You’ll see a lot of talk about Billy Graham being “America’s Preacher” today. That’s true enough, but it’s almost a slight to his immense legacy. The famed reverend, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 99, cast a shadow over the whole world and, indeed, a whole era of Christianity. Soon, we may find ourselves missing that era even more than we do already.
Graham leaves a nuanced legacy — one shaped by a proactive engagement with a tumultuous culture. Graham kicked off his Crusades in 1947, following in the footsteps of American preachers like D.L. Moody and the baseball player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday. Graham matched Moody and Sunday for oratorical giftedness, but he also had the advantages of a new wave of electronic media that carried his voice to millions — not to mention rugged, movie star looks.
To fully appreciate Graham’s legacy, it’s important to remember the moment in which he found himself. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 initiated something of a retreat from the American Church’s engagement in the mainstream civil discourse. By the 1940s, the conservative establishment was effectively on the offensive against what they considered to be the creeping encroachment of godless communism in Hollywood. The lines for the culture wars had been drawn.
Graham was born in 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He became a Christian when he was 16 thanks to a big tent revival. In contrast to the celebrated emotional appeals he would issue to millions later in his life, Graham would recount that his own conversion experience was pretty platonic. “I can’t say that I felt anything spectacular,” he said. “I felt very little emotion. I shed no tears. In fact, when I saw others had tears in their eyes, I felt like a hypocrite, and this disturbed me a little.”
Nevertheless, Graham went on to attend what was then called Bob Jones College (he lasted just one semester), and then the Florida Bible Institute, later re-named Trinity College. But it was at Wheaton College in Illinois where he got married to a fellow student named Anne Bell and began his life in ministry, first with radio sermons and then as the chief preacher for Youth for Christ. His growing popularity and charisma caught the eye of infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who directed his reporters to publish glowing profiles of this fiery young evangelist and his “crusades.”
When Graham began his crusades, he navigated the new cultural divide between the sacred and the secular deftly — preaching an old fashioned Gospel in new and innovative ways. He encouraged evangelical protestants to engage current events and be part of social movements, leading a charge for Christians to retake a mantle of influence in global affairs.
He did so imperfectly. Though he refused to racially segregate his Crusades and invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak with him at Madison Square Garden in the 1950s — an event King would later call “one of the high points of my life” — he also declined to march with King in the 60s. And Graham’s public friendship with President Richard Nixon lasted long after the Watergate scandal had enveloped the administration, and resulted in an embarrassing conversation in which Graham was recorded disparaging Jewish people. Graham would later apologize for the remarks. He was never one to shy away from public apologies. While many of his contemporaries flaunted their disinterest in public opinion, Graham himself was sensitive to it. Later in life, when asked about his regrets, he had a list ready to go.
Chief among his regrets, according to an interview with Christianity Today (which his organization founded in 1956), was his involvement in politics. But he was extremely cautious to remain nonpartisan in his political engagement, counseling Republican and Democrat alike. Personally, he held nuanced political views. In a 2005 Today Show interview, he said that he was Democrat, though he added, “Locally, I’ll vote one way and nationally, maybe another.”
He was first and always known for his Crusades — huge, global events in which he would speak with a mesmerizing blend of conviction and sensitivity. “Are you frustrated, bewildered, dejected, breaking under the strains of life?” he would famously ask. “Then listen for a moment to me: Say yes to the Savior tonight, and in a moment you will know such comfort as you have never known.”
Like few before him, Graham had a knack for tying salvation to emotional need, putting language to that universally felt need of some vague sense of absence. It is impossible to state how many people might be Christians today because of Graham’s Crusades, but in 2007, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association estimated that he’d preached to 215 million people. Untold hundreds of millions more have heard his voice on television and over the radio.
And he did all this winsomely, placing among Gallup’s annual ranking of the top ten most admired men 51 times, earning praise from as diverse a coalition as Muhammad Ali, President Barack Obama and Johnny Cash. After fueling his rising profile with fiery rhetoric, he eased into gentler, more compassionate rhetoric. Indeed, there were many who wished he would take stronger stances on various issues, but the older he grew, the more Graham narrowed his message to a simple one, quoted in Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador: “During all my years as an evangelist, my message has always been the Gospel of Christ. It is not a Western religion, nor is it a message of one culture or political system . . . it is a message of life and hope for all the world.”