Many young people today do not know the name of “Billy Graham.” But those of us who grew up in the 20th century knew of Billy Graham as probably the greatest evangelist who ever lived. He was easily the most influential Protestant evangelical leader in the 20th century. ChristianityToday, the magazine that Billy Graham helped to found, has an extensive tribute to his remarkable legacy. Last year, I read historian Grant Wacker’s biography of Graham, so I offer my review and personal reflections below. Losing Billy Graham is like losing your pastor. Billy Graham was America’s Pastor.
I was 21 years old, walking towards the main arena in Champaign/Urbana, at the tri-annual Urbana missions conference, then held at the University of Illinois. This would be the highlight evening for some 18,000 college students, where we had the opportunity to listen to the world famous evangelist, Billy Graham. By this time in Graham’s ministry in the 1980s, he had shared the Gospel before millions of people around the world, having an impact on world evangelization, far greater than any other human in history.
Not only that, but Billy Graham had managed to forge a remarkable alliance of like-minded believers, all united around a common cause of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others, calling these people to have a living, vital relationship with the Lord, and upholding the Bible as God’s Word of Truth to humankind. What made this so remarkable is that this alliance spanned across multiple denominations, race barriers, nation borders … you name it, Billy Graham transcended them all. Every church and ministry I had been affiliated with looked up to him as a grandfatherly type of figure.
As an aside, a few years after this Urbana missions conference, I would attend a seminary that Reverend Graham helped to found. Furthermore, for nearly the past twenty years, being involved in my church’s music ministry, I have enjoyed a warm friendship with Ted Cornell, who himself was involved in the music ministry of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, traveling with the Graham team for crusade meetings all over the world.
I had been truly impressed with Billy Graham. Now, at this Urbana conference, it would be my first time to see the man preach, in person, aside from watching him on television.
But I soon experienced a moment of anxiety, on that December evening.
As I was crossing the sidewalk by the arena, packed with other college students, an older gentleman approached and stopped me earnestly, “Please take this and read it.” It was a small pamphlet, and the message was direct and to the point: Billy Graham was a “false teacher.” Graham did not insist, that all inquirers for the Gospel, who came forward to give their lives to Jesus at Graham’s crusades, receive water baptism as adults. Graham had substituted baptism, as taught in the Bible, with “coming forward” to the front of the preacher’s podium. This was a grave theological error, according to the pamphlet.
I was puzzled, having grown up in liberal Protestantism, with very little exposure to so-called “fundamentalism,” prior to my years in college. I had dedicated my life to Christ, a few years earlier in high school, and all of my spiritual mentors spoke highly of Billy Graham. Graham taught of having a personal relationship with Jesus, in a manner that eluded my experience in mainline, liberal Christianity.
Most of my mainline Protestant friends still liked Billy Graham. They just did not care that much for his “evangelical” message.
Now, as a college student, I was confronted with a jarring claim that this well-respected man, perhaps the most well-respected man in all of evangelical Christianity, was really a “compromiser” in disguise. Having defended Graham in front of my mainline church peers, and alternatively resisting ridicule from my atheist acquaintances, I felt angry, and a bit confused, by this pamphlet. I promptly dumped the pamphlet in the trash, and proceeded into the arena to hear the popular evangelist speak to a captivated crowd.
Did this man with his pamphlets not have anything better to do?
Listening to Billy Graham preach that evening was incredibly inspiring. He represented what “real Christianity” was all about, from what I knew… at least the “evangelical” kind of faith that I had experienced. Graham either directly spoke of or alluded to the central tenets, or fundamentals, of Christian faith as I understood them. They included having confidence in the Bible as the very Word of God; a belief in the Virgin Birth, signifying the incarnation of the Son of God; a belief in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and His atoning work on the Cross to deal with sin; a trust in the work of the Holy Spirit, to give new life to the believer; and an expectation of the Second Coming of Christ. I left the arena that night invigorated and emboldened in my faith.
