Why invent something new about Billy Graham as he enters his eighth decade? Integrity demands that, when invited, one say to his face what for years one has said, as it were, behind his back. This I shall do.
The task for the church historian begins rather simply: Locate the subject in space and time. And Graham’s space has been global. From an almost hardscrabble early life in North Carolina, the precincts of small Bible colleges, and Los Angeles tent revivals, he has come to be, with the Pope, one of the two best-known figures in the Christian world—or in the world, for that matter. From the years when, still in insecurity, he was a name-dropper of kings and celebrities, he has come to be the one whose name statecrafters and notables drop. And Graham made the move in status without any evident malformation of his ego.
To locate him in time: Certainly, a hundred years from now, people in my historical profession will cite Graham as the shaper of evangelism in our half-century, as, in their time, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and (alas!, I have to say) Billy Sunday served in theirs.
However, Graham had a more difficult task, for he was the first to carry on his work in a culture not decisively shaped by a Protestantism that was responsive to evangelism. He has had to build community in a pluralist America, one in which neither his kind of camp nor any camp singularly “ran the show.” He had to rely on old evangelistic vocabularies where he could, as in leftover parts of the oldish South. Then he had to translate them as it became the newish South, the worldly Sunbelt. Graham had to find languages to communicate, to “sing the Lord’s song” in many strange lands, some of them named America. Secular ...1
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