Lead Us Not Into Scandal
While some other evangelicals stumbled in national news, Graham’s Modesto Manifesto kept him from falling.
On countless occasions during his career, usually at a press conference preceding a major crusade, Billy Graham declared that he sensed religious revival was breaking out and about to sweep over the land. In 1948, he happened to be right. During the 1940s, church membership in America rose by nearly 40 percent, with most of the growth coming after the end of the war, as the nation tried to reconstruct normalcy on the most dependable foundation it knew. Church building reached an all-time high, seminaries were packed, secular colleges added programs in religious studies, religious books outsold all other categories of nonfiction, and Bible sales doubled between 1947 and 1952. While Graham and his colleagues in Youth For Christ (YFC) and the Southern Baptist “Youth Revival Movement” were packing civic auditoriums and stadiums, William Branham, Jack Coe, A. A. Allen, and Oral Roberts were filling stupendous nine-pole circus tents with Pentecostal believers desperate to see afflictions healed, devils cast out, and the dead raised.
For evangelists, it was like being a stockbroker in a runaway bull market. As in other fields, however, the boom attracted some whose motives and methods were less than sanctified, who fell prey to the temptations described in Scripture as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) but are better known by their street names, “sex, money, and power.” Despite good intentions and behavior, Graham and his associates occasionally found themselves the objects of suspicion and condescension from ministers and laypeople alike. As they contemplated the checkered history and contemporary shortcomings of itinerant evangelism and talked with veteran campaigners, they realized that much of the skepticism was warranted. To prepare his own defenses, Graham called the members of his evangelistic team to his hotel room during a campaign in Modesto, California, in November 1948. “God has brought us to this point,” he said. “Maybe he is preparing us for something that we don’t know.” He instructed them to spend an hour recalling issues that had been stumbling blocks to previous evangelists.
The assignment was easy. They had all seen enough evangelists rise and fall, or leave town in a cloud of disillusionment, to be able to pinpoint the key problems readily. When they regrouped in Graham’s room later in the afternoon, each had made essentially the same list, which came to be known in the oral tradition as “The Modesto Manifesto.”
The Root of Many Scandals
The first problem was money. Some evangelists had deliberately worn their oldest suits during revivals or told gripping stories of sick children or lamented the broken-down condition of their homes or the high costs of transportation. Even the most rectitudinous of men could find it difficult not to pull out a few extra flourishes when the love offering was collected, typically on the last night of a revival. When he traveled for YFC, Graham turned offerings over to local or national bodies and was paid a straight salary. But no parent body existed to fund his independent revivals, so the group saw no viable alternative to the love-offering system, even though it made them uncomfortable. They did, however, pledge not to emphasize the offering, and they tried to keep themselves free from suspicion regarding the way they handled the money by asking members of the sponsoring committee to oversee the payment of all bills and disbursement of funds to the revival team. On one occasion, Bev Shea sent the sponsoring committee a check for $30, just in case the hotel had levied a charge for extra laundry service for his infant son.
The second potential problem was “immorality.” As energetic young men in full bloom, often traveling without their families, charged with the raw excitement of standing before large and admiring crowds, and living in anonymous hotels and tourist courts, they knew well the power and possibilities of sexual temptation, and they had seen promising ministerial careers shipwrecked by the potent combination of lust and opportunity. They asked God “to guard us, to keep us true, to really help us be sensitive in this area, to keep us even from the appearance of evil,” and they began to follow simple but effective rules. They avoided situations that would put them alone with a woman—lunch, a counseling session, even a ride to an auditorium or an airport. On the road, they roomed in close proximity to each other. And always, they prayed for supernatural assistance in keeping them “clean.”
Graham indeed seemed to have "a passion for the pure," but never for a minute did he imagine that he, or anyone else, was beyond corruption.
Two other problems, less imperious in their prodding than money or sex but capable of generating cynicism toward evangelists, were inflated publicity and criticism of local pastors. Because it helped win invitations to bigger churches and cities, and thus fed their egos and fattened their pocketbooks, evangelists had grown accustomed to exaggerating their crowds and their results. Critics accused them of counting arms and legs instead of heads, and the phrase “evangelistically speaking” signified that anyone interested in accuracy should discount an itinerant’s reports of his own accomplishments. D. L. Moody refused to keep statistics, lest he be drawn into exaggeration or boasting. Graham and his team were too wed to the modern ethos to adopt that approach, but they did begin to use a consistent procedure. Instead of generating their own figures, they usually accepted public officials’ crowd estimates, even when they felt that estimate was too low. They also readily admitted that many who came down the aisles during the invitation were counselors assigned to help inquirers, not inquirers themselves. As for the criticism of pastors, they had heard many a fire-breathing evangelist attack the local clergy to gain attention and make himself look good, then leave town while the hapless pastors tried to regain the confidence of their parishioners. Graham was determined to avoid this destructive course. He would gladly meet with pastors who criticized him but would not publicly criticize men who planted the seed and tilled the fields that he swooped in to harvest.
