The preacher’s long life started on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, on November 7, 1918. The Great War in Europe ended on November 11, 1918. He liked to joke that it took the world only four days to hear that he had arrived.
Billy Graham’s 98th birthday, today, seems a good time to pause and think about the impact of his work.
Most evident are the numerical records. Graham probably spoke to more people face-to-face than any other person in history, 215 million at last count. Additional hundreds of millions encountered him via electronic and print media. In 1956, he founded Christianity Today, which soon ranked as the most widely read Christian periodical in the world. Graham organized international conferences in Europe that helped galvanize the global evangelical movement. He nabbed a spot on Gallup’s list of “Most Admired Man in the World” 59 times, nearly twice as as often as runner-up Ronald Reagan.
Graham’s most obvious legacy is the three million men and women who registered commitments for Christ at his crusades. Beyond that figure stand the numberless souls who made decisions in the quiet spaces of their lives.
Yet these data tell only part of the story. Graham’s legacy has taken forms that are hard to measure but important to remember. We see them especially in the realms of evangelical beliefs, everyday life, American politics, and Christian hope.
Beliefs, Changing and Unchanged
Many of Graham’s beliefs stayed exactly the same decade after decade—and if they sound like the heartbeat of evangelicalism, that is partly because he made them so. They included the Bible’s authority, God’s sovereignty, humans’ sin, Christ’s saving death, resurrection, and return, the necessity of new birth, spiritual and moral growth, mission to others, and a final destiny.
But if those claims remained fixed, others changed, and the changes form a large part of the preacher’s legacy.
First of all, Graham moved from biblical inerrancy and literalism to a more dynamic sense of biblical infallibility. The Bible was authoritative not because it was historically or scientifically accurate in every detail, but because it did what it promised to do: infallibly bring people to faith in Christ. Graham believed in the Bible’s factual accuracy, but that was not the main point. The Bible held authority because it worked.
The second change focused on the the new birth. In the early days Graham called for something like a “ready-set-go” conversion experience. Stand up, walk to the front, sign a decision card, join a church, and then witness to your new-found faith. But over time Graham saw that people could show their commitment in other ways. He allowed that many people, including his wife, Ruth, never experienced a single moment of decision. They just grew up “saved” and never saw themselves otherwise. And he knew too that many inquirers were coming back to Christ after their first love had grown cold.
Graham’s notion of the spiritual and moral results that should be the fruit of new birth also evolved. His primary emphasis always fell on individual conversion. But he also came to see the need for intentionally working for social reform, sometimes through legislation. Converted hearts did not automatically produce converted hands.
Graham’s understanding of hell also shifted with time. He never denied it but he did redefine it. In the early days, Graham portrayed hell in lurid terms of fire, brimstone, and everlasting torment. But he soon felt that this evangelical chestnut simply was not biblical. Hell was separation from God's love. And what could be worse than separation from God's love?