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BILLY GRAHAM: SALVATION
"I am going to preach a gospel not of despair but of hopehope for the
individual, for society and for the world."
BILLY GRAHAM, LONDON, 1954
HE WAS HUNKERED DOWN LOWas low as a six-foot two-inch man can hunker downin a plastic airport chair in the modest-size airport waiting area. He wore a nondescript tweed jacket and sweater, and pants that looked as though they had met up at different times with brushwood along the pathways in the North Carolina mountains. But it was the hat that struck me: one of those carelessly shapeless cloth hats that fishermen and hunters wear. It covered at least some of his forehead and the mane of white hair at the back of his heada sort of halfhearted attempt to avoid being recognized by travelers passing through the small airport.
The oddest thing was that he needn't have showed up in all. I was coming to interview him, the most famous evangelist in the world, not the other way around. I could have taken a cab to the Cove, his office headquarters in Montreat, North Carolina, or rented a car. But he had come in person, with his driver, to meet yet another journalist fascinated to delve into the heart and soul of Billy Graham.
As we drove back to his Montreat office of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, I was fascinated, as so many reporters have been, by his capacity for interest in otherpeople. In the car, over lunch, during the interview, and afterward, Graham unconsciously conveyed his phenomenal ability to put people at ease, to converse with you as comfortably as he would with a long-time neighbor.
I had met him and his wife, Ruth, before, offering some small suggestions as he planned what became his 1988 visit to China. I had been in the comfortable, country-style log cabin atop a hill near Montreat. Even then, what came across from both Grahams was an air of comfortable normality, made spicier, perhaps, by Billy Graham's capacious anecdotal memory of the prominent people he has encountered over the years, and rendered stimulating by the enormous experience of the world that he has gathered in his travels.
I had also met him a decade and a half before that when he was in Hong Kong preparing for the 1975 crusade. I interviewed him at the time in the Sheraton Hotel, Kowloon; though, as with Mother Teresa, I must have failed to draw from him anything that my editors considered newsworthy. "I would have studied more and spoken less," Graham said when I asked him if he would have changed anything in his career. "I would have spent more time with my family." That seemed like something close to a confession, so my editors at least graciously included this snippet of mea culpa in the "People" section of the magazine. But Graham also spoke in passing of the burdens imposed upon him by his sheer fame. "I'm constantly surrounded by people," he said. "I'm never alone." Paradoxically, he felt that this perpetual fame had become a prison for him, preventing him from keeping in touch with ordinary people. "I can't go to New York without the police taking the next room in the hotel," he complained.
"What advice would you give to Christians?" I asked back in 1975. "Study the Word," he replied. "Memorize Scripture, and get ready for persecution." Persecution? There didn't seem much likelihood of that taking place imminently, at least not in the United States. But in the fall of 1975, just months after the horrendous American humiliation in abandoning South Vietnam, there were grounds for believing that Soviet global power was in the ascendancy to an extent that could threaten the freedom of Christians in many countries. Ironically though Graham's concerns about a Soviet preeminence proved happily unfounded, his worries about Christian persecution were well ahead of their time. Not until 1997 did American Christianspartly with the friendly goading of sympathetic Jewswake up to the massive degree of persecution taking place against Christians around the world.
Billy Graham has been described in innumerable articles and books as "charming," and it is true. But his is not the charm of the maitre d' in an elegant restaurant, or a polished protocol officer in some diplomatic service or other. There is an innocence to it, a sincerity that catches you off guard. How can a man who has been an intimate friend of presidents, monarchs, popes, and prime ministers be both thoughtful and respectful to people with whom there is not likely to be any long-term connection? Graham has many times spoken of "integrity" as being the highest honor that he would wish to have attributed to him after his death. In his capacity to relate with equal warmth and sincerity to the high and the low, the fiercely antagonistic and the unctuously friendly, he attained it long ago.
Graham has been hurt by people he was close to, and betrayed by a handful over the years. But what seems to have protected him from bouts of vindictivenessthe common refuge of the deeply offended-has been a resurgent humility and a genuine sense of wonder at the heights to which, for nearly half a century, he has been elevated. Billy Graham has somehow managed to remain over those years, in part, an innocent North Carolina country boy, prankish, and having fun. He seems amazed at all he sees in the big city, and still fearful of putting a foot wrong.
"I wish I could go to heaven right now," he told Paula Zahn of CBS television a few years ago. "My greatest fear is that I'll do something or say something that will bring disrepute on the Gospel of Christ before I go." The remark is totally typical of Graham, as typical as the airport welcome of an unimportant visitor.
