Billy Graham died on February 21. He was 99 years old.
As I read over all the tributes and praise being given to Billy Graham on Facebook and other media, I thought to myself, “Although I’ve certainly heard the name, I don’t really know who Billy Graham is. And outside of our Reformed community, I only hear good things being said about him.” And then I thought, “Perhaps there are others, especially of the younger generation, who are in the same situation—they have heard only good things about Billy Graham, but don’t really know who he is.” And so I thought it might be profitable to take this occasion of Graham’s death to learn more about who this man was.
Billy Graham was born on a farm in 1918, near Charlotte, North Carolina. He was raised in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. When he was 20 years old, while attending college in Florida, he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister. In 1943 he graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in anthropology. He never received any formal seminary education. After graduation, and for just over a year’s stint, Graham served as a pastor of a tiny Baptist church. “A great pastor he was not.”1 However, Graham was learning that his greatest gift was in “closing the deal” (9), that is, getting people to make a decision to become saved. Gradually, Graham became more involved in evangelistic revival efforts, and began to make more and more of a name for himself as a dynamic speaker. His first crusade/revival meeting was held in 1947 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was attended by 6,000 people.
Billy Graham had his “big break” in the autumn of 1949, when he held a crusade in Los Angeles:
The tactics that Graham deployed that fall dictated the template for virtually all the crusade meetings for the next six decades.… The services featured celebrity testimonies, both old and new music, electrifying preaching, boilerplate evangelical theology, prayer with converts, and lots of Southern charm—all delivered with smashing sincerity and effectiveness….
Things got off to a slow start…. But the conversions of celebrities, such as…the Olympic track star and war hero Louis Zamperini, as well as the priceless publicity bestowed by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, helped generate a cumulative attendance [over 8 weeks] of 350,000 with 3,000 converts…. The size and publicity of the Los Angeles project triggered extensive coverage in the national and international media, including in Time, Life, Newsweek, and the New York Times. Their stories transformed Graham into a national personality (12, 13).
In 1950, Graham founded the “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association,” which started organizing evangelistic “crusades” throughout the world. In 1950, he also began a weekly “Hour of Decision” radio program. And thus his career took off. In 1956, he co-founded the magazine Christianity Today. “By the 1950s, Graham would be a national personality, by the 1960s an international celebrity, and by the 1970s an icon everywhere. That status would stay with him until he effectively retired from public ministry in 2005” (5). He would frequently speak to audiences of over 100,000 people. By the end of his ministry, Graham would preach to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history—nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. In one crusade in South Korea, he preached to an audience of over 1 million people at one time.
But who was Billy Graham? And what did he stand for? In what follows, I have tried to capture a few of the most significant elements (in my mind) that made up who Graham was.
First, Graham was a very handsome man with an irenic personality that made him attractive to many:
If good looks and smart attire provided the base, Graham’s manifest easiness in his own skin materialized on televisions and even behind distant stadium pulpits as old-fashioned Southern charm. On talk shows in particular he came across as dashingly photogenic. He proved a lively guest, blessed with a quick smile, ready quip, and easy-going banter (301).
Taken together, these character traits of an extrospective and irenic approach to life, coupled with humor, meant that millions ended up simply liking the man, whether or not they agreed with his theology or approach or anything else (296).
People who encountered him, personally or through film archives, including critics, almost always spoke of his humility, or at least likability (304).
Second, theologically, Billy Graham was a rank Arminian. What is meant by that is this: Graham emphasized that it is up to you to become saved. To quote the Statement of Faith from the website of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, “We believe…that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.”2 According to Graham’s Arminian viewpoint, using your own free will to choose for salvation is what gets you regenerated/reborn. You just need to accept Christ’s free offer. “The whole of it was this. Things were broken, but God offered a solution. Humans needed only reach out and take it” (33). “God loves you, and He can make a difference in your life if you will let Him…” (54). All you have to do, is “close the deal.” This is an offense to the Reformed, biblical faith and gospel.
Not surprisingly, Graham’s Arminianism influenced his view of providence:
As for human history, Graham, like most evangelicals, believed that it was neither determined nor random but something in between: contingent. That meant that God maintained a plan for the final hour of the final day, but he had given humans the ability to speed up or slow down the process. More precisely, God ultimately oversaw everything but left many of the details open-ended. Humans operated more or less freely within a framework of divine oversight (35).
