When I entered my small Methodist church one Sunday morning in February of 2018, Bob Maddry, a retired truck driver and old chum, walked over. “I lost a dear friend this week,” he said. “Billy Graham brought me to Jesus. He saved my life.” Bob paused and then added, “I never shook his hand.”
A couple of weeks later, I asked Bob if he remembered where and when his conversion had taken place. He answered immediately and precisely. “Raleigh. Wednesday night, September 26, 1973.” At that moment, I knew that Bob spoke for countless other salt-of-the-earth folk everywhere. They never personally met Graham, but his ministry had remade their lives.
Graham very much wanted to invite every person on the planet to embrace the gospel, and he also hoped to inspire them to reform society as a whole, from top to bottom. But his method—the way he sought to do it—was always the same: one soul at a time.
In one sense, Graham is the last person on earth whose approach should be described with the words “one soul at a time.” After all, he perfected the art of mass evangelism. He preached to 215 million people in 185 countries in crusades, rallies, and live satellite feeds. Of those, some 77 million saw him face-to-face in 53 countries. More than three million souls responded to his invitation to profess faith in Christ. He broke numerous attendance records, sometimes speaking to more than 100,000 people in a single service. Indeed, twice he spoke to more than 1 million in one event.
Even so, Graham said that he always saw himself speaking not to audiences, let alone to nameless multitudes, but to individual hearts. That is where enduring change ultimately had to begin—with each person making his or her own decision to follow Christ. Or not. “This is not mass evangelism,” he liked to say, “but personal evangelism on a mass scale.”
His ministry to individual souls hinged on the sermon.
Sometimes, Graham insisted that everything depended on the months of preparatory prayer by the organizing committee and sponsoring pastors. Other times he insisted with equal fervor that everything depended on the follow-up efforts of counselors and local churches after he left town. Or the spiritual power of the music during the meetings. Or the direct hand of the Holy Spirit.
He surely believed every word he said. But at some level, he also knew that the sermon stood at the center. Faith, after all, came by hearing.
The secular press and many historians have focused on Graham’s activities in the realm of politics, but that focus reflects their interests more than his. Close students of Graham’s life quickly find that his heart lay elsewhere. The overwhelming part of his written and spoken words pertained to matters of salvation, not state. And that spiritual orientation emerged with particular force in his preaching.
Graham was not a great preacher, if by great we mean eloquent. He knew it, and almost everyone else did, too, including his wife. “Homiletically,” said W. E. Sangster, a leading cleric in England, “his sermons leave almost everything to be desired.” Graham admitted that he was a champion rambler, with as many as 17 points in a single sermon. He told one biographer that the subject and the words of his first sermon were “mercifully lost to memory.”
Still, he was a great preacher, if by great we mean effective. Sometimes his sermons flopped, but far more often they did exactly what he hoped they would do: persuade men and women to stand up, walk to the front, and profess new or renewed faith in Christ. Or pull off to the side of the road, as the radio carried Hour of Decision, and bow their heads to pray the serious words.
Graham’s messages regularly began with a biblical text, but he rarely paused to exegete the text in depth. Whatever the chosen passage, the verse he always focused on was the one he had used the first night at Madison Square Garden: John 3:16.
Almost immediately, Graham turned to a litany of crises. International threats usually came first, then national ones, and then personal ones. The specifics changed with the decades, but underlying perennials included divorce, hopelessness, loneliness, immorality, and fear of death. Natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes—made occasional appearances, too. Unlike his Puritan predecessors, Graham usually portrayed natural disasters as signs of the brokenness of creation, not direct punishments from God for America’s—or any other nation’s—sins. But that was a distinction without much of a difference. They reminded folks of the precariousness of life.
Graham gathered these data with demonstrably wide reading of current newspapers and magazines as well as the work of two or three trusted staff members and his wife, Ruth. He liked to quip that borrowing from one writer was plagiarism, but borrowing from many was research. Auditors might reasonably question whether Graham had actually read, or at least read in any serious way, the many authorities he routinely quoted—politicians, historians, theologians, philosophers, playwrights, musicians, sociologists, novelists—the list went on and on. But no one doubted that he read the Bible constantly and in depth.
For all the crises he named, there was one answer, and that answer was, of course, Christ. In Christ, people would find forgiveness and restoration. Again and again, he would say, “We need a new heart that will not have lust and greed and hate in it. We need a heart filled with love and peace and joy, and that is why Jesus came into the world ... to make peace between us and God.”
Graham gradually mastered the art of streamlining his sermons. Audiences did not hear deep theological discussions or debates about matters in dispute. Nor did they hear about misdemeanors like smoking and cussing, tear-jerking deathbed tales, or attacks on individual persons. They heard about pernicious movements like communism, yes, but individuals, no. Graham saw no need to antagonize anyone before he had a chance to share. The timeless authority of Scripture reinforced the words that exploded at the beginning of countless sentences: “The Bible says ...” Scripture, he said, turned the gospel into a “rapier.”
He usually preached from the King James Version because he knew it contained the words people knew best. His prodigious memory of Scripture kicked into gear in the first few minutes as he fired passages rapidly and repeatedly, up to one 100 times in a single sermon. He rarely, if ever, tried to defend the truth or relevance of the Bible. Instead, he just proclaimed it.
What audiences heard was a message of hope. A litany of “re-” words—reform, rebirth, renewal, regeneration—served as the pivot. Nothing had to stay the same. Everything could be changed. Others found new life, and so can you.
Graham’s listeners also heard what might be called “marching orders.” Theologian Will Willimon rightly observes that whether Graham’s audience was young or not, he gave listeners a young person’s theology—a moment of closure that fit the other crucial moments of closure young people were expected to make as they reached maturity: choose a mate, choose a job, choose a path for your life. And choose Christ.
The main point rang out as clearly as any bell atop any steeple. Come as you are. “You don’t have to straighten out your lives first,” he told audience after audience. “You don’t have to make yourself well before going to a doctor.” The altar was a hospital for sinners, not a resort for saints.
Graham’s sermons drew mixed reactions. Critics pounced for many reasons, and the bill of particulars ran long. They said his preaching was simplistic. Or repetitive. Or premodern. Or disorganized. Or alarmist. Or all of the above. But letters to Graham leave little doubt that many people heard a message that seemed not simplistic but simple, not repetitive but reinforcing, not premodern but enduring, not disorganized but wide-ranging, not alarmist but timely.
One of Graham’s associates drolly but accurately observed that if you heard ten of Billy’s sermons, you heard them all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” ran the perennial refrain. In his preaching, as in his life, Billy walked the talk.
Grant Wacker is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Christian History at Duke Divinity School and author of One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham (Eerdmans, 2019).
This essay was adapted from One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham, copyright 2019 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.