Billy Graham died yesterday at the age of 99. Graham was one of the titanic figures of American evangelicalism and his life spanned some of the interesting and tumultuous years of world history. We cannot even speak about 20th-century evangelicalism without referencing the impact of the ministry of Billy Graham and the movement he led. Born to a farmer in North Carolina in 1918, Graham lived a rather traditional childhood in rural America and he also experienced the tumult of adolescence, describing himself in retrospect as rebellious, though it was a rather quiet and uneventful rebellion.
All that changed when in 1934 Graham went to a revival meeting. The evangelist was one of the best known of the early 20th century, Mordecai Ham. At this meeting Graham responded to the gospel and eventually felt the call to ministry—a call which would shape evangelicalism both in the last century and the current one.
I first became aware of Billy Graham watching him on television when I was a child. I later came to know him personally when he spoke at my inauguration as President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From those days watching him as a child even to my inauguration, Graham was characterized by one great message, the salvation provided by Jesus Christ.
Billy Graham came to adulthood in the aftermath of what was known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the United States. Liberal theology began to creep into mainline northern denominations in the last decades of the 19th century. By the time the 20th century came along, theological liberalism flourished in those denominations. This led conservatives to respond to the theological liberalism with an affirmation of the fundamentals of the faith. Eventually it became a movement known as Fundamentalism, and in the battle for control of those northern Protestant denominations, it was the Conservatives who lost and the Liberals who won.
As America entered World War II, it appeared, at least to those in control of the liberal Protestant denominations, that they were in the driver’s seat not only in the leadership of their denominations but the leadership of American culture. They thought they had decisively silenced orthodox Christianity and they had largely expunged conservative ministers from the pulpits of their denomination, especially from the most prestigious and elite pulpits. But when Billy Graham arrived on the scene, he and others perceived the need for a distinctively evangelical form of Protestant Christianity that wasn’t mired in what was considered to be the combativeness of American fundamentalism and its disengagement from the culture.
Graham became one of the singularly most important figures in forging what became known as American evangelicalism. In the late 1940s these men described themselves as the New Evangelicals because they affirmed the classic doctrines of Christianity without compromise, but at the same time they were representing the future, not just a return to something like the cultural conservatism of the 19th century. Billy Graham was himself indispensable in that movement. He became the founder of many important evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, as well as serving as President of Youth for Christ.
What made Billy Graham such an innovator there in the last part of the 1940s was that he understood the power of mass evangelism, or as he called them “crusades.” By the first decade of the 21st century, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had estimated that Billy Graham had preached in person to more than 250 million people. And as Graham’s cultural influence surged, so too did his relationships with positions of power. Most notably, Graham became an unofficial counselor to almost all US presidents beginning with Harry Truman.
Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of Graham’s life and most commendable is his sterling moral character. One of the things we must observe on the day after the death of Billy Graham, is that during his lifetime there was never even a hint of moral scandal in his minsitry. He surrounded himself with people who would handle the finances. He was scrupulously careful that there could never be any hint or accusation of moral impropriety on matters of sexualtiy. What many in the cultural left now deride as “the Mike Pence rule” has been known to many Christians for decades as “the Billy Graham rule” and it served him well
Finally, let me add a personal word about Billy Graham. When I became president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, Graham indicated to me directly that he wanted to do whatever he could to help me in the cause of recovering and reforming this institution, and moving it in a clearly, confessional and decidedly conservative direction. In that case I told Dr. Graham, who had an out-sized influence in the Southern Baptist Convention as well as American evangelicalism, that he could help me by coming to speak at my inauguration as President. He agreed to do so and delivered an address downtown at Freedom Hall, then the largest auditorium in the city of Louisville. He preached on the question, “Can revival come?” and he pointed to the future, to the gospel, to Christ, and gave an enormous word of affirmation that was invaluable to the great cause of recovering Southern Seminary. Furthermore, Billy Graham, in very tangible ways lent the power of his organization and some of his closest associates to recover Southern Seminary in the months and years that followed.
Concretely, the greatest gift that Billy Graham gave to the Southern Seminary during those very crucial years was to allow us to establish the first graduate school anywhere in the world that would bear his name: The Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry. This school is now an integral part of this institution and in carrying forward the mission Billy Graham loved so dearly. The establishment of this school gave enormous momentum to recovering the institution and reclaiming its original evangelical identity and convictions.
The last time I saw Billy Graham in person was at his house there in Montreat, North Carolina. We both knew it would likely be the last time we would see one another on in this life. During that time with faint breath but with very firm conviction, Dr. Graham told me that he longed to be with his wife Ruth and that he longed to be with Christ in heaven. He spoke often of heaven. He yearned for what he had preached to others. Billy Graham’s simple gospel message came down to human sin, and the fact that every single human being is a sinner and that our plight is absolutely impossible, except for the fact that God in Christ made atonement for our sins.
Billy Graham was humble man with sterling moral character. He was so humble that he opened himself up to historical and theological critique even by those who were his most severe critics. He was unapologetic about his evangelistic methodology. He said at one point that his task was not mass evangelism, but rather personal evangelism on a mass scale. He pointed repeatedly to the historical truths of the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. He pointed to justification by faith and the promise of the gospel, that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. He heralded the truth that if we profess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead, we shall be saved. He firmly believed that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. That was the gospel he preached in the beginning, that was the gospel he preached in the end. And that means that yesterday morning when Billy Graham drew his final breath in his 99th year, he died confident in the promises he had for so long preached. Many people will honor Billy Graham in the coming months. But I’m confident that Billy Graham would say the real way to honor him is to preach the gospel he preached, starting here, starting now.
The audio version of this commentary is found in the Thursday, February 22, 2018 edition of “The Briefing.” Listen here.