Billy Graham’s legacy
Remembering the evangelist to millions after his death at age 99
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He was “Mr. Graham” to his office staff and dignitaries; “Bill” to his wife Ruth (who died in 2007), team members, relatives, and close friends; “Daddy” to his three daughters and two sons to this day; “Daddy Bill” to the grandchildren; but just “Billy” to the rest of the world.
Asked in his sunset years what he hoped to be remembered for most, evangelist Billy Graham often would tell interviewers, “that I was faithful in preaching the gospel throughout my life.”
Sometimes he was more expansive, as in June 2005, when, at age 86, after 60 years of preaching on the road and in diminishing health (primarily from advanced Parkinson’s disease), he reluctantly “retired” from public “crusade” evangelism. It was at a final three-day campaign that attracted a cumulative total of some 230,000 people to Flushing Meadows in New York City. In an interview during that event, a Charisma magazine reporter popped the same remembrance question.
Replied Graham quietly: “I want to be remembered as a person who was faithful to God, faithful to my family, faithful to the Scriptures, and faithful to my calling … a man who dedicated his life to the Lord and never looked back.”
With Graham’s death on Feb. 21 at age 99, millions of people across the world—those who knew him longest and best, those whose lives were impacted in some way by his ministry, even many who knew and admired him only from a distance—are remembering him for those graces, and much more. Countless others over the intervening decades who preceded him in death would have special reason to thank God for him, judging by accounts of surviving loved ones.
The world’s most prominent Christian evangelist-preacher of the 20th century also is being recognized for his legacy in church history. He was neither a scholarly theologian nor a denominational leader. Yet his was the significant voice and face, both out front and behind the scenes with influential church leaders, defining, shaping, and coalescing the evangelical movement as it emerged from the fundamentalism vs. modernism warfare of the 1930s and 1940s and took hold worldwide.
He was suddenly catapulted to national fame in 1949 by the news media, overflow crowds, and public “decisions” by thousands of people to trust in Christ as Savior during a seven-weeks-long tent crusade in Los Angeles. Invitations to preach in other cities came pouring in. The board-governed Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) was formed in 1950 to service the outreach demands. Graham went on to preach over the next half century to live audiences of more than 200 million people at 400-plus crusades and outreach missions in 185 countries and territories, according to BGEA data—a live-speaking-appearances record still unequaled. Millions of others heard him on radio and television over the years.
Multitudes of individuals spanning the continents could credit him and his ministry with introducing the gospel to them. Thousands of clergy and missionaries trace their spiritual lineage to him and the gospel he preached.
Americans in Gallup’s annual polls of the most admired man in the world placed him in the top 10 more than any other man—60 times from 1955 to 2015 (including a surprising fourth place in 2011, and second on eight occasions).
WILLIAM “BILLY FRANK” GRAHAM was born on Nov. 7, 1918, on a farm near Charlotte, N.C. He grew up in a Christian home. His parents attended an Associate Reformed Presbyterian church, where he was baptized by sprinkling as a child. As a teen in 1934, he and best friend Grady Wilson made a public profession of faith in Christ under the preaching of independent Baptist evangelist Mordecai Ham at a tent revival in Charlotte.
He went on to graduate from Florida Bible Institute near Tampa in 1940 (getting baptized by immersion twice along the way and being ordained a Southern Baptist minister) and from Wheaton College near Chicago in June 1943. Then came marriage that August to college sweetheart Ruth Bell (daughter of China missionary surgeon L. Nelson Bell, a Presbyterian) and a nearly two-year stint as pastor of a Baptist church in Chicago suburb Western Springs (where he also teamed up with soloist George Beverly Shea to produce a popular weekly Christian radio broadcast). In 1945 he signed on as the first paid full-time traveling evangelist and organizer with the fledgling Chicago-based Youth for Christ organization.
Details of his life and ministry have been published widely in books (Rice University sociologist William Martin’s excellent authorized biography, A Prophet with Honor [Morrow], is the most thorough one), magazine articles, and newspapers.
Two events in the run-up to that 1949 Los Angeles crusade set the course for Graham’s ministry—and legacy—for the rest of his life. The first came during an October 1948 crusade in Modesto, Calif. He called together his team members—songleader Cliff Barrows, associate evangelist Grady Wilson, and soloist George Beverly Shea—to help him formulate guidelines aimed at keeping their ministry above reproach. Wanting to avoid questionable situations and missteps that ruined some traveling evangelists and divided churches, they pledged they would:
• Eschew any appearance of financial impropriety and emphasis on offerings; local committees would oversee finances, and team members would be placed on a salary basis instead of relying on “love offerings.”
