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Billy Graham was perhaps the most significant religious figure of the 20th century, and the organizations and the movement he helped spawn continue to shape the 21st.
During his life, Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and to millions more via television, satellite, and film. Nearly 3 million have responded to his invitation to “accept Jesus into your heart” at the end of his sermons. He proclaimed the gospel to more persons than any other preacher in history. In the process, Graham became “America’s Pastor,” participating in presidential inaugurations and speaking during national crises such as the memorial services following the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks.
“He became the friend and confidante of popes and presidents, queens and dictators, and yet, even in his 80s, he possesses the boyish charm and unprepossessing demeanor to communicate with the masses,” said Columbia University historian Randall Balmer.
Billy Graham was born in 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina, attended (briefly) Bob Jones College, graduating from Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, and Wheaton College in Illinois. He was ordained a minister in the Southern Baptist Church (1939) and pastored a small church in suburban Chicago and preached on a weekly radio program. In 1946 he became the first full-time staff member of Youth for Christ and launched his evangelistic campaigns. For four years (1948–1952) he also served as president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis. His 1949 evangelistic tent meetings in Los Angeles brought him to national attention, and his 1957 New York meetings, which filled Madison Square Garden for four months, established him as a major presence on the American religious scene.
Graham appeared regularly on the lists of “most admired” people. Between 1950 and 1990 Graham won a spot on the Gallup Organization’s “Most Admired” list more often than any other American. Ladies Home Journal once ranked him second only to God in the category of “achievements in religion.” He received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1983) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1996).
Sherwood Wirt, who for 17 years edited the Graham organization’s Decision magazine, described one Scottish minister who made this observation about Graham: “My first impression of the man at close quarters was not of his good looks but of his goodness; not of his extraordinary range of commitments, but of his own ‘committedness’ to his Lord and Master. To be with him even for a short time is to get a sense of a single-minded man; it shames one and shakes one as no amount of ability and cleverness can do.”
Graham was a model of integrity. Despite scandals and missteps that toppled other leaders and ministers, including Graham’s friend Richard Nixon and a succession of televangelists, in six decades of ministry, no one ever leveled a serious accusation of misconduct against him.
That’s not to say he wasn’t seriously criticized. Some liberals and intellectuals called his message “simplistic.” Some fundamentalists considered him “compromised” for cooperating with mainline groups and the National Council of Churches.
His moderate anti-segregationist stance during the Civil Rights era drew fire from both sides: white segregationists were furious when he invited the “agitator” Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at the 1957 New York City crusade; civil rights activists accused him of cowardice for not joining them on protest marches and getting arrested for the cause.
In 1982, when he visited the Soviet Union, agreeing to preach the gospel at the invitation of the government, he touched off a firestorm of criticism. Despite having met with The Siberian Seven, Pentecostal dissidents who were seeking political asylum, Graham was quoted as saying he “had not personally seen any evidence of religious persecution.” Some called him a “traitor.” But he insisted he would go anywhere to preach as long as there were no restrictions on his freedom to proclaim the gospel. He returned claiming he saw the hand of God working in the Soviet Union. He was fiercely attacked for being naïve and “a tool of the Soviet propaganda machine.”
By 1990, however, after the fall of the Soviet Union, his prescience was vindicated when then-President George H.W. Bush said to the National Religious Broadcasters, “Eight years ago, one of the Lord’s great ambassadors, Rev. Billy Graham, went to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and, upon returning, spoke of a movement there toward more religious freedom. And perhaps he saw it before many of us because it takes a man of God to sense the early movement of the hand of God.”
Perhaps Graham’s lasting legacy was his ability to present the gospel in the idiom of the culture. He did this brilliantly, making innovative use of emerging technologies—radio, television, magazines, books, a newspaper column, motion pictures, satellite broadcasts, Internet—to spread his message.
In the 1990s he reengineered the formula for his “crusades” (later called “missions” out of deference to Muslims and others offended by the connotation). His standard “youth night” was revolutionized into a “Concert for the Next Generation,” with Christian rock, rap, and hip-hop artists headlining the event, followed by Graham preaching. This format drew record numbers of young people who cheered the bands and then, amazingly, listened carefully to the octogenarian evangelist.
In addition, he helped launch numerous influential organizations, including Youth for Christ (he was the first full-time staff member of this entrepreneurial and innovative organization), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Christianity Today. The ripple effect of his shaping influence extends to such schools as Wheaton College in Illinois, Gordon-Conwell Divinity School in Massachusetts, Northwestern College in Minnesota, and Fuller Seminary in California. His encouragement and support helped develop the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Greater Europe Mission, TransWorld Radio, World Vision, World Relief, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
He brought the global Christian community together through international conventions: a 1966 Congress on World Evangelism in Berlin, the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, and three huge conferences in Amsterdam for itinerant evangelists in 1983, 1986, and 2000, which drew nearly 24,000 working evangelists from 200 countries.
In many ways, Billy Graham both formed and embodied the evangelical movement. Theologian J. I. Packer attributes the evangelical “convergence” to Graham. “Up to 1940, it was every institution for itself. There wasn’t anything unitive about the situation. There were little outposts of resistance trying to keep their end up in face of the liberal juggernaut. Increasingly, from the 1950s onward, evangelicals came together behind Billy Graham and the things he stood for and was committed to. It continues that way to the present.”
For many, however, William Franklin Graham won’t be remembered for these accomplishments. He’ll always be “Billy,” as he preferred to be called. He titled his autobiography Just As I Am, a reflection of his humble spirit, taken from the hymn sung most often when he invited people to come forward and receive God’s love.
And for millions, his humility before the Almighty encouraged them to approach with that same spirit.
I was making my way down Black Mountain in North Carolina in the fall of 2009, heading for I-40 north to Charlotte, when I decided to call my mom. Not the usual thing a guy then in his late 50s does following a meeting—but this wasn’t just any meeting.
“Mom, you’ll never guess who I just spent an hour with,” I excitedly blurted out, my words in overdrive. “Billy Graham!”
I then waited for the effect of that name to sink in. And it did. With silence.
One second. Two seconds. Five seconds. Silence.
“Mom,” I repeated several times, thinking my cell connection was kaput. “You there?”
Finally, in her quietest church voice, she replied: “Really?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said. “Really!” At which point, she was transported back over 65 years to a Saturday night Voice of Christian Youth rally at the Masonic Temple in downtown Detroit. As a girl of 15 or 16 years of age, she was brought there to hear an evangelist by her boyfriend, who was on fire for the Lord.
He had ulterior motives, to be sure. He was falling in love with this girl—but he knew their courtship could not go much further unless she too committed her life to Christ.
As the story is told, the evangelist my future father had hoped would convincingly deliver the altar call that night was unable to attend for some reason, so another evangelist—then unknown to either teenager—filled in. And that night, by the grace of God alone, my mom’s eternity was redirected.
God graciously used that backup evangelist, Billy Graham, to set the cornerstone of what would eventually become a family of four. It was a home marked by an infectious love for Christ and his Word, where gospel witness was a foregone conviction (and enthusiastically delivered to anyone who darkened our doorway), and where Graham’s name was held in highest esteem.
I accepted Christ as a young boy, and then asked him to truly be Lord of my life while a freshman at the University of Michigan. I took refuge in, and drew spiritual nourishment from, the Word of God and an assortment of Christian authors and periodicals—like Christianity Today, the publication Graham himself envisioned in 1953 and started three years later.
And as only God would have it (for I hardly felt qualified to work for such a vaunted periodical), my own chapter of the Graham-Smith story fell into place when I came to work for Christianity Today in 1984 as special projects editor.
It was like I had returned home.
Two years after I met Graham, I was back in Asheville, this time for a Christianity Today board meeting at the Graham conference center, the Cove. On our agenda was a detailed review of the CT editorial vision that Graham himself had architected all those years ago. Was it still relevant to the needs of the church today? Was it a calling that CT still felt was at the core of its ministry?
As we prayerfully made our way through a series of such vision questions, the answers became ever clearer with each session and season of prayer: Yes! Graham’s vision was indeed for today and for generations to come.
While winding up these enthusiastic discussions, board member John Akers—a longtime associate of Graham’s—received a call that the man himself was feeling well enough to “come down the mountain” for a few minutes.
My initial response was like my mom’s two years before. Silence. Then a rather feeble: “Really?”
What followed, as I’ve written elsewhere, was the most moving moment in my years of ministry at Christianity Today. Speaking in words I suppose haven’t changed much since Mom’s “Salvation Saturday,” Graham emphasized the centrality of Christ and foundation of his Word. Stay fixed on these, he exhorted us, and CT will remain strong. Move away from these truths, and, he paused…
“And I guess I’ll just have to write a letter to the editor.”
Amens, laughter, and even some tears followed. Then silence. It would be the last time I would have the privilege of being with him this side of eternity.
But until that great day, Dr. Graham, be assured that “the Bible says” will remain a constant refrain here at Christianity Today. And this special issue is but one way we can thank you—and praise our great God—for setting this trusted communication ministry on the right path.
And Dorothy Smith wants to thank you as well.
Harold Smith is president and CEO of Christianity Today.
The fundamentalist church of my youth viewed the upstart evangelist Billy Graham with deep suspicion. He invited members of the National Council of Churches—and Roman Catholics!—to sit on his crusade platforms. He seemed soft on communism, especially in his comments about the church behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps most important, in those days of Jim Crow racism, he insisted on integrated crusades even in white bastions like Alabama.
Those suspicions, which now seem quaintly extremist, provide a glimpse of what theologically conservative churches might have become apart from Graham’s influence: cultic and divisive, a minority defensively opposing rather than engaging culture. We can measure the greatness of the man by noting his impression on a movement that emerged from fundamentalist roots. Billy Graham did not invent the word evangelical, but he managed to restore the word’s original meaning—”good news”—both for the skeptical world and for the beleaguered minority who looked to him for inspiration and leadership.
He made mistakes along the way, of course: angering President Truman by using the White House as a photo op, making off-the-cuff comments about social issues of the day, getting conned by President Nixon. Each time, however, he admitted his mistake and learned from it. He showed that an evangelical Christian could be both respectable and relevant, all the while clinging to a simple gospel message of God’s love for sinners. As he traveled internationally, sophisticated religious leaders in places like Great Britain and Germany subjected him to scornful criticism, until he met with them and disarmed them with humility and grace.
In some ways, Graham lived the quintessential American story. He rose from a modest background on a farm, working along the way as a Fuller Brush salesman, only to go on to achieve worldwide renown. Yet one need only compare him with those featured daily on celebrity gossip shows to see a stark difference. He never cashed in financially, never partied all night or used drugs or bought mansions on Caribbean islands. Though he dined with kings, queens, premiers, and presidents, he preferred a simple life back home in North Carolina in a house jerry-built from century-old cabins.
For the millions who followed him, Graham seemed at once larger than life and a representative of our lives. He had a loyal wife who put up with his relentless travel schedule, a couple of sons who went through a rebellious period before finding themselves, two daughters who experienced the trauma of failed marriages. He struggled with health issues, occasional indecision, and management headaches. But when he stepped behind a pulpit, whether speaking to a small group at the White House or the Kremlin, or to millions gathered outdoors in Korea or in Central Park, something supernatural happened. All other concerns of life faded away, and he focused like a laser beam on the one sure thing he knew: the gospel of Jesus Christ and its power to change lives.
I had the privilege of interviewing Graham twice in his home. Like most journalists, I came away struck by how insecure he seemed at the core. He kept raising questions: Why hadn’t his crusades had more effect on cities? Had he erred by dabbling in politics? Had the era of evangelistic crusades passed?
