WHY BILLY GRAHAM?
An Evaluation of Billy Graham’s Career and Life.
Foreword to this Edition
Since writing this book some thirty years ago the author should add at least several more pages to demonstrate the powerful evangelistic theme of Billy Graham’s life and the extraordinary partnership of Ruth Bell Graham, his wife of sixty years. I was fortunate to know not only Billy and Ruth, but also other members of her family. Her father, Dr. Nelson Bell, missionary doctor and surgeon to China spoke to a group of us at a Presbyterian event in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957. Later, I would discuss some important church strategies with his son, The Rev. Dr. Clayton Bell, notable pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas.
My first meeting with Billy was in Uppsala, Sweden as the World Council of Churches gathered for sixteen days in July of 1968, its Global Assembly IV attracting nearly three thousand church leaders from everywhere. Ken Wilson and I represented Christian Herald. The editorial staff of Christianity Today (founded by Graham) shared rooms with us and John Hoyt, soon to be president of the Humane Society of the United States. Also, a number of meals with Ted Fiske, Religion Editor, "The New York Times."
Bill and I with seven or eight others spent an afternoon discussing cooperative ventures in publishing and broadcasting. (The transistor radio was just becoming affordable in the Third World.)
The World Council Presidents, and their Executive Director, Eugene Carson Blake once head of Presbyterians in North America, led the opening worship service. Flags and banners were unfurled, trumpets sounded as a majestic choir lifted the hymn. Colorful clerical roles identifying Bishops and Archbishops were followed by the apparel and academic hoods of many theologians and scholars of the church. The royal family of Sweden caused a stir among the worshippers as they entered the cathedral. For that moment in time everything seemed grand and all these celebrities of church and state made all participating feel important, as well. The famous, the near famous, leaders all, moved through the nave to their seating near the altar. But not Billy Graham. Surprisingly, to me, the most prominent preacher in the world was uninvited.
Officials would later state that the Southern Baptists were not a member group of the World Council. They and others of their ilk, i.e. Roman Catholics, were welcomed as Observers and free to attend all events and discussion groups. There were also writers of Pravda, the Russian controlled news agency. Well, Pete Seeger was not a “member,” yet there he was that evening for a one-hour anti-war concert, eliciting applause and approval.
The religious establishment seemed not quite ready (were they ever?) to welcome the most gifted preacher of the century. Billy participated individually as an Observer.
Now, flash forward from 1966 to 2001. The World Trade Center ignites and falls into rubble. Then a passenger jet crashes into the Pentagon, creating a seismic shift of international proportion delivered by Islamic terrorists. Within the week, you saw Billy Graham, at the invitation of President Bush, delivering his message at the National Cathedral. Most of us were still numb from the attack on America.
“I’ve been asked hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and I have to confess that I really do not know the answer totally, even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept by faith that God is sovereign, that He’s a God of love, mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.”
Out of experience and compassion he spoke with New Testament words of courage and hope beyond the audience of heads of state, representatives of Congress, military leaders, Cabinet secretaries to the international audience of radio and television, embracing millions around the world. It was as if we were hearing the President of world Christianity. Now, I must confess, if he heard me say that conversationally, he would shake his head, frown and turn the topic quickly to the heroic ministry of Bishop Tutu in Africa or how much his wife Ruth enjoyed the visit by New Mexico friends, that we both knew.
But an Evangelist?
Ah, but in the minds of countless others in this secular, post-Christian culture of Western civilization, words like “revivalist” or “evangelist” are repeated with a smirk or rolled eyes. Hollywood and all forms of mass media quickly think of Elmer Gantry, a religious rogue of movie fame portrayed by Burt Lancaster in 1960, not unlike some televangelists who would serve prison sentences for their financial and sexual indulgences.
