When Franklin Graham told me, on the record, that the U.S. shouldn't have gotten involved when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 ("he was just taking back what originally belonged to Iraq"), I thought, Billy Graham wouldn't have said that. Indeed, there was a lot that Franklin said throughout our conversations that Billy Graham would not have said. And it must be the bane of Franklin Graham's existence that every word that proceeds from his mouth will be measured against what his esteemed father would have said.
Franklin is not his father. But he has been asked, and has agreed, to wear his father's mantle. When the prophet Elisha asked his mentor and friend Elijah for a "double portion" of his spirit (or, to be his "rightful successor," according to the NLT), Elijah told him that he was asking for "a difficult thing" (2 Kings 2:9-10). The handoff from Elijah to Elisha stands out as a rare biblical example of when it worked. (It should be noted that Elijah left it to God to confirm or deny the bequeathal: "If you see me when I am taken from you it will be yours—otherwise not.")
Accounts are less sparkling when it comes to biblical precedents for father-to-son succession. King David finally named his successor only when his age and vulnerability created a climate for political skullduggery and forced his decision (1 Kings 1). The subsequent deterioration of the divided kingdom was a cautionary tale of failure in father-to-son succession.
Fathers are grooming sons in many Christian institutions, but none of the transfers is as public as is the case of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).
The "succession question" is an unwieldy double-edged sword. One edge slices to the heart of institutional concerns: How do you fill the shoes of the towering personality around whom a large, vibrant, multimillion-dollar ministry has been built? Will the successor elicit similar confidence from the support base? Will the original vision be preserved?
The other edge of the succession sword cuts to the marrow of personal and spiritual issues faced by the candidate: How does anyone pick up the mantle of a giant? How does the successor keep the ministry on the cutting edge? And finally, how can anyone know the successor "has the call"?
Festival '98 last May in Albuquerque marked the first jointly preached crusade of Billy Graham and his son Franklin. Though the mantle was officially passed in 1995 when the board of the BGEA unanimously elected Franklin as vice chair ("with direct succession as chair and chief executive officer should his father ever become incapacitated"), he will remain a half-step behind his father as long as the elder Graham keeps on preaching. (Billy Graham says, "I'll retire when God retires me.")
Forgetting the last name and the uncanny physical likeness, it is tempting to speculate whether Franklin Graham would have made the short list of the BGEA's candidates, given his troubled background and well-documented feistiness when it comes to institutional allegiances (he's such a baby boomer). But forgetting the name is not an option. And installing the son of Billy Graham as his father's successor resolves two of the three institutional concerns: the support base will probably remain stable seeing that the Graham name and presence remain at center stage (Billy Graham himself has said, according to biogra-pher William Martin, "It would be easier for people who have given to us financially to give to him"), and the son's loyalty to the father will preserve the original vision.
How Franklin will step into the shoes of a giant and move forward is another question. And does he, in fact, have the call for this ministry, or has the evangelical community pressured him (and the BGEA) into it, clamoring for another Billy Graham to carry us into the next millennium?
A complicated ascent
Frank. Billy Frank. Franklin. Will. The line of William Franklin Grahams begins with the father of America's favorite evangelist and extends to his grandson, William Franklin Graham IV (Franklin's oldest child). For a short time in his early childhood, Franklin was called "Little Billy," but it seems he spent a goodly portion of his youth trying to extricate himself from that saintly connection. While the elder Graham's messages pulled languishing souls out of their seats at crusades, Franklin's misbehavior pulled police officers out of squad cars on roadsides in Montreat, North Carolina.
When Franklin Graham surrendered his life to Christ in 1974 at the age of 22, he still hadn't completed his undergraduate degree and, though he had helped out behind the scenes at crusades, he had really only been good at doing things in the extreme (like driving through Turkey in a four-wheeler with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a flask of whiskey). His marriage to Jane Austin Cunningham, also in 1974, settled him somewhat, but he still found himself the now born-again renegade son of America's premier evangelist with no role of his own.
That all changed when Franklin came into relationship with Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, who launched Samaritan's Purse (SP) in 1970. Pierce and Franklin developed a father/son rapport. Pierce recognized that the organization's mandate—"immediate, no-red-tape response to emergency situations, especially where few others are working"—resonated with Franklin's adventurous spirit and could benefit from Franklin's leadership potential. By the time Franklin had completed his undergraduate studies in 1978, Pierce was fighting a losing battle with leukemia and asked Franklin to join the board of Samaritan's Purse the same year. After Pierce died in 1979, the board asked Franklin to assume the role of president.