Meanwhile, Graham’s world stature continued to grow. A record 50 times he ranked among the top 10 “most admired persons” in Gallup polls. A Time bureau chief wrote a book hailing him as one of the “great souls” of the previous century, and in 2007 the magazine devoted a cover story to his relationship with 11 successive US presidents. The nation had lurched through the tumultuous 1960s, survived a terrifying nuclear arms race, and entered an age of international terrorism and planetary threats. Somehow, with each change, Graham and his old-fashioned message seemed even more relevant.
He attracted criticism for not being prophetic enough; Jesse Jackson once mused that Graham would have been playing golf with the pharaohs rather than leading the slaves to liberation. Cautiously, though, he managed to tackle the great issues of the day: race, poverty, nuclear terror, communism. From the beginning to the end of his career, he truly believed that the secret to peace in the world or in any human soul traced back to the underlying issue of peace with God.
Evangelicals are a beleaguered minority no longer. We have solid programs in education, publishing, youth work, church growth, and international missions (all influenced by Graham). We have unprecedented access to power and unprecedented opportunity to shape a culture under constant threat. That is Billy Graham’s legacy. He provided an important stage in maturity for those committed to planting settlements of the kingdom of God in a field full of tares. Now that he has gone, a giant question mark looms over us: Can we accept his mantle and move forward in the same spirit?
Philip Yancey is an editor at large for Christianity Today.
The first time Ruth Bell saw her future husband, he was dashing down the dormitory steps two at a time. Now there’s a young man who knows where he’s going! she thought. But in fact Billy Graham had no idea where he was going; no idea that he would travel the planet preaching the gospel to more people than anyone in history. Ruth’s second impression, however, was spot on target: “He wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met.” This desire, more than anything, set him apart. In an era when evangelicals lived expectantly in the shadow of the Second Coming, Billy Graham was odd in hoping the Lord would tarry: “I sure would like to do something great for him before he comes.”
The Lord did tarry, and Graham made the most of it. If there were a Mount Rushmore for English-speaking evangelists, Graham would be the fifth in granite, alongside Whitefield, Finney, Moody, and Sunday. For the most part, it’s easy to imagine why huge crowds pushed and shoved to hear them preach. George Whitefield—short and cross-eyed, with the voice of a tornado—cavorted, posed, and wept on outdoor platforms as he brought Bible dramas to life. Charles Finney had terrifying eyes that drilled out soft spots in the soul, his fiery preaching about the wrath of God going straight to the exposed nerves. Billy Sunday was charming, with jazzy suits, movie-star looks, and a smile that lit up auditoriums. But up on stage, after joking and mugging and flattering the VIPs, he would throw down his hat, rip off his tie, and jump onto the pulpit—sometimes waving a large American flag—attacking sin and beseeching sinners to come to Jesus.
Dwight Moody’s appeal is harder to figure. Of grandfatherly mien, he was portly and genial. He preached less about sin and more about love. All the old drawings of him in the pulpit give the impression he must have been stolid and ponderous. Yet it was Moody—more than Whitefield, Finney, and Sunday put together—who was Billy Graham’s true predecessor. It was Moody whom Graham admired; Moody who, in fact, made it possible for Graham to do what he did. For “Crazy” Moody was the architect who drew up the plans and laid the foundation for 20th-century evangelicalism. Then Billy Graham took over the project, and built it to dimensions beyond any of Moody’s craziest dreams. By the start of the 21st century, the Moody-Graham project had reshaped the skyline of American Christianity and had launched a new kind of ecumenical movement that reached into every corner of the globe.
Back to the Future
It’s easy to forget that Billy Graham’s early pulpit style owed more to Whitefield and Sunday than to Moody. He pranced and shouted until his hair was a mop. He clenched his fists, pointed his fingers like pistols, and spoke so fast that German newspapers called him “God’s Machine Gun.” Graham’s eyes were arresting—sharp blue, blazing out from dark sockets. His preaching, like Whitefield’s, was sometimes performance art; it produced this description in 1950 by an astonished Boston reporter:
He prowls like a panther across the rostrum. … He becomes a haughty and sneering Roman, his head flies back arrogantly, and his voice is harsh and gruff. He becomes a penitent sinner; his head bows, his eyes roll up in supplication, his voice cracks and quavers. He becomes an avenging angel; his arms rise high above his head and his long fingers snap out like talons. His voice deepens and rolls sonorously—the voice of doom. So perfect are the portrayals that his audience sits tense and fascinated.
Like Sunday, Graham’s early preaching seamlessly blended God and country, most often in warnings about the threat of communism. “Either communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ,” he said. The answer was “old-fashioned Americanism. Through the ideals of early Americanism we built the greatest nation ever to exist in all history.”
But Graham’s future lay behind Sunday in territory that Moody had staked out. Moody’s genius had been his ability to draw together and fuse traditional evangelical touchstones—a Bible-based, conversion-centered faith; simple preaching and popular songs; extensive publicity and self-promotion; and a restless “I-must-keep-working-for-the-Lord” style—with newer elements like dispensational premillennialism and an urgency for foreign missions. He then poured this mixture into a new institutional mold—the parachurch organization. After Moody, evangelical visionaries weren’t so much churchmen as entrepreneurs launching their own non-denominational start-ups, employing lay workers to carry out highly specialized missions.
At the same time Moody was creating a new evangelical synthesis, an anti-supernatural form of Christianity calling itself modernism (or liberalism) began entrenching itself in the seminaries and headquarters of the large northern Protestant denominations. When conservatives tried and failed to push them out of these “mainline” denominations in the 1920s, the center of evangelical gravity shifted from the denominations to the parachurch network started by Moody. It turned out that the independence and non-denominational character of the parachurch gave evangelicals a tremendous advantage. They could bypass denominational leadership and go directly to the people with a simple, vibrant evangelicalism that transcended denominational differences. Billy Graham would exploit this advantage better than anyone before or since.
By the time Billy was a teenager, Moody-style evangelicalism had become more important to his parents than the strict Presbyterianism of their North Carolina church. His mother got dispensationalism from the parachurch network, and his father helped bring revivalist Mordecai Ham to town. After sitting under Ham’s glare for several nights, Billy finally did what he would spend a lifetime asking others to do—he got out of his seat, went forward, and soberly made his decision for Christ.
When Billy was ready for college in 1936, the parachurch network provided all the options he and his parents considered. The differences between fundamentalism (which stressed doctrinal purity and attacks on liberal theology) and evangelicalism (which stressed evangelism and discipleship) were already emerging, and Billy’s college experiences foreshadowed which side of the divide he would end up on. The rigidity of fundamentalist Bob Jones University turned out to be a poor fit, but Florida Bible Institute and Wheaton College—both part of the Moody network—taught him lessons he never forgot. He learned that despite denominational differences, there existed at the grassroots level of all of American Protestantism a common-denominator Bible faith to which an evangelist could appeal. At Wheaton he also encountered a student culture with little interest in attacking liberalism. Talented Wheaton graduates from that period were taking up Moody’s blueprint and filling in the blanks, starting new parachurch ministries like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Trans World Radio, and Christian Service Brigade.
In 1943 Billy and Ruth married and took a pastorate outside Chicago, but not for long. Out on the East Coast, Wheaton alumnus Percy Crawford was cooking radio, revivalism, and youth culture into a confection that drew thousands of young people to Saturday night rallies. Evangelical entrepreneurs in other cities quickly started similar programs, calling them Youth for Christ (YFC). Wheaton alumnus Torrey Johnson brought YFC to Chicago and tapped 25-year-old Graham as his featured speaker. Crawford’s flashy clothes, zippy programming, rapid-fire preaching, and “bigger-better-faster” mentality fit Graham perfectly. Within months Johnson organized most of the nation’s independent rally organizations into a single Youth for Christ International, and hired Graham to be its first paid evangelist.
Graham hit the road and never looked back. By 1946 YFC rallies were drawing a million kids every Saturday and attention in the nation’s press. Within two years Graham and his platform team of Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and Grady Wilson were holding their own revivals, little knowing that they’d be working together for the rest of their careers. After just six revival campaigns, Billy Graham—all of 31 years old—rocketed into national fame with his wildly successful eight-week crusade in Los Angeles.
Critics were sure that Graham’s crusades were an anachronism, the death-rattle of the bad old days of American Christianity. But they failed to see that mass-meeting revivalism was only the building’s façade. Behind that façade stood an impressive superstructure—Moody’s synthesis of traditional evangelical beliefs, fresh ideas, and new institutional forms. The fundamentalist-modernist controversies had only temporarily halted construction on Moody’s project. Now the laborers were back on the job, and the most important of them would prove to be Billy Graham.
Building the New Evangelicalism
Nineteenth-century newspapers turned Moody into a celebrity. He wasn’t thrilled about it—he hadn’t an attention-seeking bone in his body—but it was a good bargain. The newspapers needed stories; his campaigns needed publicity. The more publicity he got, the more people he could pull into his gospel lifeboat.
Billy Graham embodied the same paradox. He was a genuinely humble person who spent his long life drawing public attention to himself. Graham’s parachurch organization bore his name—the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA)—and its impressive publicity efforts always centered on the evangelist himself. Ever-anxious about attendance at an upcoming crusade, Graham was known to complain, “I don’t see my picture up enough.” Most of the time, Graham was blessed with excellent press coverage. In the early years it seems likely that Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazines, and William Randolph Hearst, who owned a large chain of newspapers, were attracted by the anti-communism part of Graham’s message. But in the main, the reasons for Graham’s good relations with the press mirrored Moody’s—the evangelist needed publicity, the press needed good stories.
Graham soon had a weekly radio show and newspaper column. His decision to televise the 17 Saturday night services of his 1957 New York crusade turned him into one of the most recognized and admired men in the country. Between crusades, Graham’s friends and associates churned out a shelf full of books about the evangelist and his activities—often at Graham’s urging, always with his approval. With the help of his staff, Graham himself published 24 books. These were often pegged to topics that were popular at the time, and some sold millions of copies. He spent plenty of well-photographed time with the rich and famous, appearing on talk shows, campus tours, and celebrity golf tournaments. Nearly every book about Graham has a figurative trophy case, stuffed with photos of Graham with presidents, world leaders, and the otherwise rich and famous.
What makes all this attention-seeking paradoxical is that there was not a whiff of vainglory in it. Graham was unfailingly modest about himself and lavish in praise of others. He always treated ordinary people and lowest-level staff workers with great respect and dignity. He never accepted honoraria for speaking engagements, and most of the millions of dollars he earned in book royalties he simply gave away. He always treated his antagonists with generosity and kindness. When the famous American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr published one of his many condescending attacks, Graham simply replied, “When Dr. Niebuhr makes his criticisms about me, I study them, for I have respect for them. I think he has helped me to apply Christianity to the social problems we face.” Time and again he would arrange meetings with his staunchest critics, and nearly every time his humility, transparency, and genuineness would melt their resistance. (Perhaps this explains why Niebuhr never would meet with Graham.)
Graham sincerely professed to dislike celebrity and to think nothing special of the company of the famous, but the reality was more complicated. As a young man in the first flush of fame he pressed hard for an appointment with President Truman. In his late 70s, his claim in autobiography that he was reluctant to write about his famous acquaintances simply cannot be squared with the number of pages he spent doing just that. William Martin, Graham’s best biographer, shows that ultimately fame was irresistible to Graham because it was so helpful in pointing people to Christ. Graham knew “that his message would reach more people, appear more legitimate, and have a greater impact if he were viewed as an important man.”
