Billy Graham: a tribute

John Martin writes: On a balmy April Sunday in 1959, my Dad arranged a bus to transport people from our tiny outback township to hear Billy Graham via landline relay. It entailed a sixty mile round trip. I have one abiding memory. As soon as Billy issued his customary appeal a smartly dressed man with dark curly hair stood and walked determinedly to the front of the cinema which the local churches had rented as the landline venue.

Toby Priestley was a little-educated railway worker. He had style and immense charm, but was a hopeless drunk. Dad became his mentor. In the years that followed, his testimony often murdered the Queen’s English but there was no question of its authenticity or power. As far as I know, he never again touched a drop of booze. He was a man made new.Alongside landline relays in 1959 my family twice visited Sydney to hear Billy at Sydney’s Agricultural Showground. I will never forget the final Sunday. To this day I have never seen a bigger crowd. The Showground was packed to the gunnels and overflowed to the neighbouring Sydney Cricket Ground which was packed save for the Members Stand. A nice steward let us peek at the Showground crowd before we found places next door.

Billy returned to Sydney in 1968 and 1979. Historians agree that the 1959 Crusade had the greatest impact. Two schoolboy brothers were among thousands who came forward in response to Billy’s invitation, their names, Peter and Philip Jensen. Decades later, Peter – a theologian of distinction – became the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. Philip, an effective evangelist, ended his working life as Dean of Sydney. One of the most important long-term legacies of 1959 was that it prompted a large cohort of men to respond to the call to the ordained ministry in the diocese.

By 1968 I was in my final year of school and I trained as a counselor. One evening a group of lads from school attended. I recall tailing several of those who went forward in response to the appeal and I counseled one of them. I thought it helpful to be on hand for follow-up. By then I was old enough to appreciate Billy’s humble eloquence. He could hold the crowd in the palm of his hands. He unpacked the message in vivid but down-to-earth language. He could raise a laugh and then within moments you could have heard a pin drop as he moved to the climax of his message.

By 1979 I was working in the Communications Office of the Diocese of Sydney. The mission’s organising office was just a few steps away and we took on press relations work. I helped with a school of writing run in parallel to the meetings. The sheer joy on the face of Archbishop Marcus Loane who chaired Billy’s initial press conference is still a fond memory. On peak hour current affairs television Billy was asked “Did you ever doubt God or your Christian faith?” Without blinking he immediately responded, “Never!”  That was a pointer to Billy Graham’s spiritual make-up. Very early he determined never to engage with speculative theological questions. As the first editor of Decision magazine, Sherwood Wirt, told me, “Billy never changes.”

But he did. I think the impact of 1979 lagged behind the earlier missions. I thought the format had grown tired. The ultra-loyal Billy insisted that the much-loved George Beverly Shea should sing before he preached, even though at 71 Bev struggled to hit the higher notes. Billy and his team eventually did adapt and change. In the 1990s he remodeled the formula. He realised the term “crusade” created a needless barrier to Muslims and the meetings were re-branded as “missions”. In place of the traditional “youth night” the team offered a “Concert for the Next Generation”, featuring Christian rock, rap, and hip-hop artists. Young people listened intently to the ageing Billy’s message.

From the first, Billy was an entrepreneur. He published books and magazines and multiplied his audience through use of radio and television. Early on he appointed a Board which set his salary and this ensured he never got enmeshed in the financial hijinks of later televangelists. He openly encouraged intercession that he would be kept from sexual temptation. He ensured this with a strict rule that other than his wife Ruth he would not meet one to one with a woman. His was strictly teetotal.  He would instruct minders to keep an eagle eye out at receptions in case an opportunist journalist would slip an alcoholic drink into his hand and take a photo while he intently engaged in conversation.

Billy Graham preached in person to an estimated 100 million people. He requested that the headstone of his grave should simply say, “Billy Graham, Preacher.” But his influence did not end with his preaching. He founded many Christian organisations: Youth for Christ, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Christianity Today magazine to name a few. He helped develop the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, TransWorld Radio, World Vision and the National Association of Evangelicals.

I wish he had been more theologically acute. His dispensational pre-millennialism contributed to widespread evangelical quietism in the US, with many believing that working for justice was of secondary importance since the return and earthly rule of Christ would set right all wrongs. Even so he attended and participated in the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland. The key players were John Stott, Bishop Jack Dain from Sydney and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford. There is debate about how much he completely ‘owned’ the Lausanne project. But his presence was important to a movement that helped evangelicals recover their social conscience and gave voice to a generation of evangelicals from the global south.

“He being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).

John Martin is Associate Editor (Global News) with the US-based Living Church and has been a member of the Fulcrum Leadership Team since its inception.

This article was first published on the Fulcrum website.

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6 thoughts on “Billy Graham: a tribute”

  1. I really enjoyed this reflection on Billy Graham, but I don’t know why it needs to end with criticism, even if it is valid criticism. It doesn’t flow, and doesn’t work written like this. How to explain what I mean…..

    I was reading about the personal impact of Billy’s ministry from the perspective of someone there, and I was imaging what it was like.

