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Billy Graham
1918 -

 


Transcending doctrine and denomination, he served as the nation's spiritual counselor and made America safe for public testimonies of faith
By HAROLD BLOOM for Time Magazine
 

 

William Franklin Graham Jr., known to all the world as Billy, is now 80 years old, and has been our leading religious revivalist for almost exactly 50 years, ever since his eight-week triumph in Los Angeles in the autumn of 1949. Indeed, for at least 40 years, Graham has been the Pope of Protestant America (if Protestant is still the right word). Graham's finest moment may have been when he appeared at President Bush's side, Bible in hand, as we commenced our war against Iraq in 1991. The great revivalist's presence symbolized that the Gulf crusade was, if not Christian, at least biblical. Bush was not unique among our Presidents in displaying Graham. Eisenhower and Kennedy began the tradition of consulting the evangelist, but Johnson, Nixon and Ford intensified the fashion that concluded with Bush's naming him "America's pastor." President Clinton has increasingly preferred the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but the aura of apostle still hovers around Billy Graham. Harry Truman unkindly proclaimed Graham a "counterfeit," a mere publicity monger, but while I still remain a Truman Democrat, I think our last really good President oversimplified the Graham phenomenon.

No one has accused Graham of intellectualism, profound spirituality or social compassion, but he is free of any association with the Christian right of Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and all the other advocates of a God whose prime concerns are abolishing the graduated income tax and a woman's right to choose abortion (which Graham also opposes). And there have been no scandals, financial or sexual, to darken Graham's mission. His sincerity, transparent and convincing, cannot be denied. He is an icon essential to a country in which, for two centuries now, religion has been not the opiate but the poetry of the people. In the U.S., 96 percent of us believe in God, 90 percent pray, and 90 percent believe God loves them, according to Gallup polls. Graham is totally representative of American religious universalism. You don't run for office among us by proclaiming your skepticism or by deprecating Billy Graham.

Still, one can ask how so theatrical a preacher became central to the U.S. of the past half-century. Always an authentic revivalist, Graham has evaded both doctrine and denomination. He sounds not at all like a Fundamentalist, even though he affirms the fundamentals — the literal truth of the Bible: the virgin birth, atoning death and the bodily resurrection of Christ; the Second Coming; salvation purely through grace by faith and not works. Graham's most important book, "Peace with God" (1953), is light-years away from C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," which is revered by Fundamentalists. Everything that is harsh in Lewis is softened by Graham, whose essential optimism is inconsistent with his apocalyptic expectations. But you cannot read "Peace with God" and expect consistency; soft-edged Fundamentalism, Graham's stance, will not sustain scrutiny.

Graham's coherence and significance depend upon the history of modern evangelical revivalism in the U.S. That history began with Charles Grandison Finney, who created a new American form of religious revival, a highly organized, popular spectacle. (He later gave up his career as an evangelist to become president of Oberlin College in 1851.) The tradition was carried on by Dwight Lyman Moody, William Ashley Sunday and Graham, the disciple of Moody rather than of Billy Sunday. Moody, in Finney's wake, invented Graham's methods and organizing principles: advance men, advertising, aggressive publicity campaigns, and a staff of specialists (prayer leaders, singers, counselors, ushers). Graham perfected Moody's transformation of revivalism into mass popular entertainment, superbly executed in the New York City crusade of 1957, with triumphant performances at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.

Politics could have been the destructive element for Graham, since he started his rise in the age of Eisenhower and for a time was a fervent red hunter, an admirer of Senator Joe McCarthy and an overall basher of the left, as here in a radio broadcast of 1953: "While nobody likes a watchdog, and for that reason many investigation committees are unpopular, I thank God for men who, in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle and from that vantage point try in every subtle, undercover way to bring comfort, aid and help to the greatest enemy we have ever known — communism."

