WASHINGTON – Billy Graham was easily the most influential evangelical Christian of the 20th century – a man at home in the historical company of George Whitefield and John Wesley.
But this would be hard to tell from reading his sermons, which even close associates described as ordinary. His books are hardly more memorable. So what was it that compelled hundreds of millions of people to attend and watch his evangelistic “crusades” and to find personal transformation in his words?
Graham’s global ministry was the triumph of complete sincerity, expressed with a universally accessible simplicity. “There is no magic, no manipulation,” said publicist Gavin Reid. “The man just obviously believes what he says.” Graham could display charisma in meetings with presidents and queens. In the pulpit – the place of his calling from an early age – he was nearly transparent, allowing a light behind him to shine through him. He had the power of a man utterly confident in some other, greater power.
American fundamentalism from the Scopes monkey trial to the 1950s was traumatized, marginalized and inward-looking. Graham’s achievement was to turn the face of fundamentalism outward toward the world – shaping, in the process, a distinct religious movement. His evangelicalism was more open and appealing, more intellectually and culturally engaged. Graham took his fellow evangelicals from the margins to the center – from the sawdust trail to the White House. He managed to be winsome without being compromised. And evangelical Christians felt grateful to have a public representative who – through his integrity and consistency – brought credit to their faith.
There was initial resistance to Graham’s work among mainline Protestants. As Graham announced more and more crusades, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was not amused. Graham, Niebuhr warned, would “accentuate every prejudice which the modern, ‘enlightened’ but morally sensitive man may have against religion.” Graham responded: “I have read nearly everything Mr. Niebuhr has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning. Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about … [but] if I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered they would walk out.”
Nearly 2 million people walked into Graham’s 16-week, New York crusade in 1957. And Graham was joined one night at Madison Square Garden by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There was also resistance among some fundamentalists.
I grew up in a theologically conservative Calvinist church in which the reformation was refought on a weekly basis. The man who would become my father-in-law – blessed with a fine voice – decided to sing in the choir at a Billy Graham crusade that came into town. Afterward, he was hauled in front of the elders of the church to be questioned. They were upset at this participation because Graham – when people would come forward during the altar call – would refer them back to their home churches, including Catholic churches.
In fact, the tone of Graham’s public voice changed over the years, becoming more ecumenical, less harsh and nationalistic. Some of this he credited to broader exposure to the world. “I think now when I say something, ‘How is this going to sound in India? How is it going to sound to my friends in Hungary or Poland?’” But this also involved a theological shift. “I used to believe that pagans in far countries were lost if they did not have the gospel of Christ preached to them,” he reflected in 1978. “I no longer believe that.”
His faith in the essentials of the Christian gospel, however, never changed. And it made him into a busy builder of institutions that still carry the Christian message. Graham was instrumental in the founding of Christianity Today, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He was a major supporter of the National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Theological Seminary.
As in any long, public life, there were low moments, particularly when Graham came into contact with political figures such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But he also had a powerful, positive influence in the life of the young George W. Bush and countless others. And this much is clear. For Graham, faith was not the instrument to some other end; it was the prize itself. He had no ulterior motives. No trace of cynicism. He was consumed by grace, and spoke in gratitude.
For a Christian, it is not a small thing for a man to talk about Jesus Christ, face to face, to more people than anyone has ever done. Or to see how remarkably God used his servant Billy, just as he was.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.