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.


Browse Our Archives