Rev. Billy Graham

At 82, the Elvis (and Marshall McLuhan) of preachers is still the king of ecumenical evangelism.


David Rubien
November 21, 2000 11:23PM (UTC)

The Rev. Billy Graham, for 50 years Protestant Christianity's leading Pied Piper, is ailing. He turned 82 on Nov. 7, and has been grappling with Parkinson's disease and other infirmities. Yet he recently told the Associated Press that his crusading days are far from through. As his son William Franklin Graham Jr. stands by to assume control of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the elder Graham just presided over one of his patented crusades, a Jacksonville, Fla., wingding that featured performances by Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Charlie Daniels. As usual, Graham convinced thousands of attendees to make their "decisions for Christ."

He's been doing this since 1947. Depending on the source you consult, he's corralled between 200 million and 225 million souls for Jesus. He's sermonized in almost 200 countries, following the biblical dictum to "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15). The only religious figure of comparable influence is the pope, and there have been five of them since Graham started doing his thing. Popes come and go, but the right reverend endures.

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Graham's specialty -- the crusade -- has been the medium for the most extravagant Christian spectacle of the last century. Part circus, part holy pilgrimage, part evangelism school, part TV miniseries, part Bill Graham Presents rock concert, these events sometimes go on for weeks. Yet the message he communicates is profoundly simple: Confess your sins, accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior and get your ticket to salvation. Or, to quote Graham quoting the Bible, "By faith, commit your life to Christ. God's promise is true: 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'" (Acts 2:21).

It's the lowest common denominator of Christianity: Faith is its own reward. It's not about doing good works. It's not about giving up your material goods. It's simply about belief and surrender. Graham doesn't hector. He doesn't condemn. He doesn't intellectualize. He doesn't even talk about hell much. He merely extends a hand. And if he is controversial at all, it's because his "the other shoe doesn't have to drop" theology offends some Christians who see religion as more complicated. Namely, fire-and-brimstone preachers, Christian academics, Christian-right moralists and Catholics. But to these folks Graham has said: Come on into my tent. It's a big tent. And most of them have agreed. He's made joint appearances with popes, rabbis, Buddhists, even African tribal leaders. Graham is the world's leading ecumenical preacher. He doesn't bother about categories at all. And with numbers like he racks up, why should he? Does General Motors worry about Jaguar?

Or, a better question might be: Did Elvis worry about Eddie Cochran? Because Graham is indeed the Elvis of preachers. Except instead of grinding his pelvis, he gyrates his arms. There's no denying that sex appeal is part of what Graham is about, and unlike Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, the fictional Elmer Gantry and Lord knows how many others, Graham has had the good sense to make it work for him and not succumb to it. He has said that he never allows himself to be alone with a woman who is not his wife or one of his daughters.

Like Elvis, Graham has a God-given combination of looks, charisma and talent. Like his globe-spanning ministry, he is outsized -- 6-foot-2 with an imposing cinder block of a head topped with a lavish crop of wavy hair. Thanks to penetrating blue eyes, a prominent nose and teeth that seem to gleam into infinity, Graham on or off the stage projects heroism before he utters a word.

At the pulpit his words spill out in an even tenor that bespeaks his North Carolina upbringing. Unlike the florid cadences of the Southern preachers who seem to dominate the airwaves, Graham's sermons are borne on the wings of an almost Midwestern rectitude. He is passionate, but his passion is focused, tailored to the message he is delivering, not to his own ego or to any innate sense of theater. Yes, he gesticulates and bellows, but he does not sink to melodrama; he does not weep or tug at his hair or use any of the overwrought techniques of the preacher who claims to be in the mighty thrall of the Holy Spirit.

Graham learned the values of directness, hard work and faith on the 300-acre dairy farm he grew up on outside of Charlotte, N.C. He was born William Franklin Graham Jr. on Nov. 7, 1918, the first of four children raised by William Franklin and Morrow Coffey Graham, both Bible-reading Presbyterians. The Graham Brothers Dairy was a successful business that managed to survive the Depression and thrive thereafter, but young Billy wasn't destined to farm.

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His defining moment came when, at 16, he starting attending the sermons of a visiting fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher named Mordecai Ham. Graham, in his 1997 autobiography, "Just As I Am," describes what had happened to him after one of the sermons:

"I checked 'Recommitment' on the card I filled out. After all, I had been brought up to regard my baptism and confirmation and professions of faith, too. The difference was at this time I was doing it on purpose, doing it with intention. For all my previous religious upbringing and church activity, I believe that that was the moment I made my real commitment to Jesus Christ."

