In a changing world, Billy Graham provided a constant and relevant example of the power of the Gospel, writes David Goodwin.
When we talk about Christianity in the United States, it’s hard not to leap straight to stereotypes of televangelists with big hair and polished sound bites. The 20th century saw the rise of the Church as big business with fortunes to be made. Television and radio meant potential audiences in the millions and gave birth to the age of the celebrity evangelist.
Perhaps no other single figure had a greater influence in shaping this new era in American—and, from there, global—Christianity than Reverend Billy Graham. He pioneered many of the methods that powered a wave of evangelism that swept the world, and changed the way Christianity was presented to the world.
“I am selling,” he told TIME in 1954, “the greatest product in the world; why shouldn’t it be promoted as well as soap?”
It was this philosophy that saw him apply successful marketing techniques to evangelism, embracing new methods as they were developed and ensuring that his ministry remained relevant as audiences changed. Moving from radio to television to the internet kept him connected to generation after generation. His rallies were a smoothly running machine thanks to his use of innovative organisational strategies.
Because of this willingness to change, not caring about the method or the medium as long as the message was being delivered, he never went out of fashion. And this adaptability and longevity, combined with his moral integrity, saw Rev. Graham become the benchmark by which all others were measured and gave him a spiritual authority which was recognised by believers and non-believers alike.
However, the success of Rev. Graham and his contemporaries was not without cost. As the religious market grew in size and influence, it became extremely profitable. Like any other boom it attracted those looking for their own piece of it. Some were charlatans or con artists who saw religion as an easy way of separating the gullible or desperate from their cash. Others started out with good intentions, but were unable to handle the excess and temptations of their success.
Over the years, a number of the biggest names in televangelism were embroiled in scandal and came crashing down amid accusations of sexual or financial impropriety. Each time it damaged the credibility of the entire evangelical movement, and overshadowed the countless good done by so many. But, despite the constant scrutiny, Rev. Graham avoided making the same mistakes. Throughout his career he insisted on regular financial audits of his ministries, and was a devoted husband and family man.
Perhaps that’s why he was able to leave behind a unique legacy as someone admired by people from all faiths, and became such an influential figure in American society. In a public ministry spanning more than six decades, Rev. Graham went from revival meetings held in circus tents to being a regular guest at the White House, and proclaimed the Gospel to hundreds of millions of people across the world. During this time, he was able to navigate an increasingly partisan world and rise above even the most tumultuous of times.
Key to his ability to do so lay in the fact that, for him, it was always about the message, rather than about him. Despite the fact that he became an instantly recognisable household name, he always sought to discourage the cult of celebrity that so many of his contemporaries seemed to embrace.
Another point of difference was his reluctance to allow himself to be used by political interests. While other notable evangelical figures in America were outspokenly partisan—most clearly seen in the rise of the Religious Right—Rev. Graham used more inclusive language and, for the most part, avoided being aligned with a specific political agenda.
In stark contrast to his son Franklin—who publicly endorsed Donald Trump for president and vocally questioned Barack Obama’s faith—Rev. Graham was able to build relationships with presidents from both parties who understood that he was more interested in offering spiritual support than using his access to pursue his agenda.
In an interview with today.com, he said, “I think that if I would talk on a political subject, if I talk about it, it would divide the audience on that issue. That’s not my issue. My issue is Christ.”
It was this emphasis on the centrality of Christ that set him apart from so many of his contemporaries, and saw him become one of the most significant Christian figures of the 20th century, perhaps only second to Pope John Paul II. Because he put the Gospel first he was able to transcend national borders, and was seen as an ambassador of Christ—not the United States.
Despite not having an official title, over the years his reputation became such that he was able to engage with world leaders—both political and religious—on almost equal terms. Fans of the Netflix series, The Crown, recently saw a portrayal of the warm relationship he had with Queen Elizabeth II, who admired his Christian witness and shared his personal faith.
Like any human being, Rev. Graham was not perfect and there will be those who would point out the times he stumbled. However, he was the first to admit that he made mistakes along the way, and as he approached his final years he openly discussed some of his regrets and made no attempt to excuse them.
Perhaps the most damaging of these was the release of some of President Nixon’s secret recordings of conversations in the White House, which included anti-Semitic remarks from Rev. Graham and drew widespread condemnation. Rather than trying to excuse it, his repentance was evident.
He was also criticised for refusing to march during the Civil Rights movement, and for what some saw as a simplistic approach to racial issues. Rev. Graham believed that his priority was preaching the Gospel, and believed this was the way to change society. He later admitted that he wished he had marched, but it is unfair to accuse him of racism, or even inaction.
From the vantage point of today’s world, it is hard to appreciate just how radical it was for a white preacher from the South to insist on not only preaching to racially mixed crowds but also dispensing with barriers that were usually used to prevent any mingling. And his public endorsement of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, which included having him on stage, was a major blow for those who would rather see King silenced.
It’s a testament to the way in which Billy Graham lived his life that even his critics will not remember him for his mistakes, but for the message of hope and love he devoted his life to sharing with the world. In an increasingly divided global culture, his legacy of valuing inclusion over sectarianism, his willingness to reach across ideological and partisan boundaries to minister to human need, and his humility in the midst of fame and power are all more important than ever.