Reflections about Billy Graham
I was recently privileged to hear a superior talk/lecture about Billy Graham—the “pope of evangelicalism” and “America’s pastor.” The talk was by church historian Grant Wacker, retired professor at Duke Divinity School and author of many books. Wacker’s biography of Graham was recently published by Belknap Press (2014) and is entitled Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. I have not read it yet, but I plan to. So this is not a book review; it is reflections about Wacker’s talk, which drew heavily on the research for his book, and about Billy Graham himself.
I have known of Wacker for years, but this was my first opportunity to meet him in person. (We have communicated by e-mail several times over the years.) Wacker and I share a common childhood religious background—classical Pentecostalism. His grandfather was General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God Ralph Riggs. My uncle was Open Bible Churches president Ray Smith. I’m sure they knew of each other through, for example, the now defunct Pentecostal Fellowship of North America. Both served on its national board. (Their age difference may have prevented a personal relationship between them.)
Wacker is one of the top living scholars of American evangelical history. His talk was about Billy Graham’s relationships with ten American presidents—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. For good reasons Graham was often considered America’s most influential religious leader, but his relationships with presidents remains one of the most controversial aspects of his career as a Protestant evangelist.
I have studied Graham’s life and career myself, but Wacker brought out facts and insights about Graham I did not know. And his talk (and I assume his book) was no hagiography; he talked about Graham “warts and all.” And yet his talk about Graham was decidedly fair and even somewhat sympathetic.
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For readers of this blog who do not already know (mostly younger readers) Billy Graham was born in 1918 and so will turn 100 years old in less than two years if God give him longer life. From about 1950 to 1990 he was active as a “mass evangelist” comparable in influence only with George Whitefield, the influential catalyst of the Great Awakening. He preached to many millions of people (according to Wacker over 100 million), wrote many bestselling books, had his own television program, and established an empire of non-profit Christian organizations including Christianity Today, Inc. Anyone who grew up in America (and possibly also many other countries all over the world including Russia) in the middle part of the 20th century had to have known about him. He was a figure on the world stage even though he never held any government office.
One thing I wonder about is how the mass media will treat Graham when he dies. Will there be reports in the news, especially on television, similar to those when Pope John Paul II died? I doubt it. And yet I would argue that Graham had as much influence on world affairs, through his close friendships and pastoral counsel with American presidents and other heads of state, as John Paul II. Unfortunately for my hopes, Graham has been in deep retirement for many years now and has been largely forgotten by the younger public especially. Most of my students are in their 20s and, when I mention Graham recognize the name but have no memories of him and do not know how influential he was or in what ways.
Graham’s career “tracked” with my own life in evangelicalism. We, my family and church, revered him. I remember writing to him when I was in sixth grade—to ask him for a free Bible he was offering to anyone who wrote in. I did receive it. (I don’t know why I did that as our house was full of Bibles!) When I was 12 we—my family and I—drove about 200 miles to attend a “Billy Graham Crusade.” I remember it vividly. Many years later I attended one more such event which was billed as the last one. (It turned out not to be the very last one!) When I was 12 there were maybe a few thousand people at the crusade; when I attended “the last crusade” in the 1990s there were at least 100 thousand there—packed into the sports arena and standing outside watching and listening on large screens set up all around the arena.
Graham’s theology was simple; he refused to get involved in controversies. He welcomed almost everyone to participate in his crusades and tore down barriers between Catholics and Protestants and between whites and blacks and even between conservatives and liberals—as much as he could. He was a paragon of unification even as he held strongly to basic Christian convictions.
And yet, as Wacker helpfully pointed out, Graham was controversial. Fundamentalists despised him while religious liberals rejected him. To fundamentalists he was too liberal; to real liberals he was a fundamentalist.
As Wacker pointed out, no hint of sexual or financial scandal ever really touched Graham himself. Some of his critics, especially media persons looking for a scandalous story, actually planted prostitutes in some of his hotel rooms. But, anticipating such betrayals, Graham always sent aides into his hotel rooms before he entered—to make sure nobody was already there who shouldn’t be. He was never alone with a female other than his wife and nobody could ever truthfully claim that he was. Some people tried to create financial scandals, but such never stuck to Graham himself.
I can’t speak for Wacker on this, but in my opinion “Billy Graham” and “post-World War 2 American evangelicalism” were synonymous. Or at least he personally and through his ministries held it together. With his retirement it has fallen apart. Graham has no successor. He was a force of nature. I would go so far as to say that he and John Paul II represent the two most influential religious leaders in the world in the last century. And yet, sadly, I think, when he dies the media will largely ignore him and his influence.
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