Yet the moment was surprisingly dispassionate: "No bells went off inside me. No signs flashed across the tabernacle ceiling. No physical palpitations made me tremble. I wondered again if I was a hypocrite, not weeping or something. I simply felt at peace. Quiet, not delirious. Happy and peaceful."

But before he accepted the call to preach, Graham discovered he had another skill: selling. He became the region's most successful Fuller Brush salesman, "convinced that Fuller brushes were the best product money could buy."

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Higher education beckoned, however, and it was another preacher -- a silver-tongued Methodist named Bob Jones who ran a college in Cleveland, Tenn. -- who convinced Graham what to do. Jones spoke at Graham's high school, and, with some reservations about Jones' inflexible interpretations of scripture, Graham decided to enroll. Bob Jones College has since evolved into Bob Jones University, the Greenville, S.C., institution that George W. Bush visited during his presidential campaign even though it had a (since rescinded) ban on interracial dating. The school has always had a thing about dating. In "Just as I Am," Graham discusses the restrictive dating policies of the college, which included strict chaperoning and proscriptions against sitting on the same sofa as your date.

But it was proscriptions of a more academic nature that drove Graham away from Bob Jones after less than a year. Graham jumped to the Florida Bible Institute in Orlando, which was almost socialist compared to Bob Jones. Teachers at FBI came from a variety of Christian denominations, and Graham thus gained his first appreciation for the ecumenical. He also got his first experience at sermonizing when he was asked to guest preach at a nearby Baptist church. He liked it, and began to practice his oratory alone on a small, isolated island near the school. Soon he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister.

After graduating from FBI in 1940, Graham pursued the dual course of evangelizing and academics. He began studying for a liberal arts degree at Wheaton College in Chicago, and also became pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle, overseeing a dramatic expansion of the congregation. At Wheaton he met Ruth Bell, who had grown up in China the daughter of a medical missionary. After graduation in 1943, they married.

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The next turning point for Graham came when, having accepted an invitation to become pastor of the Western Springs Baptist Church (Graham changed the name to the Village Church because there were more Lutherans than Baptists in the congregation), he also accepted an invitation to take over a radio show called "Songs in the Night," broadcast from WCFL in Chicago. It became a hit. Then another radio station, WMBI, offered to broadcast his regular Sunday sermons for two months. The flock swelled.

Yet Graham had bigger ambitions. "Preaching throughout the Midwest made me restless with the pastorate," he wrote in the autobiography. "It seemed to me, perhaps because of the war, that the whole world was ripe for the Gospel. I wanted to be moving, traveling, preaching, anywhere and everywhere." When he got an opportunity to stage rallies with a fledgling organization called Youth for Christ International, he resigned from the Village Church and committed to full-time evangelism. Graham sermonized at rallies around the country with audiences averaging 5,000 or so, and embarked on a preaching tour of Europe with similar success. Two years later, he'd become an institution.

When Graham preached, he held people rapt to an extent that no one could match until Elvis. But there was a bit of Marshall McLuhan in Graham as well, because Graham was the first religious figure to fully harness the power of the broadcast media. Evangelists before him -- starting with Charles Finney in the 19th century -- understood the value of spectacle in making converts. Early 20th century preachers Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday applied advertising techniques to the proselytizing art. Graham embraced all this, but upped the ante a thousandfold by making radio and TV part of his ministry.

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It all came together in 1949, when an organization of churches in Los Angeles invited him to preach during a "campaign" for Christ. The group pitched a tent in the city, planning to hold meetings for three weeks. Attendance was low at the beginning, but then two things happened. First, a popular Southern California radio announcer named Stuart Hamblen asked Graham to appear on his program. During the show, Hamblen urged his listeners to attend Graham's meetings, and said that he was planning to himself. He did, and lo and behold, he got converted. On subsequent shows he testified about his miracle, and the crowds started to roll into the tent.

Next, a media figure of considerably more clout -- William Randolph Hearst -- got wind of Graham's revivals, and ordered all his newspapers, two of them in Los Angeles, to "puff Graham." That led to stories by the Associated Press wire service and Time magazine, and all of a sudden Graham was one of the biggest stories in the country. The tent sessions, needless to say, began to erupt into the streets, and the meetings were extended to eight weeks, ending only when the organizers became exhausted.