Third, Billy Graham emphatically viewed it as his calling, not to make disciples of Christ, but to win converts (44). This is why he did not have to “squabble” over points of doctrine like others (and this is what made him appear as such a friendly person). His calling was simply to be God’s salesman, and “close the deal.” When it came to the Bible’s infallible inspiration, Graham “did not engage in debates, let alone polemics about the Bible’s reliability. Rather, he focused on real-life answers to real-life questions” (41). When it came to the creation account, “the key point, [Graham] said, was to affirm that God had created humans, whether by evolution or by blowing on ‘some dust’…. ‘I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord’” (39).
With regard to his view of the end-times, Graham had dispensationalist views. However, “…he downplayed them. They remained artfully vague in his preaching…” (45). “Indeed, in his…vision for Christianity Today, he urged the editors to avoid the topic [of dispensationalism] altogether. Always alert to the evangelical (not to mention the wider) reading market, he warned that the magazine would lose the support of ‘thousands of ministers’ if they waded into the subject” (46). When it came to his view on heaven, Graham “even speculated about golf courses and beloved pets [being there]—whatever it took to make folks happy” (49). When it came to his view on hell, Graham said, “And then there are people that say that hell is not eternal…. I leave all that in God’s hands” (50).
Graham’s calling was not to get into such doctrinal issues; his calling was to be God’s salesman and simply persuade people to become saved. And why did Graham do his work through crusades? Because that was the best method of marketing what he was selling.
The crusade structure was not accidental. Partisans would have resisted the word theatrical, but they were theatrical, if by that we mean carefully staged in order to produce a desired result. …Everything was predictable. People got what they expected and paid for with their money and their time (140).
Will-worship to the extreme. A man once said that if you heard 10 of Graham’s sermons, you probably heard them all.
Fourth, and not least, Graham helped build and shape what is called the modern ecumenical movement. Because Graham was not under the oversight of any denomination or local church, “he was answerable to no one except his supporters. He enjoyed the luxury of choosing his own friends” (175). And choose he did. First, he affiliated with parachurch movements; then he joined hands with liberal, mainline Protestantism; then he united with Pentecostals and with Catholics, and even beyond. Graham’s position over time became this: the “one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love. There is far more emphasis on love and unity among God’s people in the New Testament than there is on orthodoxy, as important as it is” (182). And so you get this quotation from Billy Graham: “I feel I belong to all the churches. I am equally at home in an Anglican or Baptist or a Brethren assembly or a Ro man Catholic Church…. And the bishops and archbishops and the Pope are our friends.”3 Or this comment: “Graham admitted that he stumbled over the doctrine of papal infallibility, but there was not much else about which he and believing Catholics differed. Protestants paid too little attention to Mary, he mused.”4
And what about people who had never heard the gospel?
Graham told an interviewer that he used to believe that people who had never heard the gospel were doomed for hell. “I no longer believe that,” he stated. “I believe there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God—through nature, for instance—and plenty of other opportunities for saying ‘yes’ to God” (200).
What will the final make-up of the body of Jesus Christ look like? Graham’s answer:
[God] is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.”5
Billy Graham has had a huge influence. I hope this article has been as enlightening for our younger readers as it was for me to write it. What we know today as “mainstream evangelicalism” follows largely in the footsteps of Graham. I hope you are able to see from this article the connections between what Graham stood for and what surrounds us today in what is called “mainstream American Christianity”—dispensationalism, false ecumenicism, the extreme prevalence of will-worship, watered-down Arminian preaching, moral therapeutic deism, and more.
There is much more that could be said. If there was one thing that especially impressed itself upon me in the writing of this article, it was this: How important our Reformed confessions are, and how good it is to have the Formula of Subscription for our officebearers to sign! What a blessing for us, both members of the church and the officebearers themselves! What a bulwark our Reformed confessions have been in the face of Satan’s constant attacks upon the truth, and the appealing and seductive ways he tries to lead us astray. I suppose this is why when I was growing up, I never learned to call myself ‘evangelical,’ but ‘Reformed.’
1 Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 8. [Subsequent references to this book will simply give the page numbers.]
3 As quoted in Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 69.
4 Wacker, American Pastor, 191.
5 As quoted in Murray, 73-74.