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Obituary: William Franklin Graham

22 February 2018


A correspondent writes:

BILLY GRAHAM, who died on Wednesday morning, aged 99, was among the greatest religious figures of the 20th century, and on into the 21st, owing nothing to ecclesiastical office. He moved swiftly to world prominence as a young evangelist.

Scorned at first, and the centre of controversy, he lived to be one of the most respected and best-loved men of the age. A world Christian statesman who moved freely among heads of state, he inspired the affection and gratitude of millions.

His lovable character, personal integrity, and refusal to enrich himself or to found a new Church; the simplicity and clarity of his preaching; and his vision and courage gave him a unique influence. He preached face to face to more than 84 million, and to countless billions through radio and television. More than three million “came forward” at his crusades and missions, to be nurtured by local churches. He changed the course of missionary and ecumenical history, and he played an important, if little recognised, part in the recovery of religious freedom in Russia and eastern Europe. But first and foremost he was a witness to the risen Saviour whom he adored, and to the Saviour’s love to all.

He brought thousands into Christian ministry. In England, as Archbishop Ramsey remarked, whenever Billy Graham came, a sharp increase in vocations would follow. Around the world, many Christian leaders of the later 20th century had first committed themselves to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade. In Australia in 2005, the Archbishop and Dean of Sydney (who are brothers), the Presbyterian Moderator, and the Salvation Army Territorial Commander had all come to Christ as youths in Graham’s 1959 Sydney crusade.

William Franklin Graham was born on 7 November 1918, eldest of the two sons and two daughters of a dairy farmer on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents were from long-established Scots-Irish Presbyterian families: both his grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy.

Billy Frank grew up tall, fair-haired, and very high spirited and energetic, in a happy, disciplined home with plenty of humour, a strong moral outlook, and total integrity. He revelled in farm work, but was not attentive at high school, preferring baseball. In 1934, he was in mild rebellion against regular churchgoing when, just after his 16th birthday, he underwent a profound conversion during the campaign of a fiery Southern evangelist.

After a short stint at a new Christian college in Tennessee, where neither the climate nor the rigid system suited him, he entered in January 1937 a small and rather unusual Bible institute in Florida, where the individual tuition fostered his native intelligence and spiritual ambitions. “I can truly say”, he had written home, “I love him, the Lord Jesus, better every day.” Sensing an unmistakable call to preaching, he hesitated, not least because of his poor education. He yielded at last; and, when jilted by the girl he was engaged to, gave himself unreservedly to evangelism. “I had one passion, and that was to win souls.”

In 1940, aged nearly 22, already ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, and particularly effective as an evangelist to youth, Graham entered Wheaton College, near Chicago, where he majored in anthropology and fell in love with Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of a Presbyterian missionary surgeon in China. They married in 1943.

Ruth was an immeasurable help to Billy’s maturing, and to his lifelong ministry. They had two sons and three daughters. When his crusades took him away for long periods, they decided that Ruth must stay at home for the children, with the result that all five, in their different ways, are active Christians.

During a brief pastorate, Graham was invited by a busy Chicago pastor and seminary professor, Torrey Johnson, to take over his weekly radio programme, Songs in the Night. This brought George Beverly Shea, the bass-baritone singer, and Graham together. Then Johnson founded Youth for Christ. Early in 1945, Graham became its first full-time evangelist.

Brash and inexperienced, but utterly sincere, Graham and Youth for Christ brought a freshness, urgency, and total loyalty to biblical Christianity, which began to dispel the gloom and negative attitudes that had settled on the Churches and their youth work. Early in 1946, Johnson took Graham and three others for a whirlwind preaching tour in war-weary Britain, where Graham returned for a five-month tour with the young trombone-playing Cliff Barrows and his pianist wife, which coincided with the arctic winter of fuel and food shortages, but was a success among youth. It taught Graham much. He already had a vision of a worldwide return to Evangelical Christianity.

Graham was tall and good-looking, with an engaging personality and strong sense of humour, and a marked ability to lead and organise, as well as to preach. Although never an intellectual, he was highly intelligent and read widely, and was always eager for advice and new ideas, but with a clear perception of the unalterable truths.

His breakthrough came late in 1949 with the extraordinary effect of his seven-week Los Angeles crusade (the term he adopted a little later) in a large tent. Attendance, as well as the numbers who came forward for counselling, was small compared with later years, but fantastic for 1949.

This and other crusades quickly established Graham as the leading evangelist in the United States, and a national figure, though still in his early thirties. He had also become reluctant head of a Christian liberal arts college in Minneapolis, his future headquarters. Within a few years, he resigned to devote himself to evangelism. By 1953, he had launched his radio programme, Hour of Decision; had preached to the American troops in the Korean war; and become a friend of President Eisenhower.