• Avoid any appearance of sexual impropriety; team members would not travel, meet, or eat alone with any woman other than their own wives.
• Encourage Christian unity: cooperate with any local churches willing to participate in a united evangelistic effort; avoid criticizing local pastors, churches, and other ministries from the pulpit; and refrain from criticizing pastors who openly criticize the team and its ministry.
• Strive for honesty and reliability in publicity and reporting of attendance and other results; where possible, let appropriate third parties, such as police, fire officials, or arena managers, provide the information to the news media.
Additionally, they promised to serve and support each other faithfully. The pact became known as the Modesto Manifesto. It was a code of conduct, based on applied Biblical values, that marked Graham’s life and work to the end.
The second critical course-setting event for Graham came almost a year later, in August 1949, at a training retreat for college students at Forest Home Christian Conference Center in the San Bernardino Mountains above Redlands, Calif. Christian educator Henrietta Mears of Hollywood First Presbyterian Church was leader; Graham and Charles Templeton, a prominent fellow Youth for Christ evangelist from Toronto, were among the speakers.
Graham and Templeton were close friends. They had barnstormed together across North America and Europe for YFC, preaching at huge rallies and helping to establish YFC branches in more cities. Templeton was the more polished speaker and in great demand; the then 4-year-old National Association of Evangelicals in 1946 had called him the evangelist “best used of God.” He enrolled at Princeton Seminary in 1948 and continued to preach. But he was struggling spiritually, and he questioned the validity of Scripture on many points in conversations with Graham. Soon, Graham was reading contemporary theology and running into questions himself.
Things came to a head at Forest Home one night in discussions with Mears and other leaders. Templeton was adamant: He no longer could fully trust the Bible. With questions pummeling his own mind, Graham slipped out through the trees under a moonlit sky and knelt at a tree stump. He later recalled for biographer John Pollock how he prayed: “Oh, God, I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as your inspired Word.”
Templeton finished studies at Princeton, served as an evangelist for the National Council of Churches and head of evangelism for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., but in 1957 publicly announced his loss of faith. He went off to a secular career in broadcasting and publishing. Graham kept his friend on his prayer list and paid occasional visits to him over the years. Templeton died in 2001, broken in body and mind.
Since that night at Forest Home, Graham often reflected on its importance when addressing pastors and ministry students: “When I preach the Bible straight—no questions, no doubts, no hesitations—then God gives me a power that’s beyond me. When I declare, ‘The Bible says …’ God gives me this incredible power. It’s something I don’t completely understand. But people respond.”
Prayer and reading the Bible daily were part of Graham’s life (he said he could not remember a day in his ministry when it wasn’t). But there was more. He sought to be winsome—in order to “win some” to Christ, to not offend others and risk turning them away from the gospel. He was humble and self-effacing; he took note of others and went out of his way to encourage them.
Graham also was a visionary and strategist, but he balanced enthusiasm for ambitious goals with caution about financial and other risks. He brought together church leaders from around the world to inspire them, set biblical imperatives, and get them focused on global outreach (Berlin 1966, Lausanne 1974). His staff screened and invited 15,000 evangelists, pastor-evangelists, and other Christian workers from more than 200 countries to come to Amsterdam (1983, 1986), most at the Graham ministry’s expense, for fellowship, training, and a supply of resources to take home. For many, it was their first exposure to an industrialized country and modern conveniences and technology.
Commented crusade director Norman Mydske, a veteran missionary in Latin America for TEAM: “Billy Graham comes and goes, but the impact of what he represents will go on for a long time.”
Part of Graham’s success was the caliber of people he chose to assist him. “Billy realized that his great gift was being an evangelist, not an administrator,” said the late Jerry Beaven, an early Graham crusade organizer and news reporter for the BGEA’s Hour of Decision broadcast. “He relied on others to do the planning and propose ways to meet the opportunities, and he was wise enough to be willing to accept their proposals, trust their judgment, and base his decisions on their recommendations.”
Said Barrows: “We were a team, we had a partnership, and the guys, including myself, would have died for him because of his love, appreciation, and trust in us.”
ASKED IN LATER YEARS if there was anything he would have done differently, Graham said he would have “steered clear of politics.”
