Rhys Bezzant reviews the legacy of the 20th Century’s most prominent Protestant.
1959, the year Billy Graham visited Australia, was a high water mark for evangelical faith in this country, as well as a tumultuous turning point in Western culture. Castro’s revolutionaries took power in Cuba, and Berry Gordy borrowed $800 to set up a recording business to be called ‘Motown’. Texas Instruments announced the invention of the microchip, and the first military casualties were recorded in South Vietnam. The birth control pill was legalised, and the reform-minded John XXIII was elected Pope. JFK announced that he would run for President, and the film Ben Hur was released. An American Federal judge ordered the racial integration of buses and trams in Atlanta, and a Southern farm boy (and sometime brush salesman) from North Carolina filled the MCG (as it had never before or since been filled) to preach that old-time religion.
Graham explained how men and women might be born again, and appealed to the crowds at the ‘G’ to do just that, by placing their trust in Jesus Christ, and in his death for sins and resurrection to new life. And thousands were converted, perhaps the closest thing Australia has come to revival. Churches were filled, theological colleges (not just of evangelical persuasion) experienced increased enrolments, and a new generation of leadership for the churches was born. Some fifty years later, what do we make of Graham’s legacy? This article wants to suggest some lessons that we can draw from his successes as well as his shortcomings, as we examine the big picture of Graham’s ministry, and how it has impacted the world in which we live, and especially Christian culture, US politics and revivalist faith.
American Christian culture
The Christian culture in which Billy Graham grew up was fundamentalist in the American South. Fundamentalism was that stream of Christian faith which rejected interaction with mainstream culture, and withdrew from mainstream denominations, to create an alternative and pure counter-culture. In the US, its most recent fights had been over the theory of evolution taught in schools and critical study of the Bible. This was the culture in which Graham was converted and nurtured, for he enrolled at the Florida Bible Institute, and after that Bob Jones University, eventually working for Youth for Christ in Chicago. He was a child of the 1920s.
In the early 1940s, a new mood swept over many conservative Protestants in the US. Led by Harold Ockenga and joining a new organisation called the National Association of Evangelicals, many Christian leaders decided it was time to reengage with the broader culture, and, instead of absenting themselves, they decided to coordinate their efforts to shape society, politics and academia. Graham was a significant recruit. The NAE reconnected with a longer tradition in American Christian history, known as evangelicalism, which had preached the Gospel of grace and had expected transformation of this world. Graham made this connection evident at his 1949 Crusade in Los Angeles, where he delivered a famous sermon called ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ which had been preached some 200 years earlier by America’s best-known evangelical thinker, Jonathan Edwards (though leaving out Edwards’s references to predestination and election!). Graham left behind his fundamentalist formation, and threw his weight behind a new and exciting venture in Christian cultural engagement. Many of his friends from earlier days criticised him sharply for such ‘defection.’
Not only did he want to engage with the wider culture but with various expressions of Christian faith too. When conducting missions all over the world, he was prepared to have various denominational leaders sit with him on the podium. He only asked that they could support his appeal that those who listened should be born again, and allow for follow up from the crusades to be conducted by a wide variety of churches or affiliations. This further alienated him from his roots. He exercised the best kind of ecumenical cooperation, which was strong on the fundamentals of the faith, but allowed for disagreement on matters of secondary concern.
Graham was also an innovator and used new technologies in the cause of the Gospel. He used the radio to broadcast not only sermons but other addresses to the nation in his Hour of Decision, using the folksy send-off ‘The Lord bless you real good.’ He knew that many American evangelists had fallen to sexual temptation, the so-called ‘Elmer Gantry Syndrome,’ so he made a pact with his associates to never be alone with a woman, other than his wife. This was his famous Modesto Manifesto, named after the town in California where they were ministering at the time, and serendipitously embodying a reference to their own holy aspirations! The power of his own organisation, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and his achievements in ministry, led many other groups to emulate his success. The rise of the Christian right in American politics had Billy Graham as their informal patron, though he frequently distanced himself from their agenda, methods or even theological temper. It is not just the conversion of individuals that is Graham’s legacy: he profoundly shaped Christian ministry and culture in the second half of the 20th century.