In 1954, the Greater London Crusade at Harringay made Graham world-famous. The crusade began amid press uproar that was none of his making, and ended three months later at Wembley with an immense and moving service with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of London on the platform. Graham was received by Sir Winston Churchill at Downing Street for a long conversation on spiritual matters. The England of 1954 still retained its traditional mix in race and religion, with Anglicanism the predominant ethos. The Queen Mother thanked Graham for “the spiritual rekindling you have brought to numberless Englishmen and women whose faith has been made to glow anew by your addresses”.

With a respectful press, thousands of lives profoundly changed, and a new atmosphere, the country was wide open to evangelism: Graham later believed he should have stayed in Britain throughout that summer. The following year, his All-Scotland campaign was equally effective. Afterwards, an invitation to preach before the Queen at Windsor was not only the beginning of a true friendship, but caused doors to open overseas.

His mission to Cambridge University in 1955 was more controversial, having sparked a long correspondence in The Times, but in Britain, as in Australia (1959), the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s were the spiritual birthplace of many hundreds who grew to be leaders in the last quarter of the century, and brought in countless new Christians whose dedication stood against the incoming surge of secularism and unbelief.

Had the leaders of the great denominations recognised that Graham was the man for the hour, and thrown their weight behind him, the later 20th century might have been very different. The response to Mission England in 1984 and 1985, and to London in 1991, showed the hunger of the people for the Word of God.

He had transformed mass evangelism from a hit-and-miss affair into long-term co-operative enterprises between the team and the Churches, with scrupulous accounting. If Graham’s crusades were superbly organised, using the unfolding technologies of the age, they derived their impact from the prayers and dedication of thousands of Christians. Graham was a man of prayer. He knew that only the Holy Spirit could draw souls to Christ. He preached, fearlessly and yet graciously, with plenty of humour and an awareness of contemporary issues, the basic Christian doctrines (“The Bible says . . .”), and reaped where Churches had sown. He could reach the unchurched, too, especially the young.

He had the rare gift of preaching sermons that could simultaneously hold the attention of young, middle-aged, and old of every social and educational level. Even in a vast crowd the individual listener felt summoned personally: through Billy, the living Christ was revealing his love and his claims, and demanding a decision.

At this time, partly influenced by the Revd Dr John Stott, Graham recognised that Evangelicals needed to strengthen their theological base. In 1956, with his father-in-law Nelson Bell, he founded Christianity Today, a fortnightly magazine that quickly became a powerful voice in American theology; and, on a more popular level, the monthly Decision (1960). He refused temptations to found a university, but in later years established the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College to study all aspects of evangelism, and a training conference centre near his home in North Carolina, having already pioneered short-term schools of evangelism.

In 1957, the 16-week New York crusade (the first to widen his ministry by television) was sponsored by the city’s Council of Churches, which included non-Evangelical and liberal members. Graham endured a massive personal attack by rigid fundamentalists. He had adopted a policy of never answering or attacking critics, but when the celebrated theologian Niebuhr criticised him (not entirely fairly) for lacking social concern, he accepted the point positively, and over 40 years did much for the amelioration of distress.

He developed Love in Action programmes at crusades, where gifts in kind were collected for distribution to the needy of the area. He created a World Emergency Fund, which brought swift aid to regions of natural disaster or distress caused by war (Rwanda, Bosnia). After a tidal wave in India, his personal visit led to the rebuilding of a destroyed village. Earthquakes in California and hurricanes in Carolina brought immediate help, and he worked closely with his eldest son Franklin’s Samaritan’s Purse, but did not rival the great organisations.

In race relations, he had long integrated his crusades in the South, and from 1957 he always had black team members. At President Eisenhower’s request, he moved among leaders of both races in the Deep South to encourage better relations. When atrocities occurred as at Clinton, Tennessee or Birmingham, Alabama, he would hold a rally of reconciliation. At Little Rock, a centre of racism, he held a crusade that was considerably helped because a notorious white racist leader had been converted in the New York crusade and now stood with Billy.

Billy refused to “march”, worked quietly rather than stridently, and was abused by both sides; but his considerable role in the ending of segregation was acknowledged by Martin Luther King and by history.

Graham rejected any movement to draft him to political office, but was an unofficial spiritual adviser to Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, who had been a close friend long before he was famous. Graham deplored the wrongdoing of Watergate, but would not abandon his friend: Nixon deliberately distanced himself, lest his fall should harm Graham’s ministry. Graham was a help in Nixon’s notable rehabilitation, and preached at his funeral.

Graham’s influence at the White House continued, and his moral leadership in the nation. This was well expressed by President Lyndon Johnson when Graham was 50, in a letter to the present writer: “Every man is his friend and his brother. Anyone who has a close relationship with him, as I do, can never forget what it is like to have his companionship and his compassion, and to be better because of it. As President there were many times that he sustained and strengthened me through his inspiration and his faith.”

Years later, the two Presidents Bush, father and son, were particular friends, the son, George W., having earlier returned to Christian discipleship after a private talk with Graham.

Graham was a best-selling author, with a string of books since his first and most famous, Peace With God. The films produced by his Association were not, perhaps, significant, except for The Hiding Place; but when he came back to Britain in 1966 for a three-week crusade at Earls Court, Cliff Richard gave his first public testimony there, and afterwards acted in a Billy Graham film, Two A Penny. This changed Cliff’s intention of abandoning the stage and screen. Cliff Richard was one of countless people, famous or unknown, encouraged by Billy.

That same year of 1966 brought Graham’s World Congress in Berlin, which led to the Congress on World Evangelisation at Lausanne in 1974. Lausanne’s profound influence on the strategies and growth of the Christian Church in the last quarter of the 20th century makes it perhaps the most important single episode of Graham’s career. Eminent theologians and bishops were glad to set aside time, energy, and thought at his request; they trusted and loved him, and worked together. He was already a force for Christian unity; for his crusades had shown that unity best comes by Churches’ working together to reach a region or a nation or a continent. No one but Graham could have convened and carried through the Lausanne Congress.

Later, in 1983 and 1986, and at the Millennium, he convened vast conferences, in Amsterdam, for the foot-soldiers of the faith, the humble evangelists who pushed bicycles through jungles or endured the steamy heat of cities, who now went home inspired by the joy of worshipping and learning with thousands.

Graham crusades on every continent were landmark events, strengthening national Churches. By 1977, he had preached in most non-Communist countries, including South Africa, where he would not go until he could hold integrated rallies, which were allowed in 1973 as a personal concession. They became an impressive step towards the eventual collapse of apartheid. In 1996, President Mandela urged him to return to help reconciliation.

Graham began to penetrate Communist lands with a necessarily cautious preaching visit to Hungary in 1977. This led to Poland (1978), where the Roman Catholics threw open their cathedrals for the “evangelisation of Billy Graham”. The Cardinal had left for the conclave, but in years to come he received Graham at the Vatican. In East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania, the enthusiasm of the people for Graham’s message brought forward the dawn of freedom.

In 1982, the year he received the Templeton Prize, he addressed an Orthodox-led conference on nuclear disarmament. The Western press accused him of aiding Communism, which in fact he was undermining. He worked patiently, on each visit pushing the door a little wider, preaching to more people, pressing more strongly on Soviet officials the cause of human rights and religious freedom.

After the collapse of Communism, a long-ago dream was fulfilled in 1992, when he preached to 50,000 Russians in the Olympic Stadium in Moscow. He heard the Red Army choir sing religious songs, and watched, profoundly moved, as thousands came quietly forward each evening in spiritual hunger.

Graham had already been to China with Ruth to her birthplace. A wide-ranging preaching mission had to be deferred after the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. He later preached in a church in Communist North Korea, the first foreign clergyman allowed.

He held further missions in Britain, including Mission England, which the Queen helped to launch by having him preach at Sandringham. From 1989, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. The skill of physicians, the devotion of his team, and their use of the latest technology enabled him to preach to the entire world by satellite television in 1996.

He was a great team leader, with a skill at choosing helpers, and much loved by those who worked with or for him. He was quick to assess and seize ideas or strategies put to him by others. Thus, one of the crusade directors, discovering that his teenage daughters no long wanted to come to the meetings, suggested turning the youth night into a “Concert for the Next Generation”, featuring Christian pop singers.

Graham agreed. More than 65,000 young people turned up for the programme of movement, noise, colour, and song. After Graham had preached, so many came forward that counselling materials ran out. Over the next eight years, more than a million had attended the concerts and, Cliff Barrows said, “We have heard from so many who have gone on with Christ.” At Los Angeles (2004), no fewer than 90,000 young people came, because of the bands, and because it was Graham.

By then, he had handed on to his son, Franklin, the running of the Association, while remaining chairman; and the headquarters had moved from Minneapolis to Charlotte.

He continued with two short regional crusades a year, returning to New York in June 2005, when he was 86, Cliff Barrows was 82, and Bev Shea was 96, for their 417th crusade together. Graham could still hold the rapt attention of young and old as he preached the truths that he had proclaimed for more than 60 years. But he had to decline an invitation to London.

Graham had acquired a unique respect and affection. When the hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers on 11 September 2001, President Bush chose him to preach at the inter-denominational, interfaith service in Washington. No other clergyman, whatever his office, could so aptly have brought the Word of God at that terrible hour. The service was televised around the world, and it was probably the biggest congregation of his ministry.

He received many honours, including America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1987). In 1996, Congress awarded Billy and Ruth Graham the Congressional Gold Medal: they were only the third husband-and-wife team in American history to receive it. Billy Graham took part in nine Presidential Inaugurations, giving the invocation in 1969, 1989, 1993, and 1997; Franklin had to substitute in 2001.

In 2001, the Queen bestowed on him an Hon. KBE. The British ambassador in Washington invested him with the insignia at a dinner in the Embassy for Graham’s family, close associates, and friends, including eight from England. In his speech of response, Graham said: “I look forward to the day when I can see Jesus face to face, and lay at his feet any honour I’ve ever received, because he deserves it all.”

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