There were no protestors out on the street, as students poured out from the arena, after the event. The man who gave me the pamphlet had disappeared. But I kept thinking about him. As I went to bed that night, I wondered. Could I have misjudged the “pamphlet man?” Was he trying to “save” me from some errors of Graham’s preaching, that I knew nothing about, or was this merely the Evil One’s subtle attempt to try to confuse me? What was that episode with the “pamphlet man” all about?
Billy Graham and the Borders of What it Means to Be an Evangelical
Fast forward to 2018, where I hope I am more mature and reflective now, than in my college years. A few years ago, I had read Billy Graham’s 1997 memoir, Just As I Am, that I still highly recommend, which revealed a lot about Graham, the man. But I wanted to take a closer look at how Graham fit within the larger spectrum of Christianity, and American culture. So, I turned to Duke University historian, Grant Wacker.
Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor is not quite a like a standard biography. Rather, Wacker’s book is an attempt to evaluate how Billy Graham has defined for an American, and even a world community, what it has meant to be an “evangelical” Christian in modern times. Historian George Marsden has said that an “evangelical” is basically someone who finds the thoughts and opinions of Billy Graham to be acceptable. Though Reverend Graham’s health had declined with age in recent years, taking him out of the public eye, Billy Graham has left for us a legacy that defines for many, what it means to be an “evangelical Christian.”
In his active ministry years, Billy Graham was able to bring together a movement of conflicting sets of Christian subcultures into a unified coalition, setting aside secondary issues for the sake of calling millions of people, from all over the world, to humble themselves before the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Now that Billy Graham has moved on towards his eternal reward, the evangelical movement that he represented is faced with challenge: What will define the evangelical faith for the future?
Billy Graham’s Theological Outlook, Over Some Sixty Years of Ministry
In America’s Pastor, Grant Wacker demonstrated that Graham’s theological position on matters had evolved over time, since his appearance on the public scene in the 1940s. He moved from a tradition of very conservative, “fundamentalist” Christianity, with a uniquely Southern flavor, towards a view of faith that never forsook the fundamentals of that faith, but that embraced a more open posture towards those outside of those very conservative circles, towards a more global outlook upon the church universal and humanity.
Though Graham had memorized large portions of Scripture, he was never really a theologian, per se. He had a bachelor degree in anthropology at Wheaton College and training as a public speaker, but he had no graduate training in the Bible or theology. In his earlier years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Graham thundered against the evils of Communism, preached only from the King James Version of the Bible, and passively accepted racial segregation in his evangelistic meetings. Graham’s early appeal was a curious mix of mid-20th century heartland America and the “sawdust” trail of “old-time” revivalism.
But Graham’s views modified over time, reflecting the changes in the evangelical church movement at large. He eventually argued for an end to the Cold War between the United States and Communist Russia, and worked for banning the expansion of nuclear weapons. He personally took down the barriers in his evangelistic rallies that kept the “races” separate, on the basis of skin color, seeking to include as many nationalities and ethnic groups as possible in his crusades. He reached out to Martin Luther King Jr., and while they did not see eye to eye on all things, the two men regarded each other as friends.
Billy Graham even sought to cooperate with mainline Protestant churches in promoting these rallies, so long as no one opposed the Christ-centered preaching of his message. He began to mix quotes from newer Bible translations, like the New Living Bible, instead of just sticking with the traditional King James Version. On social issues, he spoke out against global poverty and world hunger, and he even took the step of opposing capital punishment (although his wife, Ruth, did not agree on this last point). It was changes like these that led to his loss of old friendships with fundamentalist Christians.
Presumably, my “pamphlet man” was among those “fundamentalists.” In many ways, a “fundamentalist,” pejoratively speaking, is simply an evangelical Christian, who always seems angry about something. Instead, Graham pioneered what many historians consider to be “Neo-Evangelicalism,” or what most people simply call “Evangelicalism” today.
A Catalog of Common Beliefs that Loosely Define Evangelicalism… Billy Graham-Style.
