Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations


Billy Graham, Elmer Gantry, and the Performance of a New American Revivalism

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Theatre and Film

First Advisor

Ronald Shields (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Bruce Edwards (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Jonathan Chambers (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

James Forse (Committee Member)


Throughout Billy Graham's career, the evangelist sought performative manners to ensure that he would not be perceived as another "Elmer Gantry," or huckster preacher out to win money, fame, and favor. Graham's intent was to grow a ministry that would form a new performance paradigm for American revivalism. Graham prepared as an actor to use his gifts, train his voice and body, to write a different style of script, to capitalize on celebrity, and to embrace new media forms that would bring his message around the world thus creating a "New" revivalism while at the same time distancing himself from being seen as the character in Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry and subsequent Richard Brooks directed movie version of Elmer Gantry starring Burt Lancaster as a Graham-like Gantry.

This project reintroduces a familiar figure to recent history and elucidates the social and performative transitions constitutive of Billy Graham's journey to cast himself as a desirable evangelist. Graham's public performance is viewed, specifically from before the Los Angeles crusade of 1949 to Graham's reaction following the Academy Awards when the movie version of Elmer Gantry won three statues (1961). The example of Graham in performance as preacher, as well as the type of evangelical faith he proffered and represented, sheds critical light on the way in which Graham created a new revivalism based on a new performance paradigm.