On Billy Graham
Gordon MacDonald, friend and Chancellor of Denver Seminary, mentioned to me that it is likely that few students at my school know much, if anything, about Billy Graham. It is for those not acquainted with the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century that I write these words.
Billy Graham knew his calling and stayed true to it in active ministry for over 60 years. He drew huge crowds through his crusades, a word we do not use today for mass evangelism. These events included congregational singing, celebrity testimonies, and preaching by Graham.
He was blessed with a commanding, but not imposing, presence. He had a strong voice, was good looking, and later wore his hair a bit long. All this added to his distinctive presence. He preached the biblical gospel in every message and around the world. I encourage you to watch some of them online. You may be moved to get saved again (or for the first time).
Graham ended every service with an altar call, asking those who wanted to “receive Christ” to come forward to pray with workers at the front of the stage. Thousands and thousands did so over decades. These services were often televised nationally. I remember seeing part of one in my home in Anchorage, Alaska, sometime in the 1960’s. Sadly, my father did not want to watch much of it.
Graham did much more than preach, however. He led an organization with integrity: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Society. It publishes a magazine called Decision, produces films, and uses every available venue to preach the Gospel. I recently received an evangelistic card in the mail written by Franklin Graham, Graham’s son. I gave it to an acquaintance at a pub. I hope he read it.
While he never strayed from his vocation as an evangelist, early in his career, Graham took a stand against Communism, because it was godless. (He later preached in The Soviet Union.) He supported the Civil Rights movement and was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. He also supported the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Understood more broadly, Graham was at the heart of Evangelicalism in the middle to late twentieth century. He and Dr. Carl F. H. Henry founded Christianity Today. Henry was one of his theological advisers. Graham’s winsomeness helped Evangelicalism emerge from a narrower Fundamentalism. He spent pastoral time with every president from Truman to Obama.
Graham lived out his ministry almost entirely without scandal. The worst of it was when he was recorded speaking of the Jews having a monopoly on Hollywood. He apologized and deeply regretted it. To my mind, the remark is not even anti-Semitic. I think it was only derogatory.
Graham was above reproach. Later in life, he regretted not spending more time with his family, pursuing more education, and not studying the Bible more. But, who lives to an old age without some regrets?
In her book, To Me, It’s Wonderful, Ethel Waters recounts her attendance at a Graham rally. Miss Waters was a successful jazz singer who was committed to Christ, but not involved much in the church. But she attended the crusade day-after-day and deepened her Christian commitment. She would later sing at these events and testify to the saving power of Christ. Her signature song was “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a reference to Jesus’ teaching about not worrying in Matthew 6:25-27.
What can Billy Graham teach us?
- We must never forget or underestimate the power of the gospel. We must stay true to it. Explain it. Proclaim it. Defend it. Apply it. Graham did.
- We should be above reproach, never cut corners, and never play around with sin. The greater the influence we have, the worse the fall.
- We should find our calling and stay true to it. The church is called to evangelize, but some are better at it than others. I am more of an apologist than an evangelist, but I try to keep the gospel at the center of my work.
- We should capitalize on every opportunity, use every venue, and employ every means to speak the truth in love about our God of truth and love.
- Like Billy Graham, we should stay humble. Despite his fame, he never sought the spotlight simply to increase his celebrity. His remarkable success did not go to his head. Whatever our successes, may they never make us proud.
God of the harvest,
we pause and remember a great man of God,
remembering his virtues and his achievements,
all of which came from the Holy Spirit of truth.
Lord, may we be like him as he was like Christ.
In Jesus’ saving name,