As president, he has brought the one-time fledgling agency out of mom-and-pop status ("with two employees, and I wasn't one of them") to an operation that, this year, has a budget of $85.5 million, frequently flying relief missions into war zones himself. His friend Dennis Agajanian recalls a time when Franklin was preaching in Cambodia, unfazed when three mortar shells hit nearby, and in Beirut, when bombs punctuated his preaching, and he never missed a beat. So it seems that life on the edge, going into disaster areas and war zones for Christ, was a perfect fit.
But the specter of crusade evangelism haunted him. He was first coaxed into the pulpit by BGEA associate evangelist John Wesley White in 1983 to preach in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, before an audience of 1,000. When no one came forward, Franklin was crushed. (He said to White: "Don't you ever ask me to do that again. I'm not Billy Graham!") Protestations aside, he preached again, "under duress," in 1989 at his first crusade, in Juneau, Alaska. He employed one of his father's favorite sermons and was encouraged with the positive response. That is when he decided to commit one-tenth of his time to crusade evangelism.
According to Time (May 13, 1996), Franklin's mother "became increasingly vocal in her belief that Franklin should eventually be his father's successor," and Franklin himself sensed the possibility in the offing even though, as he has said, "[my father] didn't say it to me."
Billy Graham remained publicly noncommittal, even rebuffing Franklin when he probed his father about it in early 1995. But this issue came to a head after a crisis at the Toronto crusade in 1995 when Billy collapsed with a bleeding colon and was unable to preach. "From his hospital bed, Billy had an aide call Franklin with a plea to take over, and the son jumped on a plane, flew to Toronto, and began frenzied preparation." Franklin was shocked (and, according to Time, "furious") to learn upon arrival that the crusade's local organizers had already asked BGEA associate evangelist Ralph Bell to step in.
The situation forced the elder Graham to recognize that this matter had to be resolved while he still possessed his health in order to avoid internal dissension. Later that year he approached his son, convinced that he should become the successor, and asked him if he would answer the call. Franklin responded: "Daddy, if this is what you feel in your heart, I would accept that."
So today Franklin is emerging, whether he wants it or not, as a representative for a new era of evangelical leadership. But this is not his father's era, and, as noted, Franklin is not his father.
Not his father's era
In the 1940s and '50s, Billy Graham and a band of "movers and shapers" (see CT, Sept. 6, 1996) forged a "new evangelicalism" that eschewed separationist fundamentalism and offered a new, dynamic vision of Bible-believing faith that both engaged and transcended culture.
Their efforts changed the religious landscape. In addition to the BGEA, organizations like Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade for Christ, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) were born during this season of consolidation. "A major shift in the social basis of religious conservatism occurred—away from a marginal to a more mainstream position," wrote Wade Clark Roof in his book A Generation of Seekers. Today, Campus Crusade's world revenues total over a quarter of a billion dollars; Wycliffe has over 5,400 Bible translators all over the globe (with a budget of around $95 million); and the NAE boasts 42,500 member congregations from 48 member denominations and over 200 parachurch ministries and educational institutions, "directly and indirectly benefit[ing] over 27 million people."
But the founders of these institutions for the "new" evangelicals are now septua- and octogenarians. And their progeny—the baby boomers—in typical boomer fashion, are inheriting the fruits of their fathers' (and mothers') labors. This sets up the largely untested scenario. That is, many well-entrenched institutions, which have been built upon self-sacrifice, discipline, and the long-term vision of Depression-era movers and shapers, are being entrusted to representatives from a notoriously self-indulgent generation, known for its aversion to self-sacrifice and distrust of institutions.
Franklin Graham says there is no difference between today's crusade crowds and the ones who filled Harringay Arena and the Rose Bowl in the forties and fifties. "Human beings are the same. Everybody wants to know if there is a God or not." But he also would be remiss not to take note of huge changes in the social landscape.
Unlike the Depression-era "builders" who stormed the beaches of Normandy and appreciated the value of a dollar, their offspring came of age during an era of unprecedented prosperity and had everything handed to them (which, in the sixties, they promptly threw back in the faces of their parents). The boomers' ascent coincided with the rise of television, increased discretionary income, and a broadening concept of leisure, transforming society into a consumer culture. Add to this a hefty dose of cynicism provided by Watergate and Vietnam. This spelled e-x-o-d-u-s for boomers' participation in institutional religion. Baby boomers "dropped out of the mainline churches and synagogues in unprecedented numbers," writes Roof, and they have reared their offspring, more or less, outside religion's orb.
