A Workman That Needeth Not to Be Ashamed
This article originally appeared in the November 13, 1995 issue of Christianity Today.
If the record-breaking accomplishment of Baltimore Orioles' shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., seems incomprehensible, then Billy Graham's lifelong ministry appears even more so. For 50 years, since he officially began his evangelistic ministry with Youth for Christ International in 1945—37 more years in action than Ripken—Billy Graham has preached the gospel and pastored the world.
To pay tribute to this man and his achievements, William Martin, author of the biography "A Prophet with Honor," assesses the impact of Graham's work on the world. In addition, Garth Rosell, professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, identifies one secret of Graham's success—how he handled conflicts and controversies—in "Grace Under Fire" (in this issue). And scattered through these articles, you'll find the golden anniversary congratulations and observations of presidents, pundits, close colleagues, and friends.
No other religious figure has had such a streak, evangelizing more people or attaining Billy Graham's level of public admiration, and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever surpass Graham's accomplishments. Then again, that's what they said about Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game record before Cal Ripken. As the adage goes, records are made to be broken, and as Christians know, with God, nothing is impossible. Billy Graham, we believe, would be the first to agree.
The litany of accomplishments is familiar. Billy Graham has preached the gospel of Christ in person to 80 million people and has seen nearly 3 million respond to the invitation. He has spoken to countless millions over the airwaves and in films, and his recent Global Mission from Puerto Rico was the most ambitious feat of electronic evangelism ever attempted. He was the first Christian, eastern or western, to preach in public behind the Iron Curtain after World War II, culminating in giant gatherings in Budapest (1989) and Moscow (1992) and complemented by unprecedented invitations to Beijing (1988) and Pyongyang (1992). He has been a friend to the pope, Queen Elizabeth II, several prime ministers, and at least eight U.S. Presidents. When the nation needs a chaplain or pastor to help inaugurate or bury a President or to bring comfort in times of terrible tragedy, it turns, more often than not, to him. For virtually every year since the 1950s, he has been a fixture on lists of the ten most-admired people in America or the world. And these are but a sampling. It can hardly surprise us, then, that a "Ladies' Home Journal" survey once ranked the famed evangelist second only to God in the category "achievements in religion."
As Billy Graham's most recent biographer, I am frequently asked to summarize, assess, and account for his achievements. In the five years I spent on the project, I learned that this is no simple task. Still, I suspect certain peaks in his mountain range of accomplishments will continue to be visible for decades, and certain explanations continue to make sense to me.
Any responsible account of Graham's long career will give substantial place to the mutual benefit he and Youth for Christ provided each other during the mid-1940s and beyond. Appointed 50 years ago as the first field representative for the fledgling organization, Graham toured the U.S. and much of Great Britain and Europe, teaching local church leaders how to organize rallies that offered young people a blend of wholesome entertainment, patriotic fervor, and revivalist exhortation. In the process, he enhanced his reputation as a dynamic speaker, effective organizer, and creative crowd-puller. Equally important, he forged scores of friendships with men who would later fill the ranks of his organization or provide critical assistance to his crusades when he visited their cities throughout the world.