America’s Preacher

Remembering Billy Graham
Franklin and Billy Graham in Cleveland Stadium in 1994 (Photo: Paul M. Walsh)

His face was Hollywood handsome, his body lean like a pole-vaulter’s. His first name alone commanded the kind of instant recognition that only Elvis surpassed. But it was his singular voice—big as the Bible, yet softened at the edges, like a Carolina mountain—that made Billy Graham a thoroughly American institution. Dr. Graham he may have been to the rest of the world; at home he was always “Billy.” And when he died on February 21 at the age of ninety-nine, the entire nation paused to mark the passing of a man who gave new dignity and definition to the word “Evangelist.”

For much of his life, Billy Graham was the best-known preacher in the world. In a span of half a century he reached—in person, on the radio, and via television—an estimated 200 million people with the Gospel. Graham’s evangelical crusades took him from small town stadiums to nearly every country in the world, though he never got to preach in the one place he most fancied: the ancient coliseum in Rome. His books sold in the tens of millions, and his Biblical films and videos were seen everywhere that evangelical Christians gathered—including flights to Israel on El Al Airlines.

Fame made Billy friend to royalty, counselor to countless CEOs, and confidant of every U.S. President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton—except for John F. Kennedy. JFK, the first and only Catholic in the White House, kept Graham at a distance. And for good reason. Like a great many Protestants, Graham believed a Catholic President would be beholden to the Pope. Although he wrote his friend Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's running mate, that he was staying out of the 1960 election—he would in fact be in Switzerland during the campaign—Billy secretly convened a group of Protestant leaders and organized a campaign (in the name of preserving “religious liberty”) to get out the Protestant vote. The Washington Post penetrated the group’s secret meeting in Washington weeks later and broke the story—except for Graham’s important role in it. And Graham, still in Switzerland, allowed Norman Vincent Peale to take the fall for him, which nearly destroyed Peale’s career. JFK read the Post story and then decided to accept an invitation to address a convention of Southern Baptist clergy in Houston. The rest is history, but Kennedy never let Billy in the White House.

If the other residents of the White House used him, as they surely did, Graham used the White House to foster a kind of national piety. It was Graham who encouraged Eisenhower (his favorite President) to institute the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast, where Billy himself often presided. And whenever a national tragedy occurred, like the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, it was usually Graham who was summoned to speak a televised healing word. Billy may have been Southern-born and Baptist-bred, but to the world he became the generic Dr. Christian.


Christians believe that in the Bible they have the word of God. But for William Franklin Graham, God was also in the voice. On the prosperous dairy farm where he grew up outside Charlotte, North Carolina, Billy’s pious family often prayed for half an hour between the end of dinner and the washing of the dishes. At sixteen, “Billy Frank” made his personal “decision for Christ” after listening to a revival preached by an itinerant Southern evangelist named Mordecai Ham. Against his own wishes, Billy’s parents sent him off to Bob Jones College in Greenville, South Carolina, where the furiously fundamentalist Dr. Jones told him, “God can use that voice of yours.” But sports were Billy’s field of dreams. After one semester, he switched to an interdenominational Bible Institute in Florida, hoping he’d be noticed by one of the major-league baseball teams that practiced in nearby Tampa.

In Florida, he fell in love, was rebuffed, and while still in agony over his rejection heard the voice of God—it was at night while Graham was wandering on a golf course—telling him to go forth and preach. In any case, preaching was what the students were expected to do. They were also trained to overlook theological differences among Protestant denominations and stick to the basics of born-again Christianity. Thus Graham was baptized not one but three times—the last time as a Southern Baptist so that he could take a part-time preaching assignment in a Southern Baptist church. After a summer peddling Fuller Brushes door to door, Billy went on to graduate from Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met and married his classmate, Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. Though still in his twenties, Billy served briefly as an Evangelical college president in Minneapolis, developed a radio program, and eventually put together a team of Gospel singers and organizers that was to become The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

For the first thirty years of preaching, Graham’s basic sermon seldom changed. He usually began with a rapid recitation of brief anecdotes—in later decades, they tended to be about his friends among the rich and famous. To these he’d add some dire statistics picked up from the media (for years he kept a UPI wire receiver in his home) illustrating how far the world had fallen and how fast the end times were approaching. Then came the Gospel message, followed by his call to the crowd to come forward and make that personal “decision for Christ” without which there was no hope of salvation. Off the page, his sermons often read like a homily from Readers’ Digest. Graham was no theologian and did not pretend to be. But with his resonant voice he could make the simplest sentence sound like sacred scripture.

