The Evangelist of Our Time
This editorial originally appeared in the November 18, 1988 issue of Christianity Today.
History will remember Billy Graham as the world's greatest missionary-evangelist. No other person has preached the gospel face-to-face to so many—over 100 million. No other person has led so many to make explicit spiritual decisions, usually to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—over two million. And no other person has traveled to so many countries to preach the gospel—more than 65.
How could it ever have happened? How could a shy country boy from the foothills of North Carolina sway millions and stand before kings?
Some have suggested that, at root, Billy Graham is a supreme opportunist. At a crucial point in Los Angeles in his early ministry, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst ordered his chain of newspapers to "Puff Graham." The media took over and created Billy Graham, his evangelistic career, and its worldwide success—or so the story goes.
However, Billy Graham's own answer to this puzzle is "the hand of God." The Spirit of God fell on this unpromising material and called him to be an evangelist. And who can deny the evangelist is right? From the very first, Graham's unswerving purpose has been to carry the message of the gospel to all the world-to everyone everywhere by whatever means—so that some might be saved from the guilt and burden of their sins and others aroused and strengthened to live obedient and useful lives for the glory of God. From that goal, he has never deviated.
In his early mission, no doubt the heavy hand of William Randolph Hearst was laid upon him and gave him welcome advertising in his attempts to reach a wider public hearing. But even a superficial reading of Graham's ministry before that Los Angeles crusade (1949) will show a rising young evangelist of exceptional promise. Without Hearst, nationwide and worldwide acceptance might have proved slower in coming, but God's special call upon Billy Graham became clearly evident from the earliest days of his public ministry.
Graham never lacked critics both of his message and his method. They came from Right and Left. Some charged him with the worst kind of opportunism: He warped the biblical gospel to whatever people wished to hear. He taught an "easy believism" so it was alleged: Make a decision for Christ and you will be saved. Others reversed the charge and accused him of legalism: Come forward, turn over a new leaf, and live a life separated from the world.
More serious was a charge by liberals and some evangelicals that he neglected the social implications of the gospel. The fact is, from his earliest days he stressed holy living and the duty of the regenerate believer to serve humankind. The piece of truth in this charge is that Graham laid less stress on political action—to build a better society by passing laws—than he did on right social conduct. The responsibility of the Christian to change society by legal action was always there, but he insisted that we shall never introduce a perfect society by passing laws (however necessary they are). The most important thing is to change people so they will want to structure society rightly and live for the good of others.
Particularly in the early days of his crusades, many fundamentalists and some evangelicals objected to the participation of liberal churches in his campaigns. Moreover, he did not challenge the distinctives of Roman Catholics; this his critics interpreted as ignoring the Reformation.