On 21 February of this year, at age 99, Rev. Billy Graham died. When I first heard the news, my mind immediately went back to my childhood. Billy Graham was a staple of my childhood. I have vivid memories of traveling with my parents on Sunday evenings listening to WBT radio in Charlotte hearing Graham’s “The Hour of Decision” broadcast. I remember frequent broadcasts of Billy Graham Crusades on television in the evenings, and of course, we watched as a family. To be honest, with a very limited number of channels back in that day, we did not have much choice. Perhaps most importantly, I trace my spiritual awakening or “conversion” experience as Evangelicals term it, to one of those evenings watching Graham preach. In short, Billy Graham was vital to my youth and adolescent years and has been an important part of my spiritual journey through life.
In the middle of the 20th century, William G. McLoughlin wrote a book called Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham. At the time of its publication, (1959) Graham’s career was blossoming. McLoughlin argued that in the 19th and 20th centuries, revivalism largely defined American Protestantism fostered by numerous itinerant evangelists, but that throughout the period a favorite evangelist always seemed to capture the nation’s attention. He built his thesis around evangelists such as Charles G. Finney, Dwight L. Moody, Samuel P. Jones, Benjamin F. Mills, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. To McLoughlin’s work, I would add from the 18th century the great evangelist George Whitefield. Graham’s career, of course, stretched into the early 21st century.
Billy Graham’s death marks the end of a long tradition in American Protestantism. Although revivalism continues to be practiced by many evangelical Protestants, because of the proliferation of television, the internet, and social media, there are so many evangelists on the religious landscape, there would be no way that the nation would ever again consider one of them to be “America’s Pastor,” the unofficial title given to Billy Graham by many. President Trump has a cadre of Evangelicals who serve to “advise” him on spiritual matters. There is not one of them with the stature of Billy Graham in his prime or any of the other evangelists described by McLoughlin.
While Graham’s career began as a preacher/evangelist, he rose above being a mere preacher of the Gospel. For the last half of the 20th century Graham essentially became to Protestantism what the Pope is to Roman Catholicism. He was a “statesman” for the Protestant Christian faith, representing it to millions of people around the world and serving as its unofficial spokesperson to representatives from other religions in the world. In fact, scholars of his life will study for years to come the question of whether or not he moved toward a more Universalist perspective in his theology as he got older. In the 1950s, he integrated his crusades, much to the chagrin of many Fundamentalist southern Christians, and although he did not push for integration in society as hard as some civil rights leaders desired, he did take a step in the right direction.
Graham was not without his flaws. He was human. Several years ago, the Nixon tapes revealed some horribly anti-Semitic comments uttered by Graham in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon. Graham apologized profusely to Jewish leaders for years after the revelation. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he made some uninformed comments he later regretted about AIDS being punishment for sin. There were problems in his family life due to his long periods of absence from his children, according to an article in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/21/divorce-drugs-drinking-billy-grahams-children-and-their-absent-father/?utm_term=.aa4a56f3da3b). And many of us who take social justice seriously really wish he had been stronger on civil rights, especially given the platform and respect he had. We probably would be asking too much for him to have been progressive on LGBT issues given his era. But, he could have been a much stronger force for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s. Although he made mistakes, his reputation for financial honesty and genuine concern for people clearly separated him from the evangelists of the last quarter of the 20th century whose financial and sexual scandals make them more a caricature than any representative of God.
So rest in peace Billy Graham. As one friend of mine said yesterday on Facebook, there is probably a very long line of people waiting to thank you as you walk into the gates of Heaven.