Billy Graham restored a sense of goodness about the Good News.
By Philip Yancey
The fundamentalist church of my youth viewed the upstart evangelist Billy Graham with deep suspicion. He invited members of the National Council of Churches—and Roman Catholics!—to sit on his crusade platforms. He seemed soft on communism, especially in his comments about the church behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps most important, in those days of Jim Crow racism, he insisted on integrated crusades even in white bastions like Alabama.
Those suspicions, which now seem quaintly extremist, provide a glimpse of what theologically conservative churches might have become apart from Graham’s influence: cultic and divisive, a minority defensively opposing rather than engaging culture. We can measure the greatness of the man by noting his impression on a movement that emerged from fundamentalist roots. Billy Graham did not invent the word evangelical, but he managed to restore the word’s original meaning—”good news”—both for the skeptical world and for the beleaguered minority who looked to him for inspiration and leadership.
He made mistakes along the way, of course: angering President Truman by using the White House as a photo op, making off-the-cuff comments about social issues of the day, getting conned by President Nixon. Each time, however, he admitted his mistake and learned from it. He showed that an evangelical Christian could be both respectable and relevant, all the while clinging to a simple gospel message of God’s love for sinners. As he traveled internationally, sophisticated religious leaders in places like Great Britain and Germany subjected him to scornful criticism, until he met with them and disarmed them with humility and grace.
In some ways, Graham lived the quintessential American story. He rose from a modest background on a farm, working along the way as a Fuller Brush salesman, only to go on to achieve worldwide renown. Yet one need only compare him with those featured daily on celebrity gossip shows to see a stark difference. He never cashed in financially, never partied all night or used drugs or bought mansions on Caribbean islands. Though he dined with kings, queens, premiers, and presidents, he preferred a simple life back home in North Carolina in a house jerry-built from century-old cabins.
For the millions who followed him, Graham seemed at once larger than life and a representative of our lives. He had a loyal wife who put up with his relentless travel schedule, a couple of sons who went through a rebellious period before finding themselves, two daughters who experienced the trauma of failed marriages. He struggled with health issues, occasional indecision, and management headaches. But when he stepped behind a pulpit, whether speaking to a small group at the White House or the Kremlin, or to millions gathered outdoors in Korea or in Central Park, something supernatural happened. All other concerns of life faded away, and he focused like a laser beam on the one sure thing he knew: the gospel of Jesus Christ and its power to change lives.
Billy Graham did not invent the word evangelical, but he managed to restore the word's original meaning.
I had the privilege of interviewing Graham twice in his home. Like most journalists, I came away struck by how insecure he seemed at the core. He kept raising questions: Why hadn’t his crusades had more effect on cities? Had he erred by dabbling in politics? Had the era of evangelistic crusades passed?
Meanwhile, Graham’s world stature continued to grow. A record 50 times he ranked among the top 10 “most admired persons” in Gallup polls. A Time bureau chief wrote a book hailing him as one of the “great souls” of the previous century, and in 2007 the magazine devoted a cover story to his relationship with 11 successive US presidents. The nation had lurched through the tumultuous 1960s, survived a terrifying nuclear arms race, and entered an age of international terrorism and planetary threats. Somehow, with each change, Graham and his old-fashioned message seemed even more relevant.
He attracted criticism for not being prophetic enough; Jesse Jackson once mused that Graham would have been playing golf with the pharaohs rather than leading the slaves to liberation. Cautiously, though, he managed to tackle the great issues of the day: race, poverty, nuclear terror, and communism. From the beginning to the end of his career, he truly believed that the secret to peace in the world or in any human soul traced back to the underlying issue of peace with God.
Evangelicals are a beleaguered minority no longer. We have solid programs in education, publishing, youth work, church growth, and international missions (all influenced by Graham). We have unprecedented access to power and unprecedented opportunity to shape a culture under constant threat. That is Billy Graham’s legacy. He provided an important stage in maturity for those committed to planting settlements of the kingdom of God in a field full of tears. Now that he has gone, a giant question mark looms over us: Can we accept his mantle and move forward in the same spirit?
Credit- Christianity Today
Philip Yancey is an editor at large for Christianity Today.