In addition to these major issues, Graham’s team also pledged to avoid sensationalism, excessive emotionalism, anti-intellectualism, overemphasis on biblical prophecy or other controversial topics, and lack of proper follow-up on inquirers. There may have been others; no one kept a copy of the list, but the problems were so familiar that no one needed to. Over the years, Graham and his team spoke of the Modesto Manifesto from time to time, often in response to inquiries from journalists about how he and his organization had managed to avoid scandal throughout decades of public ministry. It drew particular attention in the late 1980s, when sex and money scandals wrecked the ministries of Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, and Oral Roberts drew ridicule by claiming that God had threatened to end his life if his supporters didn’t come up with $8 million in ransom money. By coincidence, I happened to be spending time with Graham when the Bakker scandals broke, as part of my research for A Prophet with Honor. He told me that reporters were calling, urging him to comment, but that he was reluctant to talk to them. “If I say they should have taken the same measures we did to protect ourselves,” he said, “I’ll sound self-righteous, and I don’t want to do that.”
A Pledge for Financial Accountability
Graham’s commitment to the financial principles of the Manifesto was demonstrated in 1977, when The Charlotte Observer, in an extensive story about the finances of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), charged that, while purporting to provide a full disclosure of its finances, it had failed to reveal the existence of a fund containing assets worth nearly $23 million. In fact, the creation of the fund in 1972 had been announced at a press conference and major media had mentioned it during the first year or two of its existence. Its stated purposes were to provide support for various evangelistic organizations such as Campus Crusade, to establish an evangelism institute at Wheaton College, and to develop a layman’s training center near Asheville. Any disbursement of its funds had been carefully documented and reported to the IRS. Legally, the fund was separate from BGEA and was incorporated in Texas, but its assets came from BGEA and its board was essentially identical to that of BGEA.
When the relevant history and facts were laid out, the cloud over the organization lifted, but the negative publicity and temporary drop in contributions made an impression on Graham. Years later he told me, “We should have said, ‘We’ve got another fund down in Texas that we are going to do thus and such with.’ We told the government about it, but we didn’t think the newspapers necessarily had a legitimate right to know about everything. I’ve changed my mind on that. I think they do. Because I think we should be publicly accountable for everything.” This was not just hindsight. Graham became a zealous advocate of full disclosure by parachurch organizations and in 1979 played a key role in founding the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. “If you give to any Christian charity (including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association),” he wrote in 1983, “and you don’t insist on an understandable financial accounting of your gift, you are in danger of falling prey to [dishonesty].”
Fleeing Sexual Temptation
Despite the importance of financial probity to a ministry’s reputation, most people who are aware of the Modesto Manifesto probably think of it primarily because of the measures Billy Graham and his associates took to avoid illicit sexual entanglements. The journalist and biographer Marshall Frady once likened Graham to Billy Budd, a man with “exactly that quality of raw childlike unblinking goodness,” possessing “a staggering passion for the pure, the sanitary, the wholesome, the upright.” The allusion to Melville’s classic American Innocent is a natural one, and by no means completely off the mark, but it falls short at a crucial theological point. Budd was naturally good and unable to believe that others did not share his elemental guilelessness. Graham suffered from no such fantasies. He did seem to have “a passion for the pure,” but never for a minute did he imagine that he, or anyone else, was beyond corruption. And that is the secret of his ability to avoid public scandal. No one who listened to Graham warn against succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh would imagine that he derived his information solely from data. Just as he had the wisdom to put others in charge of the purse, he clearly understood that his best strategy for avoiding sexual temptation was to keep himself out of its path.
It may not be realistic to think the Modesto Manifesto is universally applicable. It is possible, however, to pledge and to pray for strength to uphold the fundamental principle at the heart of each of the Manifesto’s tenets: integrity. That effort will be aided by cultivation of the attitude that led Graham to ask the questions that led to its formulation: humility. Circumstances change, and measures suited for one era or arrangement may need to be adapted or amended to suit those changes, but men and women of integrity, humble enough to acknowledge their fallibility, will find in the Modesto Manifesto an attitude and approach that should serve them well in any situation. Integrity and humility are portable and never go out of date.
Billy Graham’s 1950 Atlanta crusade, though a huge success, produced a major embarrassment for the evangelist. Though Graham had not sought it, the crusade committee took up a substantial “love-offering” for him and his team at the closing service. The next day, the Atlanta Constitution ran photos of ushers carrying bags of money, which then appeared in newspapers throughout the country. The implication was that Graham, like itinerant evangelists before him, was demonstrating that one could serve both God and mammon. Deeply stung, Graham determined to put all trace of the image behind him and asked Jesse Bader, secretary for evangelism at the National Council of Churches, for advice. Bader advised him to have BGEA put Graham’s team on fixed salaries, unrelated to the number of crusades they might hold in a given year. Graham agreed and pegged his own salary at $15,000, comparable to that received by prominent urban pastors at the time, but less than he could have made from love offerings—his income from the Atlanta crusade alone came to more than $9,200. He would later accept money for his newspaper column and royalties from some of his books, but never, after the system took effect in January 1952, would he or his team accept another honorarium for their work in a crusade.
Credit- Christianity Today
William Martin is the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow for Religion and Public Policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. An updated edition of his 1991 book, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, is forthcoming from Zondervan.