That is now a period piece, but I think it is important to keep it on the record. Graham, a slow but sure learner, moved with the spirit of the age, and in the 1980s he became a preacher of world peace, urging reconciliation with Russia and China, where his wife Ruth, the daughter of missionaries, was born. Angry Fundamentalists turned against him, a move that became an anti-Graham passion when he rejected the program of the Christian right: "I don't think Jesus or the Apostles took sides in the political arenas of their day." The break between Graham and the Christian right became absolute when he denounced the violence of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. "The tactics," Graham declared, "ought to be prayer and discussion."

Though Graham has never, to my knowledge, spoken out on behalf of the poor, it seems legitimate to conclude that his almost exclusive emphasis upon soul saving is his passionate center, even his authentic obsession. And there, whatever his inadequacies of intellect or of spiritual discernment, Graham has ministered to a particular American need: the public testimony of faith. He is the recognized leader of what continues to call itself American evangelical Protestantism, and his life and activities have sustained the self-respect of that vast entity. If there is an indigenous American religion — and I think there is, quite distinct from European Protestantism — then Graham remains its prime emblem.

Evangelicals constitute about 40 percent of Americans, and the same number believe God speaks to them directly. Such a belief yearns for a purer and more primitive church than anyone is likely to see, and something in Graham retains the nostalgia for that purity. In old age and in poor health, he is anything but a triumphalist. There is no replacement for him, though he has hopes for his son Franklin. More than a third of our nation continues to believe in salvation only through a regeneration founded upon personal conversion to the Gospel, and Graham epitomizes that belief. A great showman, something of a charismatic, Graham exploited his gifts as an offering to America's particular way with the spirit. Some might have wished for more, but Graham honestly recognized his limitations, and his career nears its close with poignancy and a sense of achievement.
 


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The American evangelist and charismatic preacher Billy Graham (born 1918) became a leading spokesman for Fundamentalism when he initiated a series of tours of the United States and Europe that led to large-scale evangelism.

William Franklin Graham, Jr. was born November 7, 1918, on a dairy farm near Charlotte, N.C. which his paternal grandfather Crook Graham bought after serving in the Confederate army. Young Billy would read from his collection of history books. He also practiced baseball when finished with his chores, because and his ambition was to become a professional baseball player. It was changed into a commitment to an evangelical career by a religious conversion experience when he was 16. Graham was ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1939. He was educated in conservative Christian colleges: Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., the Florida Bible Institute (now called Trinity College) near Tampa, and Wheaton College in Illinois where receiving a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology in 1943. On August 13 of that year he married Ruth McCue Bell, a fellow student and daughter of a medical missionary. Their first daughter, Virginia, was born two years later, followed by Anne in 1948, Ruth in 1950, and sons William in 1952 and Nelson in 1958. For many years the Graham family made its home in Montreat, N.C.

After a period as minister of the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, IL, Graham became a traveling "tent evangelist," the calling which in a few years brought him to national prominence.

Graham was first vice president of Youth for Christ International from 1945 to 1948. He served as president of Northwestern College in Minneapolis from 1947 to 1952. He met singer George Beverly Shea and song leader Cliff Barrows and the three formed a lasting partnership. The three began offering revival meetings in small churches and started developing a following. In 1949, Graham, Shea, and Barrows had a meeting in Los Angeles and rather than the usual crowd of 3,000 or so, more than 10,000 turned out to hear the backwoods preacher and his team. He was the founder and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and editor in chief of Decision magazine. The organization is run by a board of directors that pays Graham an annual salary equivalent to that of a community pastor. The first year it amounted to $15,000. Today, the institute has a cash flow of more than $50 million a year. His radio program, "Hour of Decision," began in 1950, and he wrote a daily newspaper column. Graham's published writings include Calling Youth to Christ (1947), Revival in Our Times (1950), America's Hour of Decision (1951), Korean Diary (1953), My Answer (1960), and World Aflame (1965). Graham turns over all the royalties from his books and all his speaking fees.

