Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018
Tags: Audio, Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, Southern Seminary
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, February 22nd, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The life and legacy of Billy Graham
When he died yesterday at age 99, Billy Graham, as the world knew him, was one of the titanic figures on the world scene, and he had been so ever since at least 1949. He was born November the 7th, 1918. He died on February the 21st, 2018. Just to state the dates indicates something of the significance of his life, and a life that for so many decades was lived out before the watching world. Billy Graham was one of the titanic figures of American evangelicalism.
As a matter of fact, you cannot talk about evangelicalism in its modern form in 20th-century America, now into the 21st century, without reference to the vision and the impact, the influence of Billy Graham. He was born William Franklin Graham, born to a farmer and his wife in North Carolina. He lived a rather traditional childhood in rural America and he also experienced the tumult of adolescence, describing himself in retrospect as rebellious, though it was a rather quiet and uneventful rebellion.
All that changed when in 1934 he went to a revival meeting, invited by a friend and basically dared to go. The evangelist was one of the best known of the early 20th century, Mordecai Ham was his name and he was himself an innovator. He preached the Gospel, and the teenage Billy Graham heard the Gospel and responded. Not only did he respond to the Gospel, he eventually would respond with a call to ministry and furthermore, would become an evangelist. The best-known evangelist not only of his generation but of the history of the Christian Church. Billy Graham was a fascinating figure.
I knew him not only from watching him on television as a child, but I knew him because he spoke at my inauguration as President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The first time I heard him in person was in 1982 when he came to Southern Seminary where he had a relationship, and he spoke in chapel, and he said to the students then, "You must think about the fact that you are not promised tomorrow." He spoke about ministry and he spoke about preaching in light of eternity and God's judgment. As always, he got right to the point, which is the singular gospel of Jesus Christ.
Billy Graham came to adulthood in the aftermath of what was known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the United States. Liberal theology began to become apparent in mainline northern denominations in the last decades of the 19th century. By the time the 20th century came along, there was full-scale theological liberalism throughout most of the established denominations in the north. This led conservatives to respond the theological liberalism with an affirmation of the fundamentals of the faith. Eventually it became a movement known as Fundamentalism, and in the battle for control of those northern Protestant denominations, in almost every single case one after another, it was the Conservatives who lost and the Liberals who won.
As America entered World War II, it appeared, at least to those in control of the liberal Protestant denominations, particularly in the north, that they were in the driver's seat not only in the leadership of their denominations but the leadership of American culture writ large. They thought they had decisively silenced Orthodox Christianity and they had largely expunged Orthodox ministers from the pulpits of their denomination, especially from the most prestigious and elite pulpits. But when Billy Graham arrived on the scene, he and others perceived the need for a distinctively evangelical, distinctively orthodox form of Protestant Christianity that wasn't mired in what was considered to be the combativeness of American fundamentalism, also its estrangement and disengagement from the culture, but rather would have the mold of engagement.
Billy Graham became one of the singularly most important figures in forging what became known as American evangelicalism. In the late 1940s they described themselves as the New Evangelicals and knew they were in a sense, because they affirmed the classic doctrines of Christianity without compromise, but at the same time they were representing the future, not just a return to something like the cultural conservatism of the 19th century. Billy Graham was himself indispensable even when you look at the genealogy or the pedigree of many of the central institutions of evangelical life. He became the founder of the magazine that was known as Christianity Today. He was the founder, of course, of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and after serving as President of Youth for Christ and serving for a brief time as a college president, Billy Graham was launched on a national and then international ministry of full-time vocational evangelism.
What made Billy Graham such an innovator there in the last part of the 1940s was that he understood the power of a mass crusade. Now, crusades were not new to evangelicalism. During the 19th and well into the 20th century, evangelicalism knew the so-called Sawdust Trail. It knew evangelists who came to town, pitched tents and preached sermons, sometimes for day after day and week after week, during a time when in America you could pitch a tent and put up a pulpit, and people would come. Billy Graham understood the opportunity of magnifying and multiplying the idea of the crusade by going into cities, including most importantly in the year 1949, the city of Los Angeles. There he held a meeting also in a massive tent, but it was bigger than just about anything that had ever been known before, and it drew ever larger crowds. It lasted and it lasted.
