Billy Graham’s legacy fading ‘into the mists of history’

October 7, 2013


We gathered at Billy Graham’s alma mater over three days to explore his ministry’s place in American history and chronicle its meaning for the future. It was a fascinating conversation, and poignant, too, as Graham struggles with poor health at home in Montreat, N.C., far from the limelight he once commanded.

But as scholars and admirers here in suburban Chicago added to the growing conversation on Graham’s legacy, a question hovers: How many people younger than, say, 60 are listening?

As Duke Divinity School’s Grant Wacker told the Wheaton College gathering dominated by graying heads, during a recent lecture at Trinity College just one student knew the name Billy Graham. And that student thought Billy Graham was a professional wrestler.

“His story,” Wacker said, speaking of modern Christendom’s most famous figure, “is rapidly receding into the mists of history.”

Graham, who turns 95 on Nov. 7, is under round-the-clock care at home, with limited vision, hearing and mobility. The Charlotte, N.C.-based ministry that’s now run by his son, Franklin, does its best to keep the aging evangelist in the forefront: His picture is on the home page of the website, and Thomas Nelson is due to release Graham’s 32nd book, “The Reason for My Hope: Salvation,” on Oct. 15.

But it’s been eight years since Graham’s last formal crusade. Those close to him say he is in good spirits but fragile health, and requires help in whatever ministry work he tackles. He no longer makes public appearances. As Wacker told the conference, his public ministry — the one that drew 210 million people to stadiums and arenas around the world — is effectively over.

It’s left, then, to gatherings like this one to gauge the impact and meaning of Graham’s command of the Christian stage for a half-century, and to mine the lessons for whatever form mass evangelism takes going forward.

The Sept. 26-28 conference was sponsored by Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, and featured a dozen scholars from around the country. Among the topics: Graham’s mastery of the media, his sermon style, and why he succeeded in commanding the world’s stage for five decades or more.

I spent a decade covering Graham for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, and so the scholars drafted me early in the process to offer a layman’s response to their analyses, and to write the last chapter in a book, tentatively called “Worlds of Billy Graham,” which will examine the future of his ministry under his more politically outspoken (and conservative) son.

Michael Hamilton of Seattle Pacific University spoke of the power of Graham’s crusade sermons arising from a blend of pageantry, as well as his credibility and a simple message that never changed: Accept Jesus and know a new life, now and forever. “Graham,” he said, “aimed for the heart and not the head.”

Estimates are that 4 percent of his crusade audiences over the years answered the famed altar call and committed (or recommitted) their lives to Christ.

Elesha Coffman of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary analyzed Graham’s mastery of mass media. Graham, she said, toed that fine line between slick and savvy in winning positive press. He also learned how to take advantage of movies, radio, magazines, even appearances on “The Tonight Show.” His TV interview with Woody Allen can still be found on YouTube, evidence of Graham’s ability to evangelize on pretty much any platform.

Wacker has been working for years on his own Graham book, “Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America,” and mused about the qualities he believes pushed Graham into the spotlight and kept him there. Among them: his basic decency and unstained ministry; a willingness to apologize and adapt (such as his oft-repeated confession that he got too close to politicians and presidents), and the bottom-line promise he offered the faithful — the chance to come forward and start over.

“No matter how badly you have messed up,” Wacker said, echoing a lifetime of Graham messages, “there’s a second chance.”

Looking back on Graham’s history was compelling, but it comes with the sober realization that a common knowledge of his ministry is fading with time. Most of the lectures drew 75 people or fewer, some of them longtime friends of the Graham ministry, many of them well over 60. Only a handful of the 2,400 undergrads at Wheaton dropped by to learn more about the college’s most famous graduate, Class of 1943.

Even at this ardent Christian school, many students have only a vague knowledge of Graham. Freshman Hunter Dinkins, 18, of Visalia, Calif., said that God brought him to Wheaton. But as he waited for a history class outside the conference hall, he confessed that all he knows about God’s most famous modern ambassador is that he held big crusades. “Other than that …”

The statistic that Wacker shared at the start of the conference looms large: A 2007 Gallup poll found that 30 percent of Americans under 30 didn’t know who Billy Graham was, much less what he accomplished.

As scholars study Graham’s crusade tapes, write their books and give their lectures, they are hoping that the next generation of Christian leaders is listening, that someone out there in Christendom is learning something about integrity, vision and longevity.

“Billy Graham’s legacy? Courageously preaching the gospel,” said Wheaton graduate student Lance Hays, at 25 one of the youngest to attend the conference. “Years from now? Hopefully people will remember that he preached a message that never changes.”

Ken Garfield is the former religion editor of “The Charlotte Observer,” where he covered Billy Graham for a decade. Garfield’s book, “Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures,” was recently published by Triumph Books in collaboration with “The Observer.”

