Reverend Billy Graham has passed on at the age of 99, on 21 February 2018, 11 years after his remarkable and beloved wife Ruth Bell Graham was taken to heaven. They were married for 64 years in a marriage which seemed to have been made in heaven, as they say, and that was most likely part of the success of the man’s unsurpassed work as a preacher, nicknamed ‘America’s Pastor’. Many have said that without1 Ruth there would have been no Billy Graham. That is worth mentioning, indeed today, on the International Women’s Day.
Billy Graham, or William Franklin Graham, as his full name was, was born the son of dairy farmers in the southern state of North Caroline, near Charlotte city in 1918. He was an ordinary child, interested in sports more than bookish studies. In the teens he ‘grew up’ and began to focus on what became his calling and exceptional life; one evening at the age of 16, he said yes to accompany his mother to church, and he decided to become a personal Christian. He graduated from Bible College and was ordained a pastor at the age of 21. A few years later, he met his wife-to-be in Chicago, where she had been sent to for further studies; she was back from China and North Korea, where she had grown up in a family of medical missionaries. When they married in 1943, Billy Graham is said to have told his wife that, ‘now I lead and you follow’, and she seems not only to have accepted it but found it quite obvious, as that was common in traditional America and most of the world that time, and often, it still is, certainly in Pakistan and many other places till this day.
A team like the Grahams may have had more everyday equality in their marriage than many others who speak loudly about it. In any case, he sometimes said that due to his work, being a travelling preacher, she was in charge of everything at home almost like a single mother, bringing up their five children. Later, she said that she was more into writing than preaching, and a number of books came from her pen, and even more books in her husband’s name. But I still don’t see him as an intellectual theologian; I see him as a preacher and counsellor, and a practitioner, without necessarily ranking that as lesser.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) was founded in 1950 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a northern state, and later it moved to Charlotte in the southern state of North Caroline, where Graham had his roots in the Baptist tradition within the Protestant Lutheran section of Christianity. It became America’s most successful religious ministry, and Billy Graham became the most successful Christian evangelical preacher in the 20th century. A eulogist in the Wall Street Journal, Russell Moore, went further suggesting he was the most significant evangelist after the Apostle Paul. Maybe, but then I’d soon say, “Only in America”, such big words can only be used about people and events there.
During Billy Graham’s 80-year national and international evangelical preaching in the form of campaigns and rallies, which he called crusades, he visited some 185 countries, and in his sermons in churches, sports stadiums, tents and open air, he preached to some 200,000 million people in all, plus all those who listened to him on radio, saw him on TV and read his books. Remarkable, too, is that Billy Graham was not only a unique preacher at rallies consisting of thousands, hundreds of thousands, but he was also as unique and humble preacher and counsellor to small groups and in one-to-one situations.
He said he was glad to have been able to know and be useful to people in high positions because they often have none to talk to about spiritual and personal issues. Billy Graham was a confidante of every president in America, irrespective of political party, since the 1950s. He held the main sermon in New York four days after 9/11 in 2001 when American and the world came together in shock and mourning.
When Billy Graham was sometimes called the ‘American Pastor’, or the ‘American Pope’, he became the spokesman for all in the Protestant branch of Christianity (close to one million people) and beyond. Of course, the actual Pope in the Vatican in Rome remains the leader of the Christian Catholics (about 1.2 billion people); many would say the Pope represents all Christians. I remember, too, when Pope John Paul II had been in office for many years (1978-2005) Rev. Graham said about him that he agreed with him on most, if not all theological issues.
Let me note that it is important for the Christian Church to have highly respected top leaders at any given time. I believe Islam would have gained from having similar leadership institution as the Vatican for all Muslims. In our time of internationalization, could we perhaps even establish a ‘Global Office of Faith’? Wouldn’t it be good if the some 2.4 billion Christians, over 2 billion Muslims, and millions of members of other religions could agree to speak together more than is done today; after all God is one.
Billy Graham was not that ecumenical; he was for inter-denominational dialogues with Protestants, and also Catholics. But it seems he was not going beyond that. In his preaching, he would also speak about Jesus Christ as the saviour as much as he would speak about God. I agree with that criticism, and I also agree with critics who say that his theology focused too much on childlike emotions and simplistic ideas. Yet, that may also be the appeal of all believers since faith is not sciences, it should be simple. Billy Graham said that there is no scientific proof of God’s existence, but it doesn’t make it less true, he said.
I believe that Billy Graham’s theology, which is quite basic and concrete, has been the strength of his inclusive preaching – indeed in the anti-intellectual and quite fundamentalist America, but worldwide. Many like that faith is detached from everyday issues and politics. One of Billy Graham’s signature hymns was ‘Just as I Am’ (by Charlotte Elliott, 1835), which precisely emphasises that faith is simply to be defined as God’s love for the individual, and the individual’s simple acceptance of God in his or her heart.
But then, religion is part of society, and it is a fact that Billy Graham was often on the wrong side of social developments. He was on the right side as for race relations, demanding from the 1950s that there could be no segregation at his rallies; all were equal. Maybe his wife taught him that, with her missionary background? He worked with Martin Luther King, but they didn’t agree on all issues. He refused to go to South Africa under apartheid. But Billy Graham did not play an active role in support of gender equality, reduced class differences, equal rights for LGBT persons, and in other fields which are on the social and political agenda in our time. He seemed to have seen such issues as individual and moral, not collective and political. As for everyday behaviour, it seems Billy Graham would agree with most Muslims in Pakistan today. For example, it was a rule throughout his life and in his Association that he and other men never met alone with any other woman than their own wive.
Other theological Christian leaders in America, such as Reinhold Niebuhr in 1957, who said that Billy Graham often should have done more for social justice; and that omission is also a sin. That may be true, but then we are all sinners; none of us had done enough when we had the opportunity. I believe that Billy Graham did more than most of us for faith and religious comfort.
In the end, faith is something for the quiet hour. Billy Graham realised that – in spite of, and benefiting from his Hollywood film star looks, and his pop star sermons, to his more subtle and reflective statements as he grew older and became white-haired. He always succeeded to speak to the heart. God bless his lifelong sermon in praise of God and human beings. Now the mantle must be taken over by others, yes, his son Franklin Graham, but he also said that all who have listened should lead and preach. They should simply listen to and accept God into their heart, and help others do the same. That would be a universal message, beyond religion, denomination, and sect. Faithful and seekers of all religions should be grateful to Rev. Billy Graham for his work in God’s flourishing garden.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.