Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

Raised high, looking down dizzily on a swaying field of microphones and notepads and cameras, Billy Graham reached for his own bedrock authority: the Bible. Using his chapter-and-verse knowledge of its teachings and his vivid ability to humanize them, he preached easy, literal answers, and the crowds ate them up.

By 1950, with larger and larger lump-sum "love offerings" pouring in, Graham realized he needed a business structure to keep everything clean. He established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and put himself on a salary. The same year, through BGEA, he began publishing Decision magazine (by 1964, circulation would pass 4 million) and broadcasting his Hour of Decision radio program (soon the most widely heard religious broadcast in the world). He also got into moviemaking, launching World Wide Pictures to film movie plots about dramatic conversions. In 1951, he started "My Answer," a nationally syndicated newspaper column that would eventually reach 5 million readers. In 1956, he established Christianity Today magazine.

His own media were only half the success story, though; the secular press cooperated beautifully. Headlines read, "GRAHAM CARRIES GOSPEL DESPITE DEATH PERIL" when he caught the flu. A 1950 circulation war in Boston had five dailies sending huge teams of reporters everywhere with Graham. A born-again Christian newspaperman accompanied him to India in 1956, sending dispatches to 600 newspapers back home. In 1957, the New York Times reserved three pages to cover his opening night at Madison Square Garden, reprinting the entire text of his 45-minute sermon.

That year, a full 85 percent of the Americans polled by Gallup knew exactly who Billy Graham was, even though only 4 percent of them had seen him in person. About 26 percent had heard him on the radio, overlapping with the 38 percent who'd seen him on TV, and 28 percent hadn't heard or seen him but still knew who he was.

Alas, in the words of admiring Graham chronicler Curtis Mitchell, "Satan's snares were already set and waiting. The locusts were massing to swarm." In February 1977, a five-part story on Graham in the Charlotte Observer opened with the headline "HE SITS WITH PRESIDENTS AND EMPERORS" and ended with "In a disillusioning world, Billy Graham is the only untarnished hero left to many — a lasting example of clean living, self-discipline, and good citizenship." But four months later, reporter Mary Bishop was back on Graham's doorstep, apologetically asking about a $22 million "secret fund" of land, stocks, bonds and cash. The money was part of a separate World Evangelism and Christian Education fund set up to build, among other things, a center for evangelism at Wheaton College. It was all perfectly legal, but Graham had never mentioned any of that money when Bishop asked about assets. "Well, you know," he said, "I actually thought you already had all of that."

The newspapers went briefly crazy. Graham took the episode to heart and began calling for total financial disclosure and independent audits of evangelists. Today, people remember how, in 1979, he helped establish the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. (They also remember his original, oft-disclosed salary figure, $39,500, even though it has since grown to a base salary of $115,500.)

From that day forward, Graham was stringently careful about all money matters. Starved of scams or sexual peccadilloes, the press resigned itself to celebratory reportage. Graham made their job pleasant. He once told a Crusade audience, "I think everybody here tonight ought to write the newspapers a letter and thank 'em for what these fellas have done." When a columnist for London's Daily Mirror, Bill Connor, wrote a "devastatingly clever" (Graham's phrase) critique, Graham wrote to say that "while I didn't agree with him, his column had been very well done." They agreed to meet at the Baptist's Head pub, and Graham proved such a good sport that he won a glowing recantation.

The key, always, was Graham's disarming humility. To this day, he insists on being called Billy or Mr. Graham, pointing out that "the word Reverend is only used once in the Bible and that has to do with God." He gallantly admitted to newspaper editors, "I have read the reports in the press, and I thoroughly agree that I am a very ordinary speaker. I have severe intellectual limitations." On the way to tea with Queen Elizabeth, he heartily grabbed and shook the hand of the butler who was reaching to take his hat. When he met Frady, he said, "Why goodness, man, I'm just like any other fella you'd meet along the side of the road out there." Then he prayed over him: "And Lord, we'd ask you to bless him and bless his family, and be with us in our talk here this morning."

That prayer produced "an unexpected little interior bloom of gratitude," Frady admitted later. "It's as if his simple presence has the effect of a kind of blessing." You can hear the same effect when Michelle Bearden, religion reporter for the Tampa Tribune, talks about her interview last year with Graham: "I had an incredible opportunity to sit with him for almost two hours — you can't even get to the pope. He speaks in very plain language; he's not full of himself like a lot of religious leaders. He's sincere — too many people say so for it not to be true! I remember him telling me that he hasn't prayed enough, he hasn't done enough for God. And afterward, he wrote a letter to my bosses and thanked them! He thanked me for interviewing him!"

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