Being the nation’s foremost preacher was not all blessing.

For Graham, preaching was a kind of priestly performance, an often-exhausting pulpit ritual in which—he believed—Christ became present through Billy’s own inspired words. Once, while editing one of his taped sermons, Graham told me: “I get so engrossed, I don’t think of the man on television as me. I think of him as another person speaking because the spirit of God begins to speak to me through him.” In the pulpit style that made him famous, Graham punctuated his sermons by much body twisting, head tossing, Bible slapping, finger wagging and fist clenching.

Part of his passion was fired by a fierce anti-Communism that attracted conservative power brokers. In 1949, Graham erected “a canvas cathedral” in Los Angeles—his first big crusade—and a secular miracle happened. His message caught the fancy of publisher William Randolph Hearst, who ordered his editors to “puff Graham.” They did, and a week’s engagement lasted eight. Shortly after, Time’s editor-in-chief Henry Luce, himself the son of Presbyterian missionaries, visited Graham during a crusade in South Carolina. They talked privately into the night and soon Graham was featured in Time and Life. Mass media and mass evangelist met each other and embraced. The Age of Graham had arrived.

Throughout the 1950s, Graham was that oddly American version of a prophet: unlike Amos or Ezekiel, he was much honored in his own country. Various organizations named him “Salesman of the Year”—no small honor in an era when Jesus himself was heralded as the greatest salesman who ever lived. Travel magazine dubbed the evangelist “Mr. Travel.” His name appeared more than once on the Fashion Designers of America’s “Best Dressed List.” Year after year, Graham made the Gallup Poll’s “Ten Most Admired Men in the World.” Billy was for a time the Bob Hope of American religion: he presided once as the grand marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade and, in later years, amiably appeared on the television show, Laugh-In. Toward the end of his career, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. At his death he was the only living person depicted in stained glass in Washington’s National Cathedral.

Being the nation’s foremost preacher was not all blessing. Like all celebrities, Billy found that he could not walk down a street like anyone else. Sometimes, he would wear disguises. His family suffered too. He missed the birth of Gigi, the first of the Grahams’ five children, and was on the road so often that Ruth raised the children with the help of her own parents. “Over the years, “ Billy confessed in his biography, “the BGEA and the (evangelistic) Team became my second family without my realizing it.... The children must carry scars of those separations too.” Indeed, son Franklin became something of a problem child in his adolescence and young adulthood, yet it is he who eventually became his father’s chosen successor.


In the early 1960s, Graham’s sun was temporarily eclipsed by another gifted Baptist preacher from the South: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King’s powerful words summoned the nation to something more than the personal redemption Graham preached. And his deeds eventually provoked a martyrdom that was unimaginable for a celebrity preacher like Billy Graham. Although Graham insisted that there be no segregation at his crusades, Billy shied away from moral pronouncements that might divide the country or shrink his big-tent constituency. To businessmen like hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott, a Mormon multimillionaire, Billy was “the leading religious man of our time”—not the least, Marriott explained, “because he is non-controversial.” Billy consciously positioned himself above the mean streets of social conflict. “I am,” he always maintained, “a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.”

In fact, Graham was utterly captivated by his privileged access to the princes of this world—especially those who occupied the White House. For decades he virtually owned a key to the Lincoln bedroom. He was in the White House with Lyndon Johnson during the bloody 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (Indeed, in his autobiography Graham wrote that Johnson had told him earlier that he would not run and offered to put the whole Democratic Party apparatus behind Graham if the evangelist someday ran for President himself.) Graham was there again on Johnson’s last night in office and woke the next morning to preside at the inauguration of his close friend Richard Nixon.

