Billy Graham: "An American Phenomenon"
One of the most challenging assignments for journalists can be creating advance obituaries for prominent people in the beats they cover. Those of us at the PBS program, “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” knew the importance of this all too well. We had just finished recording the first episode of our show in September 1997 when news broke of the death of Mother Teresa. We had to scramble to develop an obituary, edit it into the program and still make our satellite feed in time to distribute the show to our local public television stations. Fortunately, we made it, and R&E went on to have a weekly place in the PBS lineup for nearly 20 years. I had an obituary for evangelist Billy Graham ready for broadcast for more than a decade. Graham outlived R&E, which ended in March 2017. With news of Graham’s death at the age of 99, I pulled out the script that I had written for the obituary that never aired. Of course, it was better with the video. The piece began with a montage of Graham giving altar calls at crusades that spanned more than five decades. His signature hymn, “Just As I Am,” accompanied the video images.
KIM LAWTON, correspondent: For more than half a century, Reverend Billy Graham gained international prominence for being just what he was: an unflagging evangelist whose core message never changed.
REV. BILLY GRAHAM, at crusade in the 1950s: And I sincerely believe that if the world tonight would turn in repentance of their sins and have faith in Jesus Christ, we could not have only individual peace, but world peace.
GRAHAM, at crusade in the 1970s: Do you know Christ? Is he your Lord and savior? Have you received him? I’m going to ask you to do it right now.
GRAHAM, at crusade in the 1980s: I’m going to ask you to come.
GRAHAM, at crusade in the 1990s: You’re saying, “Lord, I need you. Please come into my heart.” It’s a holy moment. Just get up out of your seat. From up there, it takes an extra five minutes, so start now.
LAWTON: And come they did. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association says more than three million people responded to Graham’s altar calls and to his message that salvation and eternal life came through believing in Jesus. The Association says Graham reached more live audiences than any other preacher in history…more than 81 million people.
REV. JOAN BROWN CAMPBELL, Chautauqua Institution Religion Department (retired): He’s a phenomenon. He’s an American phenomenon.
LAWTON: Graham always referred to himself as a simple country preacher, but for many Americans, he was much more. For 42 years, he was a fixture on Gallup’s list of the most admired men. He was widely considered “America’s pastor.”
MARTIN MARTY, Religion Historian: He was everybody’s figure, middle America’s figure. Many intellectuals would have snobbed him out, and many fundamentalists thought he was too moderate. But overall, he showed that if you are perceived as being a person of inner convictions that were consistent and lived a life that manifested that, people will appreciate your message, even if they don’t agree with it.
LAWTON: William Franklin Graham Junior was born on November 7, 1918 near Charlotte, North Carolina. At the age of 16, he attended a series of revival meetings led by a traveling evangelist. It was there, Graham said, that he dedicated his life to Jesus. Five years later, he was preaching at his own revival meetings. In the 1940s, Graham joined Youth for Christ, an evangelical group ministering to young people and World War Two military personnel. He began organizing evangelistic rallies that blended upbeat music, patriotic fervor and revivalist preaching. It was a winning combination that he would use for more than 50 years.
PROF. RANDALL BALMER, Dartmouth College: People who heard him preach knew exactly what he believed, and he was able to articulate those principles of evangelical theology for the masses.
LAWTON: In 1949, during a campaign in Los Angeles, Graham catapulted to national attention thanks in part to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who ordered his publications to “puff Graham.” The next decades became a whirlwind: preaching at crusades, sometimes for months on end, and rubbing elbows with some of the most powerful people in the world.
MARTY: It always seemed important to him that some prince or some magnate paid attention to him. I was thinking that prince or magnate should have said “Billy Graham paid attention to me.” He was too dazzled, I think, by power. Maybe that was part of his charm.
LAWTON: Graham participated in more presidential inauguration ceremonies than any one in history. But even more than that, he was a friend and confidante to multiple presidents.
PRES. BILL CLINTON, in speech: When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs at the White House, you feel that he is praying for you, not the president.