Reach more people he did. All over the world, Graham and his team set attendance records, from the 185,000 near London in 1954 to the 250,000 in New York City’s Central Park in 1991 to the jaw-dropping 1.1 million–person crowd in Seoul in 1973. At the peak of his ministry, his newspaper column ran all over the country, Decision magazine topped out at some 4 million subscribers, and as late as 1987 his radio program aired on nearly 700 stations around the world. Graham’s quarterly prime-time television shows have been seen all over the country for decades, attracting a much larger percentage of unchurched viewers than any other religious program.
Graham did more than evangelize. By the mid-1950s he shared the vision of Harold Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, and others for a new evangelicalism that would shed the skin of fundamentalist extremism. It would still be conservative at its theological core but would broaden beyond dispensationalism. It would take a softer line on evolution, engage mainstream scholarship, and take “a definite liberal approach to social problems.” Most importantly, it would deploy the parachurch to spread evangelical faith among mainline Protestants and then draw them into evangelical networks.
The first step was to establish and strengthen parachurch agencies that would take this approach. Graham was the key figure in founding Christianity Today magazine, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Graham supported other key organizations like Fuller Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Religious Broadcasters. He encouraged numerous evangelical entrepreneurs to start their own ministries. Both Robert Schuller and James Robison began their weekly television broadcasts at Graham’s instigation. Large donations from Graham himself helped launch Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ and Vonette Bright’s International Prayer Assembly. When Kenneth Taylor couldn’t find a publisher for his Living Bible, the BGEA popularized it by distributing it to television viewers. It went on to sell 40 million copies. Most unusual of all, the BGEA regularly contributed large sums of money to other ministries like Young Life and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
The second step was to engage the mainline Protestant world. Whereas the fundamentalists had shaken the dust off their feet as they left, Graham knew that there were many evangelical pastors and laypeople still in the mainline churches. Early on, he decided to hold crusades only where sponsored by the city’s main organization of Protestant churches. The New York City crusade of 1957 was a watershed. Graham had declined earlier fundamentalist invitations to come to New York, but accepted the invitation of the liberal Protestant Council of New York. While fundamentalists fumed that Graham was giving his blessing to liberalism, most Americans perceived that the elite of the mainline churches were giving their blessing to Graham. In one powerful symbolic move, Graham threw open the gates of the mainline churches to parachurch evangelicalism.
The result was heavy traffic in both directions, as evangelicals saturated the mainline with their message and a preponderance of Protestants relocated to districts outside the mainline walls. By the time Graham had finished his work, the old modernist dream of a non-supernatural Christianity was on life support, kept breathing only by the tenacity of mainline bureaucrats with their wistful memories of protest marches against segregation and the Vietnam War. In large measure, Moody’s dream of a truly ecumenical evangelicalism had come to pass.
Abroad, Graham was even more influential in setting into motion events that brought together evangelicals from around the world and gave them a sense that they were part of a worldwide ecumenical movement. But before he could really devote himself to this work, he had to work through the most serious temptation that faced him in the first half of his career.
The Siren Song of Political Influence
Even before the Los Angeles breakthrough, Graham called together his inner circle of Beverly Shea, Grady Wilson, and Cliff Barrows and asked them to recall every stumbling block that had tripped up evangelists. They all came up with the same list—financial misdeeds, sexual immorality, inflated reports of success, and non-cooperation with local churches. Thereafter they put all team members on a straight salary, never met alone with women, used conservative attendance reports, and involved local churches both before and after crusades. Their commitment to these safeguards, shored up by regular prayer, produced an unsurpassed record of integrity.
None of them anticipated that the greatest danger would be the temptation to exercise political influence. In 1952 Graham secured an act of Congress permitting him to hold the first-ever religious meeting on the steps of the Capitol. Speaking in a voice that foreshadowed the New Christian Right of the 1980s, Graham announced that “the Christian people” of the country would likely vote as a bloc in the election of 1952. He said he would interview every presidential candidate and communicate his preference to other clergy. At the behest of his friend Sid Richardson, a wealthy and politically well-connected Texas oilman, Graham traveled to Europe to try to persuade Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Republican. Graham served as an unpaid religious consultant during the campaign, helping Ike add “a religious note to some of his campaign speeches.” He also publicly criticized Truman’s State Department for its “many blunders” (an action he later regretted as “foolish and presumptuous”).
For the next two decades, Graham dipped in and out of politics. Presidents would brief him before trips abroad and debrief him on his return. They’d ask his advice about policy decisions, as when Eisenhower was considering sending troops to Arkansas to enforce school desegregation rulings. During the Johnson presidency, Graham—having concluded from a study of the Bible that Christians have a special obligation to the poor—aggressively lobbied Congress and did publicity on behalf of anti-poverty legislation. On celebratory occasions, like the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, Graham could seamlessly blend the story of Jesus and an appeal to come to Christ with a message about how America was founded on faith in God and the Bible.
Graham’s critics insisted that his gospel of personal conversion neglected social reform, but Graham’s record was better than they admitted. On civil rights, Graham was early to insist that racism and segregation were completely un-Christian. In 1952 he defied the governor of Mississippi and held racially mixed meetings. A year later—before the Supreme Court had overturned a single segregation law—he defied the Chattanooga crusade committee by personally taking down the cords that marked off the black seating section. In 1956 he wrote in Life magazine that racial prejudice was a sin, and before the New York crusade in 1957 he integrated his team by hiring Howard Jones as an associate evangelist. During the crusade he had Martin Luther King Jr. brief his team about his campaign for civil rights, and then King joined him on the platform for one of the meetings. Privately, King told Graham that his crusades were helpful in breaking down segregation. Certainly the segregationists saw it that way, swamping Graham with hate mail.
It was Graham’s strong friendship with Richard Nixon that drew him into deep political water. In the 1960 presidential race against John Kennedy, Graham introduced Nixon to prominent ministers, coached him on how to appeal to Christian voters, and issued numerous barely veiled statements of support. As the election neared, Graham and his lieutenants organized a meeting that attacked the politics of Kennedy’s Roman Catholic Church. However, Graham himself didn’t attend the meeting, which provoked a furious backlash against its chair, Norman Vincent Peale. Liberal Protestants, Democratic politicians, Jewish groups, labor unions, and editorial pages—even pro-Nixon editors—issued scathing denunciations of anti-Catholic bigotry. Several newspapers and radio stations canceled Peale’s column and his program, and several speaking invitations were withdrawn. By not discussing his role in the meeting, Graham ducked the backlash. Later, on the eve of the election, Graham was asked to write a pro-Nixon piece for Life. He did so, but at the very last minute withdrew it. In both cases, Graham walked up to the brink of throwing himself into partisan politics, only to withdraw at the last moment for fear it might hurt his ministry.
Graham also promoted Nixon in the 1968 race, and his victory brought Graham into the heart of politics. Graham did many favors for Nixon: supporting his Vietnam program, reporting on meetings with world leaders, co-hosting a God-and-Country extravaganza on Independence Day, and regularly arranging meetings with conservative clergy so the White House could explain its policies. Graham stayed in close contact with the White House during Nixon’s re-election campaign and did it many favors, one of which was negotiating with Mark Hatfield to keep him from challenging Nixon for the nomination. Nixon in return did several favors Graham requested—making sure that evangelical parachurch workers got draft deferments, bringing a Christianity Today reporter on Nixon’s momentous China visit, and, most importantly, meeting with a group of black ministers and solving some problems they were having with the Office of Economic Opportunity.
When the S.S. Nixon hit the Watergate iceberg, a good many of those around the President went down with the ship. Graham’s initial public reaction was strong support for Nixon, but as damning evidence accumulated, Graham’s statements modulated. Soon he was taking fire from Nixon’s friends as well as his enemies, and he was probably glad that he was out of the country for most of the controversy. Graham’s deep personal love for Nixon made the Watergate revelations extraordinarily painful—he wept, he threw up—for they revealed a facet of Nixon’s character that Graham had never even glimpsed. Ruth later said that it was the most painful personal experience he had ever gone through.
Graham resolved never again to get so enmeshed in politics. When the New Christian Right began to organize, some of the biggest names in the evangelical parachurch—Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson—succumbed to the Falwellian temptation and began grasping for political power. Graham privately warned them not to go down that road. He’d been there, and it had nearly burned him. Besides, by this time he had caught a much grander vision—the challenge of building an international Christian movement that would be both evangelical and ecumenical.
Billy Graham, World Christian
Evangelicals at mid-century had a curious kind of schizophrenia. When preaching the universal gospel of sin and salvation to Americans, they had a compulsion to varnish it with the old Puritan idea of America as God’s chosen nation, facing special judgment for her sins. They often talked as though the salvation of America was the object of conversion. Then the next week they’d pack their bags and head overseas, preaching a gospel stripped free of nationalistic themes.
So with Graham. He could preach America the Chosen with the best of them, but he also saw the entire world as his parish. Immediately after forming YFC, Torrey Johnson sent his best evangelists on a months-long tour of war-ravaged Europe. A year later, as leaders of the world’s Protestant denominations were about to open the first meeting of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, YFC convened 400 delegates from 27 nations in a nearby Swiss town. Graham attended both meetings. He came away from the WCC meeting disappointed with its liberal theology, but thrilled with the vision of Protestants from around the world cooperating. The YFC gathering raised the question: Would it be possible for evangelicals working outside the denominational structure to build world-wide cooperative networks?
But another question came first: Would a Graham revival work outside of America? Beginning with the 1954 crusade in the London neighborhood of Harringay, the answer was a resounding yes. Twelve weeks of overflow crowds had the long-term effects of making the Anglican clergy more evangelical and making Graham an international figure. Contacts made there led to an astonishing series of mass meetings in India that produced far more inquirers than counselors were prepared for. These in turn led Graham’s translator, Akbar Abdul-Haqq, to become an associate evangelist with the BGEA and begin a string of successful crusades in India. In 1959, crusades in Australia and New Zealand generated enormous stadium crowds and television audiences, and when Graham finally departed, his popularity there ranked second only to the Queen’s.
For the next four decades, Graham traveled across every continent but Antarctica, almost always drawing well, and with exceptional success in Berlin, Brazil, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Mexico City, Finland, and Canada. But nobody had ever seen anything like what happened in South Korea in 1973. With Baptist pastor Kim Jang Whan (“Billy Kim”) doing an inspired job of translating, Graham spoke in person to 3 million during the main crusade, with another million and a half attending associate crusades in other cities and millions more watching on television. Inquirers numbered 100,000; they accelerated membership growth that was already spiraling upward. Graham’s visit did much to bridge divisions between different groups of Korean Christians and give them a vision for evangelizing all of Korea. Soon Korean evangelists themselves were drawing crowds every bit as large as Graham’s, and Korean churches were sending out more missionaries than any nation except the United States.
Traveling the world helped convince Graham that an evangelist has a broader set of responsibilities than merely preaching. In 1972 he visited Northern Ireland in a noteworthy attempt to reduce hostilities there. The next year he visited South Africa when the apartheid government finally agreed to his long-standing demand that all meetings be completely integrated. The 100,000 in Durban and Johannesburg who heard the evangelist declare that apartheid was doomed were the largest interracial gatherings the nation had ever seen. A famine in nearby West Africa led the BGEA to adopt disaster relief as a permanent part of its mission, and the pre-crusade prayer meetings spawned an interracial women’s prayer movement that had 350,000 members within five years.
