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Billy Graham in black and white

23 February 2018

The death of Billy Graham was followed by a flood of posts on social media, some praising him to the heavens as more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, and others damning him as a would be war criminal who urged US President Richard Nixon to kill a million people in Vietnam.

I thought I would steer clear of all the hype, and not read any of it, pro or con, until a few internet friends posted things that I thought worth paying attention to.

First was Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, who met Billy Graham in 1988 when he visited the USSR at the invitation of the Russian Orthodox Church, on the occasion of the celebration of a millennium of Christianity in Russia:

At the airport waiting for our flight to Kiev, I asked Graham what had led him to undertake his first trip to the USSR in 1982 despite advice from Vice President Bush not to go. “I had been briefed at the Pentagon about what would happen if there was a nuclear war,” he replied. “I had been to Auschwitz and seen how limitless is our capacity for evil. And I was thinking about Paul saying in his first letter to the Corinthians that he was called to be all things to all people. I realized I had closed myself to the people in the Soviet Union. So I felt I had to say yes to the invitation I received from the Russian Orthodox Church inviting me to take part in a peace conference they were preparing in Moscow.”

Speaking in Kiev, he gave a vintage Graham sermon: “My grandfather never dreamed of the changes that have happened in our world — space travel, color television, travel from continent to continent in a few hours by jet airplane. But some things never change. Interest in religion never changes. The nature of God never changes.” He spoke about God’s love for each person, a love we cannot damage by our sins. Graham recalled a Moscow lady who told him, “I am a great sinner.” He responded, “I too am a great sinner, but we have a great savior.” He recalled Prince Vladimir and his conversion. “He turned away from idols and destroyed them, opening a new path in life not only for himself but for millions of others right down to our own time. God never changes, but you and I must change just as Prince Vladimir changed a thousand years ago.” He ended his sermon saying, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  (see Jim Forest’s book Religion in the new Russia).

The second was Irving Hexham who posted a link on Facebook to a sermon preached by Billy Graham in South Africa in 1973, in which he said that Jesus was not white.

I was there. I heard it.

I also heard John Gatu of Kenya, who preached immediately before him, who in my opinion preached much better.

I said as much in response to Irving’s Facebook post, but that is not the full story. Facebook lends itself to the visual equivalent of sound bites — one-liners that never tell the full story. That is why I prefer mailing lists and possibly blogs for discussing such things.

And there was a story behind that sermon that deserves to be told again.

The rally at which Billy Graham was the main speaker was the culmination of a 10-day conference, the South African Congress on Mission and Evangelism.

The conference was organised by the South African Council of Churches and African Enterprise, an evangelistic (and Evangelical) organisation.

The organisers wanted to make the conference as widely representative of South African Christianity as possible, and, in particular, to bring “Evangelicals” and “Ecumenicals” together (they weren’t too bothered, at that stage, about the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, whose presence would probably be even more scary to Evangelicals than the Ecumenicals).

SA Congress on Mission and Evangelism Rally at Kings Park stadium, Durban, at which Billy Graham preached. 17 March 1973.

And if anything was going to bring the Evangelicals in, it was Billy Graham, who was a hero to most of them. So he was there as bait. The Evangelicals would come to hear Billy Graham, they wouldn’t come to hear John Gatu, no matter how well he preached.

And the bait worked.

Billy Graham Rally at Kings Park, 17 March 1973

Many Evangelicals remained suspicious, and shied away from the Ecumenicals, whom they regarded as “political” (if anyone deserves that epithet today, it’s Evangelicals, especially American ones) and too
focused on the “social gospel”.

But many overcame their suspicions and joined in.

I heard Billy Graham preach on one other occasion, at Earls Court in London in 1966. On that occasion I and those with me handed out pamphlets critical of some of Billy Graham’s comments on the Vietnam War. The pamphlets were produced by the Christian Committee of 100, of which I had become a hanger-on.

Billy Graham rally at Kings Park, Durban

I had been told by several Anglican clergy that they did not approve of Billy Graham, because they did not like “emotionalism”. The way they described it , it sounded as though he had an almost hypnotic effect on the crowd, getting them all worked up.  But I was disappointed.

I was less than impressed with his preaching on that occasion. Far from being emotional, it was rather dull and boring, and there was no appeal to the emotions at all. But on both occasions it clearly worked for some people, who went forward to commit their lives to Jesus Christ as Saviour.

For some of them it may have been a recommitment. I’ve seen many people respond to such “altar calls” again and again. An Anglican monk once told me that he did at a Billy Graham crusade. As he got up to go forward, the ushers stopped him, and said “Not you.”
“Why not?” he asked
“It’s for those who have committed their lives to Christ.”
“But I have.”
“No, it’s for those who have committed their lives to Christ today.”
“But I do, every day.”

So the Evangelical ritual of the “altar call” is not necessarily well understood outside Evangelical circles, but Billy Graham’s preaching nevertheless influenced a lot of people and, I believe, brought many closer to Christ. He was certainly the best-known itinerant evangelist of the 20th century.

So what Billy Graham said in South Africa that day may have helped some white Evangelicals to see that racism wasn’t OK for Christians, and thus he may have planted some seeds that germinated and helped in some way to end apartheid 20 years later.

But at the time it was a huge disappointment. It could have done with a bit of “emotionalism”. There were 50000 Christians there, of all races (the government had demanded that they be segregated, but they weren’t, people sat anywhere they liked). They were expecting something to happen, but it didn’t. John Gatu preached a far more stirring sermon, and perhaps he should have spoken last, and sent out the crowd as manic street preachers, and they probably would have done it.

Billy Graham started off well — saying that though we all come from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, we are all one in Christ, and waved his arm round the packed stadium and said “This is the church”.

And then he proceeded to preach a sermon full of bad cliches and mediocre pulpit jokes. If he had taken up the consciousness of unity that was beginning to emerge, and expounded on it, something might have happened. It was ready to happen. Fifty thousand black and white Christians gathered together, of all races, all classes, sitting together. There might have been a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We could have prayed and sang and exchanged the kiss of peace, and it would have been great, but it fell flat. About a fifth of them came forward for the appeal at the end. For the rest of us, there was nothing more. We could leave, so leave we did. A great anticlimax.

I doubt that more than 1% of that crowd were heathen who had never heard or responded to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Billy Graham was preaching to the choir, to the already-converted. But nothing must be allowed to interfere with the sacred Evangelical liturgical ritual of the “altar call”.

What was needed was not a call to come forward to the podium, but rather to go out,

Go down in the city, into the street,
Let’s give the message to the people we meet

… as a contemporary song (Light up the fire by Parchment) put it. That would have been a good song to sing while everyone was leaving.

The third piece is from Brenton Dickieson, who writes in his blog about Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, and Me | A Pilgrim in Narnia. I think he comes closer to giving a balanced assessment of Billy Graham than many when he writes:

Graham leveraged early superstardom to do very specific things that shaped American Christianity for the next three generations. In particular, Graham’s insistent and consistent ecumenism, his global interest, and his unapologetic views of racial integration—even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail—are imprinted upon post-WWII American Christianity. In particular, it was Billy Graham who shaped what is now known as evangelicalism, distinct from and overlapping with both fundamentalism and mainstream liberalism. With all the things we may quibble about, for millions of people around the world, Graham made faith personal.

Brenton Dickieson is a student of C.S. Lewis, who, like Billy Graham, influenced many Christians, not through his preaching, but through his writing. In his blog he describes how Lewis met Billy Graham, and their impressions of each other. It really is worth a read.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    24 February 2018 12:17 pm

    I was too young too recall this crusade but I did participate in Franklin Graham’s outreach at Jhb during the late 90s.I remember it was extremely well organised, with follow-up programmes that sought to strengthen the local church.

  2. 24 February 2018 4:48 pm

    Thanks for including me here, and for sharing your story.
    My wife and I drove through part of the US south on our honeymoon. We stopped at a large Black Baptist church, hoping for everything that we had seen on TV and in movies. It was one of the dullest services of our lives. An hour or so in to the drudgery, we were pleased that a young seminarian was preaching. He didn’t boil the blood but he did get the mental juices flowing, at least.

  3. Stan Nussbaum permalink
    24 February 2018 7:35 pm

    If we evaluate Billy Graham on what we wish he had said in 1973 or even later in his life, he will fall short of the ideal. Your “missed opportunity” evaluation would be correct. But if we score him on a handicap system, taking into account the context he emerged from and moved in, it’s astonishing how far he moved and how much criticism he was ready to take from his “base” including his donors. Had he been a politician, he would have been careful to keep playing to that base. Thankfully he kept his spiritual integrity and did not do that, leading many in his base to better places than they had been.

    • 24 February 2018 9:35 pm

      Stan, I’m really not trying to evaluate Billy Graham; I tried to make that clear in my opening paragraph. It’s for God to judge Billy Graham, not me. What I was trying to evaluate, from a missiological point of view, was an event in which Billy Graham played a major role.

      But he was not the only player, and there were many conflicting considerations. I’m not trying to show that Billy Graham is a good guy or a bad guy (though many are trying to do one or the other of those). Yes, I did say that I haven’t found him particularly inspiring as a preacher on the few occasions on which I’ve heard him. I acknowledge that his preaching has inspired many others to follow Jesus, and God calls all kinds of people to do different things. But Irving Hexham posted a link to Billy Graham’s sermon on that occasion, and I was trying to put it into context.

      But there is the dilemma. I was disappointed because I didn’t think Billy Graham rose to the occasion, but without Billy Graham the occasion would not have arisen at all. And it was not just Billy Graham but the inflexible and obligatory Evangelical tradition of the “altar call” that was part of the problem.

  4. V.E.G. permalink
    19 March 2018 11:53 pm

    Best of all, while Billy Graham was laid in the rotunda, while David Colbath’s third cousin was in the rotunda! His name was Henry Wilson!


  1. Billy Graham in black and white — Khanya | James' Ramblings

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