hymn, “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior.” “It was just unbelievable. The pressure was lifted off. The guilt, the sin, was lifted off. It was just marvelous. We were two new creations in Christ. Everything changed for the better.”  

The shift of spiritual dynamics also detoured Jackson’s career path. “I started to record gospel. That’s where my heart was,” she told me. “I wanted everyone in the world to know the salvation that I experienced.” That decision was fraught with its own challenges. “I had never had stage fright playing in honky tonks, but the first few times I sang at churches, I was so scared I was throwing up before I went on,” she wrote. “I was used to singing for people who were there for a party. It was nighttime, and there was smoke, and everyone was drinking and acting silly and having fun. Suddenly, there I was in a long dress – not a miniskirt – and no fringe and no go-go boots. And it was daylight and everyone was sober! I didn’t know how the church folks would react to me.”

She was caught in a cultural and spiritual skirmish. The country music disc jockeys wouldn’t play her gospel. “They thought it was too churchy,” she said. “And the church, on the other hand, thought I was still too country. I fell through the cracks.” Over the next decade, she recorded half a dozen gospel albums and she and Wendell shared their gospel message all over the world.

Jackson’s career took on another unexpected twist with the eruption of a rockabilly revival in the 1980s. She discovered that she was still considered a star in Europe and Scandinavia. The fans lined up to hear Jackson playing her classic hits. Meanwhile, The Stray Cats, The Blasters, X, The Cramps, and Rosie Flores were spearheading a rockabilly resurgence in the United States. Her songs had once again found a receptive audience.

“She’s vibrant and edgy without being abrasive, and sweet without being saccharine,” observed musician Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, at her Rock Hall induction. “This is a woman who has rhythm and joy, in equal parts, to the depth of her soul…. She’s not a red-carpet-celebrity-hand-out-rehab-tabloid kind of person. She’s a person of strong religious conviction, deep integrity, a road warrior, and a rock and roll queen.” 

Each generation has turned in one way or another back to Wanda Jackson’s music. Her last two albums were produced by critically-acclaimed recording gurus Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. “I believe God has given me two deep desires, and He’s provided me with the opportunity to fuel them both,” she testifies in her book. “First, I love to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s great to get on the stage, feel those drums pounding behind me, and get the audience on their feet. Second, He gave me the desire – and also the courage – to talk about my faith onstage, whether I’m at a church revival or a punk rock club.” 

She testifies that there is a “holy hush” that falls on the audience when she talks about her faith in God. “Every once in a while, I’ll have a drunk girl sarcastically yell out ‘hallelujah’ or something. Some guys have mouthed off a little bit, but the audience will shush them for me, so I don’t have to say anything,” she wrote. “I think my fans respect me, but I also try to be cool and respect them by not talking too long.” 

After her talk, Jackson launches into Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” “Almost everyone knows the words,” she said. “They start clapping and singing along with me. It’s like a Baptist revival.”

Hank deftly crosses over in honky-tonks and sanctuaries. So does Wanda. 

“I’ve learned what it means to find peace and meaning, sometimes in the face of adversity,” she concludes. “I’ve learned to find my grounding in a good man, a good family, and most importantly, in a good God, who is the source of all light and truth. These are the influences that have allowed me to keep the musical party going for decades.”

Liberty’s Hero

Frederick Douglass grew up under the perverse shackles of slavery on a plantation in Maryland 200 years ago. He never knew the identity of his father, barely saw his mother, and witnessed unspeakable violence and bloodshed before he turned 10 years old. He was proselytized under a warped version of Christianity that had a Bible in one hand and a bullwhip in the other. It was piety unrecognizable to the Prince of Peace.   

As one who escaped the bonds of slavery, Douglass (1818-1895) would become the most eloquent abolitionist orator and the most steadfast defender of liberty, equality, and justice. “Douglass spoke as a man born into bondage in America more than forty years after the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that all men were equal and endowed by God with liberty,” historian D. H. Dilbeck reports in Frederick Douglass: American Prophet, a new spiritual autobiography.   