Graham's innocence is all the more surprising in light of what he has been exposed to. In the past half-century, because of his worldwide fame and friendship with major world leaders, he has in a sense acquired a penthouse view of many of the major developments around the globe. From these leaders, he has often received something of a running commentary on events by those who have actually influenced them. No other human being this century, living or dead, has had such intimate conversations with so many of the age's powerful and famous, from Winston Churchill to Mikhail Gorbachev, from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to Queen Elizabeth of England, from Pope John Paul II to North Korea's fiery Communist leader Kim Il Sung.
Throughout this period, Graham has served as an unofficial pastor to ten American presidents in succession and, in a major way, to the American people as a whole. When presidents die, or terrorist catastrophes like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing occur, Americans turn instinctively to Billy Graham for spiritual solace, Former Texas governor John Connally said of him, "Billy Graham is more than a preacher, more than an evangelist, more than a Christian leader. In a greater sense, he has become our conscience." Former President George Bush has called Graham "America's pastor." Numerous others have simply dubbed Graham "the Protestant pope."
Pope or pastor, confidant of presidents or evangelist, Graham's popularity among ordinary Americans has been astoundingmeasured statisticallyfor four decades. Since the 1950's, he has appeared in the annual top ten listing of "the most admired American" in polls organized by the Gallup organization thirty-seven times, and for seventeen of those times he has been in the top four of the list. For three years in a row Graham was top of the Good Housekeeping poll of "The Most Admired Men," and for a total of fourteen times he was in the top ten. When Ladies Home Journal conducted a survey in 1978 in the category "achievements in religion," Graham was second; the winner was God. Life magazine listed him as one of the one hundred most important Americans of the twentieth century. In the Nixon presidential archives there is a letter to former President Nixon from a woman requesting the president's assistance in obtaining an appointment with Billy Graham.
Globally, statistics of popularity are harder to gauge, since many countries forbid any kind of popularity survey (their own leaders might not fare so well). It is reasonable to say, though, that no American has been held in higher esteem around the world than Graham on a consistent basis for the past four decades, and almost certainly no American's name is as well known. At the headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis, letters have been delivered from around the world with the simple address, "Billy Graham, U.S.A." orentertainingly, no doubt, for the post office"Belly Grayem, Menihapuls, Menisoldiem."
Graham has preached during his five-decade global ministry to more people in person than anyone else in history, around 210 million, with some 2.8 million people responding to his invitation to "come forward" as "inquirers." With his satellite broadcast called "The Billy Graham World Television Series" in April 1996, it was estimated that as many as 2.5 billion people in more than 160 countries may have heard Graham's Easter Sunday sermon, which was translated into forty-eight languages. Once again, the numbers dazzle. Since the beginning of Christianity there has never been a larger number of people to hear the gospel message on one particular day. Decision magazine, which Graham founded in 1960, is published each month, and reaches some two million readers in 163 countries, the most widely distributed religious magazine in the worldand, of course, ever.
Graham's tangible accomplishments have been documented assiduously by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the organizational base of his ministry since 1950. He founded the magazine Christianity Today in 1957, and within a year of start-up, it had outstripped in circulation its rival, more liberal periodical, Christian Century. For the past four decades it has continued to be perhaps the most influential single magazine for Protestant Christians of any theological persuasion in the U.S. He started World Wide Pictures, a motion picture production company that in 1994 alone screened its movies, through videos, in some 350 churches in the U.S. and Canada. The viewing audience was estimated at close to four million, perhaps small potatoes for the general motion picture industry, but big-time exposure for any Christian organization.
Graham's weekly Hour of Decision radio program, started in 1950, is now broadcast by more than one thousand stations around the world. His newspaper column, "My Answer," is carried by papers across the U.S. with a combined circulation of seven million readers. He has written seventeen books, all of them best-sellers, and some of them setting publishing records immediately after their release. The Jesus Generation, published in 1971, sold 200,000 copies in the first two weeks, while Angels: God's Secret Agents, published in 1975, well before the current angels fad, sold one million copies in the first ninety days and was the best-selling new book in the U.S. for that year. How to Be Born Again (1977), had a first printing of 800,000 copies, the largest in publishing history at that time. Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1983) was for several weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, as indeed were two of his other books. His 1953 book Peace with God sold more than two million copies and has been translated into thirty-eight languages.
Graham's list of major national and international awards is so numerous and weighty that it defies enumeration except in the most outstanding cases. It includes the Congressional Medal of Freedom, Clergyman of the Year Award, the Freedom's Foundation Distinguished Persons Award (several years), the Gold Medal Award of the National Institute of Social Science, the Horatio Alger Award, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and the Sylvanus Thayer Award from the United States Military Academy. Jewish organizations have awarded Graham the Torch of Liberty Plaque (the Anti-Defamation League of Baha'i Brith), the First National Interreligious Award (the American Jewish Committee), and the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal (the Jabotinsky Foundation). Roman Catholics have honored him with the Franciscan International Award.
