Billy Graham was the first preacher I saw on television, and I was enamored by his passion and charisma. I knew I wanted to be a pastor at a young age. Both of my grandfathers were pastors, but I watched Billy to study timing and voice when I began preaching in high school. (Sorry grandpas, your sermons weren’t on TV!). I can safely say I did not learn enough. No preacher is like Billy Graham.
I might have heard it before, but the first time I consciously listened to the hymn, Just as I Am, I was watching a Billy Graham altar call on TV. His use of those words have stuck with me to this day. He preached that in our repentance we must be real and vulnerable about our fears, doubts, conflicts, and infighting. Graham wanted us to turn from our selfish nature and actively live for and trust in a love that lasts forever – a love he believed is found in the examples of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.
Some critics felt that Graham’s telling of the Gospel was only for the few. But his sermons were for Catholics, Protestants, people with a mix of faiths, and people who don’t subscribe to religion. This was not common within many faith communities or among evangelical leaders in his time, but Graham cared about people’s souls and how they lived. He wanted all to hear The Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Despite being a televangelist, his theology was not triumphalist like that of so many other preachers on TV. His religious philosophy was deeply rooted in his own study of the Bible, learned theology, and his personal experience with his faith. At the end of his professional ministry Graham preached the Gospel to people in 185 countries.
His ministry went beyond the pulpit and spoke to the social concerns of his time. In 1953 he began integrating his crusades by personally removing the ropes in Chattanooga that separated white and blacks. Four years later, after a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., Graham fully integrated his crusades. Later, King said “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been.”
Now, I have no illusions that his ministry was perfect and without serious social and political concerns – Lord knows my ministry is full of flaws and contradictions. His early record on ending segregation draws mixed reviews – some religious scholars say Graham did not move forcefully, or publicly, enough to embrace the goals of the civil rights movement. In 1963, when King was locked up in a Birmingham jail cell, Graham reportedly told the New York Times saying that King should “put on the brakes a bit.”
Years later when the issue of human sexuality became an issue for many in the church, Graham once told a 1993 crusade in Ohio that he believed AIDS was part of God’s plan and judgement. He later walked back this viewpoint and said he was “sorry for what I said.”
Graham’s 1972 recorded conversations with President Richard Nixon reveal his close associations with presidents and anti-Semitic remarks made both by him and by Nixon. In 2002, Graham apologized, but he considered what he said on the recordings to be one of his biggest political failures.
Moreover, his son and heir to his ministry, Franklin Graham, appears determined to repeat the same mishaps and charged rhetoric. He has affiliated with political groups that create fear of Islam and other misidentified religions through Christian-nationalist language.
Franklin Graham’s actions and words have undoubtedly hurt the legacy that his father worked to create and improve over the final years of his life and ministry. However, in the end, all of these critiques need to be seen with a dose of grace – that he preached we all needed – and an understanding of Graham’s social background and the times in which his ministry began.
Looking back on Billy’s ministry, I no longer see him as just a televangelist or spiritual guide to the presidents. That version bores me. Instead I see him as a pastor, a flawed but even more gracious pastor who would have been just as excited to share the gospel with one person in Kansas or Kenya as he did preaching to millions. His audience throughout his lifetime would turn out to be hundreds of millions.
In the end, I shouldn’t have studied his voice or timing, but the deep love and forgiveness he had for people and the world we all live in.
Rev. Billy Graham passed away Wednesday, Feb. 20 at age 99. His funeral service is set for noon on March 2 at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. His body was transported to Morris Funeral Home in Asheville on Wednesday and will be moved to Charlotte via motorcade on Saturday.
The funeral will be by invitation only. Among the roughly 2,300 people invited are President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, according to Mark DeMoss, spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.