Remembering the Rev Billy Graham
I woke yesterday morning to news of the death of Billy Graham, at 99.
Most folks know of Billy, unless they’re too young to remember and grew up around people who never spoke of him. He was the quintessential evangelist of the last half of the 20th century, travelling the world to preach in mass rallies in town squares and football stadiums. He preached to thousands upon thousands with a simple message: turn away from sin, turn toward a saving Jesus, pray a prayer of repentance and you will be saved, then join a church that takes the bible seriously. If you don’t know the words to pray, don’t worry. Counselors will give you the words. If you’re afraid your friends will leave without you, don’t worry. “The busses will wait.” And thousands upon thousands came. Through much of his ministry, his crusades were sometimes televised. I remember watching them in my youth. I also remember in the mid 1970s, when congregations of all sorts of theological orientations around Detroit joined together to support his crusade in the Pontiac Silverdome. I was part of that.
It’s safe to say that Billy Graham preached to more people in his life than anyone in Christian history. That is something to ponder. Here was a person who had one of the most impactful ministries in the history of the church.
I’m often amazed at how many people of so many different theological (and political) orientations take their faith back to a Billy Graham crusade. My own mother, who’s been a lay leader in Episcopalian, United Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations, who’s been an leader in charismatic prayer gatherings, refugee support groups, spiritual direction programs, and holds degrees from what would be considered Liberal seminaries traces her faith to a decision for Christ at a Billy Graham rally in the late 1940s.
For sure, many who made such a decision and came forward at one of his rallies (while “Just As I Am Without one Plea” was being played in the background and Billy held his chin in his hand to pray) didn’t stick with the faith they claimed on those nights. But what matters is how many did, and how many directions they went with their newfound faith. Billy preached a simple, and by many standards even simplistic theology. One can say that salvation is a bit more complex than what he said, and that the Bible’s witness is a bit more nuanced. But one measure of his faithfulness is that he didn’t seek to put boundaries on where the faithful went after hearing his message. He seemed to trust God to take God’s people where God wanted them to go. Billy Graham never formed a church. He was hesitant to draw boundaries too starkly. He spoke his convictions clearly, but he would sit on a dais with Catholic bishops, Lutheran clergy, and Evangelical leaders. And it should never be forgotten that he did that irrespective of race or class. He was, perhaps, pivotal in opening American Evangelicalism to racial reconciliation. I’ve learned that out of sensitivity to Muslims after 9/11, he stopped using the term “crusade.”
It’s said that Rev. Graham took a modest base salary from his organization and did not get rich from his ministry. There was never any hint of financial impropriety, or any other form of impropriety, from him or his organization. He seems to have been, in short, a person who believed what he said and said what he believed, and who lived a life of integrity even when criticized. He gave birth to a movement that didn’t always reflect his own values, as some who imitated his style lacked his integrity. The excesses of televangelism show that the contrast pretty clearly. But that is not on him. He was a beacon of something different.
I remember reading an interview with Billy Graham, I think sometime in the ’90s. At the time folks thought it was “late” in his life, not knowing he’d live to 99. When asked if he’d have done anything different in his ministry if he could do it again, he said that he wished he’d had more education. Interesting response. He said that as he learned more of the Bible, and more of theology over the course of his life, his heart and mind expanded. He’d have been a better preacher if he’d had more study, he suggested. Hard to say if that’s true, but it is a testimony to a humble, teachable, spirit—unimpressed by impact, more concerned with faithfulness than success, and faithful to the end.
What would he say of our time today? Worth wondering.
Thank you, God, for giving us Billy Graham.