Eventually it gained the attention not only of Christians and those brought by Christians to the crusade, but also of the famous publisher William Randolph Hearst who at that point, had an out-sized influence in the entire media environment of the United States of America. William Randolph Hearst knew something new when he saw it, and when he saw Billy Graham, he understood that something distinctively new had arrived on the scene. He famously gave the instruction to his editors, "Puff Graham," and by that he meant, "Give this young man media attention." And thus the nation came to know what was taking place in that 1949 Los Angeles Crusade.
That led other cities to ask Doctor Graham to come and to bring his new Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and to hold a mass crusade there. This led to very historic crusades in cities, including New York City. Billy Graham put together an infectious, even fiery, preaching of the gospel with a very gracious personality. Those who look at the history of rhetoric, not only religious or Christian rhetoric but human rhetoric, point to the fact that Billy Graham was able to speak, and to speak understandably, at a remarkable rate of words. He could speak in gusts that exceeded virtually anything that Americans had heard or had received before. By the first decade of the 21st century, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had estimated that Billy Graham had preached in person to more than 250 million people.
Graham as counselor to the presidents, evangelical leader, and technological innovator
Of course American historians look at Billy Graham, and they see him not only as the paragon of American evangelism, but they also see him as the counselor to presidents, raising very interesting issues about the relationship between church and state, and Christianity and politics. Beginning with President Harry Truman, Billy Graham had visited and basically become a confidante of almost every American president. His encounter with President Truman was by his own reflective estimation not a complete success. After meeting with the president, he spoke outside to reporters and he spoke of his conversation with the president. That was considered to be entirely out of bounds, ending up with Harry Truman very offended by the comments that Billy Graham had made, not so much by what he said but that he spoke at all about their meeting in confidence in the Oval Office.
Thereafter, Billy Graham was very careful to be circumspect about his conversation with presidents, but it can be argued that the presidents were thereafter a good deal less circumspect about their conversations with Doctor Graham. It is now known that Doctor Graham had been very close to two presidents in particular, and they are two of the most morally complex presidents in the nation's history. One after the other, Billy Graham had become an essential confidante to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and to President Richard Milhous Nixon. Both of them of course have a very mixed verdict in history, and the relationship with both of them became very complex for Billy Graham. But the important thing to recognize is that American presidents, Democrats and Republicans, one after another all the way from Harry Truman to President Barack Obama, understood that it was to their political advantage to be seen as being a friend to Billy Graham.
I state that because at our current moment it points to the difference that is represented by the displacement of American evangelicalism. Back during that period, say from 1949 to the end of Doctor Graham's active crusades, there was no question that American evangelicalism was moving further into the mainstream of American culture, but by the time you get to the year 2018, the year of Doctor Graham's death, it is abundantly clear that that mainstream culture is becoming more and more resistant to biblically-based evangelical Christianity. It's also interesting to consider what we learn by looking at the life and ministry of Billy Graham as we think about the changing theological scene in the United States.
Back when Billy Graham began his crusade, he was largely dismissed by mainline Protestantism. By the time you get to the New York Crusade in 1957, the towering figure of mainline Protestant theology, Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, dismissed him out of hand. Niebuhr argued that Billy Graham preached an overly simplistic gospel. Billy Graham's response was if you looked in the New Testament, the Gospel is very simple. It is simple enough for every sinner to understand, and Billy Graham understood his responsibility not to make the Gospel more complex but rather to make that simple gospel present into the lives of people who would hear; and hearing, would believe; and believing, would be saved.
