When I was 7 years old, my parents took me to Yankee Stadium to hear Billy Graham. One hundred thousand people jammed the historic stadium, with 20,000 more outside unable to enter. I remember my solemn and excited feelings as I watched the crowds filling up folding chairs on the emerald green infield. I remember my mother asking my father how the Yankees got the grass to grow so green. But I don’t have any memory of Billy Graham himself, nor of Vice President Richard Nixon who accompanied him.
Most of Graham’s momentous 1957 New York Crusade took place in Madison Square Garden—97 days of meetings from May to September. But that warm Saturday in July, intended as the final day of the crusade (it would go on another six weeks) seemed to signal a dramatic change. Gotham—Babylon to much of America—had gone ga-ga for God.
My father, a pastor in New Jersey, had a small part in the crusade as a counselor. At 7 I was only vaguely aware of the effort he put into it, but from later comments I realize that he and my mother were deeply excited, uncomplaining about the many extra nights required for him to go off to New York City. They felt they had a front row seat on history.
By the time I attended another Graham crusade I was 12 years old, in Fresno, California. My most vivid memories are again of crowds. I recall anxiously watching the highest seats in the Ratcliffe stadium grandstand, troubled whether enough people would come to fill them. This time I remember Billy Graham. I remember most clearly that when he spoke, it was as though a little voice was pleading in my chest. It was uncanny, partly because Graham knew about the voice. “There’s a battle going on inside you. One voice is saying, Come, let Jesus Christ make you clean. You may never have another chance. But another voice is telling you to stay in your seat, to put off this hour of decision.”
He made it clear that this inward battle had gigantic stakes. My whole life might be decided by my response.
I fought the inner voice, but ultimately surrendered, walking gravely forward with a pounding heart to make a recommitment of faith. The aftereffects were a trifle disappointing. I got some literature sent to me, but I didn’t particularly connect. No regrets, however. I knew I had landed on the right side.
Those are perhaps typical memories of my generation, along with occasional glimpses of Graham preaching on TV. By the time I hit college, in the era of hippies and Vietnam, of Jesus People and Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Explo ’72,” Graham was no longer cutting edge. I heard him preach at an Urbana Missionary Convention, where he seemed like a grandfatherly figure blessing the occasion.
So I grew up on the dividing line of profoundly different views of Billy Graham. For many Christians, he is as elementary as the warmth of the sun. He is the best and greatest Christian of our era, the man all look up to. How could anyone doubt his significance? Philip Yancey says, “As I travel around the world, I often meet leaders who became Christians at a Billy Graham crusade. I can’t discount the effect of lives that were changed. They are there. There are a lot of them out there.”
But younger people often don’t get it. To them, Graham seems like a figure of a bygone era, like an aging film star who won Academy Awards in their parents’ era, but whose movies they know only from fragments on late-night TV.
Few doubt that Graham was a good man, who lived an admirable life. There was never a single whisper of money scandal or sex scandal—no small accomplishment for someone so public, even if the achievement is in the absence of failure—“He never screwed up.” But how did Graham matter? What could a young pastor possibly carry forward from his ministry?
He was known as an evangelist, and that was exactly how he wanted to be known. For several decades he filled stadiums as no one ever had. Staggering numbers of people from all backgrounds were seized by his appeal and made the trek forward to pray for redemption.
That particular success, however, sheds very little light on our present day. No evangelist in the 21st century could fill American stadiums night after night, even if the musical accompaniment were updated from George Beverly Shea. If someone could fill such stadiums, they would be ringed with protestors for gay and abortion rights. This is a far more cynical and divisive era than the ’50s and ’60s when Graham was in his prime. Mass evangelism of the kind Graham promoted—like Billy Sunday, Dwight Moody and Charles Finney before him, not to mention countless less remembered revivalists—seems to have ended in America, with few exceptions. And so Graham’s most obvious and shining achievement—evangelism measured in sheer numbers—seems like an orphan, with no one eager to adopt it.
Innovation and Influence
It’s hard to explain what an electric figure Graham cut, how dashing, how innovative. He made evangelical Christians proud. He took the heart of our faith and brought it into the 20th century.
