Will There Ever Be Another Billy Graham?

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Jim's picture

Interest in Christianity was booming in the U.S. after World War II, as the country was becoming a superpower. The evangelical movement was starting to coalesce but did not yet have a leader, Mr. Martin said. Mr. Graham stepped into that role, making himself the face of evangelicalism on television and at his “crusades” in stadiums. His reach grew alongside his country’s, and on trips abroad he was seen as an ambassador from the most powerful nation on Earth.

“Evangelical Christianity has become so large and diverse and multifaceted that no one person can dominate it,” Mr. Martin said. “The reason that’s true is in large measure because of what Billy Graham did.”

The media landscape, too, is now too vast and diverse for anyone to dominate it the way that Mr. Graham did in the 1950s, when there were only three television networks.

Diane Winston, a professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California, said that although there were many evangelists working in the 1940s and ’50s, Mr. Graham “crossed over from the religious world to the secular world” because media moguls like William Randolph Hearst backed him, putting him on the front page of newspapers and the cover of Time Magazine.

Mr. Graham’s eldest son, Franklin Graham, said that, in some cases, his father would make sure he was the only thing on television in certain parts of the country. “In some markets, he would buy all three stations one night, so if you wanted to watch TV, you had to watch Billy Graham,” he said. “I’ve met people who were not happy about that.” Mr. Graham’s media presence made him a household name in homes that were not evangelical or even Christian.

Jim's picture


This is what Billy Graham was not like: Elmer Gantry. Louie expected “the sort of frothy, holy-rolling charlatan that he’d seen preaching near Torrance when he was a boy. What he saw instead was a brisk, neatly groomed man two years younger than himself.” This man was . . . serious. “He asked his listeners to open their Bibles to the eighth chapter of John. ”

This is what Billy Graham said: “Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman . . . a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is lost in the sea of life.”

He spoke of the Pharisees surrounding Jesus that day in the temple and presenting the woman taken in adultery. Moses in the law commanded us, they said, that she should be stoned. What say you? Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground, as if he hadn’t heard. They pressed; he wrote. He lifted himself and said: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” They were convicted by their own conscience and left. Jesus, alone with the woman, asked: “Has no one condemned thee?” No man, she said. He said, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go now and sin no more.”



Graham, who died Wednesday at 99, was perhaps the most significant Christian evangelist since the Apostle Paul. This wasn’t because of his media savvy or political influence. He transcended all of that with an obvious belief in the gospel he preached—obvious even to those watching on television or sitting in a stadium’s nosebleed seats. Graham did not think the brave new world needed anything other than an old-time gospel.

This was more unusual than one might think. In the early 20th century, the Graham-skeptical bishop’s view gained influence. Christianity could compete with rationalism and secularism, many theologians assumed, only by playing down or discarding the supernatural: virgin births and empty tombs. Graham rejected this path, insisting over and over again, “The Bible says . . .”

At the same time, some anti-modernist Christians held on to the ancient truths of historical Christianity but added to them fights over less fundamental issues. Which Bible translation was better? Which specific scenarios will play out with the end times? Others tied themselves rigidly to political or cultural movements. Still others suggested that Christianity would succeed by focusing on the practical value of faith in congregants’ finances, marriages and political lives. Graham returned again and again to John 3:16. He understood that no matter what we tell ourselves, we know we are sinners and we are hiding from what we most desperately need: peace with God.

Graham filled stadiums in major cities and used emerging media to spread his message. While he was an innovative communicator, his message was the undiluted core of Christianity. Even the music of Graham crusades demonstrated this. His most famous invitation hymn, “Just as I Am,” focused on blood atonement and the exclusivity of Christ for salvation—topics that should have been off-putting to modern America. Yet that hymn also emphasized that the gospel is not for those who are smug in their morality, or who know all the shibboleths of Christian America.

The good news of the Gospels is that God desires reconciliation with you, through the blood of the cross, whatever your background, whatever your sins. Graham was credible when he said that he was offering peace with God to you just as you are.

Graham’s personal conviction about this historic gospel is what led him to desegregate his crusades in 1953, despite the hate this stirred up among Southern segregationists. If there were no separation ropes at the cross or in heaven, there should be none at his crusades. Graham’s dislike of division led him to regret his closeness to President Richard Nixon, which was revealed in conversations between the two men recorded on the Watergate tapes. He spent the rest of his life emphasizing, and personally demonstrating, that the kingdom of God transcends any partisan political agenda.

Whenever scandals blew up—think famous preachers caught in financial or sexual indiscretions—many assumed that such was confirmation that evangelical Christians were all frauds. Graham never had that problem. His personal integrity, though, was not about him but about his message. Graham protected his morality because he really believed that there was a judgment to come. He believed so much in the power of the gospel that he put the safeguards in place to protect himself from becoming one more caricature of a preaching hypocrite.

The world listened to Graham not despite his supernatural, otherworldly message but because of it. He wasn’t selling something. He was bearing witness. That’s why so many unbelievers, even those who ridiculed Christianity, respected him. They knew he believed behind closed doors what he preached in open-air arenas. And those of us who are born-again Christians trusted Graham precisely because he never demanded our trust. He simply asked us to trust Christ. We loved Billy Graham because he told us the truth: The world is fallen, Christ is alive, and Jesus loves us—just as we are.

Jim's picture


"God's work within me began in earnest with Billy's outreach," Bush wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Friday. "His care and his teachings were the real beginning of my faith walk — and the start of the end of my drinking. I couldn't have given up alcohol on my own. But in 1986, at 40, I finally found the strength to quit. That strength came from love I had felt from my earliest days and from faith I didn't fully discover until my later years."


Bush detailed witnessing Graham's "remarkable capacity to minister to everyone he met," and remembered the service Graham delivered at Washington National Cathedral after the September 11 terrorist attacks.


Billy Graham was, with C.S. Lewis, one of the 20th century’s most influential figures in evangelicalism. I never had the honor of meeting Lewis, but I did know Billy, who died last week at 99. He changed my life.

I first met him on my grandmother’s porch in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1985. In her 80s, she was frail but sharp. They sat together and Billy held her hand while talking about the Bible. Later she described it as one of the most peaceful days of her life.

Soon after, I had my own personal encounter with Billy. As I wrote in “Decision Points,” he asked me to go for a walk with him around Walker’s Point. I was captivated by him. He had a powerful presence, full of kindness and grace, and a keen mind. He asked about my life in Texas. I talked to him about Laura and our little girls.

Then I mentioned something I’d been thinking about for a while—that reading the Bible might help make me a better person. He told me about one of the Bible’s most fundamental lessons: One should strive to be better, but we’re all sinners who earn God’s love not through our good deeds, but through His grace. It was a profound concept, one I did not fully grasp that day. But Billy had planted a seed. His thoughtful explanation made the soil less hard, the brambles less thick.

Shortly after we got back to Texas, a package from Billy arrived. It was a copy of the Living Bible. He had inscribed it and included a reference to Philippians 1:6: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

God’s work within me began in earnest with Billy’s outreach. His care and his teachings were the real beginning of my faith walk—and the start of the end of my drinking. I couldn’t have given up alcohol on my own. But in 1986, at 40, I finally found the strength to quit. That strength came from love I had felt from my earliest days and from faith I didn’t fully discover until my later years.

I was also fortunate to witness Billy’s remarkable capacity to minister to everyone he met. When I was governor of Texas, I sat behind Billy at one of his crusades in San Antonio. His powerful message of God’s love moved people to tears and motivated hundreds to come forward to commit themselves to Christ. I remember thinking about all the crusades Billy had led over the years around the world, and his capacity to open up hearts to Jesus. This good man was truly a shepherd of the Lord.

Jonathan Charles's picture

NO.  I can't find the headline, I saw it a few days ago, but it said something like: "The America in Which Billy Graham Rose to Prominence Does Not Exist Anymore."  The above articles probably address how things have changed.