A Tribute to Billy Graham

A Tribute to Billy Graham

The first time I heard Billy Graham’s voice I was buried under bed covers, long after I should have been asleep, straining to hear through the earphone of my toy space radio.  I had attended Sunday school for a couple of years in those days at the end of the  1950’s.  My family didn’t belong to a church.  And there was something exciting about being able to tune my radio just right and hearing Billy Graham’s voice.

Here was someone, unlike any Sunday school teacher or radio minister, who made clear what I needed to do in order to begin living a Christian life.  He also made clear that doing it—being “born again”—was what I needed to do right away.  Even through the late night crackling signal of a toy radio, Billy Graham managed to position himself at my doorway into Christian discipleship and plead with me to step across the threshold. 

Billy Graham managed to position himself at my doorway into Christian discipleship and plead with me to step across the threshold.

What is a miracle is that he managed to do this for millions.  His was a life, a long and fruitful one, that delivered to the world one supreme message—you can immediately live a new and exciting life by saying “yes” to Jesus.

The particular way that Billy Graham talked was not a new message.  It was one, however, that had been shaped and sharpened since at least the late 1700’s, mostly in America.  The earliest immigrants to what has become the United States, notably the Separatists Puritans, were profoundly devoted to their Christian faith.  Their children, and increasingly the boatloads of newcomers who followed them, were not.  Long-time Christians invented the revival, a worship service or series of services under a tent or in an open-air setting, that quickly brought the unchurched to faith and into congregational life.   The old Puritans took their time with their conversions, which sometimes stretched on for years.  This style of leisurely transformation proved impractical in increasingly heathen America where newcomers were moving farther and farther into the country’s interior away from the preaching’s reach.  The tent meeting, camp meeting, circuit riders were all innovations to Christianize a rapidly expanding American population.

Bundesarchiv Bild 194-0798-22, Düsseldorf, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

By the time Billy Graham was born, coinciding with the end of the First World War, waves of revival had been washing over America for centuries.   His genius was his fresh utilization of revivalism’s classic form—the public meeting outside any particular church, the preached message that emphasized the turn from sin to Christ, the invitation to move out of seats to the front of the worship area so to make visible any inner decision to say yes to God.  This later device owes its origin to Dwight Moody, one of the most famous of the  19th century evangelists.  Billy Graham kept to this formula from  1947 until 2005. 

His genius was his fresh utilization of revivalism’s classic form

The zenith of Billy Graham’s work came in 1957 with his Madison Square Garden, New York City crusade, his mes printed his sermons.

Billy Graham was a member of the pantheon of church leaders—a group that included Martin Luther King Jr., George Buttrick, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Norman Vincent Peale, and several others–who led an exhilarating expansion of church going and church building.  This surge peaked in the early 1960’s and started heading downward in 1966.

Billy Graham’s discipline of working the revivalist formula to its greatest effect, does not mean that he couldn’t change his mind on some things.  I’m pleased to say that he was reared in a Reformed Presbyterian Church.  He died a long-time minister in the Southern Baptist Convention.  He attended Bob Jones University, then in Cleveland Tennessee and dropped out after one term, citing its rigidity in academics and social life.  Billy Graham invited Martin Luther King Jr., a close personal friend, to join him at the pulpit during that great New York City Crusade.  Graham spoke out against segregation saying to a KKK leader that he found no race hatred in the Bible.

I saw Billy Graham preach at his  411 crusade in 2002, in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Our children were with us.  Billy Graham preached on the Luke 19.1-10 passage about Zacchaeus. He was 83 at the time and spoke about having a short time in this world and getting ready to be with God.  His message, lacking the fire of his younger years, was nevertheless as crisp and as clear as it was when I was a child with my space radio.

Billy Graham takes his place now as one of the giants in Christ’s service who has left the Christian movement an enormous endowment.  Millions in the sound of his voice have stepped across the threshold into belief and discipleship.  The fruits of his work and I would add the fruits of his time are our inheritance.  This is a sweetly tearful time for the Church.  We can be grateful that even at 83 when I saw him, he was to have 16 more years.  But now the end has come. 

Billy Graham takes his place now as one of the giants in Christ’s service

So also has come the end of the challenges he met and the church he served.  Church historian Sidney Ahlstrom says that Puritan America finally died in the  1960’s.  The world Billy Graham spoke to and inspired so brilliantly has slipped away.  And here we are.  The revival had a good run.  Now service to Christ summons us to speak the Old Word in a new way, in a new world.  And they won’t be tuning in on Space Radios.

The message I preach hasn’t changed. Circumstances have changed. Problems have changed, but deep inside man has not changed, and the gospel hasn’t changed.–Billy Graham

It’s in the face of this task that I see something else in Billy Graham that helps.  He seemed always to be thinking.  Always ready for a new conversion, or more accurately a mini-conversion.  A change of mind.  He maintained his friendship with Martin Luther King and stayed close to the Civil Rights movement.  He was conservative by inclination, but refused to throw himself in with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.  Billy Graham could stay upright on his skis, regardless of how choppy were the waters.  He didn’t always get it right.  But he retained the trust of people on different sides of political and religious division.  Billy Graham was the man to stand in the pulpit when President Bush, civic leaders, and celebrities gathered in the National Cathedral following the September 11th attacks.

If we can’t revive the revivals, we can certainly learn from Billy Graham’s prayed-over life, his single-minded devotion to Christ, his reverence for the Scriptures, and his pastoral flexibility in everything else.

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