    I was reading about his character and integrity, and reflecting on how I wish more of our leaders would act in such a way.

    I was reading about his influence in the formation of today’s christian landscape, and being surprised by the extent of it.

    I was reflecting on his ongoing influence and what this means for the future.

    But then I am told he was theologically weak and shares some of the blame for the dubious eschatology that so warps/warped mainstream protestant theology in the states?

    It just doesn’t flow like this.

    • Totally agree Matt
      Disappointed by the bizzarre ending to this barely tribute.
      There has been and there will be time for critique – but not now and not like this – bad writing, bad argument, bad form!

      1kings13v1 “a man of God came by the word of the Lord”

  2. Let me give this perspective as a bookshop worker.

    The key is to meet people where they are at and show them the way to where they could/should be.

    Billy Graham did exactly that. His message was:

    (a) oft-repeated, so that people remembered it and didn’t forget it;
    (b) pitched at the right level for people’s normal understanding (just as, for example, when we sell books on Islam, they will generally be at the basic level that corresponds to where people’s understanding has reached);
    (c) unerring in its priorities: it prioritised matters of first importance. The core gospel message and challenge should be repeated at every meeting because for some people that *is* the only meeting. This shows people-centredness and love;
    (d) unsnobbish – it knows that the gospel is intrinsically simple and able to be received by children. All its essentials are, anyway. Compare his critics, who had not a trillionth of the personal fruit nor the evangelistic fruit.

    I really like the ‘Billy Graham rule’ which good old Mike Pence sticks to; and the wise-as-serpents pre-checking of hotel rooms (which entirely reflects painful experience of what the media are actually like). Only minus point: long absences from his wife and family are not a good thing. Nor did it do his family unmitigated good. In fact, this is the same that one would say about cricket tours and Oxfam abroad. The presupposition that married people can go away from spouse on long leaves of absence is a very odd presupposition indeed.

    Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea and Billy Graham averaged around 97 years – testimony to wholesomeness. Same goes for the rest of the team – TW and Grady Wilson. Bev Shea was still releasing records till his late 90s. Brilliant. And when he sang it was real real real, not theatrical. He was even in his commonplace raincoat. To add to what we say about the media – in the 1930s or 1940s (and boy what a rich professional life to span so many decades) the media tried to ‘get’ Bev Shea by saying ‘Young Beverley Shea has been found drunk in the gutter’ – the article’s accuracy was open to question because they had assumed ‘Beverley’ was a girl, which showed how much factual content there was there.

    The BGEA movies are just spot-on in facing the realities of life. The very reverse of idealistic. And what BG did in his World Evangelistic Congresses and at Lausanne has been massively beneficial co-ordination that bears untold fruit.

    ‘Peace with God’ is no less simple than it needs to be. A fabulous unsnobbish book. Just the chapter on gentlemanliness has influenced the 1950s young men incalculably better than their successors.

    So many who had time with BG personally speak of his love and sincerity, and their own love and respect for him. God Bless Him.

    Crusade ministry in America both before and after BG has so often been a case of – move on to the next locality before they discover our fraudulence and failure to deliver. (That applies more to some of the healing ministries.) BG and J John could not be more different from that. In New York (1949 and 1957 was it – absolute national events and media’s Stuart Hamblen powerfully converted in 1957) or in London, BG just stayed night after night, because there were always more souls that needed him to be there.

    It is amazing what God can do (parable of sower). It is sometimes difficult to find Christians for whom (say) Billy Graham and/or John Stott and/or Dick Lucas is not somewhere in their spiritual parentage or spiritual family tree. (In my case, it’s my wife, 1984.) One single yielded vessel.

  3. I would not normally repeat a comment that I made on another site, but here are my thoughts:

    It’s not for us to measure another person’s greatness in how they used the gifts bestowed on them by God. And we should be thankful for that, because most of us would find ourselves pretty disheartened should we inevitably be tempted to compare ourselves to people like Billy Graham. So how good it is simply to rejoice at the amazing effect this man has had on countless lives because he was obedient and humble enough to allow God to use his undoubted gifts – not for a while but over a lifetime.

    Perhaps he was fortunate to have the attributes of a born salesman, certainly he will have made mistakes because, like all of us, he was human; but no one can doubt that he gave everything he was to his Lord and Master, and God was able to use him like no other. And what a relief it is that he didn’t have to make it complicated: far too many lives were permanently changed for there to be any suspicion that it was all done through clever crowd control, some form of mass hysteria or cunning psychological technique. Anyone who attended one of his rallies expecting to see the power of pressurised techniques in action would have been disappointed. If ever there needed to be proof of the power that works through straightforward Bible preaching, it must be Billy Graham’s worldwide mission endeavours.

    We must not worship him. Those of us who are Christians simply give him back to God, where he belongs, with unspeakable gratitude.

  4. The Queen may be grateful for his life and ministry and, too, the CoE for the evident derogation of her authority to Jesus, in retrospect, as she ascended to throne. She is a national witness to Jesus, more publically prominent and steadfast than many church leaders.
    His reward will be….???


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