At the same time he drew evangelicals away from crackpot zealotry, from conspiracy theories, hatred and prejudice, and toward simple modest goodness, which he had in abundance. Graham reshaped evangelicals’ self-image, making us feel secure in our rightful, though humble, place in America. We think of ourselves as good-hearted people, and it shocks us when someone takes us wrong and accuses us of the flint-hearted, money-grubbing sins of Elmer Gantry. We know we’re not like that. We know it partly because of Graham, who really wasn’t.
He was more than a model for ordinary American Christians; he was a champion. He knew every president from Eisenhower to Bush II, calling each of them “my friend.” Foreign leaders he knew too, along with popes and queens and famous theologians. (He hiked with Karl Barth, who afterwards stood in the rain to hear him preach in Basel and later advised him to stop offering an invitation.) Graham made friends everywhere, without compromising his testimony and without angling for power or money.
A notable exception was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. When Graham was preparing his New York Crusade, Niebuhr wrote that Graham’s message was “too simple in any age, but particularly so in a nuclear one with its great moral perplexities.” Graham’s immediate response was to seek out a meeting. Niebuhr declined the invitation. Graham persisted, appealing to the chairman of the board of Niebuhr’s school, the Union Theological Seminary. The chairman was sure something could be arranged, but he too was rebuffed. Niebuhr simply would not meet.
Perhaps he feared that he too would be converted. Many were won over by Graham’s modest and engaging friendliness. Journalist Marshall Frady, who wrote a highly critical biography, described “such a feeling of natural goodness—sheer elemental goodness.”
Is that enough? For some it might be, but Graham certainly hoped for more. He wanted to do something great for God.
Graham grew up in the South, a farmer’s son in the rural outreaches of Charlotte, North Carolina. His family was deeply religious, reading from the Bible and praying from their knees every evening after supper, and never missing a church service at a nearby Presbyterian church. By the time he was 10 Graham had memorized all 107 articles in the Shorter Catechism.
Religion was morally upright and deeply serious for Graham’s family, as was life. They worked hard to scratch a living from the ground and squeezed every penny. Revivalists came to town periodically, including the great Billy Sunday, aiming to draw immortal souls to consecrate their lives to God and become dedicated to decency and faith.
However, by all accounts, Graham started out immune to this seriousness. He was full of fun, a naturally winsome, impetuous cutup who is lucky to have survived his own fast driving on rural roads. Revival did not much interest him. He had lots of friends, a constant steam of girls to fall in love with and plenty of flashy clothing. His interest in education was modest, but he had other qualities. People took to him. After graduating from high school in the middle of the Depression, he sold Fuller brushes door-to-door in neighboring South Carolina, and became the leading salesman in either Carolina. (He would offer his testimony, too, and try to lead people to Christ.) Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life he aimed to escape small town life and see the world. He wanted to become somebody important, and some thought he would. So much charm had to go somewhere.
Almost certainly, he would have become a successful businessman, and perhaps a politician, were it not for a series of crises that changed his life. The first came when an evangelist named Mordecai Ham built a makeshift wooden tabernacle on a vacant lot in Charlotte. Graham at first showed no interest in the revival—he had an intoxicating girlfriend—but eventually he attended, mainly out of curiosity. He found himself drawn into the drama of the event, and eventually rose from his seat to go forward and make a commitment. He “got saved,” as he told others. Exactly what that entailed, and how his life was changed by it, he was vague on, but he knew something deep had occurred. Indeed it had.
He eventually broke off with his girlfriend and, on graduating from high school, went to Bob Jones Bible College, a strict fundamentalist institution. He was so irrepressible and naïve that when the irascible founder, Bob Jones, asked the assembled young men who among them felt himself to have grown less spiritual since arriving at the school, Graham was the only one to unhesitatingly raise his hand. He lasted only a semester. When he announced his departure, Jones told him, “If you’re a misfit at Bob Jones College, you’ll be a misfit anywhere. … Best you’ll ever amount to is a poor country preacher somewhere out in the sticks.”
He headed for Florida Bible Institute, a kinder and gentler institution near Tampa. Here he fell in love again and got engaged to an Emily Cavanaugh. When she jilted him, he became deeply depressed. Through this second crisis he gave up on the vanities of life to devote his life solely to Christ. By the time he graduated and went on to Wheaton College outside Chicago, he was known not so much for his charm as for his piety, up all night in prayer so often that he was gaunt and carried deep circles under his eyes.