He had visited with every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama, 12 in all. He had taken part in some of their inaugurations and funerals; he was a close friend with more than half of them, with Lyndon Johnson and his family the closest.
George W. Bush in his autobiography said that in 1985 in Kennebunkport, Maine, Graham in conversation planted “a seed that grew. … It was the beginning of a new walk where I would recommit my heart to Jesus Christ.” Earlier, Ronald Reagan had written: “It was through Billy Graham that I found myself praying even more than on a daily basis—and that in the position I held, that my prayers more and more were to give me the wisdom to make decisions that would serve God and be pleasing to Him.”
In 2011, he told Christianity Today (which he and his father-in-law, Nelson Bell, founded in 1956 in Washington, D.C.): “I was grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to.
“But looking back,” Graham said, “I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
Partly, he was referring to private conversations with certain presidents of both parties, when he had informally discussed political issues and strategy with them. Mainly, though, he had Richard Nixon and the Watergate tapes in mind.
“The Dick Nixon I knew was not the Nixon I heard on those tapes,” Graham declared to this reporter as Watergate unraveled.
Worse, Graham and the nation were shocked to hear what he himself had said on the tapes in a 1972 conversation at the White House with Nixon and his top aide, H.R. Haldeman.
Background: Earlier, New York Times veteran reporter McCandlish Phillips, an evangelical, had published The Bible, the Supernatural, and the Jews (Bethany House 1970). The book said Jews were God’s “chosen people” but lamented how many modern-day Jews had left God out of their lives. Phillips wrote that book out of his love and burden for young Jews, and cited many examples of positive Jewish influence in America, but also noted that some Jewish publishers put out pornography.
Graham was familiar with the book. He, too, was pro-Israel and counted some Jewish religious and business leaders as friends.
At the 1972 White House meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of Jewish influence in America. Graham spoke of a Jewish connection to pornography publishing. “This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” the evangelist warned Nixon. The talk descended downhill from there. Graham was unaware that presidential conversations were being taped.
When Haldeman revealed the contents of the conversation in the publication of his diaries 22 years later, in 1994, Graham exclaimed, “Those are not my words!” He said he only ever spoke positively about the Jewish people. But in 2002, after the tapes became public, he was shocked at hearing his own words. Devastated, and fearful he had turned off Jewish friends and had harmed the church, he apologized in public and said he had no memory of saying such things 30 years earlier.
After an ensuing storm of criticism subsided, most people seemed inclined to accept his apology and move on. It was the closest he had ever come to scandal that could have tarnished all he had stood for.
Even some of the harshest liberal critics of his theological views in the past are taking a more measured second look at him, or at least the effects of his preaching. In The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest Evangelist (Westminster John Knox, 2008), editor Michael Long of Elizabethtown (Pa.) College wrote:
“In a windstorm of changing values and shifting circumstances, Graham is the still point in the American moral universe. He has maintained for six decades the same message, the same seemingly untroubled convictions, the same unblemished ethical record. In an age of anxiety, he calms the national soul.”
In the same book, Harvey Cox, well-known Harvard liberal religion professor, wrote that “Billy Graham’s ample vision of Christian witness” represented “the kind of vision we desperately need in a Christian world still agonizing—after half a century of official ecumenism—with the painful laceration of distrust and disdain.”
Many evangelicals likely would find common cause with the late Charles Colson, former Nixon legal counsel and convicted Watergate figure who spent time in a federal prison and later founded Prison Fellowship. In Billy Graham: A Tribute from Friends (Warner Faith, 2002) by Vernon K. McLellan, Colson (who died in 2012) wrote:
“It turns out the man who witnessed to me, Tom Phillips, then the president of the Raytheon company, had been converted at a Billy Graham Crusade at Madison Square in New York City in 1968. How unlikely are God’s ways. Here was the head of one of the largest corporations in America going forward with a stream of repentant sinners and then returning to his business where four years after I left the White House, I returned to be his Washington counsel. Phillips shared his faith with me at the darkest moment in my life. And from that encounter has come my experience in prison and then the launching of a ministry that is now active in 88 countries, reaching into literally thousands of prisons, touching countless hundreds of thousands of lives. This is how the gospel spreads: Graham to Phillips to Colson.”
And so the legacy lives on.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Vernon K. McLellan’s name, to correct the name of the Presbyterian denomination where Charles Templeton served as head of evangelism, and to contextualize the passage in a book by John McCandlish Phillips that led to Billy Graham’s notorious comment to Richard Nixon.
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