In light of the passing of one of the most significant Christians of our era, we asked leading Christians what they considered was a significant, yet perhaps underappreciated element of Billy Graham’s life, ministry, and legacy. We were not looking for eulogies, biographical sketches, or well-known details of his life. Rather, via this symposium, we hope to help articulate the Christian and cultural significance of Graham’s life and work. Evaluating a giant like Graham in so short a space as we have here allows only for the briefest comment, but we are overjoyed with the depth and breadth of what our wonderful contributors have provided.
We asked: “Please reflect on a specific (perhaps even overlooked) aspect of Billy Graham’s legacy, describing both its importance as well as its lasting influence on the church and society.”
Click on a name below to jump to a particular contribution.
The spiritual legacy of Billy Graham is well known, but yet impossible to full capture in mere words. However, far less known is the social impact of the life and ministry of Dr. Graham. Today, I am grateful for his bold declaration, in 1953 at his Chattanooga Crusade, that he would no longer preach to segregated audiences. This announcement was not well received by many. There were donors who threatened to withdraw their support, but Billy Graham forged ahead in his conviction that racial injustice was an intolerable offense to the gospel.
Later, in 1957, Dr. Graham invited his friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to join him on stage in New York. Again, there was resistance by some, but the two men stood tall and bold for the gospel of Jesus Christ that night and beyond. Today, I celebrate the legacy of gospel-centered racial equally that Billy Graham preached and lived. It is an encouragement to my generation and a reminder that God is looking for tough-minded, tender-hearted men and women; those who can think critically and live compassionately. These are the type of people that God will use to change the world!
Chris Brooks, Pastor, Radio Host, Campus Dean
There will never be another man like the Reverend Billy Graham. For more than seven decades he was a minster of the Good News, preaching, evangelizing, and counseling with U.S Presidents world leaders. Millions came to know Jesus as Savior through his Gospel crusades.
When he passed away, one of his most famous quotes went viral on social media: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” He was still preaching the Good News!
Dr. Graham’s enduring humility struck me the most. He seemed unfazed by his access and influence. He lived the scrupulous life his entire life. And he never lost sight of the church’s primary calling: evangelism and the defense of sound doctrine.
He was a man who appealed to people of every class and culture. He was approachable and down-to-earth. He didn’t fancy himself a theologian and crossed denominational lines throughout his storied ministry. The world is a poorer place with his passing. But we will see him again!
Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, and author of When Parenting Isn’t Perfect.
In many ways, American evangelicalism was defined or at least visualized by Billy Graham. In today’s context in which the concept of evangelicalism is quite vague to many and has been overly politicized by the media and others, it will likely become harder to hold the evangelical movement together. Not only will his vast influence in that area be missed, but we will also miss his dedicated efforts to wed evangelism and social justice as well as his desire to connect evangelism with a commitment to intellectual seriousness. His faithfulness to the gospel underscored all of these things, but Mr. Graham saw clearly the need for initiatives in the area of racial reconciliation before such clarity came to other evangelical and church leaders.
His desire to encourage intellectual seriousness regarding the truth claims of the Christian faith became obvious to others with the launch of Christianity Today under the leadership of Carl F. H. Henry. One can point to dozens of other significant accomplishments that were led or nurtured by Graham’s visionary and entrepreneurial leadership. In a brief response like this one, seeking to reflect on the significance of his life and the need to carry forth aspects of this work without his ongoing presence, I would point to four key areas that call for our attention: (1) faithfulness to the gospel message; (2) leadership and guidance for the evangelical movement; (3) the bringing together of evangelism with the social dimensions of the gospel; and 4) the importance of connecting the work of evangelism with serious theological reflection and cultural engagement. May God help us to be found faithful in these areas in the years to come. For the life and legacy of Billy Graham (1918-2018), we certainly join with others expressing a heartfelt “thanks be to God!”
David S. Dockery, President, Trinity International University/Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Billy Graham believed that the gospel, defined in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, was the touchstone of Christian unity and effective outreach to the lost. In city after city, he worked closely with a broad coalition of churches and denominational leaders. He would not compromise his message, but he would work with any Christian believer to proclaim the message. It has been said that Graham “triangulated” American Protestantism by marginalizing liberals on his left and bypassing fundamentalists on his right. In doing so, he brought revivalism out of the sawdust era and propelled evangelicalism into the mainstream of American Christianity.
Everyone who met Billy Graham testifies to his humility, transparency, and empathy. The source of his strength was not an overweening self-confidence, but rather the posture of a supplicant at prayer. Graham humbly organized and followed through with his crusades. He always emphasized the Billy Graham “team” and worked closely with local pastors and lay leaders to make his crusade more than a flash in the pan.