While at Wheaton he connected with the fledgling Youth for Christ organization, which had its headquarters in Chicago. It was a perfect fit. WWII over, YFC captured the energy and the idealism of the war effort. It used modern methods (entertainment and publicity) to reach a restless new generation with the gospel. YFC attracted young, energetic, charismatic men, deeply serious, utterly committed and having the time of their lives. It enabled Graham to merge his fun-loving, see-the-world personality with his spiritual commitment.
Graham plunged in, traveling about the country and preaching to “rallies.” Though newly married to Ruth Bell, a missionary’s daughter whom he met and wooed at Wheaton, he hardly ever was home. After a year of miserable solitude Ruth moved into her parents’ home in Montreat, North Carolina, where the Grahams would live ever after. She raised their children while Graham catapulted himself around the world.
He still loved stylish clothes, preferably suits and hand-painted ties that caused people to stare. Frady writes, “He presented himself for one crusade in Albuquerque in a sapphire-blue twill suit with a cowboy belt and silver buckle, later appeared in San Francisco outfitted in a 10-gallon sombrero, a pearl-buff sports jacket with a lushly illustrated tie and blue suede shoes.” However, Graham stood out less for his clothes than for his sincerity. He believed utterly in his calling to preach the gospel and lead people to Jesus for salvation. He worked hard at doing so effectively, practicing his gestures, rehearsing his sermons repeatedly.
His fellow evangelist Chuck Templeton, who later abandoned his faith, put it this way to Frady: “It was the transparency of his spirit, I think. Here was a guy with absolutely no guile, no pretenses or defenses at all. Just this tremendous, endearing sincerity and goodwill, and his simple yearning for lost souls. One thing about Billy was that he would never kid past a certain point about spiritual matters—for instance, he never much liked any witticisms about any seeker who came forward, however comic or bizarre someone might seem who came down to the front, he wouldn’t make any fun of them afterward. They were all dear in his sight. And maybe that’s the thing that always distinguished Billy from the rest of us, including me—I could certainly preach circles around Billy, there was just no comparison in that regard, and even today the actual thinking in his preaching is simply dreadful—but somehow, when it came to the altar call, nobody could touch him. Billy would invariably have more people come forward than anybody else would. It would amaze us.”
Those YFC rallies featured lively preaching, community boosterism, recruitment of local celebrities and all kinds of entertainment, including a gospel horse that could stamp his hoof to indicate how many gospels were in the New Testament. The Billy Graham Crusade grew straight out of those rallies, as Graham got invited for longer, communitywide revivals. In a third crisis, he resolved his faith in the Bible as infallible truth during a conference at Forest Home, near Los Angeles. That, he said, brought a new sense of power to his preaching. His 1949 Los Angeles crusade began soon after. Midway along, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst sent a cryptic telegram to his editors: “Puff Graham.” The resultant publicity put Graham on a national stage.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) soon incorporated. Unlike the slightly anarchic YFC, BGEA became a carefully planned, rigorously controlled steamroller. Crusades were organized like D-Day operations: many months of careful preparation on the ground, armies of trained volunteers and painstaking involvement of local churches. Graham relied on a team who would stay with him for 50 years: the Wilson brothers, Grady and T.W., whom Graham had known since high school; Cliff Barrows, the perpetual inspirational song leader; and George Beverly Shea, the soloist, among others. Graham had a very modest sense of his own organizational abilities, but he had an instinct for what truly mattered, and he inspired powerful loyalty from team members. By 1954, the BGEA had organized a crusade in every major metropolis in America, preaching in person to 8 million people. By 1958, 10,000 letters a day were coming into BGEA’s Minneapolis headquarters.
Besides BGEA, Graham was directly responsible for starting Christianity Today magazine, which brought intellectual and theological confidence to evangelicals; for the Lausanne Movement, which has given a sense of global unity and missional purpose to the international church; and World Wide Pictures, which developed some of the earliest and most influential evangelical films.
More significant than Graham’s institutional achievements were his tone and style, which proved infectious. When Graham began his career, evangelicals were almost indistinguishable from fighting fundamentalists, quick to denounce apparent enemies. To the dismay of many potential allies, Graham went out of his way to be friendly. Liberal church leaders might treat him dismissively, but he would court their personal friendship. He adorned his platform with as many bishops as possible, he embraced movie stars without questioning their moral status, he sat down with skeptical journalists and jaundiced politicians. When he unintentionally offended someone, he quickly apologized and tried to make up.