The Gantry tag has had a lingering slogan, like the Mafia. Some thirty years ago, bestselling author Scott Peck spoke to 1,200 people on a Saturday morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Road Less Traveled had been on the top seller list and tickets went for $15 each. Following the introduction, Peck moved quickly to the microphone, paused, waiting for the applause to subside. And then he said seven words, igniting a burst of laughter from the audience: “I come to you as an evangelist!”
The prior week, two different televangelists had been cited for criminal behavior. He went on to say, in an upbeat serious tone, Yes, I come to you as an evangelist, because I bring Good News of hope and joy and salvation. And when the event was over (three lectures separated by a lunch break), no one had left. The most popular psychiatrist in North America noted his recent adult baptism, as his acknowledging Christ a Savior.
Does the Church Need The Gospel?
In the past century, sharp critics of the Christian message generally came from outside the Church, but in the last two decades, the assault in the form of heresies, feminist goddess worship, distortions of the scriptures and the denigrating of historic creeds, appears within the faith community. Your theological air is full of toxic waste. In New England, an Episcopal priest dumps his wife and 45 seconds later, proudly introduces a gay partner. “So courageous,” said their friends. The diocese, not to be out-scandalized, swiftly voted to consecrate this cleric to the office of bishop. But wait, there’s more. In 2006, the Episcopal House of Delegates, elected a woman priest to the majestic office of Archbishop. Eager to confirm her feminist, correct theology, she offered this line in her sermon of the week, “As our Mother Jesus said….”
Little wonder that seminaries and divinity schools are thrown into confusion. With biblical teaching dismissed and the divinity of Christ doubted, so it follows that the Eucharist and baptism will not have priority. T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Many, many people will never deny the faith, because they never affirmed it in the first place.” Should we be surprised that a new generation of contemporary pastors are looking to social service, voter registration and global warming as a fifth gospel, replacing the first four.
There have been warnings. Fifty years ago Professor H. Richard Niebuhr told our class at Yale Divinity School, that he would describe the prevailing doctrine of the liberal churches, which meant most of the mainline denominations as:
“A God without wrath
brought men without sin
into a kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Dr. Karl Menninger, of the renowned family of psychiatric care givers, agreed that too many seminary scholars had turned the faith upside down.
“We have called sin two things. A crime, and lock people up who deviate. Or we call it mental illness, and put people in mental hospitals. What about the bulk of the problem, which is neither crime nor mental illness? This is man’s willful, moral irresponsibility. It’s a sin, something deep in the heart of man that needs challenging.”
A professor (Niebuhr) and a psychiatrist (Menninger) had rather well described the spiritual malaise lurking in the land, but it was given to a young evangelist, Billy Graham, to prescribe the cure:
“The Bible teaches that our souls have disease. It causes all the troubles and difficulties in the world. It causes all the troubles, confusions and disillusionments in your own life.
“The name of the disease is an ugly word. It is ‘sin.’ All of us have pride. We do not like to confess that we are in the wrong or that we have failed. But God says, ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ We have failed to live up to the divine standard. We must confess our sin as the first step to happiness, peace and contentment.”
Sixty years ago, a confused, troubled, faith-less British actress entered Harringay Arena in London. Initially puzzled by Graham’s confident authority based on scripture (all new to her thinking) she stayed to hear his words of salvation and promise of new life in Christ. Before the evening was over, Joan Winmill Brown walked forward to make her decision and watched as a Crusade counselor greeted her, then sat next to her, for discussion and prayer. In less than two hours, she had experienced the beginning of true conversion, agreeing with the young preacher from North Carolina and prayed with his wife, Ruth Bell Graham. Several years later, Joan became one of Graham’s editors, now living in California and wrote this prayer:
“Pride kept me so long from acknowledging my need of You, Lord. Each day, help me to realize I am nothing without You.”
Year by year, Billy Graham preached the Gospel, with authority, bringing the Good News to eager listeners, not unlike those thousands of common people that ran after Jesus Christ, two thousand years ago. It still works today.
Albuquerque, New Mexico