Graham transcended his limitations to become an instrument of divine grace for a world starving for some good news. Graham was unique; it is silly to speculate about who the next Billy Graham might be. What matters is not Graham but the message he proclaimed, and the way he went about doing it—with unstinted devotion to Christ, with integrity, and with the limitless love of Christ.
[This contribution is excerpted from Dr. George’s recent article with Christianity Today, “The Secrets to Graham’s Success.”]
Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School
Now that Billy Graham has entered into his eternal rest, the question arises: Whither Evangelicalism? In the decades after World War II biblically faithful Protestants returned to public life, contesting for the soul of the nation. Billy Graham gave the sawdust trail, revivalist tradition a distinctive profile. He preached a sin-redeeming, soul-saving Evangelicalism. It was a born-again Protestantism that was emphatic about Christ on the cross, but it was also ecumenical and not overly dogmatic. He raised up converts and renewed the faithful in what was still in some sense a Christian nation, even a Protestant nation. He was America’s pastor.
Times have changed. They’ve been changing for decades before his death. Unlike Graham, the rising generation of Evangelical preachers cannot presume that stadia now fill with Americans who possess Christian instincts, the residue of the Gospel that yearns to be enlivened once again. For many, Christianity means repression and discrimination, not freedom and life abundant.
So, again, whither Evangelicalism? In my estimation, our times require preachers more primitive than Billy Graham. They can presume nothing, not even consciousness of sin. Their message must be metaphysical in order to be soteriological. They must be so bold as to say that God exists, and that he has created a world in which there are timeless truths that demand our loyalty.
R. Reno, Editor, First Things
While most articles and memorials portray Graham as a famous Christian or as “America’s pastor,” this is not how Graham wanted us to remember him. Graham’s true legacy — why so many people are celebrating him — is not that he was famous. Graham’s place in American history is due to his singular devotion to making someone else famous.
Winsome, intentional, and gracious, Graham distinguished himself in American culture with his singular devotion to making Jesus famous. In fact, when someone commented to Graham that he had done some great things, his response was, “God has done some good things through me.” At the heart of his vision was the simple belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ was the needed answer for a struggling world.
It’s really an odd thing: Graham was world famous for talking about someone else.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D. Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism
Executive Director, Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College
What strikes me most about Billy Graham’s story and extraordinary impact was how unlikely they are. Some of Graham’s success can be attributed to extraordinary talent, oratorical skills, his strong team, and other things. But it can’t explain how this self-described “farm boy” would become—well—Billy Graham.
Timing is part of the story: God called Graham to ministry at an extraordinary time in American church history. After the Scopes trial of 1925, American evangelicalism had largely retreated from public life—perceived by a hostile public to be nothing but backwoods fundamentalism.
But then arose four faces of an evangelical resurgence: Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today Magazine, the National Association of Evangelicals, and most important of all, Billy Graham, who leapt onto the national stage in the unlikeliest of ways: a 1949 evangelistic crusade in, of all places, Los Angeles.
So, what was it? His “golden” voice? His calm demeanor? His ability to connect with the powerful? His humility? His innovative use of new technologies? His impeccable integrity? All of these things certainly contributed to his life and influence. But his answer, when he was asked by CNN’s Larry King in 2005: “It’s the message…”
John Stonestreet, President of the Colson Center and co-author of A Practical Guide to Culture
Billy Graham was arguably the most important American religious figure of the 20th century. In both theology and practice, if it was “OK” with Billy Graham, it quickly became standard practice in evangelical churches.
A few examples: When Billy Graham held his groundbreaking Los Angeles crusade in 1949, the newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst instructed his editors to “puff Graham” in a now famous telegraph. They did, and that event was the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship between Graham and the media. Indeed, Graham’s savvy use of media eventually earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When Graham preached six times at Expo 72, an event often called “The Christian Woodstock,” it had the effect of putting the Graham imprimatur on the then-suspect genre of Contemporary Christian Music. Today, thanks in no small measure to Graham’s boost, CCM is now the soundtrack of the modern evangelical church.
Mega-ministries and mega-rallies are now a standard part of the evangelical landscape, but it is hard to see how these phenomena would have become mainstream in the evangelical movement without Billy Graham. He pioneered and popularized methodologies and organizational structures that are now commonplace.
Without Billy Graham, the modern evangelical movement would look very different than it does today. Its current spiritual vitality is the direct result of his preaching and leadership.
