Billy Graham’s Legacy

Billy Graham’s Legacy October 3, 2013

If evangelicals are those who like Billy Graham, I’m in the club. I attended two Graham crusades, one in Rochester, NY, ca. 1990, and the other in Louisville near the end of Graham’s public ministry. At the first, I came forward to (re)dedicate my life to Christ. [Like many of us, I have done that on more than one occasion]. By the time of the Louisville crusade, it was hard for me not to think about Graham from the perspective of American religious history. Still, I greatly admired the way that Graham adapted and persevered – choosing new and rather raucous music but still having Bev Shea sing “How Great Thou Art.”

I wish I had been able to attend Wheaton’s recent conference on “The Worlds of Billy Graham.” I found a write-up by Ken Garfield at RNS of interest. Ken quotes Grant Wacker on the fact that only one student at a recent lecture knew the name Billy Graham. That student believed Graham was a professional wrestler. As Graham’s 95th birthday approaches, several of the speakers apparently discussed Graham’s fading legacy:

The statistic that Wacker shared at the start of the conference looms large: A 2007 Gallup poll found that 30 percent of Americans under 30 didn’t know who Billy Graham was, much less what he accomplished.

That fewer Americans know of and admire Graham is not surprising. Edwards, Whitefield, Dow, Finney, Moody, Sunday, Roberts – I can’t imagine any appreciable number of today’s undergraduates or other young adults recognizing such names. Soon Graham will be another name (and perhaps the last name) on that list. Graham’s fade out of America’s consciousness is not surprising. That he was among the last great mass evangelists after more than two centuries is more so.

Still, while Graham’s name-recognition fades and the era of mass evangelism in this country has apparently passed, what is his legacy?

A few thoughts (and interested in yours):

– Graham played a major role in dragging much of American fundamentalism into the camp of the “new evangelicalism,” meaning among other things a greater openness toward popular culture and a less combative tone toward theological moderates. Certainly, one should also credit Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and many others, but Graham’s influence dwarfed all others during the internecine fundamentalist battles of the 1950s.

– Graham played an important role in the post-WWII politicization of American evangelicalism. His early sermons strongly reflect the anti-communism of the early Cold War, and his relationship with Richard Nixon accelerated the courtship between Republicans and evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Graham himself pulled back from more overt forms of political activism after Watergate and signaled a shift toward political moderation, many evangelicals followed the trail he had blazed during Nixon’s first term.

What else? Graham’s media savvy? Early use of television? Millions of conversions / rededications? Organizations started? International alliances?

UPDATE: One additional thought. Contra to the first sentence of this post, one of the most remarkable things about Billy Graham is that most people — not just evangelicals — liked him. Most presidents of either party liked him. Most American Christians liked Graham, except for some fundamentalists and some liberal critics. Most non-Christians who met him liked him. Graham served an important role as a public evangelical spokesman who spoke with an authority accepted by many non-evangelicals. It is to the detriment not only of evangelicalism, but of the nation as a whole, that we no longer have such a public figure.


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  • Thomas Kidd

    I can’t resist mentioning that there is a wrestler named “Superstar” Billy Graham – perhaps the student was a big fan!

  • Miles Mullin

    I think I am disturbed that you know that, Tommy. 😉

  • Randy

    At least Wacker’s story didn’t take place at Wheaton – in the Billy Graham Center. Whew.

    Awesome Tommy, just awesome. You can take the man out of Clemson, but you can’t take Clemson out of the man.

  • Just Sayin’

    I didn’t even know he’d died yet!

  • rvs

    –A force on the radio as well. My mother, as a little girl, heard him and took much comfort in his messages. Also, I like the joke he tells about the drunk man on the airplane at the beginning of his TED talk–maybe 2007 or 2008?

  • Marta L.

    When I think of Billy Graham, one thing that jumps to mind is his progressivism on race issues. I know he sometimes refused to preach at audiences using segregated seating, and I think he also courted a bit of scandal by working with black evangelists and musicians? This was back in the early 1950s, when this would have caused quite a stir. I’m too young to remember it (child of the 80s myself), but from family members’ talking about Dr. Graham, he’s always struck me as kind of a revolutionary in that area.

    On a personal level, my parents work for Franklin Graham and I’ve been to some company picnics where Graham Sr. was in attendance. Even had a few brief conversations with him. For such a famous person, he always struck me as incredibly warm and humble. I don’t always agree with his theology, but I always respected who he was and what he was trying to do.

  • philipjenkins

    Chattanooga in 1953 was where he finally made the leap and insisted on non-segregated seating at his revival, a wildly controversial act at the time. (A year before the Brown v Board of Education decision). He also had a warm and lasting friendship with MLK junior.