But part of what made mainline Protestants so resistant to Billy Graham was also their accusation that he had made himself effectively a pioneer in the religious use of technology. Billy Graham was promoted by newspapers, he quickly seized upon the medium of radio, but he more than any other major Christian leader in the United States understood the opportunity that was represented by the new technology of television. In one sense you could almost say that Billy Graham was made for television, and television was made for Billy Graham. More than any other Christian leader, he understood that the future was then in television and he used it in order to multiply his ministry.
Of course, one of the things you learn in retrospect is that those Protestant liberals who had criticized him for using the technology, later albeit very disastrously, tried to do the same thing. But Billy Graham was also criticized by the Protestant Right, by the fundamentalists who believed that he had left them, in his engagement with the larger culture and his use of many of the techniques of modern evangelism, but also many who noted the fact that when Billy Graham went to New York City in 1957, on the platform as sponsoring and affirming pastors were not only those who represented Orthodox Christianity, but some who represented some of those very liberal denominations.
Doctor Graham's argument was that he had allowed those persons to have the presence in the crusade because he wanted their members also to come to the crusades. But of course that left him open to the argument that having battled for an orthodox, simple gospel of Jesus Christ, he had confused the message by having more liberal ministers on the platform with him. In an historical retrospective we can also understand now, that a part of what made Billy Graham Billy Graham was his ability to assemble around himself a most remarkable team of leaders, a most remarkable set of musicians and organizers and fellow evangelists.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was not just Billy Graham, although it could never have existed without Billy Graham, but it also included some of the most remarkable men, who serving alongside him, helped to redefine American Protestantism, conservative Protestantism, as evangelicalism. He also had amazing pairings with men such as the titanic evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry. And along with others through events such as the Berlin Congress on Evangelism in the 1960s, he helped to identify gospel Christians around the world and he did his best to create an environment and a network of gospel Christians who would amplify and continue to extend gospel preaching throughout the globe.
The year of his birth, 1918, and year of his death, 2018, mark not only a century of time, roughly one-twentieth of all the time since Jesus Christ, but it also points to 100 years of the most dynamic and the most event-filled, and sometimes the most horrific, history of all humanity. In 1918, Billy Graham was born in the final year of the cataclysm known as World War I. What's important there is that it pointed to the rise of the United States and the fall, relatively speaking, of European nations and empires in world influence. By the time Billy Graham was a young man, there was the second cataclysm, the cataclysm of World War II that established not only the end of Nazism in Germany, but also what we now see in retrospect was the high water mark of what Graham's friend, Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, called "the American Century". Billy Graham would help to establish many of the institutions of modern evangelical life. There was almost no part of modern evangelicalism over which he did not exert an influence.
Why there was never a hint of moral scandal in the life and ministry of Billy Graham
There are other dimensions to Doctor Graham's life and influence. Just think about recent controversy over what some have called the "Mike Pence rules", speaking of the rule that is self-imposed by the Vice President of the United States, that he does not meet with or dine with a woman who was not his wife. That's been ridiculed of course, by those on the cultural left, it's been called a disguised form of sexual discrimination. But of course when you're thinking about that rule which has governed not only the Vice President's life but my own life and those of most other Christian leaders I know, it really goes back to the fact that it was officially codified by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in the 1950s.
One of the things we need to observe on this, the day after the death of Billy Graham, is that during his lifetime there was never even a hint of moral scandal. He surrounded himself with people who would handle the finances, even as there had been financial scandals in Christianity and amongst evangelists in the earlier decades of the 20th century. And he was scrupulously careful that there could never be any hint or accusation of moral impropriety when it comes to sexuality and marriage. What many in the cultural left now deride as "the Mike Pence rule" has been known to many Christians for decades as "the Billy Graham rule" and an important rule it is.
Personal reflections on Billy Graham
But I cannot speak about Billy Graham just with this passionate historical perspective, I have to speak in a very personal way. As I said, I first heard Billy Graham in person in 1982, but in 1993 when I was elected President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Doctor Graham indicated to me directly that he wanted to do whatever he could to help me in the cause of recovering and reforming this institution, and moving it in a very clearly, confessionally, decidedly conservative direction, affirming the inerrancy of scripture and our confessional heritage of Protestant orthodox biblical theology.