  1. My favorite Billy Graham story comes from George W. Bush's memoir Decision Points. In the summer of 1985, the Bush clan gathered for its annual summer reunion at the family compound in Maine. The senior Bush was Vice President at the time and the younger Bush was years away from getting into politics. Vice President Bush invited Graham to be a guest of the family for a couple days and one night after dinner, Graham engaged the family in extended discussion. The first question to Graham was posed by the Vice President, "Billy, some people say you have to have a born again experience to go to heaven. Mother here is the most religious, kind person I know, yet she has had no born-again experience. Will she go to heaven?" Graham replied, "George, some of us require a born again experience to understand God and some of us are born Christians. It sounds as if your mom was just born a Christian." Billy Graham, the apotheosis of the altar call evangelist, graciously authenticated what William James calls "the variety of religious experience." Would that Christian leaders at other places on the theological spectrum evidenced the same grace and open mindedness as Graham.

    by Jim Caraher

    October 24, 2013

  2. I am concerned that colleges and churches have not promoted Billy's work over the years. If the over 60's do not pass on the news to their students, sons, friends, it is only expected that the great evangelist will be forgotten. Why did you not hold such seminars across America (as the one you were just in) for the duration of Billy's lifelong crusades? That there is little known of Billy among the under 60's speaks badly of those who profess to be His ardent followers. James

    by Rev Dr. James Love Verner

    October 14, 2013

  3. My wife, Betty and I answer telephone calls at the Billy Graham Training Center when Graham messages of the past are broadcast. We have gotten calls from as far away as Africa. Varying age people call in, some for salvation or rededication and many prayer requests, mostly for health problems. We receive over 75 calls each time there is a broadcast and ours is only one of at least two or three other telephone centers. Bottom line - people are still coming to Christ and believe in the power of prayer. My wife and I also greet attendees at seminars at the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville where noted speakers and evangelists speak. For each seminar when we greet, from 150 to 400 people come, from around 20 states, Canada, and even from Africa. So the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization is still winning men and women to Christ. Billy Graham's messages are still getting through to people. Clark

    by clark rosenberger

    October 9, 2013

  4. Billy Graham always proclaimed that he was simply a disciple of Jesus inviting others to consider the claims of the man from Nazareth. His integrity is such that he did not get in the way of the message of salvation. As a young Air Force Officer I travel to Dallas, Texas and heard Billy speak at the Cotton Bowl for Explo 1972. I was inspired to leave the military and go to seminary. Obviously I'm one of those over sixty admirers. I am grateful to have lived in the evangelistic era of Billy Graham. As a pastor in the PCUSA I am convicted of the need to get young and old to give a listen to Billy on his birthday (He is 95 on November 7th.) for his "My Hope, American" telecast. During that week, and in the days following, many church members will open their homes, have friends and neighbors view the network telecast and extend the invitation to accept Jesus the Christ as Savior and make him Lord of their lives. This "friendship evangelism" is an attractive complement to the stadium presentation of the gospel. I applaud Billy and the Billy Graham Association for this creative and faithful witness.

    by Rev. Dr. Douglas R. Ganyo

    October 9, 2013

  5. Probably the nest line comes in at the end. What do those under 60 think Billy Graham's legacy is? It has nothing to do with Billy Graham, but everything to do with the Gospel and preaching with courage. If the message he courageously preached is held onto, does it truly matter in 30 more years that nobody knows his name? And, to LSL above me, to say that the message of Billy Graham is utterly forgettable because the denominations numbers are down is ludicrous. The percentage of Christians worldwide has remained at about 33% for the last hundred years or so. However, in the last hundred years or so the population of the world has grown from 2 billion people to 7 billion. Today, there are more Christians than there were people in 1900. Think about that for a moment. When Billy Graham was born in 1918, there were as many people alive as there are Christians living today. God has a plan and a purpose, and usually it involves a broader picture than a single denomination. Something Billy Graham knew since he traveled to 185 different countries on 6 different continents spreading the message of the Gospel. God bless Gospel preachers who love the message more than themselves or their homes.

    by John Creekpaum

    October 8, 2013

  6. Mainline churches' preoccupation, nay obsession, with so-called social issues over the past half-century has made Mr. Graham and his message eminently forgettable. How sad, indeed, tragic. My denomination, the PCUSA, boasted 4-5M members in those days, now under 2M. It is impolitic to suggest that our mission has been diluted: I believe even our moderator has said that decline began decades ago. Really? And why? And why are some of our largest church families leaving us now? I pray God has a plan and a purpose for us; I thought Mr. Graham, and I, knew what it is. Apparently we were wrong. LSL

    by Louis S. Lunardini

    October 7, 2013

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