Traveling the world also damped down Graham’s youthful anti-communism. His dream of preaching behind the Iron Curtain finally came to pass through the unlikely intervention of Hungarian émigré physician Alexander Haraszti. For five years Haraszti pushed and pulled his contacts in Hungary, and at the last minute Graham pulled some strings in the Carter White House. The 1977 visit was seen as a success by everyone concerned—Graham, the Hungarian government, leaders of the Catholic, Reformed, and Free Churches, and even Jewish leaders. Haraszti parlayed this success into an invitation to visit heavily Roman Catholic Poland the next year, a successful tour that also smoothed interfaith relations there. As early as 1963 Graham had spoken out against the nuclear arms race, but on this trip, a visit to Auschwitz affected him so deeply that he began to make world peace a frequent theme in public talks.
This, in turn, opened the door to the Soviet Union, which after much negotiation invited Graham to attend a pro-Soviet peace conference in 1982. After an initial go-ahead from the Reagan White House, Graham indicated he would accept the invitation, only to come under strong pressure from the State Department, other evangelicals, and his own organization to decline it. He went anyway, but at times must have wondered at the wisdom of his decision.
The visit itself went awkwardly at several points, and afterwards Graham was portrayed by the Western press as a naïve dupe of the Soviets. But the Soviet government came away from Graham’s visit with new respect for his diplomatic skills, and this opened the door to visits to East Germany and Czechoslovakia. After that came a very successful 1984 preaching tour of the USSR, and then a remarkable visit to repressive Romania, where over 150,000 people poured into the streets. Graham used every trip to arrange private visits with government officials, which he used both to present the gospel and to press them to ease religious restrictions in their countries. His team also used these visits to strengthen the churches and ease tensions between them.
The extent of Graham’s influence is impossible to measure, but it is a fact that in the 1980s religious restrictions behind the Iron Curtain eased while the churches grew stronger. This put them in position to shelter and nurture the pro-democracy movements that helped bring down the Communist regimes. There’s no doubt that those regimes thought they could exploit Graham to bolster their image. But Graham may have been right in the long run when he predicted, “My propaganda is stronger than theirs.”
When negotiating terms of the evangelist’s visit to the Soviet Union, Alexander Haraszti once declared that Billy Graham “is the head of all Christianity. He actually is the head of the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Protestants—everybody—in a spiritual way … because he is above these religious strifes.” A fit of diplomatic hyperbole, to be sure, but in it was a mustard seed of truth. By the 1970s Graham possessed tremendous international prestige, and his institutional location in an independent parachurch organization made it easy for him to work with Christians from all denominations.
His first attempt to pull together a worldwide evangelical movement was the 1966 Berlin Congress on Evangelism, which he hoped would pull together an ecumenical movement along lines envisioned by Dwight Moody. While a WCC conference in Switzerland was attacking Billy Graham, comparing evangelicals to Nazis, and calling for world-wide revolution, Carl F. H. Henry led the 1,200 Berlin delegates—only 200 from the US—in a 10-day effort to work out a global theology of evangelism.
One outcome of Berlin was the founding of Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission. But more than anything else, Berlin taught Graham’s people that many WCC member churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America also had an intense concern for evangelism. So in the years following, the BGEA organized and financed conferences in those regions, as well as in Europe and North America, making sure that each conference had leadership drawn from its region. The success of these conferences led Graham to begin planning for a major international conference to work out worldwide strategies for evangelization.
That planning bore fruit in 1974, when some 2,400 evangelicals—half from outside Europe and North America, more than half under age 45—gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland. Lausanne gave a tremendous boost to evangelical foreign missions. Delegates learned from Fuller Seminary’s Donald McGavran and Ralph Winter that nearly 2 billion of the world’s people were unreached by the gospel. Since they had no form of indigenous Christianity in their midst, renewed efforts at cross-cultural missionary work were absolutely essential. The Lausanne Covenant committed evangelicals to this task, as well as to working for “justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men from every kind of oppression.” The BGEA agreed to fund an ongoing Lausanne Committee, which in turn spawned regional meetings. The result was unprecedented contact and collaboration between evangelicals across national and denominational lines, especially in the non-Western world.
Despite this quantum leap forward in global evangelical cooperation, Graham wasn’t finished. The group really on his heart were those who shared his calling as itinerant evangelists. So in 1983 the BGEA brought nearly 4,000 of them to Amsterdam for nine days, almost entirely at its own expense. They came from 133 nations, 70 percent from non-Western ones. Only 40 percent had any formal training, and only 10 percent had ever before attended a conference. Plenary sessions and some 200 workshops focused on the priority of proclaiming the gospel, and on practical strategies—how to gather a crowd, keep their attention, preach a message in a few minutes, and get local churches to help with preparation and follow-up. The conference was so well-received that Graham’s organization immediately started preparing a sequel in 1986, which drew over 8,000 attendees from 173 nations. The BGEA picked up the $21 million tab without approaching any foundations or wealthy donors.
The Amsterdam conferences gave the BGEA a contact list of 12,000 evangelists all over the world, which it then tapped to organize a series of satellite crusades between 1989 and 1995. The first three targeted Africa, Asia, and Latin America, respectively; the final two reached 1,400 and 3,000 locations around the world—the latter requiring translation into 117 different languages. And still there were evangelists from all over the world who pleaded for a reprise of the Amsterdam conferences. So in 2000 the BGEA, again at its own expense, brought 10,700 conferees from 209 countries. Graham himself was not healthy enough to attend, and though the delegates wanted to see him, his absence probably had little effect on the impact of the conference.
Amsterdam and the satellite crusades may have been Billy Graham’s finest moments. Many of the characteristic elements of his early years were absent—calls to save America, striving to make evangelicalism respectable, hobnobbing with celebrities, audiences of the middle class. Amsterdam was evangelism purified. Graham and his organization poured themselves out for the entire world, encouraging and empowering men and women, great and small, who shared Graham’s burden to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
William Martin observed that the forces gathered and unleashed at the Berlin, Lausanne, and Amsterdam meetings constitute a third worldwide ecumenical movement, every bit as important as the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. The amazing thing about the evangelical movement is that it is sustained not by a single organizational entity, but by multiple parachurch organizations, independent of each other but dreaming a common dream. Graham’s genius was his ability to inspire people not to follow him, but to strike out on their own, following Jesus by proclaiming the gospel in their own way; and then to call them together, to inspire and equip thousands more to do the same thing. We may never see his like again. But perhaps—because of his faithfulness in calling, equipping, and sending others to stand up and proclaim, “The Bible says…”—the world won’t need another Billy Graham. And he and Moody, whom Graham was sure he’d meet in heaven, can stand together and look on in wonder at what God hath wrought.
Michael S. Hamilton, vice president for programs and special initiatives at the Issachar Fund, is currently working on the book Calvin College and the Revival of Christian Learning in America (Eerdmans, forthcoming).
If you go to Charlotte, North Carolina, you will find that the farmland where Billy Graham grew up has been transformed. The rolling fields of the early-20th-century agricultural South have morphed into the strip malls, office buildings, and subdivisions of the New South. But Charlotte of 1918, the year of Graham’s birth, was a sleepier town. Its first streetcars, creating new suburban residences, had just been built, and it wasn’t until Billy was three years old that one of the nation’s first radio stations graced Charlotte’s airwaves. A year later, Efird’s Department Store, which described itself as “the only store south of Philadelphia with escalators,” opened. It was in this Charlotte—straddling rural and urban, and experiencing the first pangs of transition into the world-class city people know today—that Graham was born.
Frank and Morrow Graham built, and reared their four children on, a thriving dairy farm. The children grew up in a colonial-style house with indoor plumbing. The family was close-knit. Indeed, Billy and two younger siblings, Catherine and Melvin, shared a bedroom until Catherine was 13. Jean Graham Ford—the youngest Graham sibling, born almost 14 years after Billy, and his only surviving sibling today—recalls the special bond shared by Billy and his mother. Billy was always doing little things to please her, like going out into the fields and bringing her wildflowers. Jean also recalls that young Billy loved Morrow’s cooking and had a seemingly insatiable appetite: “When you walked in the back door during the spring and summer months, Mother would always have tomatoes on the shelf in the back porch. He would pick up the tomato and eat it just like he would an apple.” Billy especially enjoyed a boiled custard that only his mother could make. She would fix it by the quart, and he would drink it down.
The Graham children’s early years were quiet but full. Morrow Graham recalled it as “just a quiet country life.” Billy and Melvin helped in the dairy farm from a young age, and they played ball. “Billy always loved his ball,” his mother recalled.
The story of Billy Graham’s conversion is well known. In the fall of 1934, Mordecai Ham, a Kentucky-born Baptist revivalist, came to Charlotte and preached a powerful sermon. The revival stretched over weeks, and for the first week or so, the Grahams didn’t attend. Billy was persuaded to check out Ham by Albert McKain, one of his father’s most trusted employees. There, in response to Ham’s powerful teachings about sin, Billy famously made a decision for Christ. Later that night, standing in the Grahams’ breakfast room with fixings for a sandwich, Billy shared his experience with his family: putting down his sandwich, he turned to Morrow and said, “Oh, Mother, I’ve been saved tonight.” In a 1976 interview, Billy’s sister Catherine recalled some of the subtle ways his conversion changed him: He no longer wanted to go to the movies, and he was nicer to his siblings. Doubtless, Billy’s sense that stirring preaching could inspire a dramatic personal commitment to Christ inspired his own lifelong ministry.
And yet it is worth remembering that, as decisive as this experience was, it wasn’t the beginning of Graham’s Christian life. To the contrary, by the time Graham found his way to Ham’s revival, he had already experienced nearly two decades of powerful formation in his local Presbyterian church and at home. Both of Graham’s parents were raised in the Presbyterian Church, although Morrow was more active than her husband before they married. As children, Jean recalls, the Graham family was at church every time the doors opened, and prayer was part of their daily life. “From the time Mother and Daddy were married, they had family devotions. They prayed together and read Scripture together—even on their honeymoon they knelt together.”
Throughout Billy’s childhood, the family had devotions, usually at night, in which Frank or Morrow would read a Bible passage and then family members would take turns praying. Sabbath was a special day in the Graham household. Morrow cooked all of Sunday’s food on Saturday so that no more work than necessary (cows do always have to be milked) would be undertaken on Sunday. This was the strong foundation on which Billy’s decisive moment at the Ham revival was built.
From Bob Jones to Florida Bible
But Billy’s early Christian formation was not the only aspect of his life in Charlotte that made an impact. His experiences at various schools would shape his intellectual life, and his understanding of Christian institutions, for decades. Scholarship was not Billy’s great strength; indeed, at first it was not clear to anyone that he would graduate from high school. His sister Jean recalls the day his homeroom teacher came to the house and warned Morrow that her eldest son wouldn’t pass his senior year. (He graduated from Sharon High School in 1936.) His lackadaisical attitude toward schoolwork may have been more of a comment on his desire to follow his own intellectual interests than anything else. He loved to read and read what he wanted to, even if it meant letting some of his assignments fall by the wayside. Jean remembers Billy often sitting cross-legged in a chair, “biting his fingernails and reading, letting the rest of the world go by.”
That Morrow Graham’s children would attend college was a given, but before matriculating came Billy’s storied stint as a Fuller brush salesman. He surprised his friends—who thought he was not the most hardworking person on the planet, and that he would be a flop—by selling brushes throughout the Carolinas. Is it any coincidence that America’s most famous and successful proponent of the gospel had his first career success persuading people that they needed a Fuller brush? Though Graham never exactly “sold” the gospel, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine that the charm and persuasiveness he used to sell brushes were part of the same powers of persuasion that God used to awaken people to the gospel through Billy’s preaching.