    See also Steve Posner’s article here:

  • John Turner

    I am startled rather than disturbed at the breadth of Tommy’s knowledge.

  • Thomas Kidd

    I do what I can!

  • Mahlon Bekedam

    In this brief post, I stumbled at the use of intellectual constructs like “American fundamentalism” and “new evangelicalism”. These are constructs that people around me don’t understand. After years of trying to relate to everyday regular people, I’ve learned to avoid such constructs. I wonder if they really signify anything in the bigger scheme of things.

  • Wyn Thomas

    I’m sorry but this does not move me, it leaves me cold. Why is it that an individual who animates some, and I do not doubt the sincerity of the experience, leave others unmoved? Can it be that there are many ways which lead to an encounter with the Risen Lord?

  • JasonMankey

    Sadly, Franklin Graham is doing a fine job of tarnishing his legacy. The senior Graham was never politically partisan, until 2012’s anointing of Romney as a legitimate Christian. Sad.

  • Miles Mullin

    Hey Jason: actually Billy was pretty partisan even while attempting to not be partisan. He and Richard Nixon were very close. Nixon even solicited his advice on who to select as a running mate. He was also close with several Southern governors. After Watergate, he became intentionally non-partisan although has always been more comfortable with Republican politicians. Steven Miller’s U Penn book. You can find it here: It is a very good book. Miller treats Graham fairly, but not as perfect.

  • John Turner

    In the bigger scheme of things, I agree. [And sorry for allowing your comment to languish in the “pending” bin — just found it]. However, they aren’t just “intellectual constructs” but actually positions within the world of conservative Protestantism in the 1950s. In the early 1950s, BG described himself as a “fundamentalist.” He wouldn’t use that designation by the end of the decade. People around him reclaimed that label “evangelicalism.” Yes, those terms don’t mean much to ordinary folks now, but they help us understand the fault lines within American Protestantism in the 1950s.

  • Mahlon Bekedam

    Well then, I’d like to wrestle with the fault lines found now in America, rather than 60 years ago.

    “Fundamentalist” is largely an epithet used to attack Christian believers. It mostly means, “I don’t like that person.”

    “Evangelical” means someone who has a strong interest in evangelism. That can be a put down or not a put down depending on the person.

  • John Turner

    Yes, but Mahlon, this is a blog about the history of religion in America. Perhaps happy to recognize not everyone is interested. I wasn’t using the term “fundamentalist” pejoratively, but historically.

    On the small point we’re discussing, it’s probably worth knowing that in the 1950s the struggle over “new evangelicalism” within the ranks of conservative Protestantism absolutely ripped many fundamentalist/evangelical organizations apart. It was incredibly sad. There are probably some worthwhile lessons there for the present.

  • Mahlon Bekedam

    Even though this is about history, it still causes me to look at the present fault lines in American politics and religion. What are the present fault lines? What are Christians experiencing in the present moment? How are those fault lines related to Billy Graham? That was what I was wondering as I read this blog entry. I’ve read some of the works of Marsden. His perspective is basically correct, I think. But, I think that the fault lines have shifted drastically since the 50s. Billy Graham’s ministry spans the time of the shift. How does he fit into the picture?
    The first comment about Franklin Graham tarnishing his father’s legacy expresses something of the present fault lines. I agree with Miles that Franklin’s political involvement is probably not outside of the sort of things that his father engaged in. And, Marta’s comment (followed by Philip Jenkins) is also apropos to this matter.

  • revrocky210

    [Greets, Patheos. Here’s a found web piece that Graham followers will like.]

    Franklin Graham’s Warning !

    Franklin’s warning of
    coming persecution of Christians echoes what his mother Ruth and father
    Billy have clearly stated. Re Ruth, see search engines including Google
    for “Letter from Mrs. Billy Graham.” To see what Billy has written,
    Google “Famous Rapture Watchers – Addendum.”
    Since Franklin
    blamed the Obama administration for his own National Day of Prayer snub
    and persecution, and since he accused “Christian” Obama of “giving Islam
    a pass,” readers can get some rare insights into Obama and his fellow
    travelers by Yahooing “Obama Supports Public Depravity,” “Obama Avoids
    Bible Verses,” and “Separation of Raunch and State.”
    To see
    some exceptional in-depth studies of coming persecution, see two unique
    books by media figure Joe Ortiz entitled “The End Times Passover” and
    “Why Christians Will Suffer ‘Great Tribulation’ ” – both published in
    the US and UK by AuthorHouse. Also Google “America’s Pretrib Rapture
    Traffickers,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Pretrib Expert John
    Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” and “Pretrib Rapture