As most or all readers of The Reforming Trombonist will be aware, the famed American evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) passed away earlier this week, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday. I am normally not one to pontificate online following the deaths of famous people—the internet has plenty of writers and bloggers who do this—but since Graham is a particularly important figure in the recent history of American evangelicalism and one in whom I have always retained more than a passing interest, I’m indulging just this once. Besides, I had already intended to write this week about some topic related to Christianity.
Having come to the Reformed faith in my mid-twenties, most of my Christian heroes are individuals of whom I first became aware as an adult. Not so Billy Graham; in fact, I cannot remember a time when I did not know his name. I recall seeing more than a few broadcasts of his sermons when I was a youngster, particularly at my grandparents’ house. (To be fair, this was in the time when rural households typically received only two or three broadcast channels, so there were few other options.) In my mind Graham’s name was always associated with tireless and uncompromising proclamation of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. As a college student I read his 1997 autobiography Just As I Am, and found myself struck by the humility of the man in the midst of an undeniably remarkable life. As a Calvinist and Presbyterian I find myself quibbling with a few of Graham’s ideas and methods—particularly the use of the altar call, a nineteenth-century innovation which can sometimes lead to false assurance and spurious conversions. On the whole, though, his is a life and ministry at which Christians from a variety of traditions can look back with admiration, respect, and appreciation. Here are a few reasons that come to mind.
1. Billy Graham’s life and ministry were free of scandal. Ours is a day in which various figures in the media and online revel in “gotcha” moments with regard to prominent evangelical and/or conservative figures, but one can find nothing like this in the life of Billy Graham. Aside from a few ill-chosen words on a very few occasions (for which he always publicly apologized), both Graham personally and his organization always operated in a way that was socially, financially, and morally above board. This was no accident; Graham and his associates determined even in the late 1940s that they would operate in this way, and by God’s grace he lived a scandal-free life in the public eye for over seventy years. This included what has recently been derided as “the Mike Pence rule,” but those familiar with Billy Graham knew it for decades as “the Billy Graham rule.” This studious avoidance of even the appearance of impropriety is mocked today, but the recent explosion of accusations of sexual harassment by famous individuals in a variety of fields shows the abiding wisdom of this policy.
2. Billy Graham rubbed shoulders with the powerful but refused the allure of power. Having befriended on some level every American president from Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) to Barack H. Obama (b. 1961), Billy Graham had access to the halls of power that many of today’s evangelical leaders would envy. Yet rather than engaging in politics himself or seeking in any large-scale fashion to influence national policy, he instead offered himself to these men as a counselor and confidant rather than as a political adviser. In short, he sought to fulfill his popularly-conceived role as “America’s pastor.” Graham’s later years were marked by an even more marked withdrawal from politics than his early ministry. He deliberately eschewed evangelical political initiatives such as the Moral Majority of the 1970s and 1980s, preferring to busy himself with simple proclamation of the gospel. This is not to say that Graham never expressed opinions on the issues of the day, but when he did so it was with little fanfare and characteristic humility.
3. Billy Graham believed in the unity of the human race, even when this was unpopular with white evangelicals. Billy Graham refused to allow segregated seating in his evangelistic crusades beginning in the early 1950s, going so far as to personally remove the dividers separating “white” and “colored” seating areas. He invited black ministers to share the platform with him, including Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), who delivered a public prayer during Graham’s crusade at Madison Square Garden in 1957. While there were certainly white men who did more to advance the cause of racial equality than did Graham, few did so as early and as publicly…and with as much to lose.
4. Billy Graham was simultaneously winsome and uncompromising, even when speaking with his opponents. I recently saw a video from the late 1960s in which Graham was interviewed by Woody Allen (b. 1935). While Allen’s demeanor was by no means openly hostile, there was a mocking tone toward Graham’s morality and worldview lurking beneath the surface during the entire exchange. Yet Graham stood his ground, and did so not with “hellfire and brimstone,” but with charm and winsomeness that seemed to be a bit disarming both to Allen and to his audience. This is not uncharacteristic of Graham’s public interactions with the unbelieving world. He demonstrated to all of us how people with widely divergent points of view ought to interact, never avoiding the hard questions, but also treating his interlocutors with kindness and respect. Today’s public discourse could use more of this.
5. Billy Graham made little of Billy Graham and much of Jesus Christ. That Billy Graham was able to spend seven decades in the public eye and yet remain humble and scandal-free is remarkable. How was he able to do this (besides, of course, God’s graciously preserving him)? Because the focus of his ministry was not Billy Graham, but Jesus Christ. While so many Christian ministries, organizations, and even churches find their messages becoming diluted over time, Billy Graham retained a laser-like focus on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, always simply directing people to repent of their sins and believe in Him. We can rightly be thankful for a life thus lived, and lived in such a way because, like Paul, Billy Graham “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)