Then came college. Where should a lanky farmer’s son from North Carolina study? Morrow had her heart set on her children attending Wheaton, but Bob Jones College (then located in Cleveland, Tennessee) came to seem a better option, because it was close to home and less pricey. Yet Billy struggled at Bob Jones from the moment he arrived. As he recalled in his memoir, Just As I Am, students’ social life and intellectual life were strictly regulated; students’ mail was even checked to make sure nothing untoward got through the postal service. Perhaps foreshadowing the showdown he and Jones would have years later, Billy chafed against the regulations. Indeed, Billy and his friend Wendell Phillips both broke enough rules to rack up about 149 demerits—one more, and they’d be out. His schoolwork suffered, as did his health and, not surprisingly, his spiritual life. “I can’t seem to get anywhere in prayer,” he wrote to his mother. “I don’t feel anything.”
So in 1937, Billy transferred to Florida Bible Institute, which he found much more congenial. There, he learned a framework for thinking about critical issues that would stay with him for life: “We were encouraged to think things through for ourselves, but always with the unique authority of Scripture as our guide. … I could stretch my mind without feeling that I was doing violence to my soul.”
It was also in Florida that Billy started preaching. His mentor, academic dean John Minder, brought Billy with him on an Easter jaunt to a Baptist conference center in Palatka, Florida. Their hosts invited Minder to preach that evening at a small Baptist church. Minder, perhaps determined to get his young friend into the pulpit (but perhaps unable to imagine the awesome ministry that would result), declined the invitation, saying that Billy would be happy to take the service. What could Billy do but agree? So that evening, in a small room where a potbellied stove warded off the chill, Billy stood up before a small group of Baptist preachers and recited not one but four sermons he had memorized from a Moody Press book. This was, Billy later recalled, an “awkward debut,” to say the least. “Whatever glimmer of talent Dr. Minder might have thought he saw in me was Raw, with a capital R.”
That night in Palatka was, of course, just the beginning. Before long, the rough edges of Billy’s earliest sermons were burnished through prayer and practice, and he grew from a tyro into a masterful preacher. The seeds of his phenomenal work for Christ were clearly evident in his early years. His love of reading and his willingness to think about challenging issues, always in a biblical framework, would find new direction when he finally matriculated at Wheaton. And his understanding that powerful preaching could help lead even an ordinary North Carolina farm boy to make a decision for Christ would yield copious fruit in decades of evangelism around the world.
Lauren F. Winner is assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and author most recently of Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.
Billy Graham had a life-long influence on me as a person and as a pastor. It began in my childhood with my grandmother. My grandmother told me, “I pray for two people every day. I pray for Billy Graham, and I pray for you.”
She always wanted me to be a pastor. Today, I have no doubt that her prayers and the fact that Billy Graham was in our home every month with Decision magazine and every week on the radio did much to influence the direction my life took.
As I grew older, I began to understand Graham’s commitment to keeping his character clean. As a young pastor, I understood why he and his staff made the “Modesto Manifesto,” a covenant to ensure the integrity of his ministry. Later, when I started Saddleback Church, our staff made similar covenants—the Saddleback Staff Ten Commandments—based on the same idea.
The goal in everything we do at Saddleback is to make it easier for us to bring people to Jesus. You build bridges of friendship from your heart to theirs so Jesus Christ can cross that bridge into their life. Reaching out to those outside of evangelical bounds is a key lesson Graham taught me.
Graham realized that the whole gospel must be taught. In so many ways, he was a pioneer. Long before churches were ready for racial integration, he integrated his crusades. That’s broadening the agenda. The great evil of that generation was segregation. He took it on.
He was primarily an evangelist, but he used his enormous influence to say the church has to care about issues other than evangelism. Like Graham, we believe strongly in the primacy of evangelism. But also like him, we’re just foolish enough to take on issues that show Christian love to a hurting and confused world.
I learned from Graham to never lose your single focus. His focus was always on bringing people to Christ. I remember when Graham received the Congressional Gold Medal in the rotunda of the US Capitol. There were about 400 chairs, packed with VIPs. President Clinton and leaders of the House and Senate addressed the crowd, honoring Graham’s life and achievements.
What do you think Graham did when it came time for him to get up to speak? He spent maybe three minutes acknowledging the honor and how little he deserved it. Then he said, “Let me tell you about Jesus.” Even though the entire event was about him, he turned the meeting toward his lifetime central focus: Jesus.
He never gave up looking for new ways to share the gospel. Somebody quoted Graham as saying, “It’s not how many people can I get into the stadium but how many people can I get the word out to.” At Saddleback, we have tried to follow his philosophy. In the early 1980s, Saddleback was the first church to use a fax machine for evangelism. I came up with a thing called “the fax of life.” I wrote a weekly devotional, and we faxed it out to business leaders. Graham learned of what we were doing and wrote me a note saying, “Using the fax machine to get the word out is a great idea.”
Saddleback was the first church on the Internet. That was in 1992, before Internet Explorer, Netscape, or Safari. We used Gopher, FTP, and Mosaic, and we put up a little website.
I learned from Graham to build your ministry on a team. Graham knew this, and he built a core team that was with him 50 years. Everybody on the team brought strengths to the table. When you build an effective team, you hire people who compensate for your weaknesses and who mobilize or reinforce your strengths, because nobody can be good at everything.
Part of the brilliance of Graham was that he understood how to draw the net. A lot of great preachers don’t. They preach really good sermons, but they don’t know how to call for commitment. It takes courage to stand up there and say, “Will you do this?” And then, just wait. I watched Graham do this for years.
The greatest influence the man had on me came not from what he taught, but simply from who he was. Whenever anybody says, “Who’s going to replace Graham?” the answer is that he’s irreplaceable. There will never be another Billy Graham.
Acts 13:36, my life verse, is an appropriate passage to describe him. It says, “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep.” I can’t think of a finer epitaph to have on your tombstone than that you served God’s purpose in your generation. That says you did the timeless in a timely way. You contended for that which never changes in a society, in a world, in a culture that’s constantly changing. Graham served God’s purpose in his generation, and now that he has fulfilled that purpose, he is gone.
This man’s integrity and lifestyle were so right and his heart was so God-directed that it came through in his words and presence. With God, the direction of your heart is even more important than your sins. With David, God overlooked all the stupid things David did because he had a heart after God. He wanted to do the right thing. Graham wanted to do the right thing. I want to do the right thing; I don’t always do it but I want to do the right thing. That direction of your heart is more important than being perfect.
Rick Warren is the founder of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose-Driven Life.
Billy Graham debuted on a national stage during his Los Angeles Crusade in fall 1949. Just 30 years old, Graham met his audience with a fiery call for repentance from sin, boldly announcing on the opening night that “this city of wickedness and sin” had a choice between revival and renewal—or judgment. At first, Los Angeles responded rather coolly to Graham’s ire. But after a publicity boost from news magnate William Randolph Hearst, Graham’s crusade entered its “5th Sin-Smashing Week!” A week later, the “Canvas Cathedral” overflowed as Graham presided over the “6th Great Sin-Smashing Week!”
Graham was no false advertiser. According to The Los Angeles Times, when the sawdust settled, some 6,000 souls had either “re-consecrated their lives” or converted to a life in Christ, “weeping forgiveness for their sins.” Their tears were understandable since, according to Graham, they had narrowly missed hellfire and damnation. “Those who reject Christ,” Graham bellowed in an early sermon, “will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone to spend eternity.” He emphasized the point even more vividly in a sermon about Judgment Day. Upon Jesus’ return, Graham warned, he would condemn the unrepentant with “fire coming from his eyes,” and a “sword coming from his mouth.” The young evangelist rounded off the theme of condemnation near the end of his crusade with a recitation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Such firebrand sermons produced restless nights among some audience members, forcing Graham to employ a “‘swing shift’” evangelist to handle decisions for Christ motivated by nightmares of a terrifying Jesus and a wrathful God.
Along with the thousands who turned to Christ, Graham’s life and evangelism were never the same after Los Angeles. Virtually overnight he went from a well-known minister within the evangelical subculture to a nationally recognized preacher. Amidst a deluge of media coverage, an editor at Life captured the transformation simply but presciently: “A New Evangelist Arises.” Graham’s meteoric rise to prominence awakened him to the burden and responsibility of his national role. That his sermons were scrutinized by the press and analyzed by “hundreds of clergy, laymen, and theologians throughout the world,” Graham recalled later, “baffled, perplexed,” and “frightened” him. Consequently, the Los Angeles crusade was the beginning of the end of the “turn or burn” style of preaching that had characterized many of his sermons there.
If the 1949 campaign marked the beginning of a shift in his preaching tone, the end came a decade later. Graham announced in a 1960 Christian Century article, “What Ten Years Have Taught Me,” that he centered his message on the Cross and its dual revelation of the “sins of men” but also the “unwearying love of God.” Four years later, in 1964, he confirmed the tonal change of his evangelism, remarking, “I stress a great deal the love of God from the Cross saying to the whole world, ‘I love you, I love you, I will forgive you.’ “
What about the intervening years caused this shift in emphasis? In the space of a decade, Graham had become the most renowned evangelist in the world, magnifying a hundredfold the burden he felt after Los Angeles. With an audience numbering in the millions, Graham understood that his words had the potential to alienate as much as invite untold numbers around the globe. Accordingly, while the theme of repentance was as strong as ever, he curbed excessive references to the flames of hell. More importantly, Graham, as the title of his Century article suggested, adopted the posture of a student. Lacking a formal theological education, he hungrily studied the Bible and theology and realized more fully that the gospel really was good news to those “lost and confused and frustrated about purpose and meaning in life.” Practical experience also pushed Graham toward his revised message. His wide travels schooled him in the vast diversity of “the family of God” and further convinced him of the need for Christians of all stripes to “love one another.” Finally, Graham studied his audience and recognized that he ministered to a population—especially in America—beset by doubt, loneliness, and unhappiness during an era known as the “Age of Anxiety.” In light of such malaise, Graham adjusted his message to fit the concerns of his constituents, promising an “age of grace” for those who would turn to Christ.
Graham’s greater assurances about the love of God transformed his evangelism in his attitude toward sin, social crises, and ecumenism. With the love of God at the center of his message, Graham spoke more often of sin as the condition of all humanity, as opposed to sin as particular transgressions of one kind or another. This distinction crystallized for him as he recognized that God’s loving sacrifice of Jesus at the Cross was meant to “deal with sin and not just individual sins.” Graham’s decreasing emphasis on a gospel of good behavior strengthened his commitment to a social gospel. Make no mistake, Graham never wavered in his primary mission to bring individuals to Christ. But he worried less about—as he preached in 1949—”the sins of the Sunset Strip,” and more about social problems, including racism, AIDS, and poverty. Finally, Graham’s ecumenical spirit deepened and broadened. He refused to speculate about the fate of non-Christians, and offered that “the love of God is absolute … and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
The legacies of Graham’s ministry are many, but perhaps none is greater than its demonstration that it is not the flames of hell but the triumphant love of God that defines and emboldens a Christian life.
Andrew Finstuen is the director of the Honors College and associate professor of history at Boise State University. He is also the author of Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety.
This article originally appeared in the February 2, 1959 issue of Christianity Today.
Billy Graham’s ministry to the big cities, widened in its outreach by radio and television, is one of the outstanding contributions to the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in our generation. His radio message on “The Sin of Tolerance” has been especially blessed. Reprints are available from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis.