The good news for crusade evangelism is that many boomers are experiencing a "crisis of faith" as they enter their later years. Michael Novak asserts, "Just when they have achieved everything they once thought would make them happy, they bump into their own finitude" (New York Times, May 24, 1998). Citing Vaclav Havel's remark that we are living in the "first atheistic civilization in the history of humankind," Novak writes, "the crisis … is the result of our loss of the feeling that 'the Universe, nature, existence and our lives are the work of creation guided by a definite intention.' "
Franklin could be poised to speak to the attentive ear of a portion of the largest generation in American history and their offspring. But has he understood how best to reach them?
That ol' time religion
Franklin made no attempt to hide his disgust over Robert Duvall's movie The Apostle, as well as evangelical voices (including this magazine) that reviewed the movie positively. In his commencement address at Wheaton College last May, Franklin said: "When Hollywood portrays the church of Jesus Christ as immoral, no, don't you tell me this is a great film. No way."
The Apostle is a bad movie, according to Franklin, because "Hollywood portrays a minister of God's Word as a murderer, a womanizer, a drinker, bringing the level of the pastor of the church of Jesus Christ down to the level of trash." His good friend Jim Bakker saw it differently: "The Apostle is the story of a man who did a terrible thing, but his heart, like David's, was toward God. … Either we believe in grace or we don't. So I have to accept the grace in that story."
Later in his Wheaton speech, when Franklin poses the challenge to the graduates to "lift up the Lord Jesus Christ," he exhorts them not to "lower the flag" by being "tolerant of people who live in sin." Whether he intends it or not, he seems to be communicating an understanding of the Christian life that is rooted in behavior and harks back to the belligerent fundamentalism that his father and his "new evangelical" cohorts eschewed. In one of history's ironic twists, Franklin's ministry may end up looking more like another evangelist named Billy: Billy Sunday was famous for his uncompromising stand against alcohol and sin.
Franklin says, "The world says, 'You want to drink? That's great. Just be responsible [and] have a designated driver.' No, it's not okay. It's wrong. It's a sin.
"I want to confront you in love," he says, "but I'm warning you that there's a hell and there's a heaven, and your soul lives for eternity. [God] has a standard, and that standard doesn't change," he says. "But if you continue this behavior, you may die, and your soul will be separated from God for eternity."
Franklin says lots of things his father would not say. He criticizes other religious leaders ("Black brothers in Africa are being annihilated by the Muslims, who are Arabs, [so] it is a race war as well as a religious war. But Jesse Jackson is silent. Why is that?") and other ministries ("There's this teaching today [that] we have to put our families first, our kids first. No. That's wrong. That's false teaching. We put Jesus Christ first and trust him for our families"). He defends Saddam Hussein ("Kuwait is part of Iraq. It is"). He rankles when challenged to articulate his vision for ministry ("I don't really care what other people say. I've got to answer to God for Franklin Graham"). He calls it as he sees it when it comes to the President ("A lie is a sin, and sex outside marriage is a sin. It doesn't matter if you're the President of the United States or Franklin Graham or a busboy in a hotel"). He won't be pigeonholed into a role he does not want ("I'm not trying to lead anybody. I'm just a kid who likes to ride motorcycles and fly airplanes"). He chafes when asked how he plans to address boomers' suspicion of institutions ("I think maybe you all in Wheaton have that problem"). He's not ready to become a grandfather ("That's a horrible thought").
He's irascible. (He's not his father.)
Franklin insists that his father "never tried to build anything"; that "he's just been out in front doing what he felt God called him to do," never "worrying about what everybody else thought." He defines his own calling and ministry in similarly simple terms: "I don't really care what other people do. I've got to stay focused. I'm a pilot. You don't fly if you don't stay focused on the task that you have at hand."
But the elder Graham did in fact bring leadership and intentionality to his vision for a "new evangelicalism." He launched this magazine to assert "a new strong vigorous voice to call us together"; he orchestrated the uniting of Gordon Divinity School and the Conwell School of Theology (creating Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary); he has been integral in establishing key leadership appointments in various institutions. But if Billy Graham forged a positive, culturally engaged, nuanced expression of orthodox Christianity, Franklin is drawing lines in the sand.
So in this sense, he is stepping out of his father's shadow by redefining the terms for the discussion. And Franklin's effort to bring sinful behavior back into the cultural conversation is evoking a refreshingly positive response from the younger crowd, commonly referred to as Generation X and the Millennial teens. Peter "B-House" Joneleit, former gang member who is a seminary student and evangelist in training (who attended Festival '98), says Franklin's no-holds-barred approach offers a much-needed voice of authority, especially to today's young people, whose boomer parents tend to equivocate: "When you come and preach powerfully on sin as a reality and the need for forgiveness, it seems to attract young people. It seems to address [their] emptiness and provide some authority."