In May 1996, the U.S. Congress honored Graham with the highest award ever conferred on private U.S. citizens not serving in the armed forces, the Congressional Gold Medal. Only 114 of these medals have been awarded since 1776, when the first such medal was given to George Washington. President Clinton signed into law the legislation enacting this honor. The citation recognized both Grahams, Billy and his wife, Ruth, for their "outstanding and lasting contributions to morality, racial equality, family, philanthropy and religion." Numerous universities have conferred on Billy Graham an honorary doctorate. The only major international award that Graham has never been awarded is the Nobel Peace Prize.
These are the obvious reasons for Billy Graham's inclusion among our Great Souls. But it is the intangible aspect of Graham's achievement that, in so many ways, is more remarkable. No other Protestant leader of this or any century has so successfully articulated the central features of the Christian doctrine of eternal salvation and at the same time mobilized global Protestant Christianity in pursuit of them. Graham has been able to do this, moreover, by persuading a very wide variety of Christian groups, from liberal to extremely conservative, that their differences on particular doctrines and practices are less important than what they hold in common.
He has done even more than this. In focusing on the core of Protestant Christianityjustification by faith on the authority of the Biblehe has also built hitherto nonexistent bridges to the Roman Catholic world and to the Eastern Orthodox traditions, both of which have traditionally had uneasy, often hostile, relationships with Protestants. For many years, his crusade organizers have invited Roman Catholic churches to be partners in preparatory prayer, counseling of the "inquirers" who "come forward" at the crusades, and follow-up discipling of them within their own churches. He himself has frequently observed that he has more in common in his beliefs with orthodox Catholics than with some modernist Protestants. "Now I have reconciled in my mind," he told me in 1990.
that God has his people in all kinds of places and all kinds of churches and groups. I have found many people in the Roman Catholic church, both clergy and laity, who I believe are born-again Christians. They Catholic conciliar movement known as Vatican II in the early 1960's, there was little Roman Catholic inclination as a whole to seek common ground with Protestants. Graham's consistency, sincerity, and generosity of spirit to the Catholics nevertheless reaped rich fruit some two decades after these qualities first became evident.
Billy Graham did not formally meet any pope until 1981, when he was received in Rome by Pope John Paul II for half an hour. Their conversation ran the gamut of inter-Christian affairs: interchurch relations, contemporary moral issues, evangelism, and the emergence of Evangelicalism around the world. After it was over, Graham bubbled with a characteristically unrehearsed enthusiasm about the meeting. "We had a spiritual time," he said. "He is so down-to-earth and human, I almost forgot he was the Pope."
What he did not say, and what he did not in fact reveal until several years later, was exactly how warm the meeting had been. By the late 1980's, the theological conservatism and yet broad human interests of Pope John Paul II had made themselves clear to everyone. Graham himself had met the pope a second time and bad also come to know some of the Vatican officials close to him. Yet it was nearly a decade after this meeting before he was willing to risk mentioning in public an important detail of his papal meeting that he had not told anyone earlier. During their 1981 meeting, he said, the pope had reached across and grabbed him by the thumb (in some Graham versions it was by the lapels), drawn Graham close to him, and said with great intensity, "We are brothers." In 1981, it might have been embarrassing for the pope if Graham had revealed this. It certainly would have raised some hackles among many evangelical Protestants.
Graham accomplished three things that, in retrospect, will be seen as his most significant contributions to the development of global Christianity in the twentieth century. The first was to establish Evangelicalismor as it became known at the time, the "New Evangelicalism"as the most dynamic, and indeed the dominant movement within late twentieth-century Protestantism, not just in the U.S., but globally. The second was to reach out inclusively and in a spirit of brotherhood well beyond the usual confines of Protestants to Christians of all traditions throughout the world. The third achievement was to demonstrate that a person could associate with the rich, the powerful, and the successful in their own settings, and yet still maintain a life of modesty and moral purity. In these three areas of accomplishmentall for the sake of communicating the message of salvation to the worldGraham has demonstrated that he is a Great Soul.
COWS, PRANKS, AND A HAYLOFT IN CHARLOTTE
Graham's small-town origins are so well known they are almost the stuff of legend. His grandfather was a Confederate veteran who died in 1910, before Billy's birth, with a Union bullet from Gettysburg in his leg. He was a man with a broad, patriarchal beard, habits of drinking and swearing, and a reluctance to pay his bills, His two sons, William Franklin Graham and Clyde Graham, built up a three-hundred-acre farm a few miles outside Charlotte, in the rich, red North Carolina soil. Graham's father, William Franklin Graham, inherited the farm. He was a successful dairy farmer who had been among the first to use electricity in the area. He and his wife, Morrow, were not wealthy, but they lived well by the standards of the time. William Franklin Graham Sr. even managed to augment the family income by occasional real estate deals and the skillful purchase and resale of cars from time to time. He didn't drink, but he smoked the odd cigar.