Warren Cole Smith, Vice President—Mission Advancement, Colson Center for Christian Worldview
America has not known what to do with Baptists since its founding. Originally persecuted, ignored, and derided, Baptists became by the twentieth-century the major force in American evangelical life. No one more personified this ascendancy than Billy Graham. Over the years, Graham suffered many attacks from skeptical voices; he was derided as a bumpkin, and dismissed as a simpleton, a habit that continues.
But here’s the surprising truth, given the snark: Graham was a very smart man, keenly interested in the life of the mind. I did my doctoral work on Graham’s project, with theologian Carl F. H. Henry and pastor Harold Ockenga, to begin a top-tier Christian university. Crusade University never came off, but Graham did help found two of the most consequential religious academic institutions in the world: Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Divinity School. Graham also began Christianity Today, which he intended to be a thought-journal aimed at thinking Christians.
Further, while Graham was not an academician and never claimed to be, his was a theologically-driven ministry. Like evangelicals of all tribes, he believed in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, the inherent dignity of all people, the saving power of Christ’s cross, and the sure return of the Son of God.
The Baptists may never go highbrow; the potluck is a stubborn thing. But as with Graham, they will surprise you, if you pay attention.
Owen Strachan, PhD, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of “Reenchanting Humanity: Biblical Anthropology for the 21st Century” (B&H Academic, 2019).
Countless times, I witnessed Mr. Graham’s love and respect for the aged and those with disabilities. He believed the gospel should be accessible to everyone, and he demonstrated that commitment at every Crusade. I remember when speaking at the Rochester N.Y. Crusade, I was amazed to see at least 4 different sign languages offered – from ‘pigeon,’ to Signed Exact English and more. Mr. Graham felt that his Crusades should make hearing loops available to the aged – not to mention wheelchair transport for any elderly person who was forced to park at a distance.
When I spoke alongside Mr. Graham at the 1989 Budapest, Hungary Crusade, I was amazed when he directed his team to underwrite the train fare of any person with a disability who wanted to come – that night, thousands of people with disabilities, lying on mats and mattresses, lined the track of the sports stadium. Time and again, Billy Graham made sure the gospel of Jesus Christ was completely accessible to all. He set the high bar for the way we are to treat those who are medically fragile or wheelchair-users, the elderly or the Deaf. More than merely showcase a biblical worldview on age and disability, he helped people experience it!
Joni Eareckson Tada, Founder/CEO of Joni and Friends
Billy Graham repeatedly and sincerely gave credit to the Lord for any good that came from his ministry. But a brief remembrance of Graham’s spiritual background and message does shed light on other factors that shaped his career. First, Billy Graham was thoroughly convinced that the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms lives (Romans 1:16). At age sixteen in Charlotte, North Carolina, Graham was converted to Christ through the fiery preaching of Mordecai Ham, a Southern revivalist. Graham described his experience of being born again (John 3:1–16): “Have you ever been outdoors on a dark day when the sun suddenly bursts through the clouds? Deep inside, that’s how I felt. The next day the flowers and the leaves on the trees looked different. I was finding out for the first time the sweetness and joy of God, of being truly born again.”
In his lengthy evangelistic ministry, Graham called upon his audiences to repent of their sins, accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, and be born again. Graham reminded his audiences that everyone has sinned and is going to die some day and answer to a Holy God for those sins. He urged his audience to get right with God before it was too late. In his crusade “invitations,” he called upon them to come just as they were to Christ.
[This is an excerpt from Dr. Woodbridge’s recent article in First Things.]
John D. Woodbridge, Research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
As I reflect upon the unparalleled ministry of Billy Graham, it is hard to know how to speak of his many strengths. Most obvious is the incredible power and clarity with which he spoke. John Wesley once said that the key to evangelistic preaching is to blend simplicity with sublimity. Nobody did that better than Billy Graham.
But to do what he did would have been impossible without that incredible strength of selecting the right people with whom to build for the future. First and foremost was the choice of his life partner in Ruth Bell Graham. She was tough and needed to be strong to withstand the headwinds of being married to an itinerant.
His choice to work alongside George Wilson, Bev Shea, Cliff Barrows, T.W. Wilson, and many others speaks of the thoughtfulness in his leadership. They were all extraordinarily committed to Billy Graham and totally committed to his calling. The sacrifice for them had to be huge. It was a team of superb people with a high calling.
Billy would never have reached the heights without them. No one is a self-made man. God is the ultimate Potter. In shaping Billy, God did not just shape a speaker; He shaped a man with the wisdom of choosing the right people around him. Billy Graham would be the first to say, “Without them, I would not have made it.”
Ravi Zacharias is a Christian apologist and evangelist and an author of over 25 books