Where young people languish for concrete direction and "authority," many boomers are less impressionable. But one place where Franklin and this highly educated and financially prosperous constituency come together is on this point: they're both experts on rebellion and sin.
Franklin's spiritual sojourn typifies the inner struggle of many of his fellow baby boomers: "For years I didn't want Jesus Christ in my life. I ran from him. I was afraid if I gave my life to him I'd have a spiritual straitjacket all my life. I wanted to be free. I wanted to make myself happy.
"There was a lot of fun, no question," he says. "But there was an emptiness. There was a big hole in the middle of Franklin Graham." So his rebel-turned-redeemed-sinner persona creates a fundamental point of connection between him and his generational peers. One person who attended Festival '98 was thrilled to have Franklin giving the message. "I have four children, and three of them were rebels like him."
And in an attempt to keep up with the times, Franklin has reconfigured some of the outer trappings of the crusades. "America's beloved gospel singer," George Beverly Shea, has deferred to the grittier, rowdier (and hunkier) Michael W. Smith; the shorter attention spans of today's audience have compelled him to keep his message to 15 minutes; video clips keep the audience engaged between speakers so that there is always something visual taking place ("you don't want one dead moment in a meeting"). Franklin no longer calls them crusades—"that's a church word." They are festivals—"that's a secular word." "Secular people understand music festivals," he says.
For boomers, it evokes images of Woodstock—a dynamic slightly different from the revival tent. While Franklin's finger wagging, behavior-oriented definitions of what it means to be a Christian confronts the "I'm OK, You're OK" audience in terms they have probably not had to reckon with, "behavior" has never been a strong suit for the baby boomers. Many shy away from the church, according to Roof, because they sense that "the teachings and attitudes of the churches are out of touch with their own lives" or because they "feel that because of their lifestyles they would not be welcome." While Franklin would never (nor should he) soften the blow just because boomers "don't like" what the Bible says about sin, the question remains whether video clips, Michael W. Smith, and abbreviated messages will plumb the psychospiritual depths of the "everybody-must-get-stoned" crowd, or if baby boomers will add their support to the ministry on an institutional level.
Is he called?
Baby boomers dismiss "religious conventionality" as being essential to a vibrant faith, says Roof. But, to their credit, they uphold "justice concerns or love for the neighbor as far more integral to defining the religious life." This lends authority and authenticity to Franklin Graham, whose strong suit and first love has always been his vigorous and courageous relief work with Samaritan's Purse, which recently gave millions of dollars' worth of aid to Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. Franklin once asserted, "God called my father to the stadiums of the world, and God called me to the ditches."
Now, he says, he has been called to the stadiums, too—though he was not given the benefit of seeing a fiery chariot, like Elisha, to confirm his call. He has five "festivals" scheduled for this year—the first, last month in Jamaica. And at his gatherings Franklin can exhort his hearers: "I hope God will raise up an army of young men and women who will give whatever it takes to go to the corners of the earth to proclaim the gospel," because he speaks as one who has done "whatever it takes" himself, flying dangerous missions with Samaritan's Purse. This kind of integrity is essential for reaching his cynical peers and their (sometimes) jaded offspring.
And so far, he is being well received. "People can see that you don't have to be a stuffy, boring person if you're a Christian," said one attendee at Festival '98. Another said, "He's very direct."
Media coverage has been positive, and it seems everyone wants Billy's son to succeed. (Some, however, hinted at sentimental longings for the elder Graham, remarking that Franklin was "a carbon copy" or "the spitting image" of his father.)
William Martin says, "Billy Graham is not an office of the Christian church that needs to be filled. The [evangelical] movement has become sufficiently mature and multifaceted that no single person can dominate it in the way Franklin's father did." So it may take more than one person to fill these shoes.
Certainly it is a heavy burden to be the son of a giant. As a Graham, Franklin inherits the stage that has been set by his father; as a one-time rowdy baby boomer he has earned his credentials to serve as an ambassador to this searching, changing, restless constituency and is, in his forceful presentation, winning the support of their kids.
Can the Graham anointing be passed? Franklin Graham is setting his own course and giving little thought about the answer to that question. As for the evangelical community (and the rest of the world), which sees him as a representative of the next generation of leaders, it remains to be seen how and if they will receive him "just as he is," too.
This article includes reporting by Christine J. Gardner.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickBecome a Shadow of Your Future SelfManifesting isn’t the answer. Consenting to holiness is.