Durham County

What made Billy Graham great? He lived the life he preached, recalls Duke expert.

A look at the humble side of the Rev. Billy Graham

Duke University Christian history professor emeritus Grant Wacker discusses the legacy of the late evangelist Billy Graham.
Up Next
Duke University Christian history professor emeritus Grant Wacker discusses the legacy of the late evangelist Billy Graham.

For more than 60 years, Billy Graham’s good looks and smooth delivery helped him spread the Gospel to a worldwide audience.

That’s one of the conclusions drawn by Duke University Christian history expert Grant Wacker in his 2014 book “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.”

Wacker analyzed how Graham, an evangelist and ordained Southern Baptist minister, became a central figure to millions of Christians around the world and helped shape the nation.

“The reasons for Graham’s success are easy to see,” Wacker said. “For one thing, he was movie star handsome: 6-feet, 2-inches tall, 180 pounds, and piercing blue eyes. And then there was that voice, aptly described as ‘an instrument of vast range and power.’

“Though the machine-gun delivery of his youth gradually slowed, anyone could recognize his distinctive Southern accent. The evangelist’s unchallenged reputation for marital fidelity and financial integrity reinforced his credibility.”

Grant Wacker, Duke University professor emeritus of Christian history, reflects on the success of the late evangelist Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at 99.

Graham, 99, died Wednesday at his home in Montreat. He was known as “America’s pastor.” Religious revival was Graham’s calling card.

While his image showed up on magazine covers and in living rooms during the early days of television, Wacker said Graham always saw himself as an evangelist whose main job was to introduce people to the truths he saw in the Bible.

“For Graham social concerns always trailed spiritual ones,” Wacker said. “He was not an intellectual, but he thought seriously about things that mattered. In his mind, humans’ fundamental problem lay in the sinful will, which corrupted everything it touched. But the Bible offered a solution: The good news of God’s forgiveness and new life through Christ’s death and resurrection.”

Duke Christian history professor emeritus Grant Wacker discusses the late Rev. Billy Graham.

Graham’s took his simple Christian message around the world. He traveled to almost 60 countries and preached to more than 84 million people during his career. Add the people who saw his crusades live, via satellite, and the numbers jump to 210 million people in 185 countries. He packed stadiums with people eager to hear his captivating sermons.

But Graham also had the ear to the powerful, including every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He also met Donald Trump in 1995 before his presidential run but not since Trump took office. Graham was instrumental in convincing Dwight Eisenhower to establish a National Day of Prayer in the 1950s

“Graham’s uncanny ability to address the hurts and aspirations of daily life may rank as his most enduring legacy,” Wacker said. “Nothing was more American than believing that things old and broken could become new and whole.”

Graham visited Duke in 1973, delivering a sermon on Sept. 23rd of that year at Duke Chapel titled “Finding Answers.”

Joe Johnson: 919-419-6678, @JEJ_HSNews