Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, may have addressed more people face-to-face than anyone else in history. By the time he retired in 2005, he had preached to 215 million people in nearly 100 countries and to additional hundreds of millions through electronic media.
Between 1955 and 2017, he won a spot on the Gallup Organization’s roster of “Ten Most Admired Men” 61 times, far outdistancing all rivals. In that regard, Graham was less a preacher than a Protestant saint.
Not everyone saw Graham so positively. His hobnobbing with the rich, the famous, and the powerful troubled his friends and energized his foes. And his defense of the presidents during the Vietnam and Watergate years – which he later repeatedly said he regretted – tarnished his record.
The reasons for Graham’s success are easy to see. 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.
With help from journalism giants William Randolph Hearst and Henry R. Luce, Graham masterfully adapted his old-fashioned gospel to new media. Besides 32 books (authored or supervised), he introduced “The Hour of Decision” national radio program in 1950; “The Hour of Decision” network television program in 1951; World Wide Pictures, a feature-length film division, in 1951; “My Answer,” a syndicated advice column, in 1952; and Decision magazine in 1960. Each reached millions.
The same media appeal marked Graham’s crusade meetings. Augmented with massive choirs, celebrity testimonies, and the singing of soloist George Beverly Shea, the services proved to be surprisingly orderly affairs, invariably punctuated with an invitation at the end to stand up and walk to the front as a visible sign of one’s decision to commit or recommit one’s life to Christ.
Graham’s preaching remained the centerpiece. He was not an elegant speaker, yet his combination of style, timing, authority and, above all, sincerity left little doubt that he was the best in the world at what he did. Whatever the stated text, the underlying text of every sermon was John 3:16: “…that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Graham defined and channeled the energy of the post-World War II evangelical insurgence. He threw his considerable organizational skills and financial resources behind a host of institutions, including the tradition’s flagship periodical, Christianity Today, and international conferences for training Majority World evangelists. He led conservative Protestants like himself to a more open-minded attitude toward Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics and, less conspicuously, Jews, Mormons and other religions.
Indeed, he soon grew uneasy with the combative connotations of the label “fundamentalist” and chose instead to call himself simply “evangelical.” The move was heartfelt, but also shrewd. He knew that millions of evangelically inclined believers warmed the pews of non-evangelical churches.
Graham’s civil rights pilgrimage took two paths at once. He did not march in the streets or issue ringing proclamations. Yet he denounced racism as a sin long before most Southern white preachers saw any problem with segregation, and he moved to integrate his crusades before Brown v. Board of Education became law, despite death threats and stinging criticism from friends.
As Graham matured, the nation’s expanding social vision powerfully influenced him. His increasingly progressive positions on poverty, disarmament, and world hunger won praise from all but the most obdurate critics. In 2005, The New York Times asked him if he anticipated a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam. He responded: “I think the big conflict is with hunger and starvation and poverty.”
Yet for Graham social concerns always trailed spiritual ones. 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. He always saw himself as an evangelist whose main job was to introduce people to that truth.
Graham’s uncanny ability to address the hurts and aspirations of daily life may rank as his most enduring legacy. Nothing was more American than believing that things old and broken could become new and whole.
Grant Wacker is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian History, emeritus, at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of “America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation” (Harvard University Press, 2014).