The parents of William Franklin Graham Jr., Billy Graham's formal name, were Presbyterians of strong faith and clear moral decency. At the age of eighteen, Billy's father had experienced the Christian phenomenon of "new birth," or knowledge of Christ's forgiveness from sins, at a Methodist chapel called the Planck Meetinghouse. He had even been told by an old preacher that he might himself become a preacher of the gospel. He didn't, and the fervor of his initial moment of conversion does not seem to have been maintained throughout his life. But the family was upright in its practices, holding family prayers every evening, saying grace before every meal, and limiting work on Sundays to as little as was absolutely necessary to maintain the running of the farm. In practice, this meant milking and feeding the cows.
Billy's mother, Morrow, never had any dramatic experience of conversion to Christ, but later told friends, "I couldn't tell you the day or the hour when I was converted, but I knew I was born again." She believed very much in the importance of memorizing Scripture verses, and would recite verses to tier children as she gave them their baths. She would also expect them to memorize a verse each dayfrom the King James Version of the Bible, of coursebefore they went off to school or out to play. On Sundays, the family would travel to Charlotte to attend the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a strict Calvinist congregation that believed in the literal truth of the Bible and subscribed to the historical Westminster Confession of Faith.
Billy Graham was born into this family November 7, 1918, one year to the day after the Bolshevik Revolution had overturned an incipient democracy in Russia (the czar had actually been deposed in April), and just four days before the armistice that brought World War I to an end. He was the oldest of four siblings, Catherine, Melvin, and Jean, the youngest, who was born fourteen years after Billy. By all accounts it was a happy but well-disciplined childhood, with Billy several times getting a good hiding by belt from his father and/or by hickory switch from his mother across his backside.
"Billy was rowdy, mischievous," one older relative has recalled. "But on the other hand, he was soft and gentle and loving and understanding. He was a very sweet, likable person." He was a prankster who would cut off the school bus's external gas valve just before getting off the bus at his own home, but he seemed to lack any personal malice. Early on he exhibited a strong tendency to like people from the moment of meeting them.
Graham's father apparently wanted the boy to succeed him in running the family farm, and as soon as he was physically up to it, Billy added various chores around the farm to his normal childhood obligations of homework for school and helping keep up the house. He rose before dawn to feed and milk the cows, then worked in the fields or did more work with the cows on returning from school. But at about the age of eleven, he developed a passion for reading, spending long hours around the farm, sometimes in the hayloft, devouring Tarzan or biographies, or the stories of missionaries in distant lands. He was not an especially gifted child at school, but his curiosity about the world outside the mountains of North Carolina and his fascination with meeting, and listening to, new acquaintances seem to have been ignited at this time.
As he grew into his teens, Billy rose rapidly in height toward his full stature of six feet two inches. He was a healthy, lanky, energetic teenager with an eye for the girls and a thoroughly normal liking for driving cars as fast as possible. He would often drive his father's car along the country roads, sometimes in the company of school girlfriends, no doubt trying to impress them by roaring around curves in the road at hair-raising speed. He once got the car stuck in the mud, to the fury of his father. But Graham's attraction to the girls, by today's standards, was remarkably innocent. By his own testimonyand no one has ever suggested this was anything but the truthhe was never more physical with any of the girls than simple kissing.
Reading in his spare time, infatuation almost on a weekly basis with some female classmate or other, delight with baseball and occasional Walter Mitty fantasies about playing in the big leaguesthese seemed to be preoccupations of young Billy Graham as he approached his mid-teens. As to any religious sentiment, he appears to have had none. While he respected his parents and their daily devotions, emphasis on Scripture memorization and church attendance, he reports no early glimmering of the religious future in store for him.
His mother, at the urging of her sister Lil Baker, had begun to attend a Bible study group in 1933 and read the evangelical writings of several famous preachers of the day. She also began to pray more and to attend Bible studies at the Plymouth Brethren Church, whose English founder, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), had combined a zealous Evangelicalism with teachings on biblical prophecy and its fulfillment that became known as "dispensationalism."
Frank, Billy's father, was badly injured in a freak accident when the mechanical saw sent a block of wood smashing into the side of his face. His head injuries were serious, and the surgeons who attended him evidently believed he might die. The accident, however, had occurred just a few weeks after Morrow's renewed interest in the Bible and in prayer, and she was able to gather her friends to batter the gates of heaven to prevent this from happening. She went to her bedroom and "just laid hold of the Lord," she was to say later. "I got up with the assurance that God heard my prayer." Frank recovered and came to believe, along with Morrow, that God had truly intervened in their lives. Morrow was clearly becoming more devout in her faith than before. As for the young Billy, he was busy admiring the girls and sowing his wild oats in teenage pranks. His parents' newfound seriousness about religion, he thought, was just "all hogwash."