Graham believed that American Presidents, once chosen, were divinely mandated. But Nixon was special: the one president in whom both God and Graham were well pleased. Although the evangelist did not endorse Nixon publicly in the race against another Graham friend, then–Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Billy allowed himself to be conspicuously present in the televised question-and-answer sessions produced for the Nixon campaign. During Nixon’s first term, especially, Graham gave face and voice to the American civil religion linking God and country. On the Fourth of July, 1970, Graham presided from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial over “Honor America Day”—a Nixonian celebration aimed at silencing those who were protesting the war in Vietnam. “The Bible,” he often proclaimed in those divisive days, “teaches us to obey authority. A few years later, during Watergate, Graham continued to render unto Nixon the benefit of all doubt. And when the White House tapes at last did Nixon in, Graham said he was shocked—not over the resigned president’s illegal actions, but by the presidential profanity the tapes revealed.

Long after Nixon was forced to resign the presidency, Graham remained his close friend and advocate. He appealed to President Gerald Ford to grant Nixon a presidential pardon, arguing that Nixon’s health was suffering. And in 1994 he preached at Nixon’s funeral. But Watergate had sobered him on politics. “I was naïve,” he later admitted. When Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, was elected President, the two men agreed that it would be best if Billy became less visible at the White House. One Southern Baptist preacher in residence was enough. In the Reagan years, Billy again became visible in Washington. It was Graham who advised Reagan, who was never much for church, not to leave the White House on Sundays to attend Sunday services. Nixon hadn’t either, Billy recalled, and both men agreed that Reagan’s presence in the church would disturb the other faithful. Graham was also close enough to Nancy Reagan to warn her about consulting astrologers.

When the televangelism scandals of the mid-1980s brought other broadcasters down, Billy remained untouched, his integrity fixed like a face on Mount Rushmore.

But Reagan had other clergy to whom he was politically beholden, preachers whose political ways and means Graham did not share. In public, Graham kept his distance from the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who had been drafted by conservative Republican operatives to campaign against Carter. Privately, Graham was appalled by Falwell and the tactics of his Moral Majority movement. Graham was also turned off by the gaudy and gimmicky televangelism of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and the early Pat Robertson. “You don’t hear much [from them] about the hungry masses, the inner-city ghetto or the nuclear-arms race,” Graham said in 1981 during his induction into the Religious Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame. Graham, it seemed, was getting religion of a different political hue. And when the televangelism scandals of the mid-1980s brought other broadcasters down, Billy remained untouched, his integrity fixed like a face on Mount Rushmore.

In retrospect, it is remarkable that both Graham and his evangelistic organization avoided scandal. Billy himself lived by one protective rule: never be alone, even in a car, with another woman—even if she were his secretary. Early on, he put money at a distance, taking salary from the BGEA but leaving finances to its officers. Under Billy, the BGEA became much more than just another evangelistic association. Although Graham himself was not an intellectual, through the BGEA he sponsored intellectual efforts. Among other enterprises, he begat evangelicalism’s most influential magazines: the weekly Christianity Today. In the entrepreneurial world of evangelical Protestantism, the BGEA became an unofficial authorizer of dozens of different religious and social-action enterprises. There was no surer route to legitimacy in Evangelical America for any ambitious preacher or movement than to win an approving nod from Billy and the BGEA. If anyone wanted to know where Evangelicalism’s center was—or was moving—they had to look to Billy.

By 1980, Graham had long since gone global with his message. In the late ’70s, he managed to penetrate the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe, drawing Catholics and Orthodox Christians as well as Protestants. In Poland, one of his hosts was the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła, who would later become Pope John Paul II. Seeing how Christians had persisted in their faith despite decades of persecution seemed to change Graham. Perhaps for the first time, he was able to disconnect Christianity from its expression as an American civil religion. Thereafter, when he referred to himself as “an ambassador for Christ’s kingdom,” the phrase seemed to suggest that he no longer saw his role as an apologist for the American way of life.