One of the pet words of this age is “tolerance.” It is a good word, but we have tried to stretch it over too great an area of life. We have applied it too often where it does not belong. The word “tolerant” means “liberal,” “broad-minded,” “willing to put up with beliefs opposed to one’s convictions,” and “the allowance of something not wholly approved.”
Tolerance, in one sense, implies the compromise of one’s convictions, a yielding of ground upon important issues. Hence, over-tolerance in moral issues has made us soft, flabby and devoid of conviction.
We have become tolerant about divorce; we have become tolerant about the use of alcohol; we have become tolerant about delinquency; we have become tolerant about wickedness in high places; we have become tolerant about immorality; we have become tolerant about crime and we have become tolerant about godlessness. We have become tolerant of unbelief.
In a book recently published on what prominent people believe, 60 out of 100 did not even mention God, and only 11 out of 100 mentioned Jesus. There was a manifest tolerance toward soft character and a broadmindedness about morals, characteristic of our day. We have been sapped of conviction, drained of our beliefs and bereft of our faith.
The Way Is Narrow
The sciences, however, call for narrow-mindedness. There is no room for broad-mindedness in the laboratory. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. It is never 100 degrees nor 189 degrees—but always 212. Water freezes at 32 degrees—not at 23 or 31.
Objects heavier than air are always attracted to the center of the earth. They always go down—never up. I know this is very narrow, but the law of gravity decrees it so, and science is narrow.
Take mathematics. The sum of two plus two is four—not three-and-a-half. That seems very narrow, but arithmetic is not broad. Neither is geometry. It says that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. That seems very dogmatic and narrow, but geometry is intolerant.
A compass will always point to the magnetic north. It seems that is a very narrow view, but a compass is not very “broad-minded.” If it were, all the ships at sea, and all the planes in the air would be in danger.
If you should ask a man the direction to New York City and he said, “Oh, just take any road you wish, they all lead there,” you would question either his sanity or his truthfulness. Somehow, we have gotten it into our minds that “all roads lead to heaven.” You hear people say, “Do your best,” “Be honest,” and “Be sincere—and you will make it to heaven all right.”
But Jesus Christ, who journeyed from heaven to earth and back to heaven again—who knew the way better than any man who ever lived—said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13,14).
Jesus was narrow about the way of salvation.
He plainly pointed out that there are two roads in life. One is broad—lacking in faith, convictions, and morals. It is the easy, popular, careless way. It is the way of the crowd, the way of the majority, the way of the world. He said, “Many there be that go in thereat.” But he pointed out that this road, easy though it is, popular though it may be, heavily traveled though it is, leads to destruction. And in loving, compassionate intolerance he says, “Enter ye in at the strait gate … because strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life.”
Our Lord’s Intolerance
His was the intolerance of a pilot who maneuvers his plane through the storm, realizing that a single error, just one flash of broad-mindedness, might bring disaster to all those passengers on the plane.
Once while flying from Korea to Japan, we ran through a rough snowstorm; and when we arrived over the airport in Tokyo, the ceiling and visibility were almost zero. The pilot had to make an instrument landing. I sat up in the cockpit with the pilot and watched him sweat it out as he was brought in by ground control approach. A man in the tower at the airport talked us in. I did not want these men to be broad-minded, but narrow-minded. I knew that our lives depended on it. Just so, when we come in for the landing in the great airport in heaven, I don’t want any broad-mindedness. I want to come in on the beam, and even though I may be considered narrow here, I want to be sure of a safe landing there.
Christ was so intolerant of man’s lost estate that he left his lofty throne in the heavenlies, took on himself the form of man, suffered at the hands of evil men and died on a cross to purchase our redemption. So serious was man’s plight that he could not look upon it lightly. With the love that was his, he could not be broadminded about a world held captive by its lusts, its appetites and its sins.
Having paid such a price, he could not be tolerant about man’s indifference toward him and the redemption he had wrought. He said, “He that is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30). He also said, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).
He spoke of two roads, two kingdoms, two masters, two rewards, and two eternities. And he said, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). We have the power to choose whom we will serve, but the alternative to choosing Christ brings certain destruction. Christ said that! The broad, wide, easy, popular way leads to death and destruction. Only the way of the Cross leads home.
Playing Both Sides
The popular, tolerant attitude toward the gospel of Christ is like a man going to watch the Braves and the Dodgers play a baseball game and rooting for both sides. It would be impossible for a man who has no loyalty to a particular team to really get into the game.
Baseball fans are very intolerant in both Milwaukee and Los Angeles. If you would cheer for both sides in Los Angeles or Milwaukee, someone would yell, “Hey, make up your mind who you’re for.”
Christ said, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon … no man can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). One of the sins of this age is the sin of broad-mindedness. We need more people who will step out and say unashamedly, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).
Jesus was intolerant toward hypocrisy.
He pronounced more “woes” on the Pharisees than on any other sect because they were given to outward piety but inward sham. “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He said, “for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within ye are full of extortion and excess” (Matt. 23:25).
The church is a stage where all the performers are professors, but where too few of the professors are performers. A counterfeit Christian, singlehandedly, can do more to retard the progress of the church than a dozen saints can do to forward it. That is why Jesus was so intolerant with sham!
Sham’s only reward is everlasting destruction. It is the only sin which has no reward in this life. Robbers have their loot; murderers their revenge; drunkards their stimulation; but the hypocrite has nothing but the contempt of his neighbors and the judgment of God hereafter. That is why Jesus said, “Be not as the hypocrites” (Matt. 6:16).
Jesus was intolerant toward selfishness.
He said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself” (Luke 9:23). Self-centeredness is the basic cause of much of our distress in life. Hypochondria, a mental disorder which is accompanied by melancholy and depression, is often caused by self-pity and self-centeredness.
Most of us suffer from spiritual near-sightedness. Our interests, our loves, and our energies are too often focused upon ourselves.
Jesus was intolerant of selfishness. He underscored the fact that his disciples were to live outflowingly rather than selfishly. To the rich young ruler he said, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven …” (Matt. 19:21). It wasn’t the giving of his goods that Jesus demanded, particularly-but his release from selfishness and its devastating effect on his personality and life.
He was intolerant of selfishness when he said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). The “life” which Jesus urges us to lose is the selfishness that lives within us, the old nature of sin that is in conflict with God. Peter, James and John left their nets, but Jesus did not object to nets as such—it was the selfish living they symbolized that he wanted them to forsake. Matthew left the “custom seat,” a political job, to follow Christ. But Jesus did not object to a political career as such—it was the selfish quality of living which it represented that he wanted Matthew to forsake.
So, in your life and mine, “self” must be crucified and Christ enthroned. He was intolerant of any other way, for he knew that selfishness and the Spirit of God cannot exist together.
Jesus was intolerant toward sin.
He was tolerant toward the sinner but intolerant toward the evil which enslaved him. To the adulteress he said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). He forgave her because he loved her; but he condemned sin because he loathed it with a holy hatred.
God has always been intolerant of sin! His Word says: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil” (Isa. 1:16). “Awake to righteousness, and sin not” (1 Cor. 15:34). “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts …” (Isa. 55:7).
Christ was “so intolerant of sin that he died on the cross to free men from its power. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Sin lies at the root of society’s difficulties today. Whatever separates man from God disunites man from man. The world problem will never be solved until the question of sin is settled.
But the Cross is God’s answer to sin. To all who will receive the blessed news of salvation through Christ, it forever crosses out and cancels sin’s power. Forest rangers know well the value of the “burn-back” in fighting forest fires. To save an area from being burned, they simply burn away all of the trees and shrubs to a safe distance; and when the fire reaches that burned-out spot, those standing there are safe from the flames. Fire is thus fought by fire.
Calvary was a colossal fighting of fire by fire. Christ, taking on himself all of our sins, allowed the fire of sin’s judgment to fall upon him. The area around the Cross has become a place of refuge for all who would escape the judgment of sin. Take your place with him at the Cross; stand by the Cross; yield your life to him who redeemed you on the Cross, and the fire of sin’s judgment can never touch you.
God is intolerant of sin. That intolerance sent his Son to die for us. He has said “that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish.” The clear implication is that those who refuse to believe in Christ shall be eternally lost. Come to him today, while his Spirit deals with your heart!
To be honest, Graham’s sermon content does not set him apart from other preachers, if you judge a sermon by one-of-a-kind outlines, profound biblical exposition, or unforgettable illustrations. Slip a transcript into a homiletics professor’s grading pile and it’s unlikely to end up with very high marks.
Make no mistake, though, Graham wrote messages ideal for the masses and for calling people to decision. In other words, to understate the obvious, he really knew how to preach an evangelistic sermon. Graham spoke of life and death, heaven and hell, repentance, society in decay, souls in misery, the love of God, the Cross of Christ. He majored in the gospel in a way simple and clear, relied on Scripture alone for his authority—repeating “the Bible says” without apology—and pursued the listener’s heart and will from beginning to end. The title of his ministry’s monthly magazine—Decision—testifies to this single-minded aim. His preaching displayed a galvanizing urgency because he asked what you will do with Christ today.
Watching Graham stand and deliver, it’s hard not to notice externals. Though not alone among preachers, he certainly enjoyed a commanding appearance. Tall and straight as a ship’s mast, he had long arms that sliced the air constantly, eyes as arresting as any general at the head of a charge or any prophet come down from the mountain, thick hair, a high forehead, and a super-hero jaw. If we tried to explain Graham’s preaching results empirically, we likely would land here, on his visage and voice.
Oh, what a voice. Other preachers may sound as wonderful as Graham, but few have surpassed him. You should listen to his sermons preached in the 1950s and ’60s—for example, “The Great Judgment” in 1958, “The Moral Problem” in 1964, and “The Second Coming” in 1969. His voice draws you in with its Carolina elegance, masculine strength, Beethoven-like melodic authority, kitchen-fire urgency—and passion, passion, passion. His voice was a Steinway piano, and the strings were lightning and thunder.
Yes, on the natural level, external factors played a part in Graham’s impact, and it is theologically correct to acknowledge that. Scripture says all our natural abilities come from God, and that God works through what he has created. Thus our natural abilities align with God’s providence in how he guides and uses us. Although 2 Corinthians 12 teaches that God’s power was made perfect in the apostle Paul’s weaknesses, God also used Paul’s towering intelligence and zealous personality.
Even so, observable factors played only a supporting role in Graham’s fruitful preaching. No one hearing a preacher sincerely responds to Christ apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, no matter how impressive the preacher. If God had not been moving in Graham, his sermons, and his hearers, not one person would have truly embraced Christ—not one! Billy Graham would have been Billy Who?
Therefore, though it’s a truism, we must ultimately credit Graham’s success in preaching to God’s choice. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!” (Rom. 11:36). No doubt, other preachers prayed and read their Bibles as much or more than Graham, lived as holy as he did, and set their hands to the plow with equal commitment and diligence, but God in his wisdom decided Graham would be the one to reap the gigantic harvest.
There is one more thing, though, about Graham that ties together the human and divine, the natural and supernatural. What animated his voice, frame, and sermons was his heart. When I watch Graham’s messages, I sense a heart of goodness, honesty, faith, sincerity, and humility. I listen, I weigh his heart, and I trust that man. Partly because I believe him, I believe that the resurrected Jesus he proclaims is God’s unique Son and man’s only Savior. Graham’s heart and life have stood the test of time, stamping the final seal of moral authority on a once-in-a-century preacher.
Craig Brian Larson is the former editor of PreachingToday.com and pastor of North Shore Church in Chicago.
