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Texts, speeches, homilies > Obituary: Reverend Billy Graham

05 March 2018

Obituary: Reverend Billy Graham

Reverend Billy Graham gathered extraordinary numbers of people to hear the Gospel

By William C. Martin

Billy Graham, easily the most famous evangelist of the twentieth century, died on 21 February 2018. During more than 60 years of public ministry, he preached the Gospel of Christ in person to more than 80 million people and saw approximately 3 million people respond to the invitations he gave at the end of his sermons. He spoke to countless millions of others over the airwaves and in films. In recent years, his satellite crusades were the most ambitious feats of digital evangelism ever attempted. He was the first Christian, eastern or western, to preach in public behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War, culminating in giant gatherings in Budapest (1989) and Moscow (1992). He was a friend to Pope John Paul II, the Queen, several prime ministers, and at least nine United States presidents. When America needed a chaplain or pastor to help inaugurate or bury a president, or to bring comfort in times of terrible tragedy, it turned, more often than not, to him.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1918, Graham attended Bob Jones University (quite briefly), Florida Bible Institute, and Wheaton College. He first rose to prominence within evangelical circles as a field representative for Youth for Christ International. In that capacity, he toured the United States and much of Britain and Europe during the mid-1940s, teaching local church leaders how to organise rallies that offered young people a blend of wholesome entertainment, patriotic fervor, and revivalist exhortation. This exposure, coupled with subsequent widely publicised revivals known as “crusades”, enabled him to become a key leader and the most prominent public figure in a young movement that called itself the “New Evangelicalism” to distinguish itself from an older, more narrow and restrictive fundamentalism.

A stunningly successful 12-week crusade in London’s Haringey Arena in 1954 did mucn to establish Graham as an international standard-bearer for evangelical Christianity. It also helped fix in his heart a special affection for Britain, to which he returned repeatedly over the next four decades.

Graham was famous – at times infamous – for his close relationship with a series of American presidents, particularly Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. These associations undoubtedly added to Graham’s standing with his supporters and the general public, and it is undoubtedly true that Presidents and other political luminaries regarded their friendship with Graham as a valuable political asset. After the 1973 Watergate scandal made it clear that Graham had seriously misjudged Richard Nixon, the disillusioned evangelist drew back a bit and sounded repeated warnings against the temptations and pitfalls that lie in wait for religious leaders who enter the political arena.

Though generally regarded as a social conservative, Graham insisted that his crusades should be fully open to people of all races as early as 1953, and refused to visit South Africa until 1973, when he spoke at the first large integrated meeting in that country. In addition, he lent his support to aspects of Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. In the early 1980s, he astonished many observers by calling for a ban against nuclear weapons. And, though once a staunch anti-Communist and zealous advocate of free enterprise, Graham warned in his later years against identifying the Christian Gospel with any particular political programme or culture.

Billy Graham’s legacy is mulit-faceted, but no accomplishment of his is likely to prove more important than his role in reviving and reshaping worldwide evangelicalism, helping it to become an increasingly dynamic, self-confident, and ecumenical movement. In hundreds of crusades, Christians of almost every stripe worked side-by-side with each other, often for the first time. In addition, Graham sponsored a series of monumental conferences that drew thousands of evangelical leaders together and helped them gain a better sense of their own strength and formulate concrete plans for expanding their reach and influence.

A 1966 World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin helped create a kind of third global ecumenical force, alongside Vatican II and the World Council of Churches. A 1974 conference, held in Lausanne, Switzerland, not only included far more non-Western delegates, but insisted that greater attention be paid to pressing social problems and to adapting the Gospel to a variety of cultures. At three additional conferences in Amsterdam, in 1983, 1986, and 2000, more than 23,000 evangelists from 170 countries received intensive training in the nuts and bolts of itinerant evangelism.

Although he often made a point of distinguishing himself from the band of preachers known as “televangelists”, no evangelist used television and other mass media as efficiently, effectively and creatively as did Billy Graham. His radio broadcast, The Hour of Decision, begun in 1950, was at one time the most widely heard religious broadcast in the world. Christianity Today, which he founded in 1956, became America’s most widely read serious religious journal and remains the flagship publication of American evangelical Christianity. Beginning in 1957, periodic telecasts of live crusade services became a staple of American television and were widely viewed in many other countries as well.

In his effort to reach as many people as possible, Graham was ever open to new technological possibilities. During his 1954 London campaign, the sound from Haringey Arena was carried to various auditoriums by landline relay. That effort eventually evolved into the use of various television relay systems that beamed crusade services to audiences gathered in locations throughout larger regions. In 1995, the aging evangelist’s distinctive voice and familiar message soared upward from his pulpit in Puerto Rico to a network of 30 satellites that bounced it back to receiving dishes in more than 185 countries, where it was translated into 116 languages. Plausible estimates indicate that as many as 1 billion people heard at least one of Graham’s sermons during this campaign, aptly titled “Global Mission”.

Graham never pretended to be a sophisticated theologian. He seldom tackled theological questions or dealt with issues that might divide or distinguish denominations from one another, lest his comments disrupt the peaceful ecumenical cooperation he needed for a successful crusade or conference. Instead, he repeated a few simple Christian teachings over and over, with great and obvious conviction.

In a profession often stained by scandal, Billy Graham distinguished himself as a model of personal integrity, a trait that was mirrored in his evangelistic association. Neither was he ever accused of serious moral or financial misbehavior, a fact that greatly enhanced his appeal. His family has likewise reflected his character and ideals. In addition to his wife, Ruth, he is survived by son Franklin, who now leads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and a relief ministry known as Samaritan's Purse; Ned, who co-ordinates various missions aimed at China; Virginia (GiGi) Tchividjian, a well-known writer of inspirational books; Anne Lotz, a noted evangelist and Bible teacher; and Ruth Graham, who leads a ministry, Ruth Graham and Friends, that offers emotional support and spiritual guidance to women affected by divorce and other personal and family problems.

Without doubt, Billy Graham was a genuinely charismatic figure. He did not use his influence and powers to amass great personal wealth, exploit people physically and psychologically, or delude his followers into chasing impossible dreams or committing unspeakable horrors. Instead, he deployed his charisma in the service of a youthful commitment “to do some great thing for God” and manifested an expansive spirit that consistently reached out to enlist an ever-widening circle of individuals and groups to join him in that effort. Throughout his ministry, he was able to gain the confidence and co-operation of a wide range of church leaders almost everywhere he went, often overcoming considerable initial resistance.

Billy Graham was a powerful, perhaps unique, force for Christian evangelism and unity. The Church, and indeed the world, are richer for that fact. If results are the metric, he was surely the best who ever lived at what he did - “a workman”, as Scripture says, “that needeth not to be ashamed”.

Professor William Martin is Senior Fellow in Religion at Rice University's Baker Institute and author of A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story (updated edition has just been released by Zondervan). 

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