By the time Graham entered the last few decades of his public ministry, it became evident that Graham’s theological views had settled, reflecting the dominant theological landscape of evangelicalism towards the end of the 20th century. Here is a sampling of Graham’s theological views, that I have gleaned (mostly) from Grant Wacker:
- Moving from a position of never associating with Pentecostals, Graham now was quite willing to work with Pentecostals and other Charismatics. Speaking in tongues is not the necessary sign of Christian spirituality. But Graham most recently believed that miracles are possible even today, and that as we near the Second Coming of Christ, the experience of miracles should increase in the church. Christians should not specifically seek for any particular spiritual gift, but neither should we “quench the Spirit” when the Spirit is on the move. Nevertheless, the long tradition of Billy Graham evangelistic rallies, over the years, have never given themselves over to immoderate emotionalism (Read about Graham’s views of charismatic gifts).
- In the discussion between predestination and free will, the relationship between the sovereignty of God and free will remains a mystery (Read about Graham’s views on predestination).
- Marriage is between one man and one woman, for one lifetime, in God’s purposed design (Read about Graham’s views on same-sex relationships).
- Graham never had women serving as Christian leaders at the highest level in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He had adopted, what was then the “Billy Graham rule,” nowadays called the “Mike Pence rule,” that the men in the ministry’s leadership team should never meet alone with a woman, in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Nevertheless, Graham believed that women should be encouraged to use their gifts to their fullest ability, and the church should encourage them in developing these gifts. When his daughter Anne Graham Lotz began her own career of preaching, her father disapproved of her actions as a woman, as not being consistent with Scriptural teaching, while eventually conceding that she was probably the best preacher in the Graham family (Read about Graham’s views on women).
- The Bible is our final authority and is completely trustworthy in all matters of faith and practice. His constant refrain of “the Bible says” reverberated throughout every evangelistic meeting. But Billy Graham did not believe it necessary to speak of the Bible as being “inerrant,” as more than a few Christians have associated the concept of “inerrancy” with various controversial Bible interpretations. He wanted to maintain focus on Christ and His Cross (Read about Graham’s views on the Bible).
- Evangelism and the support of missions is the duty of every Christian, but we must also be involved in acts of service, particularly to the poor, to help relieve suffering for those less fortunate than others. Samaritan’s Purse, founded by one of Graham’s Youth For Christ fellow evangelists, Bob Pierce, is now run by Graham’s son, Franklin Graham (Read about Graham’s views on Social Justice).
- Christians should be involved in the political arena, particularly in terms of voting. But aside from a few missteps, in his early career, with President Harry Truman, and in his middle career, with an overly cozy relationship with President Richard Nixon, Graham avoided political partisanship, refused to get involved with the “Moral Majority” movement, and refrained from weighing in on the so-called “culture wars” (Read about Graham’s views on Politics).
- At one time, Graham believed that only those who make public professions of faith will be saved. More recently, Graham believed that the salvation of those who do not publicly profess faith in Christ, including the adherents of other religions, remains a mystery. God will judge others according to the “light” they have received. Their salvation is in God’s hands. Still, it is only Jesus Christ who saves. Jesus is the only one who can forgive sins (Read about Graham’s views on world religions).
- Graham rarely, if ever, had anything to say to about the Young-Earth vs. Old-Earth vs. Evolutionary Creation controversy, leaving the issue for the scientists to work out, urging humility and charity among those who disagree. What ultimately mattered is that God created humans in His image, and all humans are fallen creatures in need of God’s forgiveness. (Read about Graham’s views on Creation).
- Graham believed in a particular future for national Israel, and he fully affirmed the Second Coming of Christ as a future event. But he never tried to speculate on the exact details of the sequence of events, acknowledging that different Christians hold to different views in the theological area of the “End Times.” Though officially a believer in “premillennialism,” it might be best to characterize Graham as a “pan-millennialist,” trusting that God’s future plan will ultimately “pan-out” in the end. To my knowledge, at least, Graham has never publicly tried to “weigh in” on the particular details of how American foreign policy regarding national Israel should be conducted (Read about Graham’s views on the End Times).
- At one time, Graham believed in literal flames, with literal fire and brimstone, in hell. Later in life, Graham was content to speak of hell simply in terms of being “eternally separated from God.” He did not venture to speculate on the duration of punishment in hell, nor the experiential quality of that punishment. Graham was surely not a universalist (Read about Graham’s views on hell).
