Reflections on Billy Graham

The recent death of evangelist Billy Graham brought forth a number of memories for me. I have long entertained conflicting feelings about him and his ministry. As a survivor of a Fundamentalist church during my years in grade school, I was repelled by Graham’s Biblical literalism during his early years and his simplistic approach to the world. Early in my own ministry in the early 60s I recall that my Presbyterian Church issued a series of low-cost books called The Layman’s Theological Commentary, one of which was by Cornelius Lowe, MODERN RIVALS TO THE CHRISTIAN FAITH. The most startling chapter in the book was devoted to Billy Graham, whom the author took to task for his individual-centered, social justice ignoring theology.

Then through the years I encountered in a couple of cities the network of supporters of the Billy Graham Crusades and was impressed by their ecumenism, bringing leaders of diverse theologies and polities together. Most of all, I was impressed by the evangelist’s refusal to speak to segregated audiences. This latter was well before the Civil Rights movement sprang up. He did not become a prophet like Dr. King or the Berrigan brothers, but to insist on integrated audiences at the time certainly made him their ally—and probably took some courage, as I would suppose that his advisers cautioned him about the consequences in the South. Throughout his career he insisted on the equality of the races, rejecting the widespread racism of his fellow Southerners (and of many Northerners too)–though he never appeared before the public with fellow preacher whom he called “my friend,” Dr. Martin Luther King. (Also disappointing was his response to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” Talk about “Pie in the Sky”!)

I came to a new respect of Graham’s moral integrity in the early 60s when I sat next to Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood at a luncheon. During my college years his books inspired me to think about the moral and political implications of the Christian faith, so I was thrilled to have a chance to talk with him. I was then a student associate campus minister at Bowling Green State University, and we had invited Dr. Trueblood to be our Religious Emphasis Week speaker. The subject of Billy Graham had come up, and, given Trueblood’s liberal views, I expected to hear some critical remark offered. Instead, Dr. Trueblood revealed that he had known the evangelist for many years. When the young evangelist started to become nationally famous, he had come to the Quaker for advice, and Dr. Trueblood suggested that he needed to avoid the temptation that had ruined many a traveling evangelist, the lust for money with its resulting corruption.  He should set up an independent body to handle all finances, and he should accept a fixed salary.

Billy Graham followed this advice, the result being that there have been no charges of financial misdeeds. He might deserve criticisms of being too close to some U.S. presidents; of being uncritically supportive of the Vietnam War; and even of harboring anti-Semitic feelings, but never of financial shenanigans. And, we should add, given the fate of so many TV evangelists, of any sexual improprieties.

Billy Graham left a legacy of changed lives, we ought to remember. After reviewing the film Unbroken I read a biography of its WW 2 POW hero Louis Zamperini from which I learned how he was converted at a Billy Graham rally and subsequently began a long career as an evangelist preaching forgiveness and reconciliation—a career assisted by Graham. Thus, though I still have reservations about Billy Graham, I can join with those who laud his ministry and mourn his loss. The world is richer for his having lived and ministered among us.

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