Graham launched his worldwide ministry with his first overseas tour in 1954 to Great Britain. Crowds of more than two million people attended his rallies. He even met with Queen Elizabeth II. At a 16-week rally in New York City three years later, more than two million packed Madison Square Gardens to hear the young preacher. Graham has preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history totaling more than 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. Since his crusades began his work has propelled him to more than 400 rallies in nearly every corner of the world. He conducts an average of six crusades a year in the United States and abroad. In the mid-1950s Graham took his crusade to India, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. He has also been to Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Seoul, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, filling jam-packed churches and meeting with government and religious leaders wherever he travels.


Graham's Message

Graham's message has remained the same and is based on traditional Biblical study. It is simply this: "Choose Christ as I did. Mankind is sinful, but through Christ those sins are forgiven and people can live in peace." In other words, this is a message of love and hope. Graham has been friends with many world figures, especially the presidents starting with Harry Truman who sought advice from Graham and Richard Nixon was a frequent golf partner. On April 9, 1996, together with President William Clinton, he led 12,000 mourners in Oklahoma City to grieve for victims of the Federal Building bombing. Graham has been the chaplain at many Inaugural Ceremonies; in fact his eighth Inauguration invocation in January 1997 was inspired by our Founding Fathers, noting that "technology and social engineering had yet to solve the ancient problems of human greed and selfishness." Graham has maintained an untouchable integrity, unlike Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker who were involved in sex and money scandals that ruined their careers.


Prodigal Son To Take Over

Graham has decided that when he retires or dies his son Franklin will take over his $88 million-a-year ministry. The younger Graham, who continually rebelled against his father as a teenager and was expelled from college, was a "heck-raiser" as a boy, has long since gone straight. He now runs two world relief organizations, and has done some preaching. It has been said that Franklin does not have the presence of his father and will not be able to replicate the senior Graham's impact on American Protestantism. Graham, in his seventies, shows no sign of slowing down regardless of his advancing illness, Parkinson's disease. It will eventually take away his ability to feed himself or even button his clothes. He walks with difficulty now and can write only his name, but he still has enough energy to work on his memoirs. Ruth, Graham's wife, "never slows down." Her presence and vitality have helped ease the frustration brought on by his illness. Together, Ruth and Billy have three daughters, two sons, 19 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Graham states that "I don't see anybody in Scripture retiring from preaching," and along with Pope John Paul II, who also has Parkinson's Disease, keeps chugging along.


The Cove

One of Graham's dreams was to build a training center to serve as a retreat for religious evangelists. It is located in Asheville, NC. In 1997, 30 seminars will be taught, featuring biblically grounded speakers. Cove seminars help those attend to Grow in God's Word, gain a deeper understanding of God, take time for personal renewal, and acquire tools for stronger Christian walk.


Graham Archives

The Archives of the Billy Graham Center are located at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. They contain many collections with documents relating to African Christianity. Most of these contain the work of North American missionaries or evangelists in Africa, though there is a substantial amount of material documenting the activities and beliefs of African churches, leaders, and quasi-ecclesiastical organizations. Most of the records are twentieth century and about seventy-five percent are concerned with east or central Africa.

Graham has received numerous awards from various institutions and organizations, including honorary doctorates from Baylor University, the Citadel, and William Jewell College. He received the Barnard Baruch Award in 1955; Humane Order of African Redemption, 1960; gold award of the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute, 1963; Horatio Alger Award, 1965; Franciscans International Award, 1972; Man of the South Award, 1974; Liberty Bell Award, 1975; Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, 1982; and the William Booth Award of the Salvation Army, 1989.

Graham's crusades have taken him to all the major cities of the United States and Europe and to such far-off areas as North Africa, India, and Australia. Although basically a fundamentalist in his theology, individualistic in his religious and ethical approach, and traditional in his appeal, he always sought and obtained a broad base of ecumenical support for his evangelistic campaigns. Graham brought evangelism to a new level of sophistication in organization, techniques, support, and prestige. Graham once stated that "It seems to me that the whole world, regardless of culture and religious tradition, is searching for something spiritual." The most important thing that counts (for Graham) is what happens in the hearts of men." Graham is the most respectable symbol of American evangelicalism.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008