John R. W. Stott first met Billy Graham in the 1940s, while sharing an open-air meeting at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. Their shared concern for evangelism led to a close association during Graham’s 1954 Harringay crusade, which captivated London nightly for nearly three months. Over the next 50 years, the two men’s lives would frequently intertwine, through shared leadership in significant ventures like the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization and in personal friendship. In 2007, Stott offered these unpublished reminiscences:
Integrity. If I had to choose one word with which to characterize Billy Graham, it would be integrity. He was all of a piece. There was no dichotomy between what he said and what he was. He practiced what he preached.
Finance. When Graham first came to London, a considerable group of church leaders was wondering whether to invite him to preach there. They were critical, but he had anticipated their questions. He was able to say that he received a fixed salary, less than most salaries paid to the senior pastors of large churches, and he received no “love offerings” (unaccounted extras). As for crusade finances, they were published in the press during each crusade.
Sex. Graham was exemplary in his private life. Sometimes he said publicly that he had slept with one woman only, his wife, Ruth. He had no skeletons in any closet.
Harringay. After postponing the close of the Harringay crusade, it went on to last 12 weeks, becoming a remarkable phenomenon. Our church (All Souls, Langham Place) was fully involved, and I went almost every night. Twelve thousand people assembled, night after night, and listened attentively to the message. Each night, I asked myself what brought the crowds, since many of our churches were half-empty. The answer, I thought, was that Graham was the first transparently sincere preacher they had ever heard. There was something authentic about that man. As many media people confessed, “We don’t agree with him, but we know he is sincere.”
Courage. Few Christian leaders have been granted an audience with successive American presidents, with Queen Elizabeth II, and with many other national leaders. Lesser mortals might well have used such opportunities to boost their own ego, but Graham used them as opportunities for the gospel. He was not afraid of human beings, however exalted in popular opinion.
Study. Graham was always conscious of lacking a formal theological education. But he had a substantial personal library and kept up some regular reading. Speaking to about 600 clergy in London in 1979, Graham startled his audience with two suggestions for how he would change his ministry if he were to start over. First, he would study three times as often and take on fewer engagements. Second, he would give more time to prayer. In making these statements, he must have had in mind the two apostolic priorities of Acts 6:4 (“attention to prayer and the ministry of the word”).
Christmas. In November 1955, I had the privilege of serving as Graham’s “chief assistant missioner” during his Cambridge University mission. During those ten days our friendship strengthened, and I was touched to be invited to spend Christmas with the family at Montreat. I cherish two vivid memories of that visit. The first was family prayers each day. I saw the world-famous evangelist reading the Scriptures and praying with Ruth and their children. Secondly, we all carried Christmas parcels to a settlement of poor “hillbilly” families on the mountain nearby. In both cases, Graham the mass evangelist was sharing the gospel with small groups.
Message. One important aspect of Graham’s preaching was his continuous return to the good news of Christ crucified. Though this habit garnered constant criticism, he refused to be dislodged from gospel essentials. For preparation, he also read several newspapers and had aides scouring them, so he could comment on current events.
Social conscience. Graham accepted the statements of the Lausanne Covenant, which commended both social action and evangelism. Although he knew that his personal vocation was to evangelize, he had the courage to refuse involvement in a South African crusade governed by apartheid strictures. He also had a personally tender social conscience and supported many good social causes.
Influence. He did much (especially through the Amsterdam conference) to encourage younger evangelists. He put evangelism on the ecclesiastical map, making it respectable in a new way. But his influence is perhaps best seen in a new worldwide evangelical unity, manifest in such initiatives as the launching of Christianity Today and the gathering of several global evangelical congresses.
Team. A notable feature of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is that it has never been a one-man show. True, Graham was always the main preacher. But the trio of Graham, Cliff Barrows, and Bev Shea always appreciated and supported one another. No traces of jealousy spoiled this cooperation.
John R. W. Stott (1921–2011) was rector of All Souls Church in London, founder of Langham Partnership International, and author of many books, including Basic Christianity and The Cross of Christ.
A month after Anies Baswedan became Jakarta’s new governor in October 2017, he took part in an Islamist rally at the National Monument, a tower that stands as a symbol of Indonesia’s independence. Just weeks later, the governor invited the archipelago’s Christians to celebrate Christmas there.
The move was likely an attempt to soothe emotions rubbed raw by the bitter division of the Jakarta campaign: Baswedan was backed by Islamist hard-liners who charged his Christian rival, incumbent Basuki Purnama (popularly known as Ahok), with blasphemy for referencing the Qur‘an. The charges cost the popular Ahok the campaign, and later earned him two years in jail.
Having received just 58 percent of the vote, Baswedan began attempts to reach out to Ahok’s many supporters at his inauguration, saying that “Indonesia is not based on only one religion” and “unity should also be celebrated in Jakarta.”
But Jakarta’s Christians turned down his offer of using the special location for an outdoor Christmas celebration.
“We appreciated the positive initiative; however, we need to consider that not every religion celebrates their religious holidays openly,” the chair of the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Communion of Churches said during a press conference. “We decided to celebrate Christmas at an indoor venue instead of at the Monas [National Monument] because we didn’t want to cause a disruption at the monument, which is a neutral venue.”
So Baswedan moved the Christmas celebration to an indoor venue on January 5, about two months after Indonesian Christians welcomed a far more substantial victory.
In November, Indonesia’s top court threw out the requirement that citizens must choose one of six faiths for their national identification cards.
“Most Protestants are in favor of the decision, because they sympathize with the plight of indigenous people,” said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. (He analyzed the ruling for Providence journal.) “They support religious freedom in itself, and think that increases in religious freedom will help Protestants.”
The rules—dictating that each Indonesian identify with Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism—were established in 2006.
Leaving the space blank was an option, but not a safe one. Atheists can be convicted under Indonesia’s blasphemy law, and punished with up to five years in jail. In addition, those with a blank religion space have reported trouble with tasks requiring ID, such as signing children up for school or applying for jobs. Some chose not to apply for an identity card at all, but then couldn’t complete basic legal functions such as getting married or purchasing land.
The Constitutional Court voted 9–0 to reverse the regulations, saying they violated Indonesia’s 1945 constitution, which simultaneously declares the country “based upon the belief in the One and Only God” and “guarantees all persons the freedom of worship each according to his/her own religion and belief.”
The court offered a catchall alternative label—Believers of the Faith—to cover those who follow a traditional indigenous religion. Estimates of those following such religions range from 750,000 to 20 million, Marshall wrote.
“The major test will be whether the government will extend the court’s ruling to the groups that suffer most from Indonesia’s religious restrictions,” he wrote. “These are the aliran sesat, beliefs that are held to be deviant and heretical versions of legally recognized religions.”
The groups most often seen as deviant are Ahmadiyya or Shia, both versions of Islam. But they could technically also include Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons as “deviations” from Christianity.
Even if Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons gain more space as a result of this ruling, it’s unlikely to affect traditional Protestants, at least in the short term, Marshall told CT.
“Perhaps there will be fewer indigenous people going to Christian schools, or registering as Christian,” but there will be “no major effect,” he said.
Even that depends on the level of enforcement of the top court’s ruling.
“Previously, local governments have simply ignored [high court] decisions—such as the case of the Yasmin church in Bogor,” he said. In 2003, the church in a majority-Muslim area got legal permission and built a church. But after angry protests from local Muslims, the mayor closed the doors. The church argued its case up to the Supreme Court, which gave it permission to reopen in 2010. But the mayor has ignored the order, and the doors are still closed.
“The national government has done nothing to enforce the [Yasmin] order,” Marshall said. “This is less likely in this [religious ID] case, which is national in scope. But there may be forces which hinder its implementation.”
Enforcement seems likely. Indonesia’s House of Representatives has already said it will make the revisions.
If they—and other government officials—follow through, “it will increase religious freedom, and Christians do well with religious freedom,” Marshall added. “In particular, it may undercut current restrictions on opening new centers of worship—which would be good for all, but especially Christians.”
Indonesia is nearly 90 percent Muslim, and has a heritage of tolerance; its two largest Islamic organizations have had no objection to the ID card change. (Though the country’s top Islamic clerical body complained that putting Islam on the same level as indiginous religions “hurts the feelings” of Muslims.)
Ahok’s imprisonment hasn’t cooled the archipelago’s radical Islamist elements—almost a quarter of high school and college students recently said they would fight to establish an Islamic caliphate in Indonesia.
But the secular government isn’t going quietly. Two weeks before the court’s ruling on native religions, Parliament voted 314–131 to ban organized groups that threaten the government. The first on the chopping block was Hizbut Tahir Indonesia, which agitates for shari‘ah law and the adoption of a caliphate. The group was also instrumental in bringing down Ahok, who is a close friend and political ally of President Joko Widodo.
“It is very important to emphasize that Indonesian governments are not unified,” Marshall told CT, “but have many competing factions.”
This last year, CT Women writers responded to big stories—from natural disasters (Hurricane Harvey) to political storms (Donald Trump) to insidious racial divisions. We covered the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March, launched an eight-part series on women’s ministry (including a much-debated piece on authority in the age of the internet), and ran essays on the perennial issues—sex, marriage, singleness—that persistently challenge us.
As we look back over the year, here are our readers’ favorite posts (measured in page views):
In our most-read article of the year (more than 450,000 page views), Kay Warren shares with surprising candor about how she and Rick survived the massive pressures of early and middle marriage and beat the odds that “divorce would be the outcome of their ill-advised union”:
I don’t approach this subject from the Hallmark-card version of marriage but from the blood, sweat, and tears of the trenches where our marriage was forged and is sustained. I know what it’s like to choose to build our relationship; to seek marriage counseling again and again; to allow our small group and our family into the struggle; to determine one more time to say, “Let’s start over” and “Please forgive me, I was wrong” and “I forgive you.”
After Hurricane Harvey hit the coast of Texas and catalyzed one of the worst humanitarian disasters in American history, Beth Moore wrote a powerful personal reflection on the city she calls home:
I’ve never known more Jesus-serving, Jesus-loving, people-loving, people-serving folks on earth than right here in my hometown of Houston, Texas. … She’s a thankful kind of girl, our city. Her children try hard to take care of their own, but we’re going to need your help this time. We are devastated. They say it will take many months and perhaps even several years to put us back together again.
In Bekah Mason’s young-adult struggle with sexual identity, both legalistic condemnation and progressive license left her floundering. Now as an adult settled in herself, she offers sage advice for how to be a friend to those who feel same-sex attraction and still support a scriptural view of marriage:
When my more progressive friends attempt to encourage me to “be true to myself” and to express love in the way that “God created me to,” they are not actually freeing me from legalistic bondage as they intend. So if you lean left on this issue, understand that your “blessing” to embrace same-sex attraction actually places a greater burden on us than the one Jesus gives us in our celibate devotion to him. His command to love and obey him is a light and easy burden, and I have found more peace, joy, love, and contentment by keeping all of my relationships rightly ordered than I ever did in seeking to fulfill my own desires in a relationship with another woman.
The digital age has birthed a new crisis of authority for the church. In one of our most hotly debated pieces of the year, Tish Harrison Warren explores why the diverse and democratic space of the internet challenges how we think about orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and church teaching:
Christian writing and teaching is not minor surgery; it is heart surgery. In this new internet age, we as a church have to recover the idea that, like doctors, Christian writers, teachers, and leaders can help cure or help kill. And therefore, like doctors, we have to ensure that all Christian leaders—male and female alike—have oversight and accountability that matches the weight of their authority and influence.