With the impetus from Los Angeles, Graham set up the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis, and launched a weekly radio program called "Hour of Decision" that was soon picked up by more than 1,000 stations. From that came the TV version of "Hour of Decision," which lasted until 1954, when Graham decided that the medium could be better used for broadcasting his campaigns, which he was now calling crusades. He held several of them throughout the country each year, attracting hundreds of thousands to Christianity and getting barrelsful of newspaper and magazine ink.

He took Western Europe by storm in 1954 and '55, starting in London and hitting most of the major countries. But it was in New York in 1957 that the TV medium and the message first came together gloriously. Graham took over Madison Square Garden for 16 weeks and preached a grand finale at Yankee Stadium. The TV networks broadcast segments of the crusade for several nights, increasing the audience by millions. The tab for the whole shebang was $2 million -- and that's in 1957 dollars. After that Graham led crusades around the world unceasingly, holding more than 20 in '60 and '61. His domestic crusades continue to be broadcast throughout the nation and the world.

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As has been frequently noted, Graham is as clean as a whistle. He has survived and thrived in a world where the Swaggarts and the Bakkers have fallen into moral and financial scandal, and where preachers of intolerance like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have become figures of low comedy. The only glitch in Graham's half-century run of salvation came in 1978 when the Charlotte Observer revealed that the BGEA had kept hidden from its members and contributors a $23 million "World Evangelism Fund." But no one accused Graham of misusing the fund, just hiding it. And after that he opened BGEA's books for annual accounting, even though as a charity the organization wasn't legally required to do so. In 1976, it subsequently turned out, the BGEA took in $28.7 million and spent $27.7 million. Not much dirt there.

Graham lives modestly in the log-and-frame house he and his wife built in the hills of Montreat, N.C., in the late '50s. There they raised daughters Gigi, Anne and Ruth, and sons Franklin and Ned. Graham takes a nominal salary from the BGEA.

Sure, Graham seems unimpeachable -- but what about the sin of pride? Perhaps sin is too great a word, but Graham clearly enjoys the reflected glory that comes from basking in the presence of the rich, famous and powerful. His relationships with presidents going back to Truman are legendary, to the point that he's become known as "chaplain of the White House." He was closest with Richard Nixon, whom he first met in 1950 when the later-disgraced president was a congressman. He stuck by Nixon, even after Watergate, although he did say this after some of the Watergate transcripts were released: "'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain' is a commandment which has not been suspended, regardless of any need to release tensions."

Was Graham truly friends with all the presidents he counseled, as he would like us to believe? Yes or no, it's clear that their relationships have served mutually beneficial purposes. They upped Graham's publicity quotient, and they allowed the presidents to feel a little bit more holy. As of this writing, it's not clear who our president-elect is, but if Bush is declared victor, then he already has his Graham credentials in order. Al Gore can claim he's born again, but he can't say, like Bush, that it was because of a walk on the beach with Billy Graham.

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Faith is a funny thing. Mysterious enough on its own terms, it gets even more complicated when mixed in with religion. The story of Jesus Christ is no more or less outlandish than any other religion myth. It's straightforward enough: Man is born to virgin, man says he's the son of God, man is murdered, man undergoes miraculous resurrection and assumes throne in heaven. But thanks to that unruly, often contradictory document known as the Bible, Christianity has become almost a Tower of Babel, where dozens of sects compete with one another about who has the line on the truth. And the members of each sect point to the Bible for evidence of their belief system.

Graham considers himself a fundamentalist, which means he believes in the literal word and truth of the Bible. But when his desire to bring as many people into the tent as possible bumps up against some of the harsher biblical prescriptions, he goes for filling the tent every time. For this, he gets called a hypocrite. Do an Internet search on Billy Graham and you'll find plenty of Christian Web sites casting hellfire and damnation on the preacher for his supposed flouting of biblical law.

But Graham long ago made his peace with the Bible. When he was a young man casting about in the brambles of academe, he had a crisis of confidence brought on by conflicting biblical interpretation. "'Oh God! There are many things in this book I do not understand ... There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas that do not seem to correlate with modern science,'" he recounts praying one evening in "Just As I Am." But then, "At last the Holy Spirit freed me to say it. 'Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word -- by faith! I'm going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.'"

A funny thing, that faith. But it works for Graham, and it seems to work for the millions he's brought into the fold. Whether or not you're a Christian, you have to admit, he gets results. Numbers don't lie.

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David Rubien

David Rubien is a writer in San Francisco.

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