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Evangelist and his influence

28 November 2014

William Countryman considers a balanced view of Billy Graham

Wheaton college/ courtesy of Billy Graham

"A Burning Message": a 1941 mission flyer. From the book reviewed

"A Burning Message": a 1941 mission flyer. From the book reviewed

America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the shaping of a nation
Grant Wacker
Harvard University Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT292 )

GRANT WACKER has written not a biography of Dr Billy Graham, but a broad evaluation of the man and his lifelong influence on the culture of the United States. On the whole, it is an appreciative account of one whom Wacker ranks - together with Martin Luther King and St John Paul II - among the best-known and most influential Christian figures of the latter half of the last century.

This is not, however, an uncritical account. Even though Wacker is inclined to make allowances for some of Dr Graham's failings as he narrates them, his final summation is very even-handed.

Dr Graham's enormous celebrity is attributed here to a combination of factors, including his physical attractiveness, a compelling voice, a message that was close to the existing beliefs of his audience, and the firm integrity with which he conducted both his private life and the practices of his evangelistic enterprise. The temptation that he found most difficult to resist was the lure of partisan politics, which became the arena where he was most apt to appear compromised, particularly through his relationship with Richard Nixon.

Wacker has, for the most part, set aside Dr Graham's worldwide evangelistic activity in order to concentrate on his relationship with the American audience. He sees Dr Graham as sharing the values of this largely middle-class - and, at the beginning, predominantly white - group, but also as having grown steadily over the years. He began, for example, by accepting racial segregation, which was the norm in the South when he grew up; but he soon began to insist on full integration of his revival meetings - well before the subject became a high-profile social issue in the US.

Again, although a vehement anti-Communist early in his career, he eventually came to see world peace as a more important challenge.

The research behind this tome has been deep and wide. The author has chosen to include large quantities of often repetitive evidence, which may make the book something of a slog for readers who do not happen to be admirers of Dr Graham, but may afford a kind of hagiographical pleasure for those who are. Scholars of 20th-century religion will find the material useful in the study of the period, and of a man who, as Wacker argues, had an important part to play in the shaping of neo-Evangelicalism and its move away from the political detachment of fundamentalism to become a significant voice in the public arena.

The Revd Dr L. William Countryman is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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