He was a dairy farmer’s son from North Carolina who dreamed of becoming a baseball player. Although his talents on the baseball field were middling, he managed in his career to fill stadiums across the country and the world. He was Billy Graham and he was an evangelist.
The magnitude of his accomplishments is unquestioned. In 1957,100,000 people jammed Yankee Stadium for the closing night of Graham’s New York crusade. For 12 weeks, Graham drew an astonishing 2 million listeners in New York City and broke all attendance records for
consecutive appearances at historic Madison Square Garden. Wherever he preached, from Chicago to Los Angeles to Washington, the story was the same. He drew the largest crowds ever recorded.
He preached in nearly 200 countries around the world. In London’s Wembley Stadium in 1954, Graham spoke to 185,000 individuals who braced themselves against a driving rain to hear the celebrated American evangelist. Attendance at this event topped the crowd at the 1948
Olympics in the same stadium and was the largest religious gathering in British history. In Seoul, Korea, Graham’s 1973 crusade drew over one million, the largest recorded religious gathering in history.
With the advent of satellite-link television, the numbers were even more impossible to fathom. In 1990, on his 72nd birthday, Graham preached in Hong Kong. His sermon was broadcast to over 100 million viewers through a network strung across the Asian continent. Graham and his organization, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA), have been a major influence on significant international twentieth-century religious events, especially the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974.
He was the first Christian evangelist after the Second World War to hold public religious gatherings behind the Iron Curtain, including controversial visits to the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China.
He personally associated with every American president since Dwight Eisenhower, advising Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on Vietnam and Ronald Reagan on the Soviet Union. Bible in hand, he appeared at the side of President George Bush as the United States launched the 1991 war against Iraq.
President George W. Bush credits Graham with leading him out of alcohol abuse to a conversion experience. His ministry became the center of a post–World War II movement called the new evangelicalism. He played a leading role in developing the nation’s two most influential evangelical seminaries, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His work and his example inspired thousands of young men and women to pursue a career in the ministry.
Bill Graham Magazine’ Tagged ‘Decision’
Decision, became the most widely distributed religious periodical in the world. His first book, Peace with God, published in August 1953, became an immediate bestseller and sold millions. It has been translated into 50 languages. The evangelist has published over 21books since that time Through the years, the BGEA headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, received mountains of letters from men, women, and children from all walks of life, an average of over 100,000 a week. Some of the letters bore only the words “Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota” on the envelopes.
No other address was necessary. Graham has appeared on the Gallup Poll’s Ten Most Admired Men list more often than anyone in history. He was listed by Life magazine as one of the 100 most important Americans of the twentieth century. In 1971,when he opened a revival in Charlotte, North Carolina, near to his birth-place, town leaders declared a holiday. In a 1978 Ladies’ Home Journal survey, under the category “achievements in religion,” Graham was higher on the list than everyone except God.
His personal finances and that of his organization have been impeccably honest and he has been free of personal scandal. In 1950 he put himself on an annual salary pegged at the level of a successful urban pastor. He has regularly turned down offers to star in movies and to run for political office.
Graham seemed to epitomize middle-class ideals at a time when the postwar American middle class was in its ascendancy. Graham’s personality and ideals, his dress and demeanor, and all the sounds and images that were part of his services seemed to many a comfortable call back to basic American values and religious piety.
However, if his accomplishments are unquestioned, there are those who question the truth, influence, and morality of his message. From both the left and the right of the political and religious spectrums, Graham was attacked. One journalist likened him to a moral dwarf.
Atheists and non-Christians labeled his revivals as grotesque circus charades that deceived multitudes of people. Many of the attacks centered on the meaning and techniques of the revivals that Graham had, through efficient organization and the force of his own personality, crafted with such precision and effectiveness. Those revivals sought conversion, the redirecting of one’s soul and life under God, an impulse difficult to understand and to influence.
Learned scholar Reinhold Niebuhr of New York’s Union Seminary ridiculed Graham’s sermons as simplistic and charged that the thousands of conversions supposedly achieved by the revivals were sham.
Once Graham made it clear that he would work with anyone who would work with him in his ministry—liberal, Catholic, or even communist—fundamentalist outrage flared. Critics charged Graham with lying about the truths in the Bible, betraying the Christian faith, and committing treasonous actions abroad. They even accused him of allying himself, through ignorance and self-interest, with the devil.
Bob Jones, founder of the college Graham first attended, said that the evangelist had done more damage to the cause of Christianity than any other man. When Jones died, his son sent a letter to Graham saying that the evangelist would not be welcome at Jones’s funeral.
To many critics, Graham’s links with a succession of American presidents is particularly galling and a betrayal of one of the most revered political emblems of American democracy—the separation of church and state. Although his relationships with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter could be described as politely cool, for all the others there is substantial evidence that he functioned not only as an unofficial chaplain but also, to some extent, as a policy adviser.
To the revival-goers, however, such hostility was irrelevant as they traveled to an arena or a stadium to attend a Billy Graham revival. They knew what to expect. They knew that his old friend George Beverly Shea would be there, singing the beloved revival favorites, such as “How Great Thou Art.” They knew that a well-known athlete or movie star would be there, testifying to the saving power of the gospel.
They knew that there would be vigorous songs from a massive choir and that the evangelist himself, waving and stabbing the Bible aloft, pacing across the platform, would deliver a blistering sermon with astonishing speed.
The inevitable message would be simple and direct—Christ alone offered a lasting solution to the world’s problems. What are we to make of the career of Billy Graham? What are the results of hundreds of crusades launched and millions of dollars spent? How long did the religious commitments last for those who professed their lives to Christ at the revivals? There is really no way to measure. Sociologists, historians, and the Graham organization itself have made various attempts to gauge the permanency of those decisions. The results, however, depend on who is doing the survey and the tools employed. No one knows for certain. However, millions of people spoke with their feet when they marched forward; they spoke with their hearts when they sat down and wrote those letters. What it all says is that Graham, whatever the merit of his message and beliefs, helped ordinary men and women cope with their lives and find hope in the future.
BILL GRAHAM IS A LEGEND INDEED.
Written by: Abraham Olayiwola Oluwole