In 1954 Graham’s ship was on its way to England for his first London crusade. A British newspaper reported on a BGEA publicity brochure that proclaimed, “What Hitler’s bombs could not do, Socialism, with its accompanying evils, shortly accomplished.” Since the British Labour Party was staunchly socialist, this was highly offensive meddling in local politics. There was an uproar, and Graham was denounced in Parliament. Yet when Graham landed he put up no defense; he claimed it was a printer’s mistake and apologized profusely. Soon the matter blew over.
As Graham’s fame grew, rich businessmen and politicians were drawn to him. Here his friendliness was not altogether benign. Dazzled by the luxury and privilege of wealth, amazed that a simple country boy could hobnob with presidents, Graham was naïve about the ways in which he could be used and his ministry diverted. As one critic said, “If he was Moses he would be playing golf with the Pharoah.”
Graham’s friendship with Richard Nixon was ebb tide. Graham was stunned and bewildered when he heard the Watergate tapes and realized how little he had understood Nixon’s devious personality.
Yet Graham never intentionally identified himself with a political cause. Warnings about the dangers of communism were routinely part of his preaching, and he used the terrifying backdrop of the nuclear war to call people to God. But those were hardly controversial stances. He always pulled back from partisanship. Thus, soon after John Kennedy defeated Nixon for the presidency, Graham was playing golf with him. Graham slept in the White House on Lyndon Johnson’s last day in office, and stayed on to sleep in the same bed after Nixon’s first day, having prayed at his inauguration.
The Long Shadow of Integrity
Unquestionably, Graham’s ministry was suited to a particular time that now exists only in memory. The machinery and techniques of mass evangelism seem as musty and clattery as old steam harvesters at a farm museum. Stadium evangelism is all but unimaginable in America today, with few exceptions. The New York Times will not give three pages of coverage to a newly arrived evangelist, as they did Graham in 1957. Audiences cannot be led to commitment by the chilling thought of atomic war, nor will films succeed with plots that inevitably end up at a Billy Graham Crusade. The world has moved on and a new generation will have to find its own ways to preach the gospel.
What surely stands for all generations, however, is Graham’s integrity and character. His innocent humility, his eagerness to honor others, his willingness to apologize, his unstoppable friendliness. His decency and concern to treat others fairly. His hopefulness and charity. “I would love to have someone like him on the point today,” Harold Myra, former president and publisher of Christianity Today, told me. Graham’s personal qualities seem more luminous than ever considering their absence in the current rancor and polarization.
Says Myra, “Another leader, if there was a problem in the organization, would give serious thought how to solve it. Billy would pray all night about it. He would pray until he felt right with God.” Myra notes that prayer was part of the YFC ethos. “We spent hours on our knees. Including the high school leaders. We had a sense of being before a holy God.”
Graham’s financial and sexual integrity over many years of ministry was surely tuned to that. He would have died rather than disgrace the name of Jesus.
At the peak of Graham’s legacy was his driving conviction that every human being must come to a crisis point with Jesus. The idea was not original with Graham, but he was its representative for 60 years. He lived it, preached it and drove it into the consciousness of evangelical America.
Yes, Niebuhr was right, Graham was far too simplistic for any age, let alone a nuclear one. The problems of the world cannot be wrapped up in an individual’s personal religious decision, and any number of people going forward in a crusade will not by itself bring in the Kingdom of God. Graham himself admitted this freely.
But neither can the problems of the world be solved or the Kingdom of God appear apart from the decision of individuals to come to terms with God. Each individual has his part to play, and it begins with a decision. Graham focused on that personal crisis with a hungry wolf’s eye and the love of a father urging his son to swing. He exhausted himself in the existential effort to speak to multitudes one at a time, pleading with them not to miss the moment, not to divert their gaze from the face of God. He spoke of grace and love, he spoke of obedience and discipleship, he even spoke of God’s concerns for justice in society. But for him it began with an hour of decision, and he was the messenger God had chosen to deliver one message: deal with Jesus.
Tim Stafford is a freelance writer and senior writer for Christianity Today. He’s the author of more than 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction.