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The Death of an Evangelical Titan

February 22, 2018


I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Billy Graham preach about twenty years ago in Cincinnati. At the time, Dr. Graham was around eighty years old and clearly in frail health. He came to the podium and commenced to speak, but the crowd of young people, stirred up by the Christian rock bands who had performed earlier, was restive and inattentive. Graham paused, folded his hands, and quietly said, “Let us pray.” With that, a stadium of fifty thousand people fell silent. Once a spirit of reverence held sway, the preacher resumed. I remember thinking, “What an old pro!”

That old pro, arguably the greatest Christian evangelist of the past hundred years, died this week at ninety-nine, and it’s difficult to overstate his impact and importance. It is said that he directly addressed 215 million people in 185 countries in the course of his ministry. No other preacher, in the entire history of Christianity, has had such a range. At the height of his powers, he filled arenas and stadiums, for weeks at at time, in some of the most jaded, materialistic, and skeptical cities in the world. And when preachers and other religious celebrities all around him were falling into scandal and corruption, Billy Graham stood tall, a man of integrity. His moral heroism was on particularly clear display in the early years of the civil rights movement. Especially in his native South, it was the unquestioned practice to seat black people in segregated sections of churches and arenas. Though it cost him quite a few of his traditional supporters, Graham insisted that his crusades should be racially integrated. Impressed by this show of courage, Martin Luther King Jr. became a friend and appeared with Graham at a crusade in 1957.

What was it about his preaching that was so compelling? I suppose in his early years, he demonstrated a fair amount of “flash,” prowling the stage, waving his arms, and moving dramatically from whispering to shouting. But as he matured, a fair amount of that theatricality faded away. What remained was a gentle sense of humor (usually self-deprecating), an obvious sincerity, a keen intelligence, and above all, a clarity in regard to the essentials of the Gospel. Practically every Billy Graham sermon had the same basic structure: you have sought happiness in wealth, pleasure, material things, fame, etc., and you’ve never been satisfied; I want to tell you about what will make you happy. At this point, he would speak of Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Now please don’t get me wrong—and don’t write me letters! As a Catholic, I affirm that there is more to salvation than accepting Jesus Christ in faith; there is the full integration into the life of Christ that happens through the instrumentality of the Church and her sacraments. Nevertheless, Catholics and Protestants come together in asserting—as Billy Graham consistently did—that we are sinners who stand in need of Christ’s saving grace. In point of fact, a generous ecumenism was one of the marks of Billy Graham’s approach. It didn’t bother him in the least if someone whose religious journey commenced at one of his crusades continued and came to fulfillment in the Catholic Church.

Much has been made of his relationship with presidents, monarchs, and prime ministers. He did indeed minister personally to twelve US presidents, and the wonderful Netflix series The Crown shows something of the impact he had on Queen Elizabeth II. But I’ve never been particularly taken with this dimension of Graham’s life, which seemed, to me anyway, more sizzle than steak. In fact, one of the low points of his career had to have been his meek acquiescence to Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitic musings, captured on White House tapes. To his credit, Dr. Graham repeatedly apologized for that lapse. He was far more powerful and spiritually efficacious when he prayed over the thousands of ordinary people who had responded to an altar call at the close of a crusade.

When I started my own evangelical ministry, Word on Fire, some twenty years ago, I drew some very practical inspiration from Billy Graham. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Graham stated that, as he was getting his ministry underway, he told his colleagues that three things tend to undermine an evangelist’s work: trouble with sex, trouble with alcohol, or trouble with money. They were all to endeavor, he said, to avoid these three traps. When I met with the Word on Fire board for the first time, I relayed this story, and I commented, “I’ll take care of the sex and the alcohol, you take care of the money!”

I love the story of Billy Graham’s first encounter with my evangelical hero, Fulton J. Sheen. These two titans of preaching were on the same train from Washington to New York. Sheen found out about Graham’s presence, and he knocked on the door of the Protestant’s berth and said, “Billy, I wonder whether we might have a chat and a prayer?” Though he was preparing for bed, Billy Graham acquiesced and the two of them spent several hours in spiritual conversation—the beginning of a friendship that endured until Sheen’s death. I’ve always taken great pleasure in that image of brotherhood across denominational lines. 

I believe that anyone who reverences the Christian Gospel owes Billy Graham a debt of gratitude. Requiescat in pace.