As I think about these beliefs that Billy Graham embraced, I realize that for the most part, this theology largely still represents the broad, mainstream of evangelical life and thought. The institutions he helped to found and grow, such as Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and Christianity Today magazine, largely still represent the mainstream of evangelicalism today. I qualify these statements with “largely“, as there is plenty of evidence of some shifting in different directions over the years, and areas of fragmentation.
Graham’s evangelistic activism grew through the network of relationships, that he, and other members of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, built over the years. In other words, the Billy Graham crusades did more than just call people to commit to Christ. They also built an evangelical movement.
The evangelical movement continued to grow and change, and Billy Graham continued to change right along with it. But that singular vision, to call people to Christ and the Cross, remained central, all of throughout his public ministry.
Stresses and Strains for “Big Tent” Evangelicalism?
I try to imagine if Billy Graham was still with us today, preaching in front of large crowds, like my Urbana convention in the 1980s, what it would be like? The culture has changed dramatically since then. I really do not know if someone exactly like the “pamphlet man” would make an appearance or not. But chances are, there might be other protestors there, on the University of Illinois campus, with different kinds of pamphlets, influenced by the age of the Internet and social media.
In the days following Billy Graham’s death, there have been glowing tributes to his life, particularly among the several U.S. Presidents, with whom the great preacher established friendships. But sadly, there have been at least a few, extremist, negative reactions as well. Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca’s Twitter tweet, wishing that the famous evangelist “Have fun in hell,” went viral within hours. Rolling Stone magazine featured an article regarding “The Soul-Crushing Legacy of Billy Graham,” written by a tormented man, who despaired of the preacher’s comments regarding homosexuality. But such negative sentiments are not limited to those on this end of the spectrum. As expected, there was Steven Anderson, the KJV-Only YouTube preacher sensation echoing Lauren Duca’s views, but for very different reasons…. Clearly, others have taken the place of the “pamphlet man.” What a crazy world we live in!!
We can dismiss such critics as extreme, as people who look only to ideas, and not to others as people. However, there are important questions that still linger: What are we to make of Billy Graham’s legacy? What does his legacy mean for the future of the church? What does it mean for the proclamation of the Gospel to a lost and dying world?
The pushing and prodding of Graham’s legacy, by those who see the church moving in the wrong directions, often conflicting, depending on the specific concerns, continues to create a type of tension in evangelical thought and life today. At one time, Christianity Today magazine was “the” flagship magazine publication for the evangelical movement. But other voices have begun to crowd out Christianity Today’s voice, in a sea of other voices that seek to represent “evangelical Christianity.”
Billy Graham was the spokesperson for what might be called “Big Tent Evangelicalism,” where intramural squabbles over non-essential matters could be toned down, to make room for a greater emphasis on the essentials of faith that really matter, but doing so with a respect for scholarship and civil conversation. It remains to be seen how the church will maintain that “Big Tent,” despite the tensions that would tend to tear that unity apart.
That “pamphlet man” in Illinois, felt compelled to warn college students, like me, of the dangers of being swayed too much by the personal charisma of Billy Graham. In some sense, the “pamphlet man: was partly right: We tend to make idols out of our heroes, failing to take the time and energy to ground ourselves in the truth as revealed in God’s Word.
Make no mistake of this: I am greatly indebted to and grateful for the Christ-like example that Billy Graham set before me. Nevertheless, I can see part of the point that the “pamphlet man” was trying to make. Though surely Graham approved of baptism, Graham never seemed to talk that much about baptism. Graham favored a more pragmatic solution. Graham believed that pastors in local churches should be responsible for baptism. Baptizing converts at his crusades was not his job (Read about Billy Graham’s views on baptism).
Billy Graham sought to straddle the divide in the debate between those who affirm infant baptism and those who only allow for the validity of adult baptism by full immersion. In many churches, that reflect this Billy Graham-style of pragmatic, evangelical thought, a mediating solution has largely settled in over the years. Such churches will enthusiastically affirm baptism for adults, but they will deal with infants in a manner that seeks a medium between the extremes, by encouraging “baby dedications.”
While having baby dedications has become a practical, commonly accepted solution, there is a downside. It suffers by establishing a whole new tradition, that has some theological backing as found in the Bible, but only in a slim manner. It has worked to “keep the peace” between those credobaptists and paedobaptists, less this debate distract from the central evangelical message of proclaiming the Cross of Christ, and the need for coming to the Lord for salvation.
Yet has this pragmatic approach come at a cost? Many people today do not even know what a credobaptist or paedobaptist even is. They lack the theological depth and the biblical knowledge to appreciate the debate. Many evangelical churches today are rather thin when it comes to training their people to rightly handle the Word of God.
Baby dedications are one thing, but who knows what other commonly accepted practices and beliefs among believers today will be placed under greater scrutiny by a new generation? For decades, “altar calls” and the “sinner’s prayer” have been staples of revivalistic Christianity, but are those practices sufficiently grounded in the Bible? Large evangelistic rallies, the style pioneered by Billy Graham, with an emphasis on “decision,” are already becoming less frequent as our culture changes rather rapidly. Is this trend a return to a more Scriptural approach to Gospel proclamation? Or does it signify a weakening of evangelicalism’s commitment to evangelism? Christians will vary on how these questions are to be answered, which might distract from evangelicalism’s unity.
These and other distractions to the centrality of Christ and His Cross continue to threaten the evangelical movement. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son who is the heir apparent to his father’s ministry, has demonstrated himself to be more confrontational in cultural matters, than his more irenic father. Political activism, conflicting apologetic strategies, and changes in family structures all threaten to dissolve the bonds that hold together the evangelical movement. Are these signs, that the evangelical identification with the thoughts and opinions of Billy Graham, is starting to erode away?
It is as though a balancing act is required, a means by which to hold various tensions together. On one side, we have the “Big Tent” vision of evangelicalism, that Billy Graham sought to champion, by forging bonds of friendships, to keep non-essential matters of faith from driving wedges between believers. On the other side, we have the robust theology of Billy Graham, that sought to ground the proclamation of the Christ and His Cross, upon the soundness of doctrine, established by the Bible as the very Word of God. It is a balancing act that we would do well to keep.
Here is a brief clip of one of Billy Graham’s early, televised sermons:
A Future for Billy Graham’s Legacy?
Grant Wacker observes that within the previous ten or so years, since Billy Graham formerly stepped down from public ministry, no one single leader has emerged to speak for and define evangelicalism. Yet as a historian sympathetic to evangelical faith, Wacker does not appear to be too worried. Billy Graham was the right person to come along, at the right time, in the right cultural circumstances, to step in and bring in formerly separated fundamentalists into the mainstream of American, if not global, culture. It is highly unlikely that such another single, unifying figure will emerge anytime soon.
In reading America’s Pastor, I would conclude that it will be a combination of fundamentally biblical and unifying beliefs that will provide a bond to the evangelical movement, but it will need to be accompanied by the type of irenic and bridge-building approach to relationships that Billy Graham has so effectively modeled.
In the end, it this irenic, charitable spirit, which characterized Billy Graham, that I found to be so lacking in the sidewalk confrontational tactics of the “pamphlet man.” Graham was far from perfect, and his theology was probably deficient in some areas, but in his public ministry Graham had his priorities straight. He kept his moral affairs and dealings with others in good order. When he did stumble, he apologized, and sought to do better. In the minds of so many, he was able to do, what so few have been able to do, in that he rose above partisanship and kept his focus on preaching the Gospel.
Graham sought to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, but he did so in a loving manner that exemplifies this truth. We may not have another “Billy Graham,” who can fill those same shoes, but hopefully the leaders of today’s and tomorrow’s evangelical movement will continue to follow in Graham’s example, at least in some measure.
Wacker’s America’s Pastor is not simply an opportunity to reflect upon the past. It is also important to think about where the evangelical movement is going today and in the future, as Billy Graham’s honorable star has set over the horizon, hovering towards the New Heavens and the New Earth.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association put together a remarkable video tribute to Billy Graham’s life: