When Billy Graham’s body lay in state in the capitol rotunda in Washington D.C., he was accorded a high honor rarely given to a private citizen. “America’s pastor” as he was called, was the friend of presidents and was routinely included on the short list of the nation’s most admired men.
When I learned of Graham’s death at age 99, my response was three-fold. First, there was sorrow. Of course, I did not know Graham personally. However, I was saddened because Graham was the last representative of a by-gone era. Few today recall the names Jack Shuler, Torrey Johnson, Jack Wyrtzen, Charles Fuller, or Percy Crawford. But the crowds that gathered to hear Billy Graham once also assembled to hear these and other preachers. Evangelistic campaigns that filled circus tents, sports arenas, and civic auditoriums were commonplace in post-war America. Some historians suggest that during the middle of the 20th century the nation experienced a third great awakening. The fundamentalist/modernist controversy of the early part of the century left the main-line denominations in the hands of the modernists. However, in response, in just a few decades a massive network of thousands of independent churches, Bible institutes, Bible colleges, mission agencies, camps and conference centers sprang up across the land. Accompanying this spiritual momentum were mass evangelistic campaigns led by men such as Billy Graham. Sadly, this era has passed. Today Bible-believing churches are in decline, Bible colleges are closing, and no mass evangelism is occurring in America.
My second response to Graham’s passing was gratitude. Through his city-wide meetings and the careful use of mass media, Billy Graham preached to more people than any other individual in history. Thousands of people living today trace their conversion to Christ to an encounter in person or by television with Billy Graham. For that, I rejoice.
Third, regarding Billy Graham, I have a sense of great regret. Every man to his own master stands or falls. It is not left to me to judge the faithfulness of Billy Graham. However, there are significant aspects to his ministry that are lamentable. In the late 1950’s Billy Graham made a very deliberate decision to seek and accept cooperation and support from liberal churches that denied fundamentals of the Christian faith. In Reforming Fundamentalism, historian George Marsden observed that Graham’s new approach was “cooperation with a group that was predominantly non-evangelical and even included out-and-out modernists. It also meant sending converts back to their local churches, no matter how liberal those churches might be.” This ecumenical direction was a clear violation of the biblical principle of separation, and it created great division among conservative Christians. While Graham’s strategy allowed him to preach to large crowds, ultimately it did not influence the liberals to a more biblical position. Instead, it appears Graham was drawn away from the message that characterized his early ministry. He continued to preach Christ crucified and risen, but he began to express doubts about the nature of hell, and he advocated a qualified universalism (i.e. those who never hear of Christ may still be saved). He even welcomed partnership with the Roman Catholic Church. In his campaigns at the same time he invited people to trust Christ he also invited Catholics to “renew their confirmation vows.”
Perhaps, if the Lord tarries, some historian with the perspective of the passing of years will write an objective biography of Billy Graham. It would indeed be interesting to read an examination of his life and ministry; his successes, his theology, his compromise. Of course, the true record is in heaven. For myself, I will certainly never have the fame or scope of impact that Graham had. But I hope to come to the end my life having fought a good fight and having kept the faith.