LAWTON: His relationship with Richard Nixon was especially close. In 1970, during the height of controversy over the war in Vietnam, Graham invited Nixon to appear at his crusade in Knoxville, Tennessee.
GRAHAM, at 1970 crusade: The American presidency is the loneliest and toughest job in the world. All Americans may not agree with the decisions a president may make, but he is our president.
PRES. RICHARD NIXON, at 1970 crusade: With that kind of spiritual assistance, there is no question in my view about the long-term future of America.
BALMER: I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Graham was afflicted with a certain amount of political naivete. His storied friendship with Mr. Nixon was probably one of the things that people will remember about him, and not always to Mr. Graham’s credit.
LAWTON: During a speech at Harvard University in 1999, Graham admitted he didn’t always handle political relationships well.
GRAHAM: There are so many things that I wish now that I’d done differently as I look back. I certainly don’t put myself up as a model for everybody on many of those issues. I’ve tried to stay out of partisan politics as much as possible. I got pretty close on several occasions.
LAWTON: Graham’s political stands often frustrated liberals and conservatives alike. He was never active in the civil rights movement, but even in the early 1950s, he refused to preach at segregated crusades. Staunchly anti-communist, he was among the first international leaders to travel to communist countries, such as the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. During those trips, many observers said he wasn’t tough enough in denouncing ongoing human rights abuses. Overall, Graham rarely spoke out on specific social or political issues, fearing it could interfere with his message and his ministry. That ministry became a multi-million-dollar enterprise. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was formed in 1950 to further Graham’s work, especially through cutting-edge media technologies, something Graham insisted on using.
BALMER: Radio, television, print media…he used in new ways. He jumped on these media possibilities with a vengeance. And did so brilliantly.
LAWTON: Graham kept updating his crusade format as well, often incorporating contemporary music with guests such as hip-hop artist Kirk Franklin and pop rock group DC Talk. Graham encouraged other preachers to follow in his footsteps, sponsoring several international conferences to train evangelists from around the world. He was a Southern Baptist, but he never emphasized individual Christian denominations.
CAMPBELL: He always said, “You give your life to the Lord and where you go to church, my dear, go. If that church doesn’t make you happy, if that church isn’t where you find Jesus, then go to a different congregation.” But he never tried to have a congregation of his own or to make people have allegiance to Billy Graham. And in that sense, he was a true evangelist.
LAWTON: Many scholars believe Graham almost single-handedly brought evangelical Christianity into the mainstream of the American religious landscape.
HARVEY COX, Religion Scholar: Billy Graham started as a Southern Baptist fundamentalist preacher and as he grew and matured and reached out, he became a lot more diplomatic, a lot more mellow. He really became the spokesman for American evangelicalism, not fundamentalism. And he became open to other denominations, even indeed to Roman Catholics being involved in his meetings. And really eventually became a kind of religious statesman.
LAWTON: Graham always tried to keep his private life very private. In 1943, he married Ruth Bell, the daughter of missionaries to China. They had five children. Ruth Graham died in June 2007. Many of Graham’s children and grandchildren are carrying on the family legacy of ministry.
BALMER: He was a towering figure. He was a person who was a path breaker in many respects in his own right. But the fact that he did it with such style, such grace, such wit, is something that will be hard for anyone else to follow. He came to prominence at a unique moment in history, and I don’t think anyone else for centuries will be able to approach his influence.
LAWTON: In 2002, Graham released a book titled “Heaven, the Final Journey.” Heaven was a subject he preached about frequently during his career. Talk show host Dick Cavett once asked Graham what he thought heaven would be like.
GRAHAM, on “The Dick Cavett Show”: Heaven is going to be where Christ is. Now I don’t know whether that’s a planet or whether that’s a star or whether it’s on this earth or where it’s going to be. But it’s going to be where Christ is and the Bible says, “to be absent from the bodies, present with the Lord.” And if I died right now, Dick, I know that I’m going to go immediately into the presence of God.
DICK CAVETT, on “The Dick Cavett Show”: You do?
GRAHAM, on “The Dick Cavett Show”: I know that.
LAWTON: I’m Kim Lawton reporting.