Growing up in North Carolina, one of my grandmothers plunked me down as a child in front of the television for more than one Billy Graham Crusade. My other grandmother had me read a book or two he wrote. Though he was not the means of my own conversion, gospel seeds and the fear of God was sown in my life by hearing and reading him. His life, ministry, and family stories have always fascinated me.
Our theological paths went in different directions. He grew up an Associate Reformed Presbyterian (the motorcade carrying his body stopped in front of his childhood church in Charlotte earlier this week) then turned Baptist; I grew up Baptist and am now a Reformed Presbyterian. Surely, as Iain Murray pointed out in Evangelicalism Divided, Reformed believers have legitimate concerns over some of the theology, methods, and statements Graham made over his lifetime. Yet as tributes such as those by Steven Lawson, Johnathan Master, Al Mohler, and Gene Edward Veith remind us, we should thank the Lord for this preacher who, humble as he was to admit his own flaws, is even being honored by our government.
One other way to admire Graham’s influence is provided below with the guest post by Russ Pulliam. Russ is an Indianapolis Star columnist who directs the Pulliam Fellowship summer intern program for the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic.
Billy Graham’s death ends an era of evangelical revival. It seemed to take off at the 1949 crusade in Los Angeles.
An aging newspaper publisher named William Randolph Hearst sent a message to his editors: “Puff Graham.” Hearst still had influence, having been a kingmaker in national politics in earlier years.
Suddenly the young southern preacher was on the front page. Thousands more started coming to the crusade and heard the gospel.
Graham became famous. He kept on the straight and narrow path for the rest of his life, avoiding adultery and other scandals that corrupted other famous evangelists and pastors.
He kept his salary low. He became a pastor to presidents and stayed near the top of the most-admired list for many years.
Another side of Graham comes in Owen Strachan’s book, Awakening the Evangelical Mind, An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement (2015). Strachan traces the lives of Boston Pastor Harold Ockenga and Christianity Today Editor Carl Henry and how they pursued the Lordship of Christ for higher education.
Billy Graham worked behind the scenes to help his two older friends pursue this unusual vision for Christ’s kingship over the world of doctorates and colleges and universities. The academic world has its own subculture and customs, and Ockenga and Henry thought this world needed Jesus Christ just as much as the homeless men at a rescue mission.
They were swimming upstream against the secularism of the intellectual world. They also were challenging an anti-intellectual bent among many Christians of the early twentieth century. Billy Sunday, for example, was the Billy Graham of an earlier era, preaching in small towns, then the big cities after being a star base-stealing player in big league baseball. He was influential politically and socially, especially in getting the country to adopt Prohibition. Yet he never had Graham’s ambitions for the academic world. “I don’t know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit does about ping-pong, but I’m on the way to glory,” he declared.
Graham never needed to be center stage, as Ockenga and Henry launched a magazine and started Fuller Seminary on the west coast and Gordon-Conwell seminary near Boston. They encouraged young people to pursue doctorates to bring the influence of Christ to bear on an academic world that scoffed at the claims of Christ and the Bible.
Graham was often included in the middle of their efforts, lending his time, talent and treasure, which included friendships with wealthy and influential business and political leaders across the country. The book sums up the trio’s accomplishments this way: “Led by pastor Harold Ockenga, theologian Carl F.H. Henry, and evangelist Billy Graham, the neo-evangelicals championed a freshly intellectual and culturally engaged brand of evangelicalism that broke with the separationist, preeminently defensive program of fundamentalism.”
Whether they were starting seminaries or a magazine, or helping a young student figure out where to go to get a doctorate, Graham’s name was often in the middle of their correspondence and counsel as Ockenga and Henry tried to renew the idea of a Christian mind.
Henry had an even more expansive vision for a Christian university that would have the academic standards of Harvard and strong personal piety. They thought that young believers should see higher education as a mission field just as important as the countries that had heard little of the gospel.
Of course not all their visions and dreams came true, especially the university idea. Baylor University may be coming closest in recent years to what they were seeking.
They did much to encourage a little army of believers to take intellectual life seriously and obtain the necessary doctorate credentials to serve in the academic world. Strachan’s book outlines their wins and losses and their remarkable influence and progress.
“Graham, an evangelist, wanted to renew the minds of evangelicalism’s leaders,” writes Strachan. “Graham, contrary to popular opinion, did not want only spiritual revival of the heart. He wanted it spread to the mind.”
In this story Graham showed not just the capacity for a big vision for Christ’s kingdom but also the heart of a servant leader. He helped his friends with these projects and never needed to be in the limelight or take credit for what was being accomplished.