In that case I told Doctor Graham, who had an out-sized influence in the Southern Baptist Convention as well as American evangelicalism, that he could help me by coming to speak at my inauguration as President. He agreed to do so. He came in October of 1993, he delivered an address downtown at Freedom Hall, then the largest coliseum in the city of Louisville. He asked the question, "Can revival come?" And he pointed to the future, he pointed to the gospel, he pointed to Christ, and he gave an enormous word of affirmation that was invaluable to the great cause of recovering this institution. Furthermore, Billy Graham, in ways very tangibly, helped the cause here at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and when I was elected at just age 33, Doctor Graham lent the power of his organization and some of his closest associates to serve on the institution's board, and also to give encouragement, and encouragement they did give.
Concretely, the greatest gift that Billy Graham gave to the great effort here at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, during those very crucial years, was to allow us to establish the first graduate school anywhere in the world that would bear his name. Originally the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth, it is now the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry. It is an integral part now, as then, of this institution; but what it allowed back in 1993 was the beginning momentum towards the redefinition of this institution, toward reclaiming its original evangelical identity and convictions. I was given other opportunities to serve with Doctor Graham and to speak for Doctor Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, but then in 2001 I was asked to serve as Crusade Chairman for the Billy Graham Crusade here in Louisville Kentucky. It would turn out to be the second Billy Graham Crusade, the first in the 1950s, the second in the year 2001.
We knew even then, I now reflect almost 17 years ago, that this would be one of the last of Billy Graham's crusades, and yet it wasn't the last. He kept on until his strength no longer allowed him to preach those very large crusade meetings. But what I saw affirmed so personally in the midst of that 2001 Crusade where I served as Chairman, was the integrity of Billy Graham and the fidelity of his ministry, and the straightforward, almost rifle-like shot of his preaching. No Christian leader of consequence, certainly no Christian leader with roughly seven decades of public ministry, could be without controversy. But when it comes to Billy Graham, the most important thing to recognize is that that controversy was unrelated to the issues of scandal that had crashed so many other ministries. In that regard, we should give thanks to God.
Billy Graham was also very humble, so humble that he opened himself up to historical and theological critique even by those who were his most severe critics. He was unapologetic about his evangelistic methodology. He said at one point that his task was not mass evangelism, but rather personal evangelism on a mass scale. Though his wife Ruth, known as Ruth Bell Graham, the daughter of a very prominent Presbyterian missionary physician, even though she was clearly known as Presbyterian, Billy Graham was known as a Baptist and for most of his adult life as a Southern Baptist. For many decades a member of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, and then at the end of his life a member of the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The last time I saw Billy Graham in person, at his house there in Montreat, North Carolina, we both knew it would likely be the last time we would see one another on Earth, and during that time with faint breath but with very firm conviction, Doctor Graham told me that he longed to be with his wife Ruth, and that he longed to be with Christ in heaven. Of heaven he spoke very often, for heaven he yearned and of course it was about heaven that he had preached. Billy Graham's simple gospel message came down to human sin, and the fact that every single human being is a sinner and that our plight is absolutely impossible, except for the fact that God in Christ made atonement for our sins.
He pointed repeatedly to the historical truths of the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and he pointed to justification by faith and the promise of the gospel, that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. That if we profess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead, we shall be saved. He firmly believed that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. That was the gospel he preached in the beginning, that was the gospel he preached in the end. And that means that yesterday morning when Billy Graham drew his final breath in his 99th year, he died confident in the promises he had for so long preached. There'll be many people who are trying over the next few days and weeks and beyond to honor Billy Graham, but I'm confident that Billy Graham would say the real way to honor him is to preach the gospel he preached, starting here, starting now.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website, albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.