Billy Graham (1918 – 2018)

By Philip S. Powell 21 Feb 2018

World-renowned evangelist Billy Graham died today. He was one of Christianity’s most recognised and celebrated leaders of the twentieth century. From his humble beginnings as a farm boy in North Carolina, to befriending US presidents and other world leaders, his impact was felt across the decades. It is estimated that during his sixty years of ministry he personally preached to over 210 million people. And he has appeared on Time magazine’s annual list of the 10 most admired people in the world more than anyone else – 46 times.

There are two things about Billy Graham’s life that stand out to me. The man in his private world and the man in his public world.

Credit: Paul Walsh, cropped.

Graham in the Private World 

Firstly, the gap between his private world and his public world was minimal. Of course, only God sees the full picture but from all that I have read and studied about his life, I believe that he was a man of great personal integrity and humility. He had an unwavering commitment to live a Christlike life. Every person who interacted with or knew him felt impacted by his humility. There were no financial or sexual scandals that engulfed his ministry or tarnished his name. He truly lived above reproach, especially given all the time he spent in the corridors of power. His life is a biography of living truthfulness in a world that rejects and opposes truth. It can be argued that the reason he had such an impact on the world stage during his life-time was because he lived a life of integrity and humility. We read in Scripture, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (James 4:6). Certainly, God’s grace overflowed in this man’s life and millions around the world received the message of God’s grace through his ministry.

Graham in the Public World

However, Billy Graham was also a man of his times and he did not always distinguish himself from his cultural context. I believe that there are valid questions to be asked as to whether there was a kind of unholy syncretism between Billy Graham’s Christianity and American culture. Let me mention a few of them. During the Cold War, Billy Graham often mistakenly identified the Christian faith with opposing Communism. He later realised his folly and moved away from explicitly commenting on political issues at his evangelistic crusades, instead only seeking to preach the gospel of personal salvation.

Billy Graham also had a rather ambivalent relationship to the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. He did take a stand and opposed any segregation during his crusades, offering the gospel as the hope for healing between peoples and races. But still, he did not find within himself the courage to be publicly identified with the struggle for justice for African-Americans, because too many of the White churches and Christian leaders who supported his ministry were bitterly opposed to the Civil Rights Movement. Billy Graham also refused to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 where King gave his famous I have a dream speech.

There is also the infamous incident in 1975 in Mexico City with John Stott. Stott, a fellow evangelical, opposed Graham and publicly threatened to resign from the Lausanne Committee because it rejected Stott’s conclusion that God had called his people to care about society and politics, as well as spiritual evangelism. This was a defining moment because Stott exposed how beholden Graham was to his American funders instead of submitting to the claims of the gospel.[1] Finally in 1991, on the night when the US military began Operation Desert Storm in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Billy Graham stood at President George H.W. Bush’s side with a Bible in hand, praying for God’s blessing. To the watching world outside the US, especially in the Muslim world, American military action was perceived as another religious crusade supported by an evangelical pope.

Concluding Remarks 

This rather brief and contrasting portrayal of Billy Graham raises several issues to consider and questions to grapple with. Firstly, no matter how famous or successful we are, and might become, if we lack personal integrity and humility all the success and fame counts for very little. Secondly, the struggle in the church between evangelism and social action remains ongoing. Why does this polarising issue have such power over the thinking and practice of Christians? Does the Bible prioritise one over the other and in what ways can this divide be healed? Finally, in what ways is our own Christianity compromised with our surrounding culture? Of course there can be no culture-free gospel, but do we maintain a critical distance between ourselves and our surrounding culture, or are we content to be different in one area (e.g. sexual ethics) but compromised in other areas (e.g. finance)?

These are some of the questions and issues I grapple with when I think about Billy Graham’s life and ministry.

Billy Graham, despite your shortcomings and human constraints, thank you for being a faithful follower of Christ!

[1] See Alister Chapman, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (2014).

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