US politics: race, war and the South
Perhaps less obvious to us at a distance is Billy Graham’s involvement with US politics, and his close relationship with Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Bush Snr, Clinton and Bush Jnr. Unusually, the inauguration of Obama did not have Billy praying the invocation! From his earliest crusades, he was necessarily a political figure: he was from the South, preaching the new birth in an age when America was fast changing, becoming more urban and its Christian foundations were being contested, and at a time when the South was being forced by rule of law to desegregate, leading to racial violence and the Civil Rights movement.
In this mix, Graham took the extraordinary step to desegregate his crusades, starting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he personally removed the ropes which had been used to divide the sections of the auditorium into black and white. In some places this didn’t have a big impact, in other places it did. Irrespective of the immediate outcomes, he had become a player in a national political debate.
It should be said that involvement in politics was not merely accidental. He wrote letters of introduction to Presidents, was prepared to give advice on Southern politics, and was happy to travel the world preaching the Gospel of peace while his own nation was pursuing a Cold War. Graham was a useful tool in American domestic and international politics, which Presidents knew, and with which he was happy to comply. He preached in the Soviet Union, Korea, and in many African states as well. He had been a supporter of the Vietnam War—in his early days he had been a strident anti-communist.
Most regretfully, he had been an outspoken supporter of Richard Nixon’s bids for the White House. He was a personal confidante of Nixon and helped shape the President’s strategy to win the South. The South had been Democratic since the Civil War (for the northern Union was led by the Republican Abraham Lincoln), but in the second half of the 20th century it was won back to the Republicans, with Nixon’s electoral successes of strategic importance. The Watergate scandal not only rocked America, it also rocked Graham—he couldn’t believe that a man of Nixon’s integrity could be implicated in such constitutional compromise. He defended the President until the last. Graham was left scarred from the experience. While Graham was above reproach in terms of sexual ethics, and in terms of financial propriety (he had taken a salary and not a cut of the offering), in the matter of power, he was less immune from sin. He wanted to influence the nation, but was less astute in the people he trusted. Perhaps naively, perhaps altruistically, he played the game of politics but didn’t always win.
Graham is also part of a long line of revivalist preachers in Anglo-American history. George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Phoebe Palmer, Dwight Moody, Charles Spurgeon, and Billy Sunday, to name but a few. From differing theological backgrounds, they all had the goal of winning people for Christ. Graham in this constellation is important in the 20th century, not least because he has preached to more people than anyone else in history, in more countries than anyone else, with better organisation than just about anyone else. His legacy is important in as far as he reminds us of the most basic demand made of any human being by God: to turn individually from our sins and to place our trust in the crucified and risen Christ, for forgiveness and new life. The individual heart, the individual will, the individual mind is, when all is said and done, the battle-ground which as soldiers of Christ we must ever strive to win for his cause. The Lausanne movement is part of his legacy to provoke the worldwide church to strategic and thoughtful missional engagement with the cultures and nations of the world.
However, it is true that this revivalist culture has a down side. Many church services imitate revival meetings and make it their goal every week to call for a decision as the high point of the service, neglecting other important aspects of our meeting together, like patient nurture, communion with the Lord, or intercessions for the nation. It is true too that Graham’s labours away from home cost him dearly, as he saw some of his own children drift from Christian obedience. Ruth Graham’s book Prodigals and those who love them tells that story—a salutary one for those of us in Christian ministry who are workaholics. Enjoyment of the crowd can stroke the ego, and give us ungodly dreams of power, which poison our ambitions or cause resentment in our relationships.
Billy Graham had feet of clay, but nevertheless was used mightily by God to renew evangelical faith and outreach in the second half of the twentieth century. And while strategies for evangelism need to change in our vastly different context, it is no less true that God wants to raise up in this generation new workers for the harvest, for even the fields in Australia can bear more fruit than we often venture to believe. A friend of mine prays every day that God would raise up an Austrian John Stott and an Austrian Billy Graham for that most hardened central European nation. Can we afford to neglect such a prayer for our own spiritually needy land? It might be that we won’t fill the MCG to capacity, but we can trust that there are yet people in every Australian city chosen for eternal life.
Rhys Bezzant is Dean of Missional Leadership at Ridley Melbourne. This is an edited version of the address he gave at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Billy Graham Melbourne Crusades held at Ridley in 2009.