On the anniversary of the diving accident that changed her life, Joni Eareckson Tada spoke with interviewer Kelli Trujillo about her opposition to assisted suicide laws, her belief in God’s sovereignty, and how to make sense of human suffering:
The first thing Christians ought to do before they even work on compassion is get a biblical view on suffering. Most Christians would rather escape, avoid it, drug it, medicate it, divorce it, institutionalize it—do anything but live with it. We need to embrace the God who is found in suffering. He is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
The Women’s March on Washington, which drew over 200,000 attendees, sparked controversy among Christians when organizers opted to exclude pro-life organizations as official partners. Kate Shellnutt reported on what pro-life feminists have in common with their pro-choice counterparts and what a true Women’s March might look like:
“If the voice of pro-life women is excluded from the [Women’s March on Washington], then it is not really a ‘Women’s March’ at all,” said Brandi Swindell, founder of the pregnancy crisis center [originally] partnering with the march. “Rather, it is an anti-Trump march, a pro-choice march, or a Planned Parenthood march. To truly be called a ‘Women’s March,’ all our sister’s voices, thoughts, viewpoints, and stories need to be heard.”
Former model Katherine Wolf, who ministers with her husband at Hope Heals, spoke with CT about how a nearly fatal stroke altered her view of beauty and deepened her theology of suffering:
The beauty of suffering at a young age is that it will inform the rest of my life as well as my husband and children’s lives. Suffering is not the end of the story. The beauty of the gospel is that we see a better story being written and coming out of our sufferings, which changes the way we live the rest of our lives.
Building on data provided to CT by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), Kate Shellnutt reported on why white, evangelical, millennial women defied political predictions by voting for Trump based in part on national security and pro-life concerns:
In last year’s election, 73 percent of white evangelical women under 35 voted for Trump compared to 60 percent of white evangelical men of the same age.… The more involved white evangelicals are with their churches, the more likely they voted for Trump, with women who attend church more than once a week showing slightly higher level of support (87.5%) than men (85%).
In this interview by Andrea Palpant Dilley, sociologist Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia reports on the surprising results of his international study on cohabitation and its negative impact on kids:
In the vast majority of countries that we looked at in Europe, at all education levels, people who are married when they have kids are markedly more stable than people who are cohabiting when they have their kids. Generally speaking, the least educated married families in Europe enjoy more stability than the most educated cohabiting families. That’s not what I would have guessed. I assumed that we’d find some kind of marriage stability premium, but I didn’t realize it would be that pronounced, and that marriage was a more powerful predictor of family stability in Europe than parental education.
The 2016 Belong Tour embarked on a 12-city event that drew thousands of evangelical women across the country. In our 10th most-read piece, Kate Shellnutt reports on why the 2017 tour—with speakers Jen Hatmaker, Shauna Niequist, and Deidra Riggs, singer Nichole Nordeman, and others—was called off by new owners, to the disappointment of many:
“There is no way for me to say how sorry I am,” Hatmaker told her Facebook fans. “I am just sick. In all my years of ministry, I have never cancelled an event or had one cancelled like this, and I share every bit of your frustration, shock, and disappointment.”
The South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records last year with the world’s tallest artificial Christmas tree, reaching a height of 72.1 meters, or about 237 feet.
The record-setting display was built by Arjuna Ranatunga Social Services, an effort led by legendary Sri Lankan cricket captain and politician Arjuna Ranatunga.
Located at Galle Face Green, a park in the capital city of Columbo, the artificial tree was erected as a steel and wire frame, draped with plastic netting, and decorated with 6 million LED bulbs; more than a million red, green, gold, and silver pine cones; and a star top spanning 6 meters (20 feet).
Though Mahinda Nanayakkara is a Buddhist—like more than 70 percent of the population in Sri Lanka—he was the one to present the idea of the tree to Ranatunga almost four years before it became a reality in 2016.
The Roman Catholic Church initially criticized the $80,000 project, with Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith calling it a “sheer waste of money.” (Sponsors mostly covered the cost.) The cardinal ultimately offered his support after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe intervened.
Hundreds of workers volunteered to assemble the giant tree—an effort to promote religious harmony, peace, and unity in a country long divided on religious and ethnic lines.
But one year after the news of the tallest artificial Christmas tree made it around the world, religious harmony in the south Asian island has not improved. According to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), religious freedom violations have grown.
“After the new government came in 2015, we thought incidents will decrease. But to our surprise, they increased,” Godfrey Yogarajah, NCEASL general secretary and World Evangelical Alliance associate general secretary, told CT.
“Since 2015, we have had around 275 incidents against Christians. So far this year, we have documented up to 90-plus incidents. During Christmas, we find a rise in incidents against Christians, and are monitoring this with concern.”
Christians make up about 8 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. The minority Muslim community—comprising about 10 percent—is also feeling the pressure.
The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM), a civil society organization that has been documenting incidents against the Muslim community since 2013, reported at least 20 attacks against Muslims in the month of May alone—including attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses.
The chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to President Maithripala Sirisena in the spring, asking him to intervene against attacks on Christian and Muslim communities. Other areas of society also felt the impact, with human rights defenders and NGOs similarly reporting a spike in attacks.
Last June, human rights attorney Lakshan Dias faced threats of losing his practice after quoting NCEASL statistics on television to highlight anti-Christian attacks and harassment in the country.
Dias briefly fled the country, only to face a seven-hour interrogation by the newly formed Organized Crimes Prevention Division upon his return. Because he cited a NCEASL report, three evangelical officials also faced questioning. They spent an entire day at a branch of the division without food or water.
“If we speak out, we are being intimidated, while the extremists continue to function with impunity,” said Yogarajah. “Very rarely any action is taken against them.”
Christian leaders also report that police and divisional secretaries try to close churches by accusing them of not being registered with the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Even churches that have been incorporated by the parliament have been deemed illegal by certain officials.
While the Theravada Buddhist Sinhalese are a majority in most parts of the country, Tamils who are mostly Hindus (15% of the population) and Christians as well constitute the majority in the northern province of Sri Lanka.
Although Sri Lanka is a secular state and its constitution guarantees religious freedom for all, it also accords the “foremost place” to Buddhism and says, “it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana [teachings of the Buddha].”
A Supreme Court ruling in 2003 determined Sri Lanka’s constitutional obligation to protect only Buddhism, while other religions were not given the same rights of state-provided protection.
In recent years, Buddhist nationalism has emerged as a powerful force, and is largely responsible for the violence unleashed against minorities in Sri Lanka. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a right-wing Buddhist organization, was established in 2012 with a clear stance against minority groups. The Siva Senai, a right-wing Hindu group (similar to the Shiv Sena in India) was established in October 2016.
Both groups call for a ban on “forcible conversions,” alleging that Buddhists and Hindus are being converted to Christianity by force. They have been targeting the Muslim community as well.
Christianity came to Sri Lanka in 1505 with the Portuguese, who introduced Roman Catholicism. The Dutch brought the Dutch Reformed Church in the mid-1600s. Since the 1800s, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Salvation Army churches have also found a foothold in the country.
When the new government came to power in January 2015 under the leadership of Sirisena, many Sri Lankans hoped the treatment of minority faiths would improve. Though the president was known to be more open and tolerant of minorities than his predecessor, attacks on minorities have continued unabated.
At the inauguration of the Christmas tree, Ranatunga (then the minister for ports and shipping) said that while Sri Lanka was still grappling with issues regarding religion, caste, and race, the tree “is just to show the world that we can live as one country, one nation.”
But it will take much more than a record-breaking Christmas tree to achieve religious harmony and peace in a nation where longstanding wounds have yet to heal, the state fails to protect minority faith against discrimination, and social movements continue to drift toward jingoistic nationalism.
Three years ago, my husband and I decided that we would no longer travel for Christmas. Our parents, all of them living in the Midwest, were devastated. When we’d moved to Toronto from Chicago, the terms were clear: If we were moving the grandchildren across an international border, we were responsible to bring them home for the holidays. But where was home? Even if our passports declared us strangers, our house in Toronto had begun to feel more like home than the one we had left behind—the one we actually owned.
I’ll be home for Christmas, we sing. And it’s for good reason that Christmas lures us home. As I can attest, waking up in a hotel on Christmas morning and shuffling to the lobby for your first cup of hot coffee does a number on the holiday spirit.
What makes a home a home, then?
For the past several years, IKEA representatives have traveled across the globe to ask people about their domestic experiences and expectations. In 2016, they visited 12 cities and interviewed 12,000 people; in 2017, they traveled to 22 countries, surveying more than 22,000 people. In the first survey, respondents concluded that a home was composed of four intangibles: comfort, safety, belonging, and love.
Even if IKEA’s findings (detailed in their annual Life at Home reports) primarily aim to sell us more furniture, lamps, and posters of Paris, they tell us something about the fundamental human longing for home. For Christians, they also illuminate this surprising truth: Neither consumerism nor anti-consumerism defines a true home.
Roy Langmaid, a psychologist cited in the 2017 IKEA Life at Home Report, talks about home as moderns have come to think of it—as the expression of personal identity. Identity is a narrative, Langmaid says, and home tells part of the story. If we change the objects, we change the story, which is why some of us find it so difficult to get rid of things—so difficult, in fact, that 1 in 10 Americans is paying for off-site storage. (In the UK, that number is 1 in 100; in Japan, 1 in 300.)
Despite these emotional attachments, respondents to IKEA’s survey admitted that half of their domestic arguments involved the problem of having too much stuff. On the one hand, we feel more and more tied to the objects in our home; on the other, we feel more and more anxious about the physical clutter. In other words, we want to clear our space but can’t bear the burden of negotiating what stays and what goes. (Inevitably, Christmas will add to our pile of things wanted and unwanted.)
In Scripture, Jesus didn’t warn against excessive accumulation because it was a mental health hazard. In fact, every time Jesus and the New Testament writers warn against material greed, they don’t mention the anxiety of physical clutter and the reward of minimalism. Rather, they point forward to a more permanent home—and investment in a more lasting kingdom.
In Luke 12:13–21, Jesus tells the story of a rich fool who presumes longevity of life. I’ll build bigger barns for all my stuff, he reasons. But his life is demanded of him far earlier than expected, and to his regret, he discovers that he has not been rich toward God.
In Luke 16:19–31, we find a similar story. The rich man, “clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” finds his fortune dramatically reversed with the fortune of a beggar, who had lain hungry at his gate every day. In the afterlife, the rich man is humiliated, the poor man exalted. Both men discover the fleeting shadow of this life and conversely, the never-setting sun of eternity.
Paul, too, instructs the rich not to “put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain,” but rather to be generous. “In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6).
In other words, the point is not necessarily that we’re forbidden from owning and accumulating. Rather, it’s that if our apartments, houses, condos, and rented rooms tell any story, it should be this: We’re waiting on a better world.
The gospel tells an old, old story. God wriggled his way through a womb to make his home among us. Taking up flesh, Jesus pitched his tent in our neighborhood. He came as a poor man and owned so little that he didn’t have a place to lay his head. On the eve of his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, he told the disciples about his true home: his Father’s house with its many rooms. “If that were not so,” he said, “would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).
Maybe, then, the best homes we make tell realistic, honest stories about the human condition on this side of heaven. They’re impermanent and imperfect, no matter how much we seek (or avoid) accumulation. Earthly homes are fleeting stars. Like the Wise Men, we follow them as a way to long “for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). If only for a glimpse of the Christ!
“I’ll be home for Christmas,” we sing. And then again, maybe not.