Billy’s biggest coup came in 1982 when the old anti-Communist became the first celebrity American evangelist allowed to preach in the Soviet Union. It was an invitation he had sought for years but one for which he was not quite prepared. Moscow wanted Billy there to prove that in the Soviet Union religious freedom was a reality. Graham was cautious with his hosts to the point of flattery, and Christians back home criticized him for not championing the cause of believers still brutally oppressed by the atheist regime. But Billy was planning for the long run and eventually he was able to hold crusades outdoors in the country he had once robustly demonized. In 1988 China welcomed him to the mainland and, in 1994, another international barrier fell when he preached to students in North Korea.

The more Graham traveled in later years, the less parochial he became. “I used to think that all those children in China who never had the Gospel preached to them were condemned to hell,” he once told me. “I don’t think that anymore. God will find a way to save them.” Of all the world capitols where he had preached, Graham liked London best. “Spiritually,” he confided to me on another occasion, “ I feel most at home in the Evangelical wing of the Anglican church.” He certainly was drawn to the English royalty and the courtly manner he found among upper-class Britons. But also, I think, he was impressed by elegant British apologists for the faith like C. S. Lewis and other, lesser-known Evangelicals who appealed to the brain as well as the heart.

Graham always claimed that he had rabbis who supported his crusades. Henry Kissinger, he claimed, had attended his 1957 crusade in New York City more than once. Doubtful as those claims may seem, Graham was throughout his middle and late years far more sensitive to Jewish feelings than most Baptist evangelists. He simply knew too many well-placed Jews to be other than gracious in his interfaith relationships. He was a warm and reliable friend to Israel. He did not, he insisted, believe in targeting individual groups—especially Jews—for conversion. Graham’s relations with the Jewish community were briefly strained in 2002 with the release of audiotapes from the Nixon White House in which Graham and Nixon could be heard complaining about Jewish control of the media. Graham publicly apologized for his comments.

Graham’s relationship with Catholics was always polite, but he lacked an intuitive understanding of what the Catholic faith was all about. As individual bishops warmed to him, so he warmed to them. He was the first Protestant leader to recognize that John Paul II was, at heart, an evangelist like himself. “He is,” Billy once declared in a Newsweek interview, “the moral leader of the West.” Graham always hoped that his preaching would produce a great moral and social revolution like the one that the Polish pope helped precipitate in Eastern Europe. Graham’s own models, though, were the Great Awakenings that shook eighteenth and nineteenth-century America and produced the abolition movement.

Significantly, Graham did not identify himself with the Religious Right of the 1990s. It was one thing for a preacher to use the White House as a pulpit, he seemed to believe, and quite another to mobilize Evangelical Protestants for partisan political purposes. Oddly enough, when fellow Southern Baptists Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected in 1992—and even after a third Southern Baptist, Newt Gingrich, took over as Speaker of the House in 1994—Graham was barely visible in Washington. His kind of political influence—personal phone calls, advice and requests through notes and memos that he never publically acknowledged—had given way to blatant power plays of the Christian Coalition. Besides, Billy always liked to be liked.

As an evangelist, Billy Graham was unique—like George Whitfield, Dwight Moody, and Billy Sunday. He built no university to carry on his name, as Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson did. He did create the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at his alma mater, Wheaton College. And in 1995 he also named his son and look-alike, Franklin, as his successor. But his true successors are the thousands of “barefoot” evangelists his organization has trained throughout the second and third worlds to take the Gospel back to their towns and villages.

Billy Graham will also live on through the miracle of videotape, his magnetic voice and image reaching, one imagines, from crusades past to generations not yet born. To be sure, there is more than irony in the fact that the world seemed no better off when he died than when he began his ministry more than half a century earlier. It may be, in fact, that his crusades were often pep rallies for the converted: by his own count, 80 to 90 percent of those who came to hear him speak were already church members. But even the “saved” can backslide, as indeed do whole countries and cultures. Evangelism was Graham’s life, his message distinguished by his voice. Now he is silent. But who’s to say that others have not reaped what he went out into the world to sow?

Published in the March 23, 2018 issue: 

Kenneth Woodward was for thirty-eight years religion editor of Newsweek.

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