At eight years old, Douglass was sent to live with a Methodist family in Baltimore. The wife, Sophia, was kind and devout and treated Frederick with the love that children deserve. Bible reading, hymn singing, and prayers were commonplace. One night, he heard Sophia reading the Old Testament story of Job aloud. The desolation of Job’s life was spelled out: death, poverty, and relentless calamity. 

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.”

“How could this be?” young Frederick asked himself. Why are the righteous stricken with destruction while the evil count their fortune? Where is God? Was this all part of a divine plan? When he should have been identifying with a Sunday school story such as young David slaying the belligerent bully Goliath, instead he connected with the stark horror story of a man whose entire family is decimated. 

When asked about their captivity, some fellow slaves repeated the slaveholder’s propaganda that God made white people to be masters and black people to be slaves. Others told him that it was God’s predestined plan for the planet. Douglass rejected these false precepts. “It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery,” Douglass concluded. Judging from the biblical messages of the prophets and the King of Kings, it was greed and spiteful hearts of humans that stole liberty and equality from those who were born free.  

Wanting to learn more about Job, Frederick asked Sophia to teach him to read. He soon mastered the alphabet and began to spell. Sophia was overjoyed – until she announced the progress to her husband. Horrified, he demanded that the lessons end immediately. “Learning would spoil the best n***er in the world,” he said, because slaves who knew how to read – especially the Bible – became “disconsolate and unhappy.” One can only imagine the fear that would run through a slaveholder’s blood as those kept in chains read about Moses telling Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Sophia promptly ended the lessons.

Douglass recalled her transformation as proof that “slavery can change a saint into a sinner, and an angel into a demon.” At the same time that young Fredrick’s heart was searching for a relationship with God, he witnessed firsthand the way that the prevailing slaveholding culture blinded the churchgoers to biblical justice and the gospel of love. 

Hidden away at night, Frederick taught himself to read using old copies of Webster’s spelling book and Methodist hymnals. The saga of Job launched Douglass into mastering the language – the written words that held power to unchain the heart – that could literally help free men, women, and children. “Devout masters did all they could to keep the sacred truth of the Gospel from their slaves,” Dilbert wrote. “Yet the confounding experience of Job, who heard God in the whirlwind, proved far too compelling to a young boy who had wrestled with the problem of evil. Nothing could keep Frederick from the Bible and from learning to read.”

Remarkably, Douglass scoured the streets looking for passages of Scripture to piece together. “I have gathered scattered pages from this holy book, from the filthy street gutters of Baltimore, and washed and dried them, that in the moments of my leisure, I might get a word or two of wisdom from them,” he wrote.

Douglass would eventually write three best-selling autobiographies. “I was not more than thirteen years old, when I felt the need of God, as a father and protector,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “My religious nature was awakened by the preaching of a white Methodist minister named Hanson. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God … and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through Christ.” 

Douglass was also befriended by Charles Johnson, a black lay preacher, who told him to pray. “I was, for weeks, a poor, brokenhearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fears. I finally found that change of heart which comes by ‘casting all one’s care’ upon God, and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him.”

Douglass testifies that seeking after God transformed his life. “After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new hopes and desires,” he claimed. “I loved all mankind – slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great concern was, now, to have the world converted.”

Douglass spent the rest of his life battling for the rights of those left out and forgotten: women, Native Americans, and immigrants. He preached and published with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet and the grace of a nail-scarred savior. He had a lifelong “lover’s quarrel” with the Christian church in America that defended or looked the other way while men, women, and children were sold on auction blocks. The complicit preachers armed with a false gospel “have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system,” Douglass said. 

The message and struggle of Old Testament prophets helped Douglass make sense of the prevailing worldview that devalued and degraded an entire race of people. He “aspired to speak to America as Isaiah and Christ once spoke,” observed Dilbeck, “with words of rebuke and warning, exhortation and encouragement, grace and liberty, hope and truth.” The voice of Christ and the prophets “provided a radical, contrarian vision of righteousness: to care for the marginalized, oppressed, widowed, and orphaned; to heal the brokenhearted; to set free the captives.” 

Douglass’s faith was his anchor of hope throughout his life. Preaching in a Methodist church in Washington D.C. near the end of his life, Douglass confessed that when he faced despair about the future of his race and nation, he reminded himself, “God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”