The Remarkable Mr. Graham

The evangelist (and CT founder) is 98 today. An historian examines the way he shaped the church and the world.
The Remarkable Mr. Graham
Image: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

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?

Graham’s notion of mission broadened into an inclusive effort to bring as many people as possible into hearing range of the gospel.

Graham’s notion of mission broadened into an inclusive effort to bring as many people as possible into hearing range of the gospel. This meant reaching out to fundamentalists on his right, mainline Protestants on his left, and Catholics and Pentecostals everywhere. Except for fundamentalists, who remained wary, Graham won supporters in most quarters. His principle was: “I'll work with anyone who will work with me if they don't ask me to change my message.”

Most controversially, Graham refused to speculate about the ultimate fate of nonbelievers. He never trimmed his insistence that Christ was the only way to heaven. But he saw no point hazarding guesses. To reporters who asked, he invariably said, "All that is up to God and I'm not going to play God."

In sum, one of Graham’s key legacies to evangelicals was his ability to combine a fixed core—a still point in a turning world—with fresh thinking about how that core should be expressed and applied.

Evangelicalism with a Necktie

Graham helped teach evangelicals the importance of a practical approach to Christianity. We see it especially in “My Answer,” a daily Q & A column that appeared in newspapers across the country. Most answers came with a heavy dose of conventional evangelical theology, but the theology included common-sense guidelines based on biblical precepts.

Graham served as a badge of credibility for evangelicals. He helped teach them how to take a seat at the table in the public square. One of the most astute historians of American religion, Samuel S. Hill, once said, tongue-in-cheek but aptly, "Billy taught evangelicals when to wear a necktie."

Graham’s ministry also defined the center of the evangelical landscape. He helped the movement maintain its centrist appeal by establishing a sense of scale. Some things were more important than others. Christ did not die on the cross to save folks from cigarettes or dancing or playing cards. He died to save people from their sinful hearts and offer everlasting life.

Decade after decade, Graham embodied a pole-star of decency. Biographer William Martin said it best: Graham represented Americans’ “best selves.” Topping the list was the preacher’s commitment to marital fidelity, without compromises of any sort. That included acts that might raise suspicions, such as traveling or dining alone with a woman outside the family. He was equally committed to financial transparency, again, without fudging. And absolute honesty. When reporters asked about the number of converts he had won, Graham responded, “I have no idea. I can count inquirers but only God knows who the converts are.” And finally, a reticence about criticizing others. Graham targeted broad trends he found destructive, but rarely specific individuals or denominations or religious traditions.

Three Conversions

We can’t say that Graham changed US political history as Lyndon Johnson or Martin Luther King Jr., did. But he did change Americans’ lives in important ways. On most things political, he pointed in a progressive direction.

On the landmark issue of civil rights, for example, Graham showed uneven but unmistakable progress. The youthful Graham—reared in the South—accepted segregation. But in the late 1940s, his conscience awakened. In the early 1950s, he took a succession of bold stands, despite withering attacks. In the early 1960s, unsettled by Black Power and disorder in the streets, he backed off. Temperamentally, he always preferred orderly process. But by the mid-1970s, he would embrace—or re-embrace—the goals, if not always the tactics, of the civil rights movement.

In 1982, in the patriarchal cathedral in Moscow, Graham said that he had undergone three conversions in his life: to Christ, to racial justice, and to nuclear disarmament. It was a long journey. Once a strident Cold War hawk, the mature Graham carried the torch for de-militarization on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He preached that civilization was on the brink of destroying itself. This move took enormous courage in an age when most Americans, not to mention most evangelicals, remained fearful of Soviet intentions.

Graham insisted that there was a difference between partisan politics and moral politics.

When the culture wars arrived in the late 1970s, Graham resisted. He agreed with some of the Christian Right’s positions, but he also said its leaders didn’t talk enough about poverty and hunger. Besides, the pulpit should not become a soapbox. Graham insisted that there was a difference between partisan politics, which served the interests of the Democratic or the Republican Parties, and moral politics, which served the interests of the nation and of the world.

Graham’s mistakes in the political realm remind evangelicals that they dare not place anyone on a pedestal. He fell into dogged support for particular presidents, especially Nixon. Graham defended the president’s stand on the Vietnam War and on Watergate long after most Americans had given up on both causes. The press called him the “White House Chaplain.”

One of Graham’s most grievous blunders took place in 1972, when he made scandalous remarks about Jews and the media in the privacy of Nixon’s office. When his words surfaced 30 years later, he was mortified. Graham apologized repeatedly and profusely, in print and face-to-face with Jewish leaders. But the episode tarnished his legacy.

A Second Chance

Without question, Graham’s most important legacy lay in his preaching about Christian hope. Over the years, millions of letters flowed into his Minneapolis office. Often calling him just Billy, writers described lives twisted by sin, marriages on the rocks, kids gone astray, fears of death, and loneliness. No matter how badly you have messed up your life, he urged, Christ offers forgiveness and a new start.

Though Graham regularly preached about Christ’s Second Coming (albeit with few specific details), his main contribution to Christian hope lay exactly there, in the promise of a second chance, not only for individuals but also for the nation and the world of nations.

Will these legacies continue in a successor? People with his unique combination of “gifts and graces”—the looks, voice, accent, humor, poise, timing, sincerity, humility, and ambition, both for himself and for God—come along rarely.

But even if a person of Graham’s talents should appear, the social context has changed dramatically. Was communism then the same as terrorism today? How do changes in the family, once a nuclear unit huddled around a flickering television screen, now dispersed and glued to cell phones, alter the picture? Would huge stadium crusades still work in an age of social media?

The historian Margaret Bendroth perceptively predicts that successors won’t look like Graham. They will not be white, let alone white Americans. They will appeal to multiethnic audiences. Yet like Graham, they will project chastity, integrity, sincerity, ambition, humility, and, above all, hope. And they will not pin their ministries on doctrinal arguments. The tempestuous issues that tend to divide Christians will take second, third, or even tenth place behind a call for a life changing experience with God in Christ, one that transforms the rest of their lives.

This much we can say for sure: Whoever Graham’s successors may be, heralded or unheralded, they will owe an enduring debt to a farm boy from North Carolina.

Grant Wacker is author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (2014). This essay is adapted from “Billy Graham and the Shaping of American Evangelicalism: Legacies,” in Great Awakenings: Historical Perspectives (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2016), 86-99.

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