Billy Graham will probably be remembered as the greatest evangelist, if not of all time, at least, of the 20th century. Graham was not simply an exemplary preacher. He was a leader, who helped to define the Neo-Evangelical movement, that rose up after World War 2, in the United States. In the words of historian George Marsden, an evangelical was “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”
My favorite video clip of Billy Graham is the 1969 interview he had with Woody Allen. Graham’s televised interactions with Woody Allen were a remarkable display of winsomeness, warm congeniality, and Scriptural integrity. But a more representative display of Billy Graham’s giftedness comes from an early televised, brief sermon he gave, in the early 1950s. It was a year of a pivotal election in the United States, and yet the direct preaching of Graham pointed listeners towards “a moral and spiritual revival.”
Billy Graham was one of the first evangelists to effectively use television as a medium for Gospel proclamation. Many of Graham’s crusade meetings were recorded, such as his historic crusade summer, at Madison Square Garden, in 1957, New York City.
He was known beyond America, particularly when he preached in England in 1954. This opened up the door for the Billy Graham Evangelism Association to have crusades all of over the world, through the second half of the 20th century:
Graham was not perfect, as he himself readily admitted. His enthusiastic friendship with President Richard Nixon, became a deep embarrassment for him, when audio recordings of Graham were heard, on the infamous Watergate tapes, from the Nixon White House. But it is truly remarkable that Billy Graham was able to avoid other potential scandals, that have derailed a number of evangelists before him, and after him.
In our Internet and social media age, one wonders if there will ever be another Billy Graham, a leader who successfully holds together an evangelical movement, prone to forces of division, that have threatened to undo this tenuous coalition of believers, who gather together under “big tent evangelicalism.” Nevertheless, the Graham legacy is truly a gift to the modern, evangelical church.
One final sermon, to highlight, that Billy Graham preached, back in 1983: “Is there a hell?” A sobering topic for sure, but observe carefully how he frames his message. How well received would this message be received today, in the 21